By Cat Robson.
What makes creative and highly sensitive people accept, and even welcome, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder or other mental illness?
Are psychiatrists equipped to recognize and support creativity, high sensitivity and giftedness?
Who determines where creative intensity ends and mental illness begins?
Do medications put our creativity and sensitivity at risk?
Over a year and a half ago, I asked myself these questions as I began a journey back to a drug-free life after years on anti-depressants and other medications.
Misdiagnosis and medications
A few years ago I began seeing a well-meaning psychiatric Nurse Practioner who monitored my anti-depressants. At the time, I’d been on various antidepressants for about 14 years.
She had no experience working with giftedness or Highly Sensitive Personality, like most mental health professionals.
She had a calm, conservative, scientific personality, like many in her field – very different from my intense, expressive and sensitive personality.
Although I was recovering well from PTSD after repeated traumas, which would have accounted for any distress even in the absence of giftedness and sensitivity, I was given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder type II. I was taken off Effexor rapidly, an antidepressant drug now known for severe withdrawal symptoms, and put on a number of major psychiatric medications.
Within a week I was in extreme physical pain, unable to sleep, and my mind was anxious and agitated beyond belief. Rather than question the wisdom of being on these medications at all, I chose to go into the hospital for a few days so the medications could be balanced and I could get used to them.
Out of the frying pan…
Had I known that the psychiatric ward of the hospital had no mattresses (they used hard industrial foam pads) so sleep was almost impossible, that I’d be awakened several times a night for ‘vitals,’ that the nutritional value of the food was very low, that there was no recreation provided beyond walking in a line around the perimeter of a windowless room once a day, and that I’d be lucky to have 15 minutes every few days to speak to a doctor, I wouldn’t have put myself into the hospital.
If you aren’t already mentally ill before going in, a psych ward can make you sick in no time.
No one told me that my diagnosis would make me uninsurable, that there was no scientific evidence that my brain needed any of these drugs, no evidence that my life would improve with them, and that my life expectancy would be shortened by 10-25 years.
The assumption was that drugs were the answer. Since I was my usual compliant, self-critical self I went along. I have always been a good patient, willing to accept the theories of others.
It seemed to me that I finally had an answer to the complex challenges of my life.
Having accepted that I had an incurable mental illness, I made plans to improve my life as much as possible. In a couple of years, I moved across country and started a new life.
I began to write again and received two awards for my work at a major writers conference. I lost 40 pounds, took singing lessons and began work on a novel. But I couldn’t keep up any semblance of mental clarity or focus and my health kept deteriorating.
A couple of years later, I realized that I was in more emotional and physical distress than ever before even though I was on multiple medications. I had horrendous bouts of anxiety and agitation, along with diabetes, tinnitus, digestive problems, sleeplessness, tics and other symptoms, none of which I’d ever had before.
This made no sense. I began to do research into the psychiatric drugs I’d been prescribed and concluded that not only were they not necessary, they had actually been making me ill, in many cases giving me the very symptoms they were supposed to relieve.
Who am I really?
Initially, I sought out information on alternatives to drug treatment for bipolar disorder, still convinced the label fit.
At the same time, I began to learn more about high sensitivity, giftedness and creativity, through websites like HighlySensitive.org, HighAbility.org, and by reading the work of Elaine Aron and others. I started to look at myself in a new way.
I came to believe that my personality was normal for a gifted, creative person with high sensitivities, and I began to question the bipolar label I’d been given.
Maybe there were good reasons I have such intense emotions, and have had a hard time settling on a career and finding friends and romantic partners who fit me. I also learned that many others with personalities like mine had been caught up in the mental health system in the same way.
I began to ask the questions I’ve mentioned above, and to challenge my own negative self-concept.
The answers I came up with led me to make a commitment to get off all psychiatric drugs, and to re-evaluate my attitude toward psychiatry and psychotherapy. As a former grad student in psychology, having studied to be a therapist, this was a big change. I had to take a hard look at my own unquestioning acceptance of the traditional approach to mental health.
Even wiith a number of supplements and good nutritional support, it took me a year to slowly withdraw from the drugs, much longer than the psychiatrist had told me to take (psychiatrists generally don’t recognize the addictive nature of psychoactive medications).
