By Dr. Annie Brewster
By the time Laura Delano was 25, she was taking five psychiatric drugs: an anti-depressant, an anti-psychotic, two mood stabilizers and an anti-anxiety medication.
But after years entrenched in the mental health system, and defined by her psychiatric diagnoses, Laura finally got off the medications and, as she says, began “recovering from psychiatry.”
For background: Laura grew up in a wealthy Connecticut suburb in a family of high achievers. She was a nationally ranked squash player and student body president. But in her teen years, life got more complicated as she struggled with questions about her own identity.
She felt burdened by social and academic expectations, and started to act out. She cut herself as a way to “control” her out-of-control world, and was ultimately sent to a psychiatrist by her parents. At 14, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed powerful psychiatric drugs, including the mood stabilizer Depakote and Prozac.
The medication side effects led to additional problems and “symptoms,” which in turn led to more medications, Laura says, and she began to lose herself. She felt defined by the diagnoses she continued to collect: bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, substance abuse disorder and binge eating disorder.
Laura’s early 20s were marked by multiple psychiatric hospitalizations and ultimately a suicide attempt. Her only identity was a self-described “professional mental patient.”
But then things began to change.
Over five years ago, Laura weaned herself off psychiatric drugs and shed her diagnostic labels. For her, this has been a spiritual journey involving the cultivation of self-acceptance, self-love and honesty. “It is the hardest thing I have ever done,” says Laura, now 32. But she feels happier, more connected and more engaged in the world. Here’s a bit more from our interview:
“When you are told that your brain is broken — basically the seat of your soul, your mind, the part of you that shapes everything about who you are — when you’re taught to believe that that’s broken, and that you can’t trust yourself, you can’t trust your emotions, you can’t trust your mind, I mean it instills in you just a profound fear. Over all these years I developed this relationship of faith in the mental health system and no faith in myself, and tremendous fear of myself. And so unpacking that has been at the heart of this whole journey, realizing, ‘Wait a minute…If I’m not broken and if the struggles I’ve gone through aren’t symptoms of an illness, what are they? Maybe they are actually important and meaningful…maybe they are telling me something.’ I began to listen to my pain, and to listen to my darkness and it [has] brought me back to this spiritual journey which I think was beginning way back when I was thirteen… Who am I? How do I fit into this world? What are the stories I have been taught to believe about how you’re meant to live your life, and what it means to be normal and worthy and acceptable…”
Personally, I’m moved by Laura’s story. As a practicing internist, I often rely on psychiatric diagnoses and medications. In my clinical practice, I have seen psychiatric medications reduce suffering and save lives. But it’s been useful to step back and reconsider my filter on these issues.
From day one of medical training, we are taught to fit our patients into neat diagnostic categories whenever possible. The goal of our patient interactions, we learn, is to sift through and distill all that we see and hear in order to home in on a diagnosis. This categorization can be helpful in directing our care, of course, but it can also be limiting, and even dangerous. Rarely does a diagnosis fit perfectly, yet all too often in our culture one’s diagnosis becomes indistinguishable from one’s identity.
Labels have power. With mental illness, diagnostic criteria are particularly difficult to define and identify. Truthfully, our current understanding of the brain and the biochemistry behind mental illness is limited. There are no clear markers to measure and quantify. Instead, we must rely on subjective interpretation of behavior.
And yet, psychiatric labels abound. It is estimated that one in four adults, or approximately 61.5 million individuals, and one in five teens between the ages of 13 and 18, meet criteria for a diagnosis of mental illness within a given year. Continue reading