Freedom to Question Authority

When I was a little girl, I asked lots of questions. My grandmother, who seemed too busy to bother with explanations, always answered, “Curiosity killed the cat, Ann.”

That response, which I heard over and over, probably kept me from questioning any further when I asked my first grade teacher to explain adultery to me as part of learning the Ten Commandments. Here’s a link so that you can listen to my “Adultery” poem and find out what happened and why I believe it’s vital for all of us to question authority.

One aspect of questioning authority has particular significance for me: questioning the need to take medication for depression and other mental health issues. The doctors I worked with all told me the same thing regarding medication and depression—it seemed to be the answer that science had found to ease the suffering of countless people.

“Depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain. You need to take medication to correct the imbalance, and you may need to take drugs for the rest of your life.”

When I questioned my doctors and expressed my reluctance to take any drug for the rest of my life, especially one that altered my brain chemistry, they spoke to me in a patronizing tone. “Depression is just like diabetes. You wouldn’t argue about taking insulin for the rest of your life, would you?”

That kind of response from a trusted authority figure will shut down questions every time. It did for me—but only when I was face to face with my doctors, and only because I had struggled for years to find a way out of a very deep depression. But the idea that chemicals could just go off in my brain for no apparent reason never satisfied my curiosity. I found more answers about reasons for my depression by working with a poetry therapist, journaling, reading poetry, and exploring the relationships in my life than I found in all the pat answers from my doctors.

But when I read Prozac Backlash by Dr. Joseph Glenmullen, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, I found hard evidence to substantiate my fears of long-term medication. Dr. Glenmullen spends considerable time exploring the clinical trials of Prozac and other SSRIs that were conducted by the drug companies and he exposes many seriously questionable practices used to justify bringing the drugs to market. In addition, Dr. Glenmullen uses stories from his own research and his patients’ experiences to explore the very harmful side effects that can result from taking antidepressants:

“include[ing] neurological disorders, such as disfiguring facial and whole-body tics that can indicate brain damage; sexual dysfunction in up to 60 percent of users; debilitating withdrawal symptoms, including visual hallucinations, electric shock-like sensations in the brain, dizziness, nausea, and anxiety; and a decrease of antidepressant effectiveness in about 35 percent of long-term users.”

When I read this book in 2002, I had been depression-free for five years, but my psychiatrist insisted that I continue on a lifelong course of numerous psychiatric drugs: Wellbutrin, Elavil, Topomax, and Valium If you take a look at the side-effect profiles of these drugs, you’ll see that I was exposing myself to a lot of potential harm, especially if I were to continue on the drugs for life.

I worked with a social worked for over a year, exploring the reasons for my depression as well as looking at the other reasons for my continued healthy state. After more reading and many months of discussing the ideas with my therapist, I decided to stop all medication.

My psychiatrist warned me that because I had suffered from repeated bouts of depression, my brain was damaged and I could easily slip into depression. He cautioned that my next depression was likely to be much worse than the last. I’m happy to report that he was wrong. With using a combination of journaling, meditation, Heartmath (a combination of cognitive therapy and meditation), and poetry, I have remained medication and depression free for the past 13 years.

More recently, I’ve read two books by Robert Whitaker that take an exhaustive look at the studies behind psychiatric medications—including SSRIs, anti-anxiety drugs, ADHD medications, and antipsychotics—and my decision to discontinue my medications has been confirmed by the wealth of studies and analysis that Whitaker and co-author Lisa Cosgrove provide. Take a look at Anatomy of an Epidemic and Psychiarty Under the Influence for more information. Here are just a two pieces of information that I found especially compelling:

  • “Long-term antidepressant use may be depressogenic[cause depression]. It is possible that antidepressants modify the hardwiring of neuronal synapses [which] not only render antidepressants ineffective but also induce a resident, refractory, or depressive state.” R. El-Mallakh, 1999, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry (Anatomy of an Epidemic)
  • “Of the 1,1518 patients who had entered the follow-up study [of the effectiveness of Celexa vs Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or placebo], only 108 had stayed well throughout the 12 months. All of the others had either dropped out or relapsed back into moderate depression (or worse). Given that 4041 patients had entered the study, this represented a documented stay-well rate of 2.7 percent at the end of one year.” Ed Pigott, psychologist (Psychiatry Under the Influence)

I’m glad I’ve read books that challenged the prevailing wisdom of the day. I’m glad I explored my options and made decisions for myself. Most of all, I’m glad I questioned authority.

For more information on this topic, here is a good resource: CCHR International, The Mental Health Watchdog

I am Not What Happened to Me

Last week Aaron Henkin interviewed me about my memoir in verse, The Altar of Innocence, on The Signal, a radio show he produces for WYPR in Baltimore. The call came on Monday morning at 9am, and he wanted me in the studio the next day to tape the show that would air on Friday. Of course, I said an immediate “Yes!” to his generous offer, then I went to work, barely able to keep my mind on the tasks in front of me. I’d been on the radio a few times before, so it wasn’t the interview that scared me. It was the subject matter.

Depression. Self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. Suicidal ideation. A car crash. Electro-convulsive therapy. Hospitalization for depression. Verbal abuse. The silence surrounding trauma. Keeping secrets. SchoolUniformWhy, you might ask. Why talk about all of those dark and private things? Many have told me, “They’re in the past. Let them go. Move on.”

All of those things are true. And to keep silent about them is to allow them to have power over you. In AA literature they tell you, “You’re only as sick as the secrets you keep.” Well, I’m not “sick” anymore—and now I strongly reject that label for my mother’s and my own experiences with depression, anxiety, and self-medicating. My mother and I were doing the best we could to cope with deep and painful wounds. Trying to live day after day—take care of children, cook meals, run households, even run a business (in my case). Trying to carry the awful weight of sadness that enshrouded our spirits. Trying to find some light.

Sadly, in my mother’s case, she never seemed to be able to find her way back to the woman she was before she fell into depression. And neither she, nor my father, seemed to have any understanding about the deadly interplay of psychiatric medicines and alcohol. Neither one understood how that daily cocktail could keep my mother imprisoned in her darkness when she so wanted to escape it.

I never knew my mother as the delightful free-spirit my dad used to reminisce about when the two of us sat in the kitchen and had a few moments of vulnerability together. I never knew the woman who played tennis or designed amazing dresses. I never even saw my mother paint anything, except a room in the house.

But, as the oldest daughter, I was often privy to her pain. She confided in me. She depended on me—to cook dinner or take care of my siblings. She sobbed in my arms.

How does a young girl hold all of that pain inside and still walk into the world and do what a child, an adolescent, needs to do? How does one keep silent about the pain all around her? Sadly, the times I grew up in offered no answers. No comfort. The only thing I knew about therapy was that my mother went once a week, and we never saw any improvement.

My pain, the pain of my father, the pain of my siblings was never disclosed in such a way that we could get help. So, when I experienced my own multiple depressions, finally culminating in a major depression that lasted four years, I had a lot of pain to unpack. And a lot of shame.

Brené Brown defines the difference between shame and guilt. She says that guilt is feeling bad about what you’ve done. Shame is feeling bad about who you are. I went back to the journal I kept for the duration of my depression, I found page after page filled with my own feelings of shame for experiencing depression.

And writing my book was about unpacking all of that pain. Hanging it like laundry in the warm sunshine of love. Finally realizing the truth of what Carl Jung tells us when he wrote:

“I am not what happened to me.
I am what I choose to become.”

That’s why I wrote The Altar of Innocence. That’s why I spoke on the radio. That’s why I am letting go of secrets.

Ann_Valerie