More on being crazy and off meds (my journey away from psychiatric medicine, part 2)

I’m about to head into my third quarter at UCLA and I wanted to make time to write an update on how things are going with my mental health. This is a conversation with my past self—I’m quoting my previous essay on withdrawing from psych meds in order to note where my experience so far has now proven my beliefs to be either true or false. On the whole, my mental health has declined over the last 11 months, and I realize the theory I hatched about my crazy being limited to depression and anxiety was wrong. But I’m still relatively stable, and although I go through it sometimes (all of the time), I always come back out (I exist simultaneously in it and outside it).

Let’s get into dialogue with my ancestral self, shall we?

After a re-read, my previous post seems glossy. I’m talking like I’ve got rose colored glasses on, like this is the actual end of the journey (even though I seem to recognize that it isn’t by appending a “part 1” to the title) and I’m eulogizing my dead crazy. I mean, I lead with

For the last 5 weeks, I have been psych med free. I’m kind of ecstatic.

and I wax poetic about all the good I want to do in the world like I’m riding off into the sunset. Looking back on this particular period (last spring), I realize I was not a normal level of happy. I hate to use medical/biopsychiatric terminology, but I was varying degrees of manic, basically. It was that way for a while, and then I evened out. During the summer, I had a weird feverish depression/anxiety complex. The world seemed irreparably fucked, I was about to start UCLA, I was suspicious that my crazy was winding up for a knockout, and I was absolutely terrified that I would spiral out of control and be forced back onto meds. But I couldn’t be vulnerable enough to share all that publicly at that time. I was wrapped up in the idea of myself as triumphant conqueror of demons, and admitting that I still felt distressingly at their mercy was too raw. I had the sense that I was holding something wild and ferocious at bay, and if I acknowledged its presence, I risked lending it the energy it needed to overtake me.

In early autumn, I went without sleep for four nights in a row because I was so wound up over how things were going to go at school. I wasn’t enjoyably manic, it was more like a “mixed episode”, which manifested as a few of the worst aspects of both depression and mania. I had quit smoking weed over the summer to get ready for school, but on the 5th day with no sleep, after a reluctant but desperate visit to the campus psychological clinic, and facing the specter of being hospitalized and put on benzodiazepines or worse, I decided I needed to just get high. I slept like an absolute baby that night (and I haven’t slept that well since). I also haven’t stopped smoking weed every night (and sometimes afternoon). I still have a high GPA, so I’m now less worried about what smoking weed might do to my intellectual ability. But because I realize that 1) that worry was tied to my concern over being competitive with other students and getting into grad school, the former being part of a useless capitalist ideal and the latter potentially not being conducive to my health or future goals; and 2) grades are just an arbitrary measure of academic performance that is not reflective of whether or not I possess a deep understanding of the material, I am willing to sacrifice my GPA to preserve my health and facilitate my future goals if necessary. Perfection is overrated, anyway. So far, though, my self-care practices haven’t really affected my grades.

[I have to add a slight caveat to this statement, because my GPA actually went down over the last 2 days as the final GPA from winter quarter was calculated. UCLA is different than my community college, because they have this—heretofore inexplicable to me—plus/minus grading system. So it’s possible to get an A plus or a D minus. In fall quarter I got all A plusses and my GPA was 4.0. I didn’t get the value of the plus/minus since an A+ didn’t get me a GPA higher than a 4.0. It was basically the same as getting all As in community college, so I assumed that within the range of “A”, the value of the grade was the same. This last quarter, I got one A, one A plus and one A minus, and my GPA is now 3.952. Apparently A minuses are worth less than As! So my GPA did go down. It isn’t lower than it was in community college, but it is lower than it was my first quarter here. At first I was kind of mad, I’m not gonna lie. But I had to laugh at how funny it is that we feel the need to distinguish between As at all. I realize GPA is important for grad school admissions, but honestly, I’m not sure I’m even going to grad school at this point. I am, however, sure that I have to continue living on this earth, and I need to take care of my bodymindsoul more than I need to satisfy our hyper-competitive, hyper-productive capitalist society’s appetite for seeing oppressed people break themselves to meet its standards.]

CHAOS!

My origin story explaining why my crazy is situated the way it is has changed a bit as a result of my experience over the past 11 months. Previously, I attributed my “mania” entirely to the introduction of SSRIs into my neurochemistry:

I no longer put much stock in psychiatric diagnoses, but for context, mine at the time I started withdrawal was bipolar I with psychotic features and an anxiety disorder not otherwise specified. Although personally, I think I was probably just clinically depressed rather than bipolar, and that the symptoms I exhibited which led to my expanded diagnosis were triggered by SSRIs.

