From Withdrawal to Awakening: A continuing journey

This was first published in the ICSPP 2008 Newsletter. I think it brings good balance to my last sad piece which was distorted to some extent by my hormonal reality at the moment. I can see things from a very upbeat place at times as well. My journey is never the same and as often as I may express some pessimism, I just as often feel optimistic. See this as the very real counterpoint that this journey includes.

From Withdrawal to Awakening: A continuing journey (ICSPP Newsletter 2008–Number 3)

Before I went out on disability due to acute psychiatric drug toxicity I was a social worker. I worked first in hospice and HIV and then for many years I worked in mental health with the so-called “severe and persistently mentally ill.” During this time I was on more medication than any client I ever met. My cocktail at its height, when I was driven out of the work force, was 11 mg of Risperdal, 400 mg of Lamictal, 200 mg of Zoloft, 50 mg of Seroquel, 3 mg of Klonopin and at the end I was put on a round of trials with multiple stimulants since I could hardly function on the sedating cocktail I was on. When I had my conversion and figured out, with the help of  Peter Breggin that “my drugs were my problem,” I was on 7 medications. I’ve been withdrawing from them for four years now. What follows is an essay I wrote on the symptoms I deal with, mostly directly associated with the process of withdrawal and not really any underlying problem, since basically there was no real substantial underlying problem.

When I was 19 I took LSD and became psychotic and manic. On this basis alone I was diagnosed bipolar. It’s pretty clear to me now that had I simply had a supervised washout period at that time, the next 20 years didn’t have to be what they were: life heavily drugged and lived in a stupor. I now, as my mind clears as a result of the withdrawal, find myself awaking to feelings that have been numbed for twenty years. It’s a challenge, but one I seem to be rising to.

I have been on medication for approximately 20 years and I’ve been doing my withdrawal essentially as Peter Breggin recommends in Your Drug May Be Your Problem, Revised Edition: How and Why to Stop Taking Psychiatric Medications . I also include a rigorously healthy diet and nutrients to support my ravaged body. Lately, changes I’ve made to my nutritional regime seem to have been key in allowing for some very noticeable improvements in my physical well-being. Meditation and exercise play a role as well. I believe that healthy living all around is what helps us heal. I try to address, as the cliche puts it: the body, mind and spirit.

It’s now been 5 years and I’m off all the drugs except the Klonopin. I remain on 1.5 mg of Klonopin, I’ve managed to get off another 1.5 mg of it and am currently continuing the withdrawal with the intention and commitment of coming off of it completely. (drug amounts edited 4/09)

The symptoms I am having as a result of withdrawal are first and foremost physical. I’ve been rendered physically disabled by the drugs — specifically a crushing fatigue has struck me. I am often bedridden and I am no longer able to drive. This is a result of my particular body and history on medications. Certainly not everyone who deals with withdrawal will get physically sick like I have. Lately, as I’ve said, with the help of intensive nutritional counseling I have been improving markedly. I sleep well for example. A rarity among those who have withdrawn from all that I have withdrawn from.

The psychological symptoms or psychiatric symptoms I deal with are no worse than what I’ve dealt with at various times on a large cocktail of medications. In fact some of my symptoms have improved greatly–like anxiety and other symptoms that were actually drug induced.

I am experiencing feelings that are sometimes overwhelming but quite welcome after years of being numbed out. These feelings include pain from an abusive childhood and love for my husband that could never be deeply felt prior to the great reduction in medications. In other words, flooding me now is a smorgasbord of emotion I should have been experiencing and processing my whole life. Instead they were muted and numbed for the last 20 years.

As I refuse to medicate away the uncomfortable feelings they become easier and easier to deal with. I am forced to accept them and therefore I learn to cope with them naturally. Once I stopped searching for the quick fix in a pill — which ironically led to more pain — I started simply accepting my reality. This makes living with pain much easier and is the first step to healing in my mind. I believe the symptoms I have now are primarily caused by the withdrawal itself and the recovery of lost emotions associated with coming off the numbing medications.

I suffer at different times with anxiety, irritability, and depression and despair—mania is not in the picture and actually has not been for at least 15 years—some bipolar I am. The symptoms I do have are much worse when I’m premenstrual. That’s when despair can kick in if I’m unable to get out of bed for any length of time—again a reaction to my physical disability, not a clinical issue in a psychiatric sense. I simply feel like I’m missing out on life much of the time and I mourn the life I might have had had I not been caught in the psychiatric trap of lies and iatrogenic illness.

I am up now after midnight. When I laid down to bed tonight I was struck with anxiety. Oddly enough I hardly deal with anxiety anymore. In any case, in the past I would have panicked and popped a Klonopin and been to sleep within an hour. Now I don’t panic. The anxiety is manageable and it still passes within the hour. Panicking as a result of feeling anxious is worse than the anxiety itself. I can’t tell exactly how I’ve come to this point where I generally don’t panic anymore. I’ve read a lot about mindfulness and acceptance and I meditate so when I became determined to get off the drugs I had no choice but to face my demons. Still, this is a process and I’m slowly learning how to deal with them gracefully.

My meditation involves really feeling and experiencing difficult emotions and sensations without judgment. We are usually told instead to ignore our feelings and force ourselves to do things in spite of feeling miserable. I do the opposite. I embrace the feelings, sit with them and truly experience them and they pass much faster. Resisting our strong feelings causes them to worsen. Taking drugs was a way for me to resist my feelings. And then to add insult to injury the medications made me feel worse in a myriad of ways—I was often medicating side-effects of drugs, as I’ve come to realize.

