Drug Withdrawal and Emotional Recovery

Updated 11/2011

This is the best concise piece (but quite long for a blog) anywhere on how to deal with the emotional fall-out that coming off years of numbing our feelings brings into our lives.

I’ve published this piece several times now. It’s a timeless piece with critical insights that I think many are looking for always.

For more information on safer withdrawal methods, including tapering and other means of more safely coming off psychiatric drugs see here: Withdrawal 101. 

Since I completed withdrawal almost two years ago now, I’ve learned that for some of us the physical agony, too, needs to be dealt with, in some cases involving long-term disability,  long after the initial emotional fallout has been dealt with. Being that we are holistic beings the pain and physical limitations also impact our emotional wellbeing. I’ve had to learn how to Live Well While Being Sick. I continue on that journey while working on greater wellness. 

Drug Withdrawal and Emotional Recovery

by John Breeding

Part of the big lie of biopsychiatry, and of our pill culture in general, is that you can avoid the basics of self-care by taking a drug. It is so tempting to embrace the illusion that you can escape responsibility for altering your lifestyle, that you can avoid the ruthless discipline that is necessary to live a decent life in a society which is so alienated and distressed. You have to sacrifice the fantasy that someone, or some doctor, or some drug is going to make anything all better for you. The truth is that life is, in many ways, an arduous journey. And coming off psychiatric drugs can be a particularly intense part of that journey.

My own experience leads me to conclude that, as vital as is accurate information and common sense, emotional factors are what really holds people back from this crucial step toward self-empowerment. I will emphasize three particular qualities of attitude which are necessary to challenge and overcome forms of emotional distress that interfere with successful withdrawal from drugs and reclaiming of your power.

These three qualities are Hope, Courage, and Complete Self-Appreciation; they are specific antidotes to hopelessness, fear and shame. As I discuss this process of what might be most aptly called emotional recovery, I will be referring to and recommending that you receive the good attention of another safe, caring human being as you do this work. I will use the terms counseling and counselor, but please know that I mean this in a generic sense. A counselor is someone who sacrifices his or her own concerns for a little while to pay attention and listen to you. It can be a professional; it can also be a friend. I personally recommend the grassroots peer counseling organization called Re-Evaluation Counseling as one great source of theory and counseling support. Please know, however, that RC sometimes will not accept people who are on psychiatric drugs. Psychiatric survivor groups are another great resource. The important point here is that you don’t have to go through this alone; you need and deserve good counseling support.

Hope: We begin by facing our feelings of hopelessness. Disillusionment is absolutely necessary for recovery and well-being. Disillusionment of our fantasies about a magic rescuer or a magic pill hits us hard. It feels so often like hopelessness. Chronic hopelessness is pervasive in our society; it is a root cause of our whole scale abdication to the bankrupt theory of biopsychiatry, and the despair which leads millions upon millions of us to turn to drugs for ourselves and for our children as a solution to life. (See my book, The Wildest Colts Make the Best Horses, as a challenge to the mass psychiatric drugging of our children). Those of us who hurt enough to turn to psychiatry for help, and who were then hurt further by being labeled as biologically and/or genetically defective, and “treated’ with toxic drugs, understandably feel hopeless much of the time.

Within the framework of biopsychiatry, hopelessness is a rational response; after all, your condition is essentially incurable and you do need drugs to manage any decent kind of life at all. The good news, once again, is that it is a lie that you are defective, and it is a lie that you need drugs to treat your defect. Your condition is not hopeless.

It can get better: This simple sentence forms the basis of your recovery, any recovery in fact. Hope is the building block, and a necessary contradiction for times when we are overwhelmed with feelings of chronic hopelessness. It really can get better. We really do have natural, built-in ways of psychological healing. With good attention and adequate resource, anyone can reemerge from even the greatest distress and most extreme states of mind. On a practical level, it is a fact that, due to lack of understanding, there are times when we cannot gather enough resource to adequately help individuals in crisis in our society. Our current inability to help people in extreme states of mind is not because they have a psychiatric disease; it is simply because of the unavailability of sufficient resource.

