guest post by Cindy Olejar
My name is Cindy and I am sharing my story of how psychiatric drugs harmed me using them long-term and how I made this discovery.
I am not here to tell you whether or not you should take psychiatric drugs. My intent is to bring more awareness to psychiatric drug facts and encourage a discussion to help break the stigma of why a person does or does not take them.
There are six main groups of psychiatric drugs.
1. Antidepressants, SSRI’s and MAOI’s – Prozac, Effexor, Lexapro, Paxil, Wellbutrin
2. Antipsychotics – Abilify, Latuda, Seroquel, Geodon, Haldol, Risperdal, Invega, Zyprexa
3. Antianxiety, Benzodiazepines or Anxiolytics – Xanax, Klonopin, Valium, Ativan
4. Depressants – used as hypnotics, sedatives, and anesthetics, Ambien, Sonata, Lunesta
5. Mood Stabilizers – Lamictal, Gabapentin, Olanzapine, Lithium, Valproic acid
6. Stimulants – Ritalin, Adderall, Dexedrine, Concerta
A Brief History of Psychiatric Drugs
Doctors prescribed the first psychiatric drug in 1954 called Thorazine. This was only 63 years ago. Prozac hit the market in 1987 as an antidepressant, only 30 years ago. So before 1954 there was a world without psychiatric drugs and many people got through their challenges.
In 1999, eighteen years ago, I sought help for an upset stomach. I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and prescribed psychiatric drugs on the first visit. I was told I needed to take the medication for my anxiety disorder. I was hesitant to take the prescription. Something did not feel right.
If you have ever been prescribed psychiatric drugs did your doctor tell you the psych drugs were safe to take? Did your doctor tell you the side effects were worth enduring so your illness did not get worse? Did your doctor say you needed to take psych drugs for the rest of your life? And did your doctor tell you the psych drugs would be correcting a chemical imbalance? Did these doctor’s words hinder your ability to critically think whether the pills were helping you or harming you?
As Dr. Kelly Brogan, now a holistic psychiatrist, states:
“With 1 in 5 Americans taking a psychiatric medication, most of whom, long term, we should probably start to learn a bit more about them. In fact, it would have been in the service of true informed consent to have investigated long-term risks before the deluge of these meds seized our population over the past thirty years.”
Have you researched psychiatric drugs?
Few of us actually research these drugs before taking them. Some of us feel out of sorts and disempowered by our diagnosis and feel our own voice is not valid. Others are raised to respect doctors, and not question authority. Many feel the bigger entities that have the training and money to do the research, like the Food and Drug Administration, accurately oversee and regulate drug safety for us. Most of us feel intimidated by the scientific language required to understand how these drugs work and to learn how effective they really are. We can then lose trust in our own inner wisdom of knowing what is helping us or hurting us.
This was my experience. I did not question the doctor or research my pills and the psychiatric drugs ended up harming me.
In my youth I had been taught to follow the directions of a person in authority especially when acting in their field of expertise, because they knew what was best. So I continued to follow the doctor’s orders and took the psych drugs he told me I needed to take. I believed he was the expert. I trusted his education and believed he had researched the pills to make sure they were safe to give to his patients. I second-guessed my own inner wisdom, as I didn’t believe a doctor would prescribe something harmful to me.
I have taken many different psych drugs and there were always terrible initial effects I would experience from taking them, such as severe nausea, feeling lethargic, drowsiness, headaches, craving sugar, insomnia and weight gain or weight loss. I tried to convince myself the pills were helping me since that is what the doctor said was supposed to happen. So I told myself I was feeling better but over time I was actually feeling even worse with increased anxiety, euphoric energy, panic attacks, risky and spontaneous behaviors as well as feeling sick to my stomach, paranoia, hair loss, body aches, restlessness, short-term memory loss and suicidal feelings. From reporting these new additional “symptoms’ the doctor added the label bipolar disorder in my chart along with the anxiety disorder label.