I took a sociology of mental illness course last quarter (the worthless A+, naturally), so I now put even less stock in psychiatric diagnoses than I did when I wrote that. But by revealing the limits of sociological theories of mental illness, the course also furthered the process that my ongoing decline in mental health initiated—forcing me to confront the fact that it is partially some kind of flaw in my psychological functioning that causes the chaos, and that flaw hasn’t gone away. My moods do fluctuate beyond the range of “normal”, and whether or not this would have manifested in me without external stimuli in the form of SSRIs, I will never be able to say. But this madness is here, now, and although it is sometimes debilitating, it is actually manageable without the pharmaceuticals I was on previously. That is the one constant so far, that I do not feel the need to go back on any form of psychiatric medication. Weed has much milder side effects, in my opinion, and the worst side effects are usually controllable if I just don’t smoke so damn much, and take detox breaks. I also use other herbs like passionflower, scullcap, and lemon balm, but I’m just barely standing at the precipice of knowledge on plant magic tailored to my crazy. More on that later (briefly!).

The sociology of mental illness course awakened me to the reality that symptoms resembling what Western societies call “mental illness” occur in all societies, both precapitalist and capitalist. This had a twofold effect on my thinking regarding my crazy: one, it tied me to a group of “mad people” that span time and space but are linked by their response to human societies, and two, it illuminated the role my own psyche plays in generating extreme emotional states. I had kind of been operating on the assumption that if I could somehow be transported back to a precapitalist time, my crazy might be assuaged. Now, I’ve come to believe there are probably just certain people who are sensitive to the dysfunctions inherent in all human societies due to some vulnerability (gift?) they possess. I mention the “gift” concept because if there was a mainstream social role in U.S. society for empaths, psychics, mystics, etc., I do believe certain people who are currently labeled “mentally ill” in societies dominated by the biopsychiatric model of mental illness might escape that label. I don’t intend to invoke the culturally appropriative and simplistic idea that all crazy folks in Western societies are just shamans in disguise. But I do want to point out that in our highly rationalized, sexist society, mysticism is gendered, stigmatized and marginalized. Feeling in general is gendered, stigmatized, and marginalized—and those of us who feel humans’ inhumanity to humans’ so deeply that it impacts our functioning, who sometimes speak to those who are not there, who see things others cannot see, and who sometimes cannot function in this society because of it, are popularly characterized as lazy, weak, and incompetent.

But I digress. This isn’t a rant about structural theories of mental illness, it’s a conversation with myself. So let’s get back to it. Not everything has been proven wrong:

I’ll never be able to prove that my so-called mental illness was induced by drugs, but given that I’ve come off them successfully, I definitely think I’ve proven that the severity of my illness was greatly exaggerated.

I agree; this is still objectively true. I’m able to function relatively successfully in society, despite constantly questioning and railing against the metrics for success. Even if I were to use the same normative metrics that my adolescent psychiatrist was likely operating off of when he deemed me destined for institutionalization by 18, I would say that I’ve done okay. I held down several jobs, I went back to school, and I haven’t descended into unremitting psychosis without neuroleptics. Yes, I do have some extreme emotional states that are similar to symptoms doctors described as psychosis when I was a teen. But I have learned to live with them, sit with them, and to some extent appreciate them and harness them as coping tools. I think with time, my ability to harness them will improve and I will gain new insight into why I have these capabilities.

Probably the most debilitating aspect of my crazy remains the depression/anxiety complex. I’ve started calling it a complex because the symptoms are inseparable from each other much of the time—one too often precipitates or girds the other. Of course, this is the case with so many physical and psychic maladies.

[NOTE: I realize this is late, but, I want to explain my alternating usage of medical model terminology for emotional states and colloquial/subversive terminology for emotional states. I like to refer to what under the medical/biopsychiatric model would be considered mental illness as “my crazy”, or “my kind of crazy”, and the symptoms of such as “extreme emotional states”, but I do find it useful to sometimes use shorthand terms like “depression” and “anxiety” to describe emotional states, despite their medical connotations. As far as psychotic-type symptoms, I think each individual should characterize their own experience. I don’t think we need to categorize all forms of human experience for them to be valid and non-pathological. But it is true that sometimes we gotta use the master’s tools to at least draw his house.]

Part of my recognizing that I really do bear some of the responsibility for my crazy, in that it is not wholly a product of being forced to live in capitalist society, is recognizing that I need to nurture my spiritual self. It is this self that I have neglected in favor of pursuing financial and intellectual gain, and I have deep-rooted spiritual pain that manifests through my crazy. By strengthening this self, I know I will not cure my crazy, as it is not an illness. But I will learn to successfully navigate this world (and the next) with an open heart, while also protecting its tenderness. To accomplish this, I’m partially utilizing magickal practices and herbalism. I turned to my experience with herbs when I began withdrawing from psych meds and started that drift towards health I talked about:

But that drift towards health was permanent. The mindset change — from accepting a lifelong identity as a permanently mentally ill individual, to actively shedding that identity and embracing a new identity as someone who might have some mental challenges but has learned to work around them — was permanent.

