Doctors put me on 40 different meds for bipolar and depression. It almost killed me.
Does our mental health system do more to harm patients than to help them?
Content warning: This piece discusses suicide.
Tears were flooding down my face. Textbooks, highlighters, and my laptop were strewn across the bed, along with my crumpled body. I sobbed into my pillow, in hopes that it would all go away. Deep, low depressive swings had once again returned to my life. Despite my outward appearance as a highly motivated 21-year-old college student, my energy was sapped. It was getting harder to concentrate, harder to get out of bed, harder to get through the day without weeping.
My psychiatrist had been changing my medication in hopes of finding an anti-depressant combination that would help me to feel like my passionate self again. It wasn’t working. That night I called my friends and family crying. I needed to vent and release some of my pent-up sorrow. I needed to connect with people who would understand. I needed loved ones to help me hold a bit of the gut-wrenching, depressive pain that flowed through every inch of my body. After I hung up, I felt a bit better. I set my alarm for an early morning wake-up to get in some studying before finals the next day. I hazily drifted off to sleep, salty tears drying on my cheek.
A couple of hours later, my heart erupted with panic as two armed police officers burst into my tiny dorm room. I was half-naked, shaking my head in terror as one cop ripped open drawer after drawer, barking “Where are your pills?” Another police officer got in my face and demanded an answer to the question, “Are you going to kill yourself?”
One of the police officers shoved a phone in my ear. On the other end was a psychiatrist I’d never spoken with before. With terror in my voice, I told him I wasn’t going to kill myself, that I was just letting off some steam. I pleaded and begged with him to tell the officers to leave — not to handcuff me and take me to the psychiatric ward that night.
I was lucky. Something I said convinced the doctor I didn’t need to be placed on a mandatory involuntary hold in a mental hospital. But if I wasn’t white, cisgender, or at an affluent college, I may not have been so lucky. People of color face disproportionate risk of violence in police encounters — and police are the first responders in mental health crises.
I didn’t make it to my finals the next day. I had stayed up most of the night, trembling with fear, so when the sun finally rose, I took a long, warm shower. Sitting on the bathroom floor, back pressed against the wall, fingers shaking, I dialed the number of my psychiatrist. I wasn’t sobbing this time. My tone was distant and my gaze was glassy and vacant. She convinced me to check myself into the psychiatric ward. In a haze, I slowly packed items into a bag and a man I’d never met before dropped me off for my first psychiatric ward visit.
Within an hour of checking into the hospital, I knew I needed to leave. The air was thick with pain. People wandered the fluorescent lit halls. Like mine, their eyes were vacuous. When someone erupted in an expression of intense emotion, doctors swiftly followed the outburst with sedatives. There was no wellness here. After several hours, I packed my bag, walked up to the front desk and told the secretary:
“I’d like to check out.”
“You can’t leave.”
“… I came here voluntarily.”
“If you walk through those doors, we’ll place a mandatory involuntary hold on you and put you in there,” she motioned toward the ward next to mine, where I would’ve been taken last night.
My breath grew heavier and my eyes darted back and forth. I was trapped. Still reeling from the previous evening, my heart was beating out of my chest. I slowly curled in a fetal position on the hospital floor. I was having a panic attack. Two doctors in white coats and clipboards hovered over me. After a few minutes, they medicated me and I drifted into sleep.
I had never been suicidal before being locked in a mental hospital.
Much of my stay there was a blur of medications. I laid on my back in a cold bed for days, for the first time wanting to die. I shuffled off to group therapy in my gray hospital socks, listened to the screams of my neighbors, peered into the ward next door, and obliged when student doctors and clergy came into my room and asked if I wanted to pray or take long surveys about my mental health. I took the surveys but declined the prayers.