It is helpful to know that, although in times of distress, it almost always feels like you can’t get enough, the truth is most of the time you can. The feeling is called a frozen need; it is a memory from childhood when we really did not get what we needed to thrive and develop as well as possible; our survival then truly was at stake. So even though it may and probably does feel like it’s never enough, you usually can get what you need. On a practical level, a key is to find support people who are relaxed and confident about your ability to recover, who trust in the goodness and wholeness of your inherent nature, and who see through the lies and illusions of biopsychiatry. It can get better, and you can get off the drugs.

Courage: Fear and shame are emotional qualities which pull us into victim-like attitude. These two emotions arc, I think, the most loyal forces of the opposition, acting as obstacles to liberation from the role of psychiatric patients in general, and freedom from psychiatric drug addiction in specific. Let’s take a look at fear. For many of us, certainly for those who have experienced the effects of coercive treatment or incarceration by psychiatry, terror is a more appropriate word. In any event, fear acts as a most potent force in decision-making for most of us.

I would venture to say that fear is the one greatest obstacle to successful withdrawal from psychiatric drugs. There is the fear of losing control, of going mad, that they might be right about me, that I’ll lose my job, that I won’t be able to function, that I’II end up back in the hospital, etc. This list goes on and on; the fear is enormous. My strong recommendation is that, if at all possible, you counsel extensively on your fear as a first step in making and acting on the decision to withdraw from psychiatric drugs. The next few paragraphs will help clarify why I so strongly advise you to do this.

Accurate information is, as always, a good place to start. First of all, it is important to validate the reality that many of these fears are not “paranoid delusions;” many of you do know that interface with our Mental Health System can be dangerous. You have been incarcerated, forcibly drugged, electroshocked, etc. A good place to start in counseling on fear about coming off drugs is to tell your story to a relaxed, confident and sympathetic listener. Tell your story many times, and really emphasize the details of your experiences with psychiatry and with drugs. Make a point of noticing the attention you are receiving from your counselor or friend; it is so important to know you are safe and that you are not alone in your courageous decision to work on this.

Secondly, just as with other types of emotional expression, release of fear is usually interpreted by psychiatry not as a healing process but as a disease symptom, evidence of the need for intervention and treatment of drugs. Once again, you’ve been given some bad information. Most people think of fear as a mental phenomenon having to do with irrational or unrealistic expectations about the future.

When psychiatry is not entirely biological in emphasis, the cognitive domain is often emphasized. Undoubtedly, there is some truth to it, and cognitive behavior modification (i.e., working on your self-talk) can be helpful. When it fails, however, I encourage you not to jump to the biopsychiatric conclusion that it’s because you really do have a genetic defect. What I’ve learned about fear is that it is less about our thoughts than our emotions, and less about anticipation of the future than memory of the past. Fear is a tension held in the body, a memory of past situations when we felt that our survival was in danger, and we were not allowed to release the fear in the way that is natural to us. When we are in danger, we get tense and we feel fear. This tension and this emotion stay with us until we are safe enough to let down our guard; then we release the fear. Fear is released in a specific way.

Light fear is often released by laughing and shaking. Heavy fear is discharged by shaking, trembling, cold sweat, and sometimes screaming. Many so-called psychiatric symptoms (anxiety, insomnia, night terrors, panic attacks, etc.) may be more helpfully viewed as spontaneous efforts of an overloaded body/mind to do what it is naturally designed to do; restore calm and equanimity by discharging fear from traumatic experiences. Some fear can be discharged alone, but experience shows that we usually need a supportive ally to help us work through fear. After all, our instinctual survival nature is geared to protect us from being overwhelmed.

Another useful direction is to talk about the upside of what your life will be like without drugs. Talk about how your body will feel, how clear your thinking will be, how you won’t have a dry mouth anymore, or of how great sex will be, or whatever. Allow yourself to imagine and share with your counselor all the wonderful benefits of being drug-free. At some point, you will want to go beyond this point and imagine and dream out loud about the very highest goals and visions you have for yourself.

As you talk about and remember your experiences of fear in the presence of a safe counselor, you will at some point find your body responding with its own natural ways of discharging the physical and emotional tensions of fear. You now know that you are safe to come out of numbing terror and release fear from your system. Focusing on the benign reality of your present situation is a most helpful direction: “now I’m safe,” “they can’t touch me now,” etc. One of the greatest contradictions to fear is closeness with another safe, warm human being.