For a long time my inner wisdom told me the psych drugs were the cause of these symptoms – not an illness. But when I tried to discuss this with my doctor he discounted my concerns and repeated the cause of these symptoms was my bipolar disorder, and then he would increase the dose of my pills or add a new pill to the cocktail of psych drugs. The doctor told me I needed to take medication for the rest of my life because it was treating an illness. But each year my health became worse and each year my dose was increased and another psych drug was experimented with. Not once were my pills ever considered by my doctor to be the cause for my declining health.
Instead, I bought into the doctor’s story I was getting worse due to my illness. I bought into his story I needed psych drugs for the rest of my life to treat a chemical imbalance in my brain. I bought into a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I even began to make excuses for my behavior saying things like, “I did that because of my bipolar disorder.” Sadly, believing my doctor over my own inner wisdom caused me to second guess my ability to think critically. This impacted all facets of my life temporarily damaging my confidence and how I perceived myself. I lost trust in myself. Because my experience was dismissed and diminished, I eventually lost my voice. I conceded to the doctor – he was the expert after all. I had lost the power to know what was best for myself.
Most of us assume our doctors are properly educated and have thoroughly researched their field of study to know how to properly care for their patients including prescribing psych drugs that are safe. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Information about specific drugs frequently comes from pharmaceutical sales representatives or medical journal articles written by physicians who have some type of financial relationship with pharmaceutical companies.
“We’re in business of shareholder profit, not helping the sick.”
-Valeant Pharmaceuticals CEO J. Michael Pearson
Therefore, the science behind the claims are often written by individuals being swayed by financial gain from pharmaceutical companies, this creates bias and is a clear conflict of interest.
So not only do we have to research psych drugs ourselves to become informed, but we have to research potential conflicts of interest. It’s important to understand not only the short-term, but also the long-term consequences of taking medication. Credible, non-biased studies are the best source of information, but these can be difficult to identify or find, as some studies get covered up when the studies don’t have the outcomes the pharmaceutical company is looking for. Researching the ingredients of a medication can be difficult too, as we often don’t understand potential implications of an ingredient. Isn’t this the job of the Food and Drug Administration – to confirm the pharmaceutical company has completed thorough research with non-biased studies documenting the safety of a drug before it is prescribed to us?
It never occurred to me I should review the ingredients or research the safety of the psychiatric drugs prescribed to me, but by not doing so, over the years, I experienced the following; having highs and lows more often and more severe, increased anxiety, restlessness, memory loss, panic attacks, more frequent headaches, paranoia, hair loss, body aches, weakened nervous system and more digestive problems. Weren’t the psych drugs supposed to help my upset stomach and anxiety? I had become a chronic mental health patient.
Luckily, I met someone who shared his knowledge and wisdom with me about psychiatric drugs. My friend explained to me my pills could be creating my problems. Talking with my friend helped me begin the discovery that my doctors were incorrect. I did a lot of research and read studies about long-term harmful effects of psychiatric drugs. I found others with similar experiences as mine. And I discovered the very pills that were supposed to be helping me were actually harming me. Reading the book “Anatomy of an Epidemic” by Robert Whitaker was a huge influence.
He describes exactly what was happening to me with the psych drugs causing harmful effects which when reported to my doctor resulted in higher doses and additional pills. Unfortunately, I learned this is also happening to thousands and thousands of people and many are not aware of the harm being done to them.
Here is a 12-minute video of Robert Whitaker explaining a few of his findings of psychiatric drugs. He is a journalist and author who mainly writes about medicine, history and science. I highly recommend his book called “Anatomy of an Epidemic”. There is a lot of information in this book about psychiatric drugs that is eye opening and useful to know. This video only covers a few highlights, more can be found in his book.
12-minute video of Robert Whitaker talking:
Once I learned the psych drugs were the source of my problem, rather than the solution, I decided to taper off of them.
What is now also known is the difficult process of withdrawing from psych drugs and how stopping the drugs abruptly or tapering too quickly, can bring about horrible withdrawal effects that are not due to the person’s illness but related to the drug and how it affects the person’s mind and body. The withdrawal experience is different for everyone. There is a range from people not having difficulty getting off the pills to having a lot of difficulty and then everything in between. Also, unfortunately, some people who are affected negatively taking psychiatric drugs are not able to withdraw from them due to the unbearable effects that occur with this or because there is a lack of support for them to withdraw, and so they are stuck in a horrible situation of not being able to get off the psych drugs but they are getting worse by staying on them.
