Finally, it is nap time and I wake up with my nose smashed into metal. At least the bodies aren’t here this time. Oh, it is happening again. Something weird is growing in here somewhere and I can feel it trying to scratch its way out. I’m not quite sure what will happen when it does, or if there’s anything I can or should be doing to stop it. I’m on autopilot again. This black tar-like feeling is spreading in me and I am constantly on edge, fear chewing away at me. I am so fucked. Everything is perfect right now and I’m paralysed by fear: I am slowly being forced to walk blindfolded off the plank and who knows what lurks beneath. Will she be there to steer the wheel this time? She know the rocky planes off the paths better than I do. Or will I be left powerless and lonely to keep myself awake while this dull sleep washes over me? My lips and fingers are so dry, shrivelled to perfection by sleepless nights. I feel slightly sick all the time and the pain behind my eyes pushes the lids shut. But I cannot sleep now, oh no. I cannot sleep ever, not with this fucking HD screen stuck on channel suffering 24/7. I have grown morbid again: guts and violence seem to temporarily lift me out off the torpor. Disgust is the most awake I’ve felt recently. Irreverence is my comfort blanket.
Sudden, sudden loss of control.
Your invisible blood sticks to my fingers,
The air that left you,
To my chest like alien tentacles.
Grey metal to join the blue and black,
Already nuzzled in the fields.
Who was here before me?
My pill-induced nightmare is shattered by your silent scream.
Sudden, sudden loss of control.
My biggest fear just rolled all over me:
From a distance I observed,
The war of paranoia and sedation –
The human-made virus
Spreading through the world.
Whose side am I on?
Grey streaked kind woman, I can’t tell you how sorry I am.
Sudden, sudden loss of control.
I cling desperately to the only scrapes you left me:
It works, but only just.
And only just always fills you
With horrors and questions and blame.
Only just pulls me out of Switzerland,
and right back into the rubble.
I’m at war.
Featured Image: ‘The Art of Paranoia’ by Peter Schwartz. Check him out here:
Let me start this post, and this new year, by apologising for not writing anything in December. I have been rather busy, thoughtful and confused. Today, I shall honour my original quest to share reflections starting from my own experience and to record my progress in this year in which I have ‘taken time off’ to look after myself.
I started this adventure by testing out a life of routine: work, family, yoga, therapy, reading, writing, no travelling, no household and financial responsibilities, not much going out. In fact, not much of anything that could hinder the quiet balance of my (I now realise) overly-structured daily pattern. In doing so, I succeeded in not losing myself in the depths of deep depression or mania.
However, three months into this new lifestyle, I started getting irritable. Familiar faces started to annoy me terribly and my disgust in humanity increased: the old woman who shooed the dog, the people who wouldn’t let me pass on the zebra crossing, the people walking about aimlessly in shopping centres, getting in my way and stamping on my feet, the people who complained about bombings in Paris, and did nothing in their lives to make the world a better place, those who moaned about a corrupt government and were masters of fiscal evasion. Badly dressed people, people speaking loudly, people saying stupid things, people frowning… everything was painful to my eyes and ears.
And then I started getting anxious: why was I so irritable? I needed to control myself, not seem strange at work or at home. They’d start to think I was manic! My hands started shaking and my insides bubbling, when I was alone with myself I didn’t feel very well. Towards the end of November a woman sped through a red light and very nearly crashed into me and my friend. A series of ‘what if’s’ instilled themselves into my mind. What if my friend hadn’t been so quick on the brakes? What if we’d been a couple of inches further down the road? What if my friend had died and I’d been left with the guilt of having asked her to drive my car cause I was tired?
And finally the fear crept in: I spent ages in my car, how many times had I evaded death? I started seeing ambulances on the road, every day for a week. Cars speeding in the rain, water on my wind shield. I started flashing images of myself dead and bloody, a road kill. My hand clutched the steering wheel and my ears pounded. Nightmares started haunting my sleep: I killed my loved ones cause I didn’t drive carefully, I lost complete control, became insane.
What was happening?
