This is an interview with Menka Pickles (not her real name!) who was diagnosed bipolar at age 17 and took psychotropic medications for the next 17 years. She is now slowly withdrawing from the meds and sharing her story and the details of her recovery.
You can connect with her on Twitter: @Menka_Pickles.
As someone who has taken these drugs (many years ago, and not the newer ones) and who understands how harmful they are I think stories like the below are incredibly important. To help others who may want to do the same not feel alone, crazy or without support.
Many practitioners will help in the process – as you will learn about from reading Menka’s sharing below. Enjoy.
1. I’m not sure where to start! How about just a little info on how you ended up with a bipolar diagnosis and how long you were in treatment before beginning your journey of withdrawing from psychiatric medications.
I feel as though the “how” is kind of unfortunate. I was in my senior year (I think) of high school and many life-changing events were happening at the same time… extreme situations.
A book we read in my Honors English class – Siddhartha – led me to have a new understanding of life. It was so exciting that I thought I should share the information with my parents who spent most of their lives miserable and dissatisfied by life circumstances. I certainly chose the wrong audience.
When I explained some new concepts to them they thought I was absolutely out of my mind. These are just things they couldn’t conceive of…they didn’t have any education after high school and were not open-minded. They just yelled at me, frantically asking more questions and understanding my answers less and less.
This escalated quickly and they saw the situation as me rebelling when I really needed time away from them and their abusive ways. They would not leave me alone. I was starting to freak out because here are my parents (knowing how much stress I was under) piling on everything else they could think of and telling me that there was something wrong with me and that I was crazy and not leaving me alone when I tried to take space because they had no concept of boundaries.
As I finished up a softball game with my high school fast-pitch team my mother was on the sidelines watching and analyzing my every move. She told me that after the game we were going to a cookout at my aunt’s house and I should go home and get ready. I was happy to see my aunt and cousins and I did just that. Only, there was no cookout and my parents drove me right to the hospital emergency room.
Being 17 years old I had no rights. I was irate… I was tricked and betrayed. Of course I was angry. I grew even angrier when I saw that the doctor, on his way to my room, was stopped outside the door by my parents. They gave him an earful of their idea of what was happening and all of the crazy things I was saying. Except, these were not the actual things I said, but rather their interpretations of it which were way off.
They were throwing their hands up in the air, totally out of control and blaming me for everything (the story of my life). When the doctor came in I was visibly agitated. He talked to me for maybe five minutes with my parents in the room, asked me a few vague questions and told me that I had bipolar disorder and would have to be on medicine for the rest of my life.
I didn’t even know what that was, had never heard of it. Medicine for the rest of my life? Because my parents drove me crazy? I was absolutely crushed and had no choice but to do what I was told. I was immediately hospitalized and put on massive dosages of psych meds and became a totally different, numb person who my friends and teachers barely recognized.
I was on all different dosages and types of medicines for 17 years (half my lifetime) before I had the courage to question my diagnosis to my doctor. I am currently tapering down my meds. One down, three to go.
And let me tell you… it is very difficult. But not as soul-crushingly difficult as being on them and not being able to live my life to my fullest potential.
Note from Molly: The above is awful. How you were deceived and then locked up and forced to take medications. I hope anyone reading this can process how wrong that was and how inappropriate the physician was. You can’t diagnose bipolar by getting hearsay from a family member or in a short consulation. The doctor was negligent.
2. Can you give a little information on the treatment you received, if is ok. Types of medications, how long on meds, etc.
I was given probably over 30 different types of psych meds over these past 17 years. Mood stabilizers, anti-seizure medications (that apparently are used interchangeably to cure anything except they don’t), anti-psychotics, benzos, tranquilizers, anti-depressants, etc.
I felt terrible from the side effects nearly every day. I fought my way through debilitating conditions and feelings constantly. I was trained to think any feeling or emotion I had was too extreme or abnormal and constantly focused on stifling them. Only to find out later that human beings experience a range of emotions and mine were mostly normal.
I was constantly afraid to get too excited because I may go overboard and slip into a “mania”. I robbed myself of a lot of joy over the years. I saw many different psychiatrists. Ironically, the first one I had was interviewed in Psychology Today saying that at the time I was diagnosed, bipolar was extremely over-diagnosed because of new bipolar medications that were developed at that time.