Depression and despair are harder to deal with when they strike, but they too pass relatively quickly within hours or sometimes a few days. They seem almost always linked to my severe physical disability. When my physical energy picks up, I feel better. I also spend a lot of time physically ill in a fine mood. I just get tired of the physical illness sometimes and I’m basically mourning at the loss of being able to do all my favorite things including hiking in the mountains where I live. Seems like a pretty normal response to me. Though I believe a deeper acceptance of my situation can conceivably get me to a place where this despair will also pass.

I’ve been up writing this for the last hour or so. The anxiety that got me out of bed is gone. No extra Klonopin. Just a bit of writing and contemplation. We are built to deal with our angst naturally.

To be clear, I’m still withdrawing from Klonopin but I have long since reached tolerance and the amount I’m on does nothing but keep me from entering deeper drug withdrawal. Before long, I’ll gradually withdraw from Klonopin as well. Perhaps I’ll face more anxiety then. I don’t know. It was prescribed for sleep. The anxiety came when I became tolerant to it, a common adverse reaction to long-term use.

I will mention some other symptoms specific to my experience of withdrawal. I am extremely sensitive to light and noise. This seems to happen to many people (though not all) withdrawing from any psych med, from antidepressants to neuroleptics as I’ve seen in the online withdrawal groups I participate in. From this communal resource I have been able to collect hundreds of anecdotal accounts of withdrawal. The light and noise sensitivity seem to be a physical symptom—a distraught central nervous system. I can watch very little TV and almost no movies. Loud noises of any kind are hard to bear. My dog’s high-pitched bark is hard to bear. The vacuum cleaner has a piercing sound and is difficult. If I’m walking close to traffic that noise is vexing. Sometimes noises feel like an assault on my body. Light is similar. I sometimes need to wear sunglasses indoors and sometimes I have to shut myself in a dark room. Severity of both these symptoms vary. The noise sensitivity never goes away completely.

And lastly I’m acutely emotionally sensitive—especially when premenstrual, but this intensity comes with the withdrawals as well. My feelings are hurt very easily. And I’m sensitive to stress of any kind. I have to be careful about when I take phone calls for example—they amount to stimulation that can aggravate. Things people wouldn’t consider stress are stress for me. But these sensitivities come and go, so sometimes I can get out and about and see people and chat, and so forth. Sometimes I need to control all stimulus whatsoever. The light, noise and general sensitivity can trigger sometimes severe irritability. This is difficult for my husband and anyone living with me for any length of time.

In any case, as I practice acceptance all these symptoms are diminishing. Perhaps not the light and noise sensitivity—hopefully time will heal those symptoms too. All the other stuff—anxiety, depression, irritability etc are getting better as I practice acceptance, mindfulness and meditation. I may still feel them but they don’t have the same power over me as they once did. I do, however, still have a long way to go in freeing myself from the distress they can cause

I have a few other “symptoms.” I cry easily, I can be mildly paranoid and sometimes I have issues of envy. In essence I guess I am pitying myself when I am envious.  These I see as purely imperfections in my being that can be healed through acceptance too or not—I’m human after all. I often see crying as a great plus—I couldn’t cry for years and I missed it so!  I really believe all these feeling are profoundly human and are simply pronounced in some of us that are sensitive. Again, all these feelings come more frequently when I’m premenstrual so clearly, my hormones play a major role in how I feel. But all feelings are chemistry—joy and love too. That does not suggest a chemical disorder or imbalance of any kind.

In my mind some of these feelings come from not loving myself. And in practicing acceptance the goal is to love myself. Sometimes now when I meditate I am flooded with love for a brief while. All the negative goes away.

In any case, what I want to share here is that through acceptance and loving oneself during the process of psychiatric drug withdrawal, healing is possible. I trust that I am on that journey and thankfully have many role models to look to.

We will never stop being human and with our humanness we will always feel good and bad, but how we interpret, deal and cope with those feelings can be profoundly altered by how we choose to interpret and experience our feelings and difficulties.

About Monica Cassani

Author/Editor Beyond Meds: Everything Matters

12 Responses

  1. What a beautiful piece! I’m so proud of you for what you’ve accomplished and how you put yourself out there for education. I’m glad to know your professional interests; I didn’t realize you worked in the field.

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  2. David

    Wonderful. I’m so proud to know you, Gianna, and so honored to witness victory after victory in your journey. This is a milestone. *cheers*

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  3. Sorry I am late with the felicitations, but it’s a great piece Gianna.

    I put it in word so I can read it later when my brain is less fuzzy.

    Sending you lots of cyber champagne so you and Daniel can celebrate in style.

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  4. Congratulations, that’s a great article. You stated your case well. You gave a good balance of your past, present, and future. Thank you for your efforts.

    It was interesting that we both started out our jouneys with medication by taking drugs when young. My drugs were different, but I basically had a bad reaction, but was branded forever as mentally ill.

    It’s not bad to feel strong emotions. I often have tears of gratitude. In fact a few hours ago I was crying when I remembered how bad my life looked at one time.

    Jim S

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  5. Giannakali:

    You’re story is almost identical to mine! My first “bipolar” diagnosis was right after a mushroom trip in 2006. Since then I have been off of drugs and medications for over a year (summer 2007) and have had no specific bipolar symptoms. I have since come to find that I have PMDD, which incidentally was perhaps the ONLY form of disorder or illness I suffered from at the time I was originally diagnosed, and of the two times I have been institutionalized it was for psychosis during the first week before my period.

    I encourage you to go to my new website: http://www.medication-nation.com and read my story under Stories (second to last). I’m actually working to update it with my recent research into PMDD and also include some medical records I got back from the psych hospital I stayed at twice.

    Thanks for your story, it’s so awesome to know I am not the only one!

    C.

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