How Antipsychotic Medication Claimed a Whole Year of My Life
What I feel everyone should know before embarking on a quest for psychiatric treatment
Doctor Whittaker* insisted that I was not crazy. I began seeing him for weekly appointments during the stark and sterile January weeks following my recent discharge from an inpatient psychiatric facility, but he still wouldn’t agree that I was nuts, not even against that sad and cold backdrop of winter. I told him about the fact that I’d recently had a nervous breakdown in public at a P.F. Chang’s and that for a while I believed people were watching me. No matter what I told him, he politely insisted that I suffer from malady within the neural network.
He’d pull out the DSM-V and writings from renowned psychiatrist Stephen M. Stahl at The Neuroscience Institute. I was shown so many diagrams about brain chemicals like 5HT2A and although it was interesting, I still have no idea why I trusted those books and pictures and men with degrees so much. Three years after escaping that time in my life, I wish I hadn’t trusted anyone with my care — it seemed that no matter where I went, I found trouble anyway. There was trouble at the psych ward, trouble in trusting pills, and trouble in depending on therapy. My biggest takeaway from my big year of cyclic recovery and relapse is that taking antipsychotic medication was a huge mistake that cost me an entire year of my life.
What is an antipsychotic? What does it do? Why do I ultimately blame it for stifling my recovery process?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, antipsychotics are medications “primarily used to manage psychosis”, though they can be utilized to treat anything from eating disorders to Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Since psychosis is a blanket term for a loss of contact with reality, it’s easy to understand why antipsychotic medication has so many uses. They do not act as cures, but as treatments congruent with the uses of other medications and therapies.
I was prescribed two different antipsychotic medications alongside two mood stabilizers and a benzodiazepine overnight to combat my suicidality and reduce the hospital’s liability. But when I made my way to my first psychiatrist, few changes were made to my list of medications for precisely the same reason: reducing liability. My diagnosis was composed of multiple afflictions, and so I was treated with a cocktail. I’d immediately begun complaining about side effects and reported weekly that my quality of life felt worse than before my breakdown, but being suicidal meant that I was a danger to myself above all else. Side effects became the bane of my existence and for a long time I didn’t even feel like a complete person.
The worst part of being on medications like Olanzapine and Quetiapine was that I was so exhausted during my waking hours that they often included a catatonic state. I’d stare into nothingness for hours while I was “reading”, “writing”, and “studying”. It was as though life had come to a standstill for me and everything around me was moving at a faster pace than I was ever going to keep up with. I had become a human vegetable. Going to class was essentially pointless as I couldn’t absorb any of my lectures because I was so focused solely on staying awake. Most of my thoughts were consumed by chants of don’t fall asleep and keep your eyes open. When the tiredness took over at night, I’d need 12–14 hours of sleep before I could so much as sit up again and would still wake up just as exhausted as when I turned in the night before. Going to the movies or the theatre was pointless, because I’d fall asleep upright in my chair — during that year, I never once made it past the first twenty minutes of a live play or film. My ex boyfriend grew so angered by my constant dozing off that he took to screaming in my ear to wake me up on a daily basis — but once again, it didn’t make me any less tired. For every interaction lost, every scholarly lecture missed, and every theatre ticket wasted, I just felt worse and worse about myself. No matter how many arguments it caused with the boyfriend, no matter how many Fs I garnered in school, I still couldn’t manage to possess many traits beyond tiredness.
Alongside being sedentary and potato-like, I had a massive appetite that began to show on the scale immediately. I gained 10 pounds every month, resulting in an 80 pound overall gain after the minor successes of my last four years of yo-yo dieting. Changing pants sizes every couple of weeks for that year wasn’t just a nuisance — it put a huge dent in my self-image. The medication seriously affected my metabolism to the point that my body was behaving as though I’d eaten an extra 8,000 calories per week, yet like the sleep issue, I never felt satisfied. I didn’t feel like I was eating too much, yet my rapidly growing size said otherwise. This pointed to more feelings of loss and failure. I didn’t seem to have control over anything. There were numerous complications involved with these medications, but no matter what happened for that year, I’ll ironically never forget how poor my memory became. All of my academic prowess felt pointless, and for a while I left behind many of my artistic passions with my memory loss.
A lack of control of one’s own body makes a person feel so stripped of autonomy that they come to feel subhuman. I felt like a patient, not a person.
By May of that year, I knew that I had to stop taking these medications. My grade point average was around a C+, and for the last four months my entire quality of life seemed to be suffering. Doctor Whittaker warned me that it would be a gradual process of several months before I would be completely done taking these medications, but we could absolutely work together to find better solutions for care now that I’d proven that my suicidal ideation was eliminated and steadily whined for months about being sick and tired of my side effects.
I finished my course of Olanzapine after about a year. This solved the bulk of my problems, but I was still left with a reliance on Quetiapine to sleep through my colorful and episodic manic depression. It wasn’t until June of 2020 — roughly three and a half years later — that I began to feel safe and secure about my list of medications and lead a life without the feeling of being utterly controlled by my psychiatric treatment. It took trying dozens of combinations of dozens of pills, four different therapists, two different psychiatrists, and two completely different kinds of therapies to manage what was ultimately ruled as Borderline Personality Disorder.
Saying “no” has been the most powerful tool at my disposal when it comes to my treatment. When I began meeting with my new psychiatrist, I gave her a good idea of what I’d willingly and unwillingly participated in. Despite being worried about seeming noncompliant, I told her outright that I would not accept taking medications that had severe side effects like those I’ve discussed. I was warned about problems like skin rashes and heart palpitations, but even with my new boundaries I knew that I’d still have to go through processes of trial and error in order to get things “right”. After a while, I was able to settle on a couple of meds that helped me gain stability without subtracting from my overall health.
I hate the saying “hurt people hurt people”. I believe that hurt people find other hurt people and when we find each other, we make lasting connections and empower each other by sharing our experiences of being in the psychiatric care system. Both of my best friends have been through this system, and we talk about it often. The last time I went to the hair salon, I somehow ended up talking with my hairdresser about these experiences for a good hour or two. I don’t know how we each figured out that the other had similar maladies — but like a sixth sense, we both just knew. People like me are everywhere, I’ve learned.
There is absolutely no reason to feel lonesome or crazy in this prowess for wellness, and I wish I’d learned that sooner. But maybe sharing this with you, perhaps another innocent at the hands of a system that can make the strongest individual feel tired, fat, and used, is a good enough reason not to resent any of what’s happened to me. Changing the rhetoric around mental health and psychiatric care has become such a huge part of my existence now that I see the ways in which so many people are mistreated; now that I see how many of us feel as though we’ve lost huge portions of our lives in the name of wellness. I dream that one day experiences like mine are archived as a thing of the past, and slowly fade away just like old tales of the transorbital lobotomy and electroshock treatment.
Names in this article have been changed to maintain privacy.