From Victim of the Mental Health System to Practitioner
A 25-year-old counselor in Chicago talks about being put on 7 medications as a young teen, getting off of them, and eventually finding hope in counseling.
Gwen, is a 25 year old counselor at a food pantry in Chicago. She talked to me about her negative experiences with counseling and psychiatry, and why, despite all those negative experiences, she decided to work in the mental health field.
As I grew up I had a lot of anxiety and a lot of issues with anger, and so I eventually ended up in counseling when I was maybe 11 or 12, and started to be given a variety of diagnoses. Some mental health professionals would give me a diagnosis of bipolar II and some would give me a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder.
It was funny to be 12 or 13 and receiving those diagnoses. I also saw a psychiatrist from 12 to 19, and did not like him at all. He wasn’t really keen at giving out meds at first, but then all of a sudden had a change of heart and gave me six or seven depression meds in my middle teens, all stacked on top of each other. I definitely needed help—I was often suicidal, I was often manic. I barely attended school. But the meds did not help. I was on Wellbutrin, Risperdal, a few different anxiety meds, all at the same time. Also lithium and Lamictal. And being on so many meds at once destroyed my body and my mind. They made everything worse. Some of the antidepressants made my energy level shoot way up to the point that I couldn’t sleep for days at a time.
It was scary to Google the pills they were putting me on and see that they diagnosis they were giving it to me for was off-label, or six or seventh on the list for its suggested uses. And to read all the side effects.
Eventually I felt like a zombie, I felt like a prisoner in my own body. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t focus. It felt like these meds were all meant to shut off my thinking more than to help me through a rough period of my life.
By the time I went to college I started fucking around a lot with other drugs. I went to another psychiatrist who kind of dismissed my symptoms but still put me on lots of different meds. And I was drinking a lot, and it was interacting with the meds. I just slept all the time. I got real sick, physically. So I dropped out, and kind of quit all the meds cold turkey—dropped two or three of them, and then a few months later the rest of them, because none of them were working.
It’s not that I’m all better now—I’m still often plagued by the same issues I was as a teen, but I’ve learned to live with those issues and I don’t think meds will help me with them. I feel better off the meds. The only ones I’m on are for transition—estrogen and progesterone.
After I dropped out of college, I kind of changed my perspective on life. I got a job at a coffee shop and made like 200 coffees a shift and kind of just told myself, “I made a bunch of coffee today, I did something for the first time in my life. And it feels good.” There may be people who do more with their life, and never realize that they’ve done anything at all. At one point I worked in administration at a law firm and there were people who were more well-off, but they were sitting in front of computers all day, they were miserable. So, slowly I’ve been working to let go of all the things that had held me back from feeling satisfied in life.
I felt like my life was devoid of purpose at that point, and I started seeing a counselor who actually helped me. I was so mean to him at the start. Because of my past experience I didn’t trust him. But at one point I realized he actually believed in me. He wasn’t just there to bullshit me. He was interested in who I was as a person. And he kind of encouraged me to become a counselor. At first I thought I would never—it felt like 90 percent of counselors, in my experience, were evil. But he encouraged me to push against that tide. So I eventually finished college and applied to grad school. And I’ve actually done pretty well in grad school. And I have an internship counseling at a food pantry. I have my own clients. I’m here because I trusted a mentor and realized the alternative was to do nothing in the face of doom.
Now I’m 25 and work with people who have gone through a lot, and I think I’m really able to get on their level because I spent so much of my life feeling like I couldn’t do anything, feeling destroyed. The major difference between me and them though is that I come from privilege, I haven’t been incarcerated because of my mental health issues, I haven’t been assaulted by cops because of it.
I do existential counseling, I talk a lot with my clients about death. And that helps me help them, and that helps me help myself. I work with a lot of HIV-positive older gay men, people who have survived the AIDS crisis. And I work with some people who are ill, who are elderly, who are coming to terms with death and dying.
Some people come in previously diagnosed with a DSM disorder and they feel really wed to it. And I know theoretically diagnosis works to give you something to have a conversation around. But I don’t really find that that works. Like if you’re 60 years old, and downwardly mobile, and working at a Target, and don’t know how you’re going to afford the apartment you live in, of course you’re going to be depressed, of course you’re going to be anxious, of course you’re going to lose sleep.
Their problems are way larger than diagnosis can encompass. So I’m against diagnosis unless the client thinks it would be helpful.
Talking to these people helps me too. I have had so many times in my life where I’ve wanted to die, and talking to others helps me put my own life in perspective, helps me see that you can have joy even with all this other shit going on. They’ve survived three times as long as I have, and that gives me hope for people in general.
I know I’m never going to be able to eliminate someone’s debt, or take away their cancer, or bring back a dead family member. I’m not going to be able to alleviate the conditions of capitalism causing them all of this trauma. But I can try to help people pick up the pieces. And I think in an era where we’re all just sort of picking up the pieces, this is the least I could do.
This is a great piece, thank you for writing it. I'm curious to know–how did you find existential therapy, and how did you begin doing that work?