I saw a neurologist who was later put in prison for sexually abusing his patients while keeping them on unnecessary dosages of medication. He was arrested the day before I left for college. Something like 40 women came forward. It was awful. I constantly saw a therapist (while no one else in my dysfunctional family did).
I have been hospitalized seven times throughout my life. Most of the hospitalizations occurred in the years right after my diagnosis. I saw horrible things, met all kinds of lost souls, encountered brilliant minds, as well as some very violent patients. I survived it all. I happened to get severe migraine headaches which I saw more neurologists for (as if I wasn’t already traumatized enough) and I survived that too.
The problem was people told me there was something wrong with me and I believed them. And I had to stop being my authentic self. That was my mistake.
3. Was there a specific turning point in your life that made you want to pursue a different path to wellness? Made you realize psychiatric medications may not have been helping, possibly were making you worse?
It had always been something like a dream to be able to be off psych meds. I thought that it was impossible because of what I was told… but I always had a glimmer of hope. I knew they made me feel terrible. I just suffered through it and honestly tried to make the best of things.
I was slowed down a lot, not being able to work as fast as my peers at times, was confused a lot and lost a lot of my memory for the better part of 10 years, taking lithium. The medicines made me a shell of the person I was but I feared becoming what the doctors and my parents called “manic”. In a corner of my mind I knew that I just remained on these medicines because the people around me were comfortable in dealing with me in my sedated state. They saw it as “better”.
About four years ago when I started to get off of lithium I found yoga. I started to practice Amrit and Forrest yoga and felt better than I had felt in a long time…even my migraines improved. A lot of anger and emotions were coming out in a cleansing and healing way.
Instead of starting another anti-psychotic medicine that they were pushing, I had learned from a friend (a wellness chef) about something called CBD. It is a component of marijuana which has a wide scope of medical applications with a lack of the side effects my other medications gave. It is nothing like THC and has no psychoactive traits.
Now, you must understand, I was petrified of taking it because of an adverse effect to marijuana 10 years prior (who knows what psych meds I was on at the time). I talked about it with my friend for about six months before I would even try it. When I did, it made a world of difference. It really leveled me out. There was no feeling of being high – just was more relaxed, able to handle difficult people and no feeling of rage inside. It has been wonderful and gave me new hope.
I slowly learned that the people in my yoga classes had a lot of the same beliefs that I came out with when I was diagnosed in high school. These were not wild ideas.. they were actually widely conceptualized and understood by many people and I had finally found them. I also learned that I am an emapth and that explained why I often felt things so deeply.
I had a partner at the time who I lived with and saw me in every different circumstance of life. She
observed me daily. She saw how I handled various, adverse situations. She heard me describe this thing called “mania” and bipolar disorder and it never fit together for her. After over a year of living together she told me that there was nothing wrong with me and I have none of the symptoms I described, that people made me believe there was something wrong and I shouldn’t be on all of this medicine.
I needed to hear this from someone that I trusted so that I could believe it. This was instrumental in starting my healing process. I mean, there was evidence of it…she saw me the way I was in daily life and she told me I was far from crazy. I am eternally grateful for this.
I mustered up the courage to bring my concerns of a possible misdiagnosis to the attention of my therapist. He urged me to ask my psychiatrist about it. This is one of the most difficult things I have ever done. I told him I wanted to try to decrease my meds. He thought it was a good idea! We began soon after and I went even more slowly than he told me to. I am in no rush after 17 years.
Note from Molly: That is so excellent you had (have) the support of your therapist and doctor.
Next, under the guidance of a particularly wonderful yoga teacher and friend, I signed up for an event called “Prana Awakening” at the Amrit Yoga Institute in Florida. That is where most of my teachers have been trained.
The six day program is meant to wake up the prana, or life-energy, in our bodies. I loved feeling the movement of prana in my body, just from the little practice I had done with it. I wasn’t clear how the program worked but I had a deep inner knowing (which I had been ignoring for quite some time) that told me it was right where I was supposed to be.
All roads were leading me there, it seemed like that was the path I was trying to take back when I was 17 and having a spiritual awakening (which is often misdiagnosed as bipolar). Now I was in the position to continue with my life. I was back on my path.
There I met many people just like me, people who had encountered all kinds of suffering in life and were on a path of healing and growing. I was so happy because these are the people I’ve waited my whole life to meet.
They were like-minded and lived by many of the ideals that I began to understand during my spiritual awakening in high school and they were so kind. I felt very calm and grounded like never before. At the end of the program I was initiated into the Amrit Yoga lineage! I am very grateful to be able to have that experience and the program has given me the tools to live a more successful and abundant life. They say that people don’t find yoga, that it finds you.