I have realized that it was definitely only a drift towards health. It is a course correction that requires constant maintenance. Over the past 3 years I’ve lost a bit of the health I gained due to shifting socioeconomic circumstances in my life, and the effect of coming off the psych meds. I realize that I was impacted by being on them more than I initially allowed myself to consider. Many of the health complaints I’ve developed over the past few years could, in hindsight, be related to the withdrawal process (the story of the person behind Beyond Meds should have taught me this, but I chose to ignore it until now, apparently). I’ve only gone 11 months without any psych meds in my system, but I was on so many, for such a long time (almost 20 years), and during such a formative time in my life (adolescence/early adulthood), that it would be arrogant to think that I have been completely reconstructed in their absence. The healing and restructuring of my body/psyche will take years, I’m sure. I have a lot of mourning and growing and struggling and eventually some healing to do, and that process has to continue with as little obstruction as possible. But I have definitely shed the “mentally ill” label that I was given, and in turn gained a new reverence for its power to shape subjectivities.

All parts crazy.

In my growth process, I am using the traits and tools I described previously, in a judicious manner:

My tendency to analyze, my love of thinking, and my deep concern for the environment and human society are traits that led to my being diagnosed as mentally ill. Not because the psychiatric establishment is out to suppress free thought or something, but because those traits, left untrained and unchecked, can lead you to depression.

I say in a judicious manner because that statement remains true, too much thinking about the state of both yourself and society, as an empath, can make you depressed. And I am not as trained as I thought I was when I made that statement. I felt pretty trained at the time, because I was higher than high on life, and I was in denial about how effective these tools had been. Honestly, I am pretty sure my “mania” was partially a response to political/social events (I’m looking at you, 2016 U.S. election and its aftermath), and partially a response to personal events. And that brings me to the last comment I have for my ancestral self:

The withdrawal process forced me to create a framework where those traits that led to my diagnosis could also get me out of it. My love of thinking was employed in the service of self-reflection and improvement.

It turns out using “my love of thinking…in the service of self-reflection and improvement” was only so effective while I felt like the world was generally on a positive trajectory. When Obama was in office—despite such contrary evidence as the furthering of U.S. imperialist activities abroad, the promotion of neoliberal capitalist economic policies, the continued deportation of U.S. migrants, and the continued extrajudicial state-sponsored killings of black folks by police—I was able to convince myself that society was at least getting incrementally better, that working within the system held value beyond its use in a palliative, harm-reduction model to relieve immediate suffering for oppressed folks. After November 2016, my lack of a framework to deal with the emotional burden of living in society was starkly revealed.

This is not to say that the dude from The Apprentice is necessarily more of a clear and present danger to the future of the world than some past presidents. I have come to realize that it is so much more important to imagine and build futures today than it is to worry about partisan politics. What I mean by that is that as long as a political party or candidate is supporting the current system, they are supporting white supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy and I’m not going to vote for them. Democrat, Republican, whatever. I no longer feel the need to use voting as a palliative because I understand the system is not designed for voting to be a mechanism to initiate transformative change. I am no longer interested in working within the system except where needed to survive and ensure the survival of those who I love and those who are oppressed. Similarly, I am not interested in using the metrics for success, happiness, and personal value that institutions and individuals within the current system have centered. I am, however, interested in sharing knowledge on how to exploit and subvert the system to secure resources, breathing room, etc. for myself and other oppressed people—and I want to talk about that, but later, like maybe in a post about navigating gatekeepers in the educational system who demand you present medical proof of your crazy to be able to use it as an excuse to get accommodations like more time on assignments (note please that I don’t think being crazy means you should get special treatment in an ideal world because honestly if you are noncrazy and just have a really bad day I think you should just get an extra day to turn things in, but that’s related to my feelings about hyper-productivity and capitalism and academic knowledge production requirements in general so therefore tangential).

The theme of the past 11 months has definitely been one of upheaval, ideologically and spiritually. I have been forced to confront my assumptions about myself, society, and the nature of the universe (so, I mean, basically everything).  Some of my previous beliefs endured and were strengthened, while some of them were discarded in the face of new experience or evidence. My beliefs surrounding my crazy turned out to be no different. It’s been enlightening—for me at least, I can’t speak for y’all— to have this conversation with my ancestral self, to see where our ideas about our self diverge, and consider where new growth occurred in the space between their divergence, as I (we) prepare to move forward with the next year.

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