"I was a cult member in the cult of psychiatry"
"When I look back on that period of my life, I see myself as being chemically incarcerated."
Liz Winston is a New Yorker, freelance writer, and media strategist. She also has had traumatic experiences with psychiatry and crisis intervention, and because of that, decided to start a peer support group called Rehumanize for survivors of involuntary mental health treatment.
[This interview has been edited and condensed]
I had tried prescription drugs on and off when I was a teenager and in college. My family doctor very casually gave me a Cymbalta prescription, and that didn’t really stick. But when I was 24 I was diagnosed with OCD. I was in such pain mentally that I was not at all critical, or an educated consumer about all of a sudden being put on four different prescription drugs, one of which was to manage the side effects of the other three. I think I really believed when I was told that there was a chemical imbalance in my brain that my brain was innately structured in a way—that I had an overactive amygdala that was like a constant fire alarm, and that my brain doesn’t know how to filter out those alarms. Today I believe OCD is a trauma response. But at the time I believed what the psychiatrist told me, and thought there was something structurally wrong with my brain. I was very devoted, even eager, to be a compliant patient. I would make silly little jokes like, “when it comes to serotonin, if you don’t have homemade, store bought is fine,” or, “my brain was assembled by committee.”
But in the 10 years of being prescribed those drugs, my life got worse and worse. What I know now is that there was a lot of underlying childhood trauma and messages I’d been told about myself that were leading me to make bad choices. But I really bought into the idea that the reason my life was bad was the chemical imbalance.
Things came to a head for me in 2020, during the pandemic. I was so depressed, struggling with suicidal ideation. My psychiatrist prescribed me a new drug, adding a fifth to the four I was already taking. I would wake up in the morning and look at my palm and see that I was taking this small fistful of pills. But my life was terrible. Why was I taking all these drugs when they weren’t helping, my life was really bad, and things were getting worse? I was hitting a breaking point. On a new med, I gained 40 pounds in one year, and over the course of 10 years I had gained 100 pounds. And when I talked to my doctor about it he dismissed it and said the weight gain had nothing to do with it. But that was kind of my, “oh I’m out of here,” point. That was when I was like, “he does not care about me, about what I know about my own body.”
I was prescribed Ritalin, Risperdal without being told it was an antipsychotic or what it was even supposed to do. A lot of Xanax, like 2 milligrams a day. And then Metformin to manage the side effects. And what makes me really angry is that within two weeks of starting to take Risperdal, I started having intrusive thoughts about food, like needing to eat too much food, and I told my doctor and she just prescribed me Metformin, instead of us having a conversation about, “why all of a sudden is this usually athletic person all of a sudden unable to stop thinking about food?”
I changed drugs when I was 26—I was taking 300 milligrams of Zoloft, which is a ridiculous dose, 150 milligrams of Wellbutrin, 4 milligrams of Ativan a day. And when I look back on that period of my life, I see myself as being chemically incarcerated. I was on so many drugs that I had no insight into how drugged up I was and how bad the side effects were. From ages 26 to 32, I was Elvis Presely-level sedated.
A new general practitioner I saw told me, “I think you’re on too many drugs,” but I really trusted my psychiatrist, and that he knew what was best for my broken brain. I interpreted the feedback from my GP as “medication shaming.” I was a cult member in the cult of psychiatry.
The last year I was on these drugs, my life was just miserable. I was sleeping 11 hours a day, I was gaining five pounds a month. I didn’t realize at the time, but I had lost all nuance in my life, the stuff that made living worthwhile—music didn’t sound the same or make me feel anything, I had a really diminished sense of smell and taste, I had this horrible, passionless, disaffected feeling all the time. I thought it was depression but it was just the side effects of medication. When I told my psychiatrist about all these side effects, she just said that they weren’t consistent with clinical trials. So, and this isn’t good or smart, but I came off of them cold turkey. I was so eager to get this crap out of my body. I was kind of mentally disabled from the amount of drugs I was on.
I behaved very, very strangely for the first 10 days, it was scary. I ended up in the emergency room. I thought that they would understand what I was going through, but it was almost medieval, something out of a horror movie, like a medicalized jail. There were no crisis counselors, no social workers, just a psychiatrist. I realized that if I told them everything that was going on, if I was truthful with them, that they might not let me out. There were people strapped to beds in the hallway. They would very casually chemically restrain people. So I got out of there.
Withdrawing from drugs was like a civil war in my body. I threw up every single day, multiple times a day, for about six months. I had no idea what was going on, but I knew I didn’t want to get back on these drugs. I eventually found online support groups, and learned that psychiatrists are not trained to de-prescribe drugs, only prescribe them. I found so much comfort from places like the Inner Compass Initiative. And that was kind of my initiation into people managing their mental health outside of diagnosis and outside the mental health system.
Now, I’ll be honest, my life is still difficult. I have realized that during the entire time I was medicated, I did not grow or mature as a person, I never learned other coping mechanisms. So now I’m learning to manage difficult emotions, how to set boundaries, how to express what I’m feeling for the first time in my adult life. The metaphor I like to use is that getting off psych drugs is like going from having a 10-pack of Crayola crayons to having that big, beautiful, 64-crayon box that looks like a pipe organ. It’s having way more colors with which to describe what I’m thinking and feeling, but that can also be overwhelming.
I had heard of Project LETS, which creates peer support groups for non-carceral medical intervention. And I asked them if they had anything for psychiatric survivors. They said it was a good idea but that they didn’t have the bandwidth, so I just decided to start something on my own. I created an Instagram graphic and just reached out to a bunch of organizations, and the idea just spread by word-of-mouth on social media.
The first meeting had 35 people. The upcoming one has 154 people registered. We discuss a whole range of factors that contribute to involuntary treatment. We discuss how infantilizing these treatments are. We also talk about how carceral treatment is in general, whether it’s for something like an eating disorder or another mental health issue. We talk a lot about police involvement. People talk about being handcuffed and manhandled by the cops and forcibly drugged in psych hospitals.
I think I would be in a place of despair right now if I didn’t know that there are other people who can identify with the experience I had, especially my involuntary treatment at the ER. That was so traumatizing, it made me feel like the world isn’t a safe place. It’s pushed me far to the left of abolition; I really think you can’t work in a carceral environment like that and be a good person. Being in this group has been an amazing source of support. So many people haven’t had the opportunity to talk about these experiences.
Our current model of crisis intervention, and psychiatry in general, prevents people from having the difficult conversations about what’s actually happening in their lives, the material things and traumas and histories that lead them into crisis. We need to address these things not as a chemical imbalance but as a community and cultural issue. So much of crisis comes from people having difficulty meeting their basic needs, finding a job, or secure housing, from sexism and racism and capitalism. We need to break out of that.