The process was difficult with lots of withdrawal symptoms, but I’m drug free and grateful to be facing life’s challenges with a mind and emotions that I can truly call my own.
Like so many others who’ve challenged the authority of the mental health establishment, when I told my psychiatrist of my decision and asked for his help in withdrawing from the medications, I found myself in a position similar to those accused of witchcraft a few hundred years ago: everything I said was taken as further proof of my pathology.
After all, bipolar patients are notoriously non-compliant when it comes to medication, right? Supposedly, people with bipolar disorder long for mania and hate being made ‘normal.’ And how could I possible know more about myself than my doctor?
I felt it would be beneficial to see a mental health professional while I withdrew from the medications, but aside from recommending which medications to withdraw from first, my psychiatrist wasn’t interested in participating in my healing process.
I looked elsewhere and finally found a Jungian therapist who has been supportive of my taking back control over my physical and emotional health.
Most of my support has come from the growing number of organizations, authors and online communities who are working to reveal the truth about the inefficacy and dangers of psychiatric medications and psychiatry’s intimate relationship with the pharmaceutical industry, and who provide information on alternative treatments.
Scientologists, and their Citizens Commission on Human Rights, aren’t the only ones concerned about psychiatry and its drug-based paradigm of care. There is a world-wide movement to inform the public about the dangers of psychiatric drugs.
Listed below are just a few of the organizations currently involved in advocating for patients rights, exposing the pharmaceutical industry’s role in inventing and broadening categories of mental illness, and shining a light on the long term effects of psychiatric drug use and the actual results of drug studies.
The narrowing of normal
And while some may embrace their uniqueness, others, like myself, may struggle for years trying to change themselves in order to fit in.
I have been thinking a good deal about normality lately. It’s a concern in the medical world. The complaint is that doctors are abusing [their] privilege, to define the normal.
Ordinary sadness, critics say, has been engulfed by depression. Boyishness stands in the shadow of attention deficits. Social phobia has engineered a hostile takeover of shyness.
Anatomy of an Epidemic
Another author whose work has illuminated my own road to better mental health is journalist Robert Whitaker. In his Huffington Post article, Anatomy Of An Epidemic’: Could Psychiatric Drugs Be Fuelling A Mental Illness Epidemic?, he takes a look at psychiatry’s track record:
The number of adults, ages 18 to 65, on the federal disability rolls due to mental illness jumped from 1.25 million in 1987 to four million in 2007. Roughly one in every 45 working-age adults is now on government disability due to mental illness.
This epidemic has now struck our nation’s children, too. The number of children who receive a federal payment because of a severe mental illness rose from 16,200 in 1987 to 561,569 in 2007, a 35-fold increase.
I wrote Anatomy of an Epidemic to investigate this epidemic, and this pursuit necessarily raises a very uncomfortable question. Although we, as a society, believe that psychiatric medications have “revolutionized” the treatment of mental illness, the disability numbers suggest a very different possibility. Could our drug-based paradigm of care, for some unforeseen reason, be fueling this epidemic?
This does not mean that antipsychotics don’t have a place in psychiatry’s toolbox. But it does mean that psychiatry’s use of these drugs needs to be rethought, and fortunately, a model of care pioneered by a Finnish group in western Lapland provides us with an example of the benefit that can come from doing so.
Twenty years ago, they began using antipsychotics in a selective, cautious manner, and today the long-term outcomes of their first-episode psychotic patients are astonishingly good. At the end of five years, 85% of their patients are either working or back in school, and only 20% are taking antipsychotics.
There is life beyond psychiatric medications. For me, it’s a better life.
Safe Harbor — Includes links to find medical doctors (by zip code) who can assist with helping people safely get off of psychiatric drugs and medical personnel who will treat people without the use of psychiatric drugs
Alternative to Meds Center — Residential psychiatric medication withdrawal with medical and naturopathic oversight in Sedona, Arizona
Green Mental Health — Holistically-centered mental health care system which reflects traditional environmental, humanitarian, and health conscious values
The Road Back — How to get off psychiatric drugs safely
Soteria House — Alternative and non-drug solutions for people diagnosed schizophrenic
Mind Freedom International — is a nonprofit organization that works to win human rights and provide alternatives for people labeled with psychiatric disabilities