Sometime during my stay doctors etched the diagnosis “Bipolar Disorder” onto my chart. My brow furrowed with confusion. I had managed intense OCD and anxiety since I was in elementary school, and yes, over the last several years, I had waves of depression, but otherwise I was high-functioning: I took the maximum course load, got straight A’s, worked multiple jobs, led several campus organizations, and performed in numerous plays simultaneously. I thrived off the adrenaline of being busy. I crackled with ideas and buzzed with creativity. My energy and passion were my greatest assets, how could that be an illness?
The diagnosis was the first time I really tried to understand myself in the context of pathology. Someone who barely knew me combed through my traits and behaviors and labeled it as a disease. Bipolar Disorder. Grappling with this new way of understanding my identity, I felt my brain begin to slow with each fistful of pills I dutifully swallowed. I wasn’t on merely a drug or two — I was on four or five and counting. Antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, antidepressants, sleep drugs, anxiety pills, each addressing a side effect brought on by the last one. My energy, passion, and strong-will began to fade away as apathy and lethargy settled in. I said “yes” more. I didn’t really care what happened.
The psychiatric ward released me to a halfway house for people with mental health challenges. The doctors at the house sat my worried parents down and told them that I was ill. That my academic and personal accomplishments were not something to be proud of: They were a product of my bipolar mania. The doctors’ answer? An expensive combination of pills that would help me be happy, stable, and “normal.”
After awhile I somehow managed to get back into the swing of school. On the surface it appeared like I was thriving, but people close to me knew I was very unwell. My health declined rapidly. The medications made it almost impossible to wake up for class in the morning. My father, recently laid off from his job at a car dealership after being diagnosed with cancer, drove 45 minutes to my school everyday to wake me up and drive me across campus to class.
My once sharp memory dissipated. I used to be an actress, performing in multiple shows at a time, easily remembering every single line. Creativity was a core part of my identity and wellness. Now I would read one line over and over again, unable to retain a word. I did my last performance with a script in hand. Each time I left the stage, I vomited profusely before coming back on again — another side effect of the medications. Eventually, I stopped performing altogether.
Over time, I developed dependence on the anti-anxiety drug ativan, which I was prescribed to take every day, multiple times a day. On top of my other medications, my doctor prescribed me 20mg adderall to help get me up the morning, followed by 2mg ativan to reduce the teeth-chattering anxiety brought on by the morning’s strong upper. Then I would take another adderall mid-day to bring me up, followed by another dose of ativan. When panic attacks hit — which they frequently did — I would take multiple ativan at a time. Once, I collapsed on the floor of a campus building. A woman working at the front desk found me passed out cold on the floor and called my partner to pick me up.
“I’m just really tired,” I told her.
I gained 125 pounds and was diagnosed with sleep apnea. I started taking a daily hormone to treat a thyroid disorder, which I developed from my mood stabilizer lithium. (The damage from lithium was permanent, I still need to use the thyroid hormone to this day.) I started experiencing severe, incapacitating migraines where I would need to lay in complete darkness for days at a time, vomiting relentlessly, occasionally making a trip to the ER. Migraine preventatives and painkillers were just another addition to my daily fistful of medications.
I barely survived those two years, but still somehow managed to graduate with two degrees, honors, and a Fulbright Scholarship. I even received several academic awards that came with monetary prizes. But my money was gone in the next several months, every cent going to out-of-pocket medication expenses. Lithium alone was $300 a month.
My family didn’t have a lot of money, but we made ends meet. I was better off than most. When I didn’t have an income or home, I stayed with my supportive parents in a safe place. Unfortunately, many marginalized people with mental health challenges don’t have access to this kind of luxury; for many, comprehensive mental health treatment is prohibitively expensive. My family went into debt to pay for medications and treatment because my doctors told me I was sick and needed them. We complied without question.
I never went on my Fulbright scholarship. As my medication count climbed, I slowed to a halt. I stopped being able to drive. Despite my costly treatments, panic and depression still overwhelmed me. I was unable to function. I didn’t feel anything anymore.
