PC: Frederic Agius
My Mental Health Awakening
My mental health story begins in 1993. I was a 14-year-old freshman in high school, who had no idea about mental health. All I knew is that something felt off inside and I did not feel comfortable in my own skin. Low and behold, a dark, relentless, persistent, sinking feeling crept in, that has followed me for almost 26 years. The symptoms of chronic sad days, which is not foreign to many other individuals, were hijacked by a group of glib people with letters behind their name, who created a mental health manifesto, calling it the DSM, in order to capitalize financially on my affliction and many others, by labeling a very common feeling of trying to adjust to change, 296.30, major depression, which is merely a billing code, that almost made me a lifelong consumer of a very sinister, poisonous mental health industry.
To make a long story short, high school was rough. I’d cry a lot and especially at the sight of other students walking with one another, laughing, connecting, making plans for the weekend, and there I was, alone, feeling left out. I didn’t fit in anywhere and felt very lonely. I had a very difficult time connecting and now believe that it stemmed from not fitting in at home, either. My parents struggled with their own mental health care needs and because of those personal struggles with their own demons, I believe that I came up very empty handed in learning the tools, skills, strategies, and social savviness to navigate and find solutions to life’s inevitable challenges, that healthy, developed parents show and teach their children, which made me easy prey to be condemned as, “mentally ill.” Being socially awkward, uncomfortable, curious, intense, confused, sad, and lonely are not symptoms to medicate with poison nor are they prerequisites to be institutionalized, although that part did not come until a while later.
When I hear about the nightmare stories of children and teens being medicated for mental health care needs and sedated for “inappropriate” behavior, I know that I dodged a bullet, because thankfully, that isn’t part of my story. However, I do remember seeing a counselor during my sophomore year for a very brief duration, who was kind and attentive, but medication was never part of my treatment. I count myself lucky, because I think my life would have been much harder for me if I was being poisoned by medication so early in my brain development. I came to know the drug Zoloft in 2001, when I was in college. Like I said, that heavy feeling of not being good enough was around me constantly. I was encouraged to “talk with someone” about the way I was feeling. Like a blind warrior, I followed the instructions by making an appointment with a counselor, because I was trained to believe that professionals know more about my mind and body than I do. After the first session with the counselor, I was put on 50 mlg of Zoloft. I remember about two weeks into taking it, I not only stopped crying, I couldn’t cry. That sticks out like a sore thumb and at the time, I found it strange. Even though I lacked the awareness I have today around this, I knew medications weren’t for me. I wasn’t on Zoloft very long, however, my life changed forever, due to many years of being a test patient to see if different pills would work for my “symptoms” of sadness.
After graduating with my bachelor’s degree in 2002, I white knuckled it for four years without any help, but still couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I wasn’t enough. In 2006, I tried going back to school and ended up becoming overwhelmed again, in which I began frequenting the mental health department, where I started to see another therapist who wanted to start me on Prozac. I remember going home and researching Prozac articles to read about the horror stories and success stories in effort to make a sound decision as to whether or not go on it. I found one that really resonated with me that was against taking it due to the research showing how detrimental it is long term to the body and mind. I placed it in the therapist’s box and we discussed it during the next session. I remember him reporting that he read it but that it really didn’t have an effect on him, because he still encouraged me to take it. Basically, he said these medications are more helpful than hurtful, and that I might need to be on it for the rest of my life, “but, everyone is different.” Truth is, I started it and discontinued it after a year or so, still never feeling quite right about taking medication like that.
After a couple of years spinning my wheels on what career path to choose, working odd end jobs here and there, and beginning a long path of failed relationships that began passionately and ended just as fast and fervently, I attempted to end my life in January 2008. It was right after Heath Ledger took his own life. Hearing the news planted the seed and I found myself envious that he was able to take his life so successfully. During this time, I somehow ended up on three different types of medications (Zoloft, Trazadone, and Seroquel). In a rush to leave this world, I gulped all of them down and hoped I did not wake up. Well, I did wake up and the details are foggy, but I was then hospitalized and my life changed, when I discovered a gem during this time. The ah ha moment came to me when a particular social worker in that facility asked me how I was doing and we ended up talking about the work he did. I was immediately intrigued as if hope just knocked on my door, giving me something else to think about rather than my fantasy to end my life. I was impressed and when I discharged, I did feel hopeful by the knowledge, that I could use my struggle to help others, but I was still desperate and the brain chemist within had a very difficult time getting my mind back to stability and balance after taking all those pill, as I was still fixated on how to end my life. Two months later, I ended up swallowing a Costco sized bottle of Tylenol, since the other pills didn’t work.
