Coming Off Psychiatric Medication

Rachel's story

My first breakdown

I had to study extremely hard to get the A level results I needed for my chosen career. I managed to get the grades, but at the expense of my health and about 6 weeks after celebrating getting into university, had completely burned out, stopped eating and had not slept for nights. I had not realised I was speaking rubbish and wandered why people were worried about me. My friends did not seem to understand me anymore, I refused to sleep in my own house at Mum and Dad's and got strange ideas about one of my parents being abusive and how it was up to me to communicate this to the authorities which would result their imprisonment. The pressure of beingthe only one who knew' was the last straw and the sense of responsibility, overwhelming. The day I was admitted into the local psychiatric hospital, I could hardy walk and needed an adult either side of me to physically support me. I had no idea I was so seriously ill.

I was immediately forced to take high does of anti-psychotics and depot medication. I was pinned to the floor, had my clothes torn off me and was forcibly injected against my will. I now use the term 'psychiatric rape' to refer to this procedure which I would not wish on my worst enemy. Unfortunately, flash backs of this torture remain with me to this day. Having hardly been in hospital at all to this date, I was a very naive 18 year old girl, unused to the hospital regime of regimented mealtimes, having to get up at 7am with no purpose to the day, having nobody take an interest in you as a person and waiting a long time for visitors and familiar faces. I had never heard of the mental health act and nobody else in my wider family had ever had a mental health problem at all so this was a massive shock to the system. I did not tell anybody about the psychiatric rape as I feared nobody would believe me or be able to help me. I was told that running away would result in the police bringing me back. Difficult words for this academic high flyer to take in!

Five weeks later, drugged up to the eyeballs and bearly able to recognise myself in the mirror, my friends Mum had persuaded the psychiatrist to allow me home. I was so relieved, I cried. I bundled my things into a black carrier bag and told myself I was never going there again. My folks agreed to me being at home to recuperate and get my life back in order, but it was on condition that I took my medication exactly as prescribed by the psychiatrist at the time, who I had by then developed a deep seated hate towards. Grudgingly, I saw him in outpatients, answered his questions 'yes, no, no, yes', with absolutely no chat and no rapport whatsoever. This was the man who had ruined my life. It was like going to visit your own rapist every 6 weeks for them to see how you were getting on! I swallowed the anti-psychotics and attended to get my depot 'like a good girl', but totally disagreed that I need both. I stopped feeling, thinking for myself and lounged around the house like a zombie. I carried on with my waitressing job but was advised to give up any ideas of going to university. I was immediately offered a council flat (did the psychiatrist believe the untrue story that I was getting abused at home?) and a full set of benefits, both of which I turned down. I would hug my Mum ever 5 minutes which must have been annoying, but I just felt so alone and constantly needed reassurance.

One year on

About a year later, I was off all medication and had managed to start at university about an hour away from home. My patience at getting well at home without meds and taking time out had worked. I made some great friends, had a boyfriend, was popular with the guys on my course and halls of residence and felt free from the arguments my parents used to have. Life was good and I was finally going places with my career. First year was dream, without too many academic demands. Second year was starting to be tough. I was living with a girl who was OK but would not have been my first choice of housemate. However, shewas a good cook! She cooked for me. I let her hang out with my friends and I. Then, suddenly, in the October / November of my second year, I realised I was not functioning quite as well as usual. I was behind in my studies ' something which did not usually happen. I was drinking more alcohol and generally did not care about things very much, eg my appearance. My mum was getting worried about me on the phone and was trying to take over my life again. I was exhausted. Mum suggested I came home, forgot about my essays until after Christmas and picked things up again after this time. In retrospect, this would have been very sensible. However, I could not go along with this and the worrying about the essays and me trying to cope with too much again meant my health was failing. Mum escorted me home and the next day arranged for me to be assessed by my GP. My GP agreed I needed to see 'the abuser' (ref psychiatrist) again and there I was back to square one on the ward.

'I told you so'

By this time I had pretty good evidence that anti-psychotics were not for me. However, they had my records from before and their approach was to get as many anti-psychotics into me as possible before I got any ideas of my own! My friend who happened to be a trainee nurse sat with me for about an hour and a half saying 'go on, it's just one little tablet'. I sat there and just shook my head in disbelief and to try to communicate that I did not want the drug. The psychiatrist said at the first ward round 'I hate to say I told you so' (ref the risks of coming off the drugs) at which point I must have rolled my eyes. They took blood from me this time, obviously assuming I was a druggie because I was a student with ripped jeans on, but did not find anything there. My psychiatrist wanted me brain scanned this time (presumably to check for a tumour) but I refused. I think my self esteem was so low that I was convinced they might scan my brain and not actually find one! I took the anti-psychotics and was discharged two weeks later. I came off them ASAP and amazingly, in time for the new university term in January. I was dying to see my friends back at uni and looked and felt like myself again. This was the last time I would see a Psychiatrist in ten years.

I had a room in halls at uni to reduce the stress of living out of town and again felt free. However, it quickly became clear I was not functioning again. I could not catch up with my work, getting out of bed was like a mammoth task and I was skipping lectures which was out of character. Not coping, I slopped to the Chaplaincy centre ' a welcome refuge. The chaplain who by this point knew me quite well, suggested I speak to student support and I also had a friend who had taken a year out of uni to look after his Mum with a mental health problem. The friend and student support worker managed to persuade me to take time out of uni. I cried and cried. I went to see the university doctor who sent me away with a Haloperidol prescription and the frustration of not being able to get medical attention without going on an antipsychotic was crippling me. Would I ever be free from this sick system always trying to drag me down and stop me living a normal life?