Over a five-year period, I was on more than 40 medications. The side effects brought me to the edge of my physical and emotional limits. My body broke out in hives and red bumps. One medication made it difficult to take deep breaths for several weeks. I was either up all night wired in panic or sleeping for 12+ hours. I ate everything I could find or I didn’t eat for days, the thought of food making me feel sick. I was horny all the time and then I didn’t want to be touched.
I couldn’t leave my room. All of my memories became jumbled and I couldn’t tell if I had made a situation up or if it had actually happened. I didn’t recognize myself anymore, physically or mentally. I couldn’t see any way out of this deep pain and numbness. I would lie on my side and stare at the dozen pill bottles on my counter and the boxes of partially used medications that I had been prescribed then taken off of. I laid awake thinking about how easy it would be to swallow every pill in the bottles and drift off into a state where I wouldn’t feel unrelenting emptiness and agony.
Soon my psychiatrist had a new diagnosis for me: Treatment Resistant Depressive. Because I had taken every psychiatric drug on the market in different combinations and still felt depressed, there was no cure for me and we had to take a more drastic measure: Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, a cousin of electroshock therapy. My old self would have resisted. My over-medicated self was much more passive and docile. I didn’t put up a fight, I didn’t care. I felt dead already. And I would have gone through with the procedure if my insurance hadn’t denied me the service because it was too expensive.
A small voice inside of me thought: “I need to get off these medications.”
I devoted the next three years to the challenging, painstaking process of coming off my 10+ drug cocktail. I left my psychiatrist for a new one, a person I told, “I just want to get off of my meds to establish a baseline.” She reluctantly agreed. She didn’t have the vision or understanding of my mission, and I quickly found that my own research outpaced what she knew about the drugs.
Medication is a tool: Some people’s lives are saved by the right combination. Other people respond better to wellness options outside of the mainstream. Cannabis helped ease my depression, anxiety, pain, mood swings, and sleep challenges. Not only alleviating some of my mental and physical pain, cannabis centered me in gratitude and gave me some much-needed motivation and energy. I could now do short errands, drive around the block, even get to my own doctor appointments on public transportation — huge accomplishments for me. It was also the first time I was in control of my own dosing.
Tapering did not come without challenges, however. A whole new batch of withdrawal symptoms entered my life: My entire body itched, and I would scratch until I bled; I frequently woke up convulsing, my body drenched in a cold sweat; my moods were unpredictable; my anxiety, overwhelming. I menstruated everyday for months at a time. And yet, with each medication I eliminated, I became more myself again. I went to a sliding-scale community acupuncture clinic which relieved me of some of the physical and emotional pain of withdrawal. Weight started coming off. I no longer had sleep apnea. My migraines persisted but with less intensity.
As I began to read about alternative mental health frameworks, I realized that I am not sick with mental illness — I live in a sick society and have “dangerous gifts”: They need to be handled with care, but they are also my sources of passion, connectivity, creativity, and drive.
Now I identify as “neurodivergent”, a framework through which I transform what I have been taught are my weaknesses, diseases, and shameful secrets into my strengths.
Neurodivergence also recognizes that mental health challenges are deeply tied to societal oppression along lines including race, class, gender identity, and physical disability. Discriminatory barriers often make it even more difficult to access treatment. It’s hard to achieve wellness within a system that profits from our illness. But when our dangerous gifts receive the meaningful support they need, we can transform society. Our greatest challenges become our wellsprings of power.
I am not an anomaly. I am one of many people who barely survived the mental health system. Lots of folks with dangerous gifts are sitting in prison and psychiatric wards right now instead of receiving the support they need. It’s quite likely that you or someone you know has been deeply impacted by mental health challenges — even if that person hasn’t opened up about them. While each of our stories is unique, many of our experiences echo one another’s, reminding us that we are not alone.
I want to hear your story. You tell me: How has the mental health system impacted you and shaped your identity? Has it helped you? Has it harmed you? What tools do you use to survive and thrive? How does stigma manifest in your life? What changes can we make to improve the mental health system? How have medications helped or hurt you? How does culture and society impact your mental health? Do you see your mental health challenges as dangerous gifts? If so, how?