Complete Self-Appreciation: Alongside fear, it seems that our greatest emotional obstacle to spiritual maturity and authentic power is this feeling we call shame. Shame is a word for the emotional experience that goes with thoughts that “I’m no good, inadequate, incompetent, not enough, stupid, unworthy, inferior, defective,” etc. In distinction from guilt, it is not that I did something bad, but that “I am bad.” Shame feels awful and we are often most eager and willing to go to great lengths to avoid feeling shame; we prop ourselves up however we can, often by projecting contempt we’d rather not feel for ourselves onto some other person we can judge, scorn, criticize, or deem inferior. (The so-called “mentally ill” fill this scapegoat role to a great extent in our society). Another characteristic of shame is that it feels unbearable to be exposed. We want to hide and will go to great lengths to keep hidden those parts of ourselves which we reject and despise.

In working with shame, the first step is to give it a name. It is very important to give this feeling a name because it gives you a buffer against taking this lie in so deeply. Then you can say, “Oh, I’m having a shame attack;” that it’s not who you are, but a toxic feeling that you’re carrying. It still feels lousy, but now you’re in a position to work with it.

The next step is to challenge the pull to avoid exposure. Shame thrives in secrecy and cannot sustain itself when exposed to safe people who listen with respect and compassion and are delighted that you are getting free. The voice of shame, similar to the voice of biopsychiatry, will tell you that you are inherently defective in some way; the truth is that your feelings of shame are strictly an add-on. Shame is a feeling that you carry from having been treated shamefully; the feelings have nothing to do with the goodness of your inherent nature; they have everything to do with having been treated badly by someone who was projecting their own denied feelings onto you. When an adult says, “You are a bad child, you deserve to be punished,” what is actually happening is the end stage of the following process: 1)A child is called bad and punished by an adult; 2) the child internalizes both sides in this abuse of power; the message that “I am bad” and the energetic communication that “You are bad;”3) the child “splits off” and denies the experience and the feelings in the interests of self-preservation. The memory is banished into the unconscious mind; 4) the child grows into an adult; 5) the repressed energies of shame and abuse are restimulated around a child; 6) the unconscious feelings of shame are projected onto the child. Again in the interests of self-preservation, the adult will, given the choice, unconsciously identify with the powerful perpetrator of abuse rather than the powerless victim; 7) the child is then punished, “for her own good.” (See Alice Miller’s Banished Knowledge for an excellent description of this process.)

So, in order to recover and get free, you make a decision to expose your shame, to reveal the parts of yourself that you judge as despicable and unworthy. And as you do this with people who are supportive, understanding, and without judgment, the shame will melt away.

As you do this work of exposing shame and healing from its effects, the concept of shame reduction will be useful. Shame is not a part of your essence; it is a toxic add-on, and as with all toxins, the human organism always strives to discharge them from the system. This is equally true of psychological toxins as it is for physical poisons. Shame is not a part of who we really are; it is something we carry as a result of having been treated badly. Shame reduction refers to the process of unloading this carried shame.

Practically speaking, it means:

1) Naming the feeling as shame; 2) identifying the source of the feeling, including the specific individual(s); 3) holding that individual(s) accountable; and 4) returning the carried shame to the individual(s).

Shame reduction work often involves intense feelings of hurt and anger, which are inevitably bound up with shame. John Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame that Binds You is one of the better resources for those who are interested in more detailed guidance about the work of shame reduction. I do want to mention that “holding the perpetrator accountable” does not necessarily mean that you have to confront the individual in the flesh. Often that individual is very different, perhaps 30 or more years older, from the individual who hurt you as a child. It is that “ghost” figure inside you.

So most of that work can be done inwardly or through role play. If you do decide that a physical confrontation is necessary, lots of counseling on it first is a good idea. For another perspective, you can check out Brad Blanton’s provocative book, Radical Honesty: How to Transform Your Life by Telling the Truth The bottom line is to do whatever it takes to reclaim your energy and your power, so that you can release these people from your psyche and not continue draining your energy into thoughts and feelings of victimization and revenge.