I had been on psychiatric drugs for 15 years. When I was tapering I was not able to find a doctor or therapist who had the knowledge or skills to help me withdraw. My doctor told me I could stop one of the pills cold turkey. He was wrong. Another doctor gave me a tapering schedule that was too fast. All of the doctors and therapists whom I saw told me the withdrawal symptoms were a sign I had an illness and needed to take the medications to treat it. They were incorrect and gravely misguided me.
Having support and knowledge of how to safely taper is what I found to be a key to success. During my taper, I discovered an underground community of others who were either in the process or had finished tapering off their psych drugs. This peer support was another critical part of my successful tapering journey.
I found hope and inspiration through connecting with others, reading books, watching peer videos and reading peer websites and blogs. Withdrawing from psych pills was the most difficult thing I have ever endured. Words cannot even describe – I went into a very deep, dark place but luckily came out of it gaining more awareness and wisdom.
Some of the withdrawal effects are similar to “side” effects of psychiatric drugs. It is also common for someone to go into an altered state while withdrawing. Some experiences I encountered while withdrawing were hearing voices, paranoia, feeling I had bugs crawling all over me, increased anxiety, bloated stomach, intense anger, short term memory loss, seizure-like movements, dizziness, difficulty talking, insomnia, ruminating thoughts, spontaneous impulses, trouble breathing, crying, and new sensitivities to foods, cleaning agents, over the counter pain medications, noises, lights, smells and sounds. My withdrawal journey was a very challenging and life-changing experience.
I have been off psychiatric drugs now for three years. Since tapering off the medications I have not had the severe ups and downs, lethargy, drowsiness, panic attacks, hair loss, sugar cravings, restlessness or severe anxiety that I had when I was taking the psych drugs, and my short-term memory is slowly improving as well as some of the other things I experienced. I feel very lucky I have not encountered other serious health problems I know people have endured from psychiatric drugs, such as diabetes, thyroid, liver, kidney, and brain damage, dementia and more. What I gained from this horrible experience is more knowledge, connections, skills, experiences, and best of all my inner wisdom is back.
So what if instead when I went into the doctor’s office 18 years ago I had been asked what was happening in my environment? My upset stomach would have made perfect sense as a response to the stressors in my life I did not know how to deal with. I did not have a disorder or illness, I was having a response to my difficult experiences in my environment and I did not have the tools and coping strategies to deal with them. I wish I had been taught a few of the hundred of alternative supports I now know can assist me in managing my anxiety as well as learning what the root causes of my anxiety are rather than popping a pill. A pill did not get to the root of why I had anxiety – and knowing why could then help me learn what I can change or do about it. The pill merely covered up my anxiety so I could pretend it was not there.
What I see is we are a society where behaviors are being pathologized, medicalized and labeled as illnesses and then medicated. Instead, we should be aware these behaviors are normal responses to our environment. Rather than medication, we can teach each other different coping strategies to help understand, learn and grow from our unique challenges.
Unfortunately, some of the useful and effective alternative supports are not covered by insurance and may be too expensive for people. Developing coping strategies also takes time and practice to be effective, which may not be attractive to people who prefer a quick or easier way.
Here are just a few alternative supports.
Attend a support group
Be kind to yourself
Brain spotting therapy
Caffeine free drinks
Call a friend
Camp/Hike/Restore nature/Go outside
Change what you eat and drink
Cry/Shout/Release anger safely
Facilitate a support group
Invite a friend over to talk or walk
Learn something new
Online peer support
Play a game
Self defense class
Stand up for someone
Stand up for yourself
Take a bath
Talk a class
Take care of a pet
Trauma informed care
Unplug from social media
Talk with a peer
Visit a new place
Warm Line call
And many more!
In addition to alternative supports, we can stand up and advocate for changes we want in our society to keep us physically and mentally well, such as higher wages, fewer working hours, more jobs to fit people’s abilities, more jobs and activities which bring people and families together, accessible and affordable schools, housing, transportation, and nutritious food.