4. Were other medical conditions a part of this process and decision-making? Meaning, did you realize you may have other health issues that needed to be addressed? Examples are: food allergies, sugar intolerance, thyroid issues, leaky gut syndrome, etc.
The major reason I had to get off lithium four years ago was because I developed kidney disease due to taking it for 10+ years. All of the lab tests and monitoring didn’t matter because when my levels got too high my doctor was hesitant to take me off right away and this worsened the damage.
Note from Molly: And they do not tell patients about the serious harm long-term use can cause. Of course.
I lost about 30% of my kidney function. I left my doctor of eight years and found one that truly listened to what I said. It was a first. She is the one that managed to get me safely off of lithium and onto something much less severe. She passed away a year after I began seeing her. It was devastating because she helped me so much. But I also had a new therapist who was more insightful and truly helpful.
I have had many blessings in disguise, I will tell you that. But when I did get off Lithium (which should not be taken long term in my opinion) I felt more like a human being. My general feeling of un-wellness greatly lifted, I made better decisions, and along with my yoga practice my memory pretty much fully came back and I endured fewer migraines!
5. Can you think of any prime motivators that helped you make such a momentous decision to change your life? Books you read, people who came into your life who helped you see there were other paths to healing, information on the Web or from a therapist about the long-term dangers of psychotropic medications?
Yoga and meditation has tremendously changed my life. It is the practice of just observing your thoughts, not beating yourself up for having them, and letting them go without always becoming stuck on them and letting them define you.
It is very difficult at first that is why it is a practice… and I will always be learning more and becoming more aware of my body and how I use my energy. My teachers in the Amrit and Forrest Kundalini types of yoga have been amazing and encouraging me to dig deeper within. This journey has also brought many unconventional “healers” into my life. This approach works much better for me, rather than just medicine.
Another big deal was discovering that I am empathic. This means that I feel much more strongly than most people. This is a great gift if you can figure out how to use this energy in the right ways yet also a very difficult task.
Reading “7 Secrets of the Sensitive” changed my life when I realized what I was thinking and feeling was not abnormal and that there were many others like me.
Also, the discovery of an amazing psychiatrist and activist, Dr. Peter Breggin, confirmed many ideas that I had. His radio show taught me about the way the psychiatric field treats empaths and often misdiagnoses them as bipolar. He has a center for empathic care to treat people in a variety of different ways.
Note from Molly: Yes, and since you have shared with me you have been reading his book about withdrawing from psych meds, I will give it – and his excellent website full of info – a plug here: Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal – A Guide for Prescribers, Therapists, Patients and Their Families.
I have finally found a wonderful therapist. We work mostly on different solutions to difficulties in life. It has been so constructive and groundbreaking for me to be able to empower myself by understanding that it is not me who is out of control, but more my environment and the people who were around me. And there are many ways to approach and deal with this.
I have worked very hard and am proud of my progress in therapy. It was he who encouraged me to question my psychiatrist about my bipolar diagnosis. When the first doctor to listen to me passed away very unexpectedly I found another psychiatrist that was totally different than any other I’d had. He uses humor when talking about mental illness…this actually allowed me to step back and see that my treatment process didn’t have to be SO serious and gloomy.
I was understood and allowed to say what I really felt. He agreed that we should start the process of coming off of my medicines… I am so thankful for that. I actually am starting to feel like a human being, like my-long-lost-self again!
Note from Molly: That is so excellent. Congrats to you and your incredible recovery.
In addition to “7 Secrets of the Sensitive”, I have read many books such as “The Untethered Soul” by Mickey Singer, “Your Drug May be Your Problem” by Dr. Peter Breggin, “Codependent No More” by Melody Beattie and “It Didn’t Start With You” by Mark Wolynn all of which really validated and helped me along the way.
I also came across many articles on the internet such as an article in Psychology Today where my very first doctor was actually interviewed. He said that at the time I was diagnosed bipolar disorder was majorly over diagnosed.
It was a time when pharmaceutical companies had just came out with some new medicines to treat it so all doctors were hearing was “don’t miss bipolar”. I mean, this was my own doctor at that time… and HE was admitting this in an international publication!