The last and most important direction for healing and recovery from shame is called complete self-appreciation. This is all about self-love, and it truly is the way out. Shame absolutely cannot abide residence in the presence of self-love. Singing, “A Song of Myself,’ to borrow the title of Walt Whitman’s epic poem, is the first, best, and last way to overcome shame. (See Dan Jones’ poem, “Shameless,” in my book, The Wildest Colts Make the Best Horses, for a modern rendition). Everything from the simplest and most halting baby steps of loving kindness toward yourself to the most exalted and shameless boasting is great for this work. Spend lots of counseling time appreciating yourself.

Forgive yourself again and again for any and all judgments you place on yourself, and keep moving in the direction of loving kindness and compassionate self-care. You were born wonderful, always have been wonderful, and still are completely wonderful.

Guidelines: There really is no formula for doing your life’s work, nor for this particular piece of working through issues related to your decision whether to use psychiatric drugs. Nevertheless, I have suggested certain guidelines which have been shown to be useful. However, the actual process of recovery is totally unique, organic, and most definitely nor a linear experience. Here are some guidelines to support you in your decision to withdraw from psychiatric drugs:

1) Take exquisite care of yourself. Be practical; 2) See yourself through eyes of compassion; 3) Get the best information you can; 4) Establish the best support for yourself that you can; 5) Find a safe person to talk to; 6) Counsel on chronic hopelessness; 7) Tell your story in detail. 8. Counsel on fear of getting off drugs– be dramatic about what could happen; 9. Talk about what will be good about life without drugs; 10) Reach for closeness with your counselor; 11) Focus on how safe you are now; 12) Allow yourself to discharge the fear by laughing, shaking, trembling, and sweating; 13) Always remember that it is your decision whether or not to use drugs!

No one else is in your body, no one else has had your experience, no one else knows better that you what is the best decision for you. My purpose is not to say that you should get off drugs. It is to say that most people are on psychiatric drugs under false pretenses, and it is to say that there are inevitable consequences to drug use. First and foremost, my intention is to lend support to the possibility of your making a fully in-formed consent regarding any decision to use psychiatric drugs. This means that you know and understand that it is not a medicine for a biologically based mental illness. It is a decision about using mood-altering drugs, usually to slow down or speed up what is happening in your mind/body. You have every right, knowing the issues involved and the full range of drug effects, to decide that it is in your best interest to take a drug, or to continue taking a drug or drugs to which you are now addicted. Regardless of your decision, the good news about working on these issues is that emotional release often frees up your intelligence to make clearer decisions that are not based in fear or shame.

Speaking out: My final thoughts to share with you on this issue are based on a discovery I have made in my own life, and in my observations of the inspiring individuals I have come to know in the mental health liberation movement. I have had the privilege to watch and work with many people who identify themselves as psychiatric survivors, individuals who feel grievously harmed by psychiatry, who call themselves survivors, and who have become active in challenging the oppression they see in the Mental Health System. Withdrawal from drugs is one very specific and important example of personal recovery. It is also very much a political decision and action, overtly challenging and rejecting an ideology and a system of power. Tremendous courage is required.

Freedom from psychiatric drugs stands alone as an outstanding accomplishment for anyone who has become addicted to these drugs for whatever reason. Life appears to be set up, however, such that we can never rest on our laurels for long. There is always a next step, another level of recovery or personal growth. My own experience is that a huge part of reclaiming my power is about my willingness to speak the truth, to take a stand and speak out against oppression. I do not recommend that anyone go straight from drug withdrawal into political activism; learning and building a foundation of persona healing and compassionate self-care needs to be top priority. Speaking to safe people and discharging should come before going public. Liberation from the effects of psychiatric abuse can be so scary; it is vitally important to have good support and strong allies. Organizations like Support Coalition International and The National Empowerment Center are important to connect with.

Nevertheless, what I have observed is that speaking out publicly and lending a hand and a voice against oppression is a necessary step to a full-bodied recovery. The activist survivors that I know are living examples of this truth. Each of us does this in our own unique way. Just know that speaking out at some point will greatly facilitate your own personal growth. Besides, we really need your help.

*it is potentially dangerous to come off medications without careful planning. Please be sure to be well educated before undertaking any sort of discontinuation of medications. Do not assume your MD will know how to do it either. They are generally not trained in discontiuation. They don’t always understand that they don’t know how to help either. See: Psychiatric drug withdrawal and protracted withdrawal syndrome round-up

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