The structured balance which had worked so well in keeping the craziness out was somehow giving in. I wasn’t, of course, spiralling out of control or losing touch with reality: my anxiety seemed to be limited to car journeys and I could control my irritation. Most importantly I was aware that something was going wrong. I talked to my therapist about it, who suggested it may have to do with the fact that I had been ‘living the life of a cloistered nun’, as she put it.
That woke me up. I realised all at once, that the routine I had mistaken for balance, was far from it. I had gone from being all over the place, full of ups, downs, interests, enthusiasms and responsibilities, to a life deprived of anything that could trigger an emotional response of sorts. I wasn’t learning how to deal, and live, with bipolar disorder: I was avoiding it. Of course I felt balanced: my mum made me coffee in the morning, I had no responsibilities other than work and I avoided nights out, alcohol, drugs, people, situations were I could spend money, PEOPLE. I wasn’t crazy and spiralling out of control, but I also wasn’t ME.
Maria Popova, author at brainpickings.org writes: ‘the structure of routine comforts us, and the specialness of ritual vitalises us. A full life calls for both — too much control, and we become mummified; too little excitement and pleasurable discombobulation, and we become numb. After all, to be overly discombobulated is to be dead inside — to doom oneself to a life devoid of the glorious and ennobling messiness of the human experience.’
So I decided to test myself: I brought a plane ticket to visit old friends and started going out more often. I spent time with people, old friends and new ones, had a few drinks, listened to some great music and had a good time. But most of all I felt like myself again. And sure, I may still be a bit overenthusiastic when doing things (stuff like being overly affectionate towards everyone or spending 38 quid on scientific magazines while waiting for my train, oops) but I’m not bat-shit crazy and I feel real again.
And this is what I need to learn how to be, one step at a time. I realise now that what I have to do, what I need to do, is a lot harder than I had anticipated. Avoidance is boring but fairly easy, self-control and patience are a whole different matter.
So here’s to a year in which my top priority is learning to live with myself: a year of patience but not avoidance, of adventure and spontaneity, but not recklessness and carelessness. Here’s to savouring the things and people that make me happy, and not skimming past them in a frenzy for more.
Keep an eye out in the coming week for a more technical account of self-control and willpower and what it really means to implement them in real life.
Happy New Year to all,
Inches of panic, life
down the same road
but you stopped
to tie your shoelace.
You didn’t see it coming.
our universes spin and spin
in webs of incomprehensions
as we try
what cannot be touched
by the other.
I’ve slithered around death –
maybe you haven’t been as lucky.
or maybe I’m the unlucky one
the haunted one.
I can feel them following me around:
GUILT FEAR POSSIBILITY.
An omen of what could happen,
a shadow of what never did.
A parallel outcome,
Pain beyond all I could imagine:
LOSS DISTRACTION BLAME
I killed the old lady.
I can feel the crinkly skin
of her neck in my palms.
Impotence disguised as power
I killed you, I killed you
and you die every night
I was laughing
and I wasn’t quick enough.
I was happy
and I wasn’t quick enough.
And now cars are demons
Sirens deafen me
and lights blind me.
And people are evil
They kick dogs and live off arrogance
live off bloodlust and compassion
I live off my own confusion.
Featured image from CRASH by J.G. Ballard. Panther Books 1975. Cover Art by Chris Foss.
I can smell the lethargy in the air as the rain comes down.
Who told you you could write all over my skin?
Casually manhandling death and the rain
don’t stop, the rain don’t stop.
Biting breasts under neon colours.
Stuffing your face and drowning in the barrel-
Drowning in the rain of your pain.
Contempt for conformity. Body builders of human agony.
The vivid dreams stopped months ago.
Flashes of blood running down my neck.
This winding road is damned and this skin is too tight.
Grinning mouths with men hanging at the corners.
Unsteady flooring and gums aching.
I’m heady from the drinks, the want and the sweat.
This tube smells of metal, blood and piss.
There’s a nightmare pulsing in between my legs.
Laughing hyenas pull at my clothes. I give in.
Vaccinate me for control.
Chapped lips in the cold. Stomach acid scratches at my soul.
Flashing streetlights, cars, dancing on my window.
Magnetic network of obligations and purpose.
Buzzing in the world and screeching in my ears.
Monotone high pitched frequencies and I’m going mad, I’m going mad.