There were other articles and studies, too. One had evidence that a human brain could be rewired through hard work and therapy to function differently. There were PET scans taken at the time of a bipolar diagnosis and then 10 years later. he activity in the areas of the brain were completely different and some of the participants in the study no longer showed symptoms that met the threshold of a bipolar diagnosis.
There are also many other sources with evidence to support my theories of what happened. Whether I was bipolar or not at least all of this allows me to actually be in recovery. I am not just focused on constantly watching out for my symptoms and living in fear. That was certainly not true recovery but I never realized that until I actually felt better. Also, my current psychiatrist is thinking about formally removing the diagnosis from my records.
6. Now to come to the present – how is it going? I was glad when you told me you had medical support to make this change, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Drug withdrawal is a very difficult process, some have lingering effects for years. Are you doing ok? Feel it was the best decision to make regardless of the nightmarish withdrawal symptoms I’m guessing you’ve had to endure.
I could have never started to get off my medicine (let’s call them what they are: psych drugs) without the help of a doctor. Especially when I already made this mistake in college, getting of everything way too quickly, by myself. I go even slower than he suggests. After 17 years, I am in no rush and want to give my brain enough time to recover along this process.
I have very successfully withdrawn from Tegretol which made me extremely exhausted with every dosage decrease. The process took from August-December 2016. I began to feel very “human” and more level-headed. I am able to make logical decisions with more ease than ever before.
And as I answer these questions I am currently withdrawing from Klonopin. This is a VERY difficult thing to do. I am about a quarter of the way off and it has been about 5 weeks. As small as my decreases in dosage are they have such huge withdrawal symptoms.
I have felt anxious (although I only had a few bouts of anxiety in my life… don’t ask me why I have been on this for 11 years), and have been finding it very difficult to breathe at times due to a heaviness in my chest. I allowed this to just exist and knew it would pass. It sucked but I did it.
My migraines have also increased dramatically. The worst part has been stabbing pains in my right temple and in the side of my face, causing pins and needles almost to the point where the side of my head and face feel numb – it was on and off for about 4 days with my last decrease. The pain in my temple has spread to other parts of my head and gone away. My teeth also hurt.
Note from Molly: That is awful. I hope it improves soon or can find ways to mediate and lessen.
It is worrisome because these aches, pains and withdrawal symptoms always have you wondering if something physical is causing them. It’s hard to know what’s really going on with your own body. I mean it hurts SO badly and feels so bizarre I don’t think it’s unreasonable to worry. I don’t care how long it takes me to get off Klonopin, I just hope I can eventually.
After this, I have two more medicines to go. It is a long road and I am very patient.
Note from Molly: That is excellent and I hope you will write more about it, I am looking forward to your book!
8. What things have helped you most through the withdrawal process i.e. other medications, nutritional supplements, lifestyle changes, support groups, etc.
I have a friend who was also diagnosed with bipolar and was on more psych drugs than I am. She is now medicine-free and manages her illness (if, in fact, it is bipolar) through a very healthy diet, yoga and meditation, and CBD.
Note from Molly: That is excellent! Congrats to her!
I have also made the decision to take myself away from toxic environments and energy-depleting “friends”. I have made new, truly wonderful friends. I have also created a twitter account, @Menka_Pickles, so that I would have an outlet to speak freely, with my newly found voice, about mental health issues and yogic practices.
A few of my yoga teachers were, and continue to be, amazing and influential and inspirational in this process. They can listen in a new way and help foster my mental and spiritual growth.
9. What would you advise anyone who is in treatment, not doing well and suffering debilitating side effects from toxic psychotropic medications?
Ask your doctor and therapist questions. Get other opinions if you don’t agree with what they have to say. Learn to advocate for yourself and don’t let others speak for you. Other people don’t necessarily know how to take care of YOU better than you do, no matter now incapable you have felt at times. Research other options, including CBD. The quality of your life actually can be better! Have a great support system! Talk to others who have gone through this if you can find them.
And wow is all I have to say. You were started on these medications at a clearly very vulnerable and hectic time in your life (and not legitmately at all is my opinion) and like you said above ‘when you had no rights’.
And you know like I do that we are not in anyway unique in dealing with or having these experiences – but those of us who get trapped in the mental health system for any length of time can definitely be made worse and put on medications that make the issues (physical, emotional, spiritual) worse.
It needs to change. I hope every little bit counts in speaking out against this reckless form of ‘medical care’ such as your sharing above. Thank you.
Related post: If I Can Get Off Of Psych Meds Anyone Can.