Back at home for another few months was not a good prospect. Friends all at uni, mum working full time, doctors I hated and could no longer trust...I spent longer and longer in bed sleeping and escaping from the world. My elderly father was diabetic and probably depressed and had recently been prescribed anti-depressents. I was quite fascinated by this and combined with my low mood, went to my GP's, cried and told him I was depressed. His response was that he was not surprised given everything I had been through and wrote me out a prescription or Prozac. Amazingly, I decided this pill packet was definitely going to work this time. I felt more normal that I had an anti-depressant rather than an antipsychotic. I could maintain my driving and it even helped my poor concentration. I started to trust my GP again. After just two months on Prozac my life had changed for the better, I had the get up and go I used to have, was keeping up with my uni friends and looking forward to going back in the September. My third year went well and I graduated with a very good degree, as predicted by my tutors who knew me.

Ten years medication free!

What follows next is ten years of good mental health. I was medication free from age 21 ' 31, had excellent qualifications which meant I could work anywhere in the UK and even the world, my skills were sought after and I had met and married a wonderful man. I had the man, job, car, independence, house, love of friends and family and had not seen a doctor in years! However, I was in an unfamiliar part of the UK, the weather was very bad, I was away from friends and family and was desperately trying to impress my new bosses at work with how much work I could take on and how committed I was to my job. This mindset combined with the stressors of being newly qualified and not fitting in at work very well, saw me spiralling out of control again. I could feel myself slipping away from reality, not wanting to join in, cancelling engagements and starting to not care about the people I was working with and working for ' not like me. My husband's job involves night work and this disruption started to interfere with my sleep. I stopped eating again, familiar pattern started up again. However, as I had been well for ten years, I did not really know what to do. A huge upset in my personal life saw me getting into my car and driving like a real lunatic 150 miles away from everyone. I just wanted to run away, to get away. Little did I know I was 24 hours away from an out of area hospital bed.

My last breakdown? I hope so

I was going to do psychiatry but by the skin of my teeth, this time it was going to be on my terms and my terms only. I had an excellent mental health keyworker nurse who really was heaven sent and two very good older and experienced consultant psychiatrists. I requested sleeping tablets for my sleep and anti-depressants for my depression. I let them know I had an eating disorder (thought it was simpler than saying I was a fussy eater) and they knew I was far from home. They provided me with the sleeping meds but refused my wish for an anti-depressant until they had assessed me further (i.e. to rule out the need for an anti-psychotic). As they did not try and force me to take an anti-psychotic, I relaxed and told them quite a bit about my life. I made them check my medical records and they could then work out how I had become ill, ie wanted to avoid what had happened to me at 18 this time and forever more. I needed the right diagnosis for me, for my GP, my health records, my husband, my boss and my occupational health advisors. The staff were stunned at my cheek and assertiveness in saying exactly what I wanted, without justifying why. They quickly sussed that I was not a typical patient and that I would not be pushed around by any medical staff at this stage in my experience of 'the system'. The nurses tried in vain to stress me out by playing loud music when I was trying to sleep or relax, but I just went shopping when this happened which must have made them mad!

On the whole, this admission was the least stressful of them all. Staff listened to my concerns, I felt like a person, not a statistic, I could talk about my life and people would listen and be interested ' if a little freaked out! I knew I had a successful career and this gave me the confidence to speak out and to stand up and be counted. Who could argue with ten years of being medication free? Staff were stunned that I had come in psychotic and two weeks later, with sleeping tablets and the Prozac I so badly wanted and needed, I was waving good bye to them all and thanking them all for their help even the ones who had tried to make my life difficult! Six months on Prozac was enough before I gradually came off it with good support from my GP practice. The psychiatrists must have been glad to not only observe a success story but also take part in their recovery which happened because of good and accurate medical care and not because of someone else deciding I could not make decisions and needed other people to make them for me. A final diagnosis of 'psychotic depression' seemed to me and to them an accurate diagnosis and because of my new medical report, everybody now knows exactly which medicines I need to take if the same thing happens again. My last episode was four years ago and I continue to lead a full and active life medication free life.

I believe everything in life has a purpose and that every breakdown tells you something about yourself which is an important lesson. My breakdowns have been signs of my distorted thinking: thinking that my life is only to serve other people and ignore my own needs. Thinking that I can impress people with working long hours while letting myself down badly. Thinking people only like me because I am 'normal', or hardworking or whatever. If you have had a breakdown, which aspect of your thinking has gone out of whack?

Is medication for you?

My personal preference is to be medication free because that is how I function the best. However, if I had to I would not hesitate to go back on sleeping meds and anti-depressants because i have direct concrete evidence that these drugs work to make me better. I would not ever willingly go back onto anti-psychotic medication because I have concrete evidence that these drugs make me significantly more ill than before. However, I do know and have great respect for individuals in my life who do take anti-psychotics. So, in summary, if the drug helps, use it. If it does not, have the confidence to let your medics know that this may not be the right drug for you. I did and it probably saved my life. Good luck!