The itch, the itch the pulse in the eye,
the everlasting night, the bite,
I’m a mess of filaments,
my nerves are barbwire.
Your fingers feel like bombs.
Psychosis, migraines, want. A hollowed out gut.
Out of body,
overlooking this city.
You stand next to me, naked and shivering.
My cigarette shakes at the lips.
It falls and I let myself fall.
on a clothes line the stains
all washed out
I hang out in boredom,
I am sick
of the clips
that so wearily hold me up
of this washed out sanity
I am sick.
This is not the best me I can be.
Stop this, run again.
dance away control:
colours bodies laughter
c a r e l e s s n e s s
the frenzy the rush
I miss life and I have lied.
burn books thoughts dreams.
They aren’t enough,
I’m going to die.
I don’t need to be clever and ok.
people movement fear anger lust.
– to touch
to feel alive.
Featured artwork by Jonas Fyhr. Find him at jonasfyhr.deviantart.com
A Modern Review of Anti-Psychiatry:
Why do people refuse pharmacological treatment for psychiatric conditions?
Most of you are probably familiar with the famous scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) pretends to consume and then spits out him medication after nurse Ratched refuses to tell him what it is. It’s just medicine, it’s good for him and he shouldn’t be asking questions.
‘If Mr. McMurphy doesn’t want to take his medication orally, I’m sure we can arrange that he can have it some other way. I don’t think you’d like it.’
The film, made in 1975, was based on the book written by Ken Kesey in 1962, at the hight of the anti-psychiatry movement that was pervading the western world. In this period the theme of patients evading pharmacological care became quite common in literary and cinematic depictions of psych wards and mental health. Other interesting readings on mental health care at the time include Michel Foucault’s ‘Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason’ (1961), Szasz’s ‘The Myth of Mental Illness’ (1960), ‘Asylums’ by Goffman (1961) and ‘Psychiatry and Anti-Psychiatry’ by Cooper (1967). The Anti-psychiatry movement mainly questioned three things:
(1) the existence of mental illness and the use of psychiatric diagnosis as a power tool to control social deviants; (2) the power of psychiatrists to detain patients against their will and the use of barbaric methods in psych wards and (3) the medicalisation of madness.
When he spat out the pill, McMurphy was defying a system that was oppressive and malfunctioning, as indeed many internment facilities of the time were. Many of the past treatments used to treat patients with mental instability were primitive and often barbaric: to name a few, trepanning, lobotomies, insulin shock therapy, bloodletting and badly administered electroconvulsive therapy. Similarly their pharmacological counterparts where just as invasive and excessive, and patients were often stuffed to the brim with sedatives such as bromides and barbiturate, and primitive anti-psychotics (chlorpromazine was one of the first), which caused severe side effects, drowsiness and physical dependency.
However, things have significantly improved in the past years, and society’s relationship with mental health is consistently changing towards a world of increasing awareness. Pharmacological treatment in psychiatry has also developed much since its origins. Let us look, for example at the first effective medicine for the treatment of mental illness: lithium carbonate, the effectiveness of which as a mood stabiliser was demonstrated in 1948 by Australian psychiatrist John Cade and approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of acute mania in 1970.
Although the evidence for lithium as an anti-manic agent is incontrovertible, the drug is also known to cause rather serious adverse effects and carries a “black box warning”. It can cause central nervous system (CNS) toxicity, renal toxicity, thyroid toxicity, and teratogenic effects, all of which can be life threatening. It is also associated with non-life threatening but rather bothersome side effects, such as tremor, excessive urination, dry mouth, nausea, sedation, acne, and cognitive dulling. Mild CNS toxicity manifests as restlessness, irritability, and sedation. Severe neurotoxicity can progress to delirium, with ataxia, coarse tremor, seizures, and ultimately coma and death.
Dr. Lembke at Stanford University writes how earlier studies on the dosage of lithium in treating acute mania advocated a concentration of serum lithium levels between 0.9- 1.4 mEq/L. Severe neurotoxicity is associated with lithium serum concentrations exceeding 1.6mEq/L, but can occur at lower levels in susceptible individuals. Later studies have illustrated that effective mania response can be achieved with doses between 0.5 – 0.72 mEq/kg/day, corresponding to serum lithium levels below