The psychiatric drugs we were told we needed to take have harmed many of us.
From this experience I learned to listen to my inner wisdom, think critically and evaluate sources for credible, non-bias, truthful information. This has also helped me to be better informed in general, which in turn helps me advocate and stand up for others and myself. This especially now includes advocating for non-coercive mental health legislation and having alternative supports, including peer run entities, such as an all peer run respite and other peer supports which are not co-opted by the medical model or pharmaceutical companies.
Some countries that have alternative models are Finland using Open Dialogue.
“This approach aims to support the individual’s network of family and friends, as well as respect the decision-making of the individual.”
“The results consistently show that this approach reduces hospitalization, the use of medication, and recidivism when compared with treatment as usual.”
And in Norway they are now implementing a drug free psychiatric ward where people have the choice to take psychiatric drugs as well as if they want help tapering from them.
“The governing principle on this ward, which has six beds, is that patients should have the right to choose their treatment, and that care should be organized around that choice.”
“Before, when people wanted help, it was always on the basis of what the hospitals wanted, and not on what the patients wanted. We were used to saying to patients, ‘this is what is best for you.’ But we are now saying to them, ‘what do you really want?’ And they can say, ‘I am free; I can decide.’”
In our country there are several states, such as Massachusetts, New York, Georgia, Wisconsin, California, Maine, Nebraska, Vermont and others that have peer run respites and peer run learning centers. Peer run respites vary on how they operate depending on the needs of the community. Depending on the size of the house the peer respites can have 3 to 7 people stay in them from about 1 to 14 nights. They are voluntary and staffed by peers 24/7.
“In times of crisis, people feel alone with their anxiety, panic, anger, frustrations and depression. One of the goals of peer-run crisis respite is to provide connections and relationships that can lessen the intensity of these feelings. These non-medical alternative programs offer a comfortable, non-judgmental environment in which one might be able to process stresses as well as explore new options. The hope is that these interactions will result in fresh, short-term solutions and a wider array of options for handling future crises.”
“As people have an opportunity to stay connected to peers while moving through challenging thoughts, feelings and impulses, the need for external intervention is diminished. This alternative approach to handling crisis teaches people healthier attitudes about themselves and others. With increased skills, individuals can reduce or even eliminate their susceptibilities to the pressures that cause overwhelming emotional distress.”
-National Empowerment Center
There may be times when psychiatric drugs are helpful short-term for people in our society. Such a time could be when a person is in acute crisis and does not have any family or friends to go to for support. Another example could be when a person is in crisis and there are no medication-free places as an alternative choice. In addition, if a person has children and goes into a crisis, with the fear of CPS becoming involved, psych drugs may help the person return to care for them quickly. Also, missing work due to a crisis can cause more traumas if the person ends up losing his or her job, because the job pays for additional needs, such as housing, food, phone, health insurance, bills, etc, so medication could help a person get back to work in time without being fired and help prevent possibly losing even more.
Medication may be the choice if a person does not have time to learn and practice alternative supports or have the money to pay for them. If a person has been on psych drugs for a long time it might be difficult for a person to function without them or to taper from them successfully, as they may need a lot of help to taper off the pills slowly and carefully. And a person might have been coerced or forced into taking psych drugs without the availability or information of alternative choices.
There are a lot of considerations why a person does or does not take psychiatric drugs. Ideally, people should be able to make informed choices and have access to alternative supports.
From my journey I see I was not ill. I was doing the best I could with the knowledge and skills I had at the moment. I was not given accurate information about psychiatric drugs and the long-term risks. I wish I had been told truthful information about psych drugs and given the choice without coercion to decide if I wanted to put these drugs into my body. I also wish I had been given the knowledge of alternative supports to utilize.
I hope you continue to research and learn more about psychiatric drugs. And I hope your inner wisdom will guide you to what will help you be well and how you want to be.
I hope talking about my experience and sharing what I have learned about psychiatric drugs can open a discussion about the drug facts, their effectiveness and ultimately to help prevent someone else from being harmed by them.
In the words of Albert Einstein:
“The important thing is not to stop questioning.”