Well, that didn’t work either and I found myself at a different psychiatric hospital with a list of diagnoses, ranging from, Bipolar I, to Borderline Personality disorder, to Generalized Anxiety and Dysthymia. I began believing I was a lost cause and was very scared, but still, in the back of my mind, the inner voice that was still alive was nudging me to wake up to my divinity. It was during that second hospitalization that I allowed myself to meet others who were also struggling. Not only that, I went to groups on how to cope with depression, tools to manage anxiety, anger management, cognitive behavioral therapy, and partook in art classes, all the while taking note of the mental health workers leading these groups. There is was again, that gem, the light, the way out of this mess and it was through discovering my purpose in going through all this and realizing that nothing that I have gone through was accidental. I left the hospital believing that I was to become a beacon of light for others, by intertwining my lived experience with mental health care needs and my newly found path to become a social worker. I came to learn that many people called this kind of a person, The Wounded Healer and they are the best kind of professional in the mental health field, because they are relatable and understand the conundrum one faces as they struggle to make sense of their mental health.
I decided in 2008 after the second suicide attempt to never go back on any medications, as the nudge within to go a different route was very clear to me. After the second hospitalization, I moved home with my parents and struggled a lot. All those feelings of inadequacy, which plagued me for years, reared their ugly heads again. I still had health insurance from my job at the time, so I began an intensive outpatient program as I took some time off from work. I was encouraged to try medications again, from well-meaning but programed mental health professionals, but I continued to refuse. Per usual, the drug based paradigm was putting the pressure on me, as it made me feel that I could not do it on my own. Because I wouldn’t go on medications, the therapist from the program made me verbally commit every day before I left to doing no harm to myself and had me sign a contract to hopefully keep me safe. I persisted medication free and graduated from the program feeling, empowered, renewed, and a bit more equipped to handle the dark night of my soul and life’s setbacks.
Fast forward to January 2009, I began getting my feet wet in the field of social work and started a master’s degree program in the field of Mental Health Rehabilitation. I knew change was always difficult for me, but the challenges hit me like a ton of bricks and within the first week of school, I completely stopped sleeping and for four weeks I tried to beat it and became very paranoid, due to the lack of sleep. My mind raced with worst case scenarios and fears, and sadly I became so desperate, I made an appointment with a psychiatrist who convinced me to go on an antidepressant called Remeron, that also helped with sleep. I began taking it right away and initially, albeit due to the placebo affect and because I was convinced by the doctor that I would be able to get off of it at any time, I began sleeping right away. Little did the psychiatrist know about the hellish experience I was going to encounter years later, while trying to get off it, or maybe he did know the truth, but prescribed it anyway. The Hippocratic Oath of doing no harm does not apply in the mental health field.
During the two years while earning my degree, I was still experiencing relational struggles with others and internal problems accepting who I was and who I wasn’t. However, I began employment working as a substance abuse counselor at a detox facility and was so excited, because I was finally in the field ready to share my personal experience and the knowledge learned in school, so I could help others. I was in complete shock during the first few weeks on the job, as I became face to face with the reality that legal drugs, such as benzos, antidepressants, pain killers, etc., were the most difficult for others to withdrawal from. This reality was so perplexing to me, because I was in support of them at this time and had no idea they were so addicting and excruciating to discontinue. I was under the illusion that I was taking a magic pill of my very own, because I was sleeping, even though I used many other varieties to take my life and also vowed to never get on another one again.
I ended up quitting the job at the detox facility and began a position at a community mental health agency as a mental health counselor. I was the group leader and was doing what I dreamed of doing and I also graduated with a master degree at the top of my class in 2011. I was excited about the future and was really good at helping others struggling with addiction and mental health. Yet, I also saw once again the devastating consequences from long term use of tranquilizers, SSRI’s, antidepressants, benzos, etc. Most of the people I worked with started out just like me…sad, that’s it. Disappointed with life, traumatized by neglect and unfortunate events, who went for help and ended up on disability, because of the affects from the psychotropic medications they were put on to treat their symptoms. The reality hit me hard, because I was also taking a medication like that and fear set in regarding what that drug was doing to me. This moment was the catalyst to my mental health awaking.
At that time there was also a dream of mine that resurfaced to work as a social worker and live in the San Francisco Bay Area. After graduation, I ended up taking a job in that area doing very similar work, where I completely became desensitized, burnt out, and on a crusade to speak out against what I witnessed, while also trying to get off Remeron. In early 2015, I visited a psychiatrist to discuss a safe way to wean off Remeron. After the psychiatrist stopped trying to convince me to continue the medication, I was told it was easy to wean off and would be able to within two to three weeks. Oh, how wrong she was. After six years of being on that drug, I found that I couldn’t get off without experiencing insomnia, intense depression and anxiety, panic attacks that were accompanied by suicidal thoughts. I was scared to say the least.
After many attempts to get off Remeron during that year, two things happened. I was hospitalized again at the same place where I decided to become a social worker and I began another master’s degree program, but this time in social work. This is where my life took a pivotal turn. During this hospitalization, I was faced with a psychiatrist that was as burnt out as I felt. As I sat waiting for him to look up from reading my chart, he asked me, “Have you ever been on Lithium?” I remember the goosebumps that flooded my body and I asked myself, “Lithium, really, that is straight poison.” I asked him, “Isn’t that the drug that one has to regularly get blood work done to check on the kidney.” He said, “Yes, but you obviously have Bipolar and this is your third hospitalization,” while still not looking at me. I took a big, deep cleansing breath and said, “Ok,” because I knew the game. If I argued or challenged him, he would keep me there, locked, like a criminal. I began it only to get out of that hospital, so I could continue school and on the inner workings of me and acknowledge the dark shadowy corners of my psyche. Right then, sitting in that dank, dreary, heartless office, I knew I had to do this life without synthetic medications.
A day later, I was released with a prescription for Lithium. My parents were very worried for me and pleaded with me to stay on the medication and every time I took it, I cried and that lasted for one more week. I never touched another medication again and it’s been almost four years. Not only am I medication free, but I am also a bona fide Social Worker with a Master’s degree in Social Work. A celebration is in order, because I have never felt more alive and because I make up a very colorful, complex mural of all the many battles I have won throughout my life, this truth makes me a walking art piece. Think about it, I am sitting here today with a 100% track record of getting through really tough days. These days, I feel less afraid, less alone, and less desire to end my precious life. Although it’s taken me a while to acknowledge my right to be in this world, I know that I am here for a reason and part of this reason is discontinuing the use of all psychotropic medications from my life, in order to share this knowledge with others. I know now, that I had to go into the depths of a very dark cave in order to see the light.
Starr in California
About The Author - Starr R. Stoddard
An almost 40 year old female, who is a deeply spiritual, curious, ambitious truth seeker. These are just a few of the things I am: First and foremost, I am spiritual being who is continuing to wake up to my divine nature. I am also a passionate advocate for the marginalized and disenfranchised populations. I am a daughter, a sister, an Aunt, a loyal friend, a Social Worker, a deep thinker, a believer in holistic practices, and a partaker of natural ways to heal my mind, body, and spirit. I am a believer in indigenous healing practices that have been around for eons. I trust that deep within I can come to the answers that I seek and trusting myself first is a top priority, before going to someone else for help. I also know that nutrition plays a vital role in my mental health and I do everything I can to be conscious about what goes in my body. I also have a major responsibility in what I choose to listen to, talk about, where my attention goes, and how much energy I put into things, because of how sensitive I am to energy, frequency, and vibrations, which is what our world is made up of. I write poetry and enjoy spoken word. I know how powerful words are and I work very hard to exercise my insight and awareness around the influence and power that comes from my mouth, as I know we create our realities, so I try to go in the direction of truth and love. Thank you for taking the time to read my story. Here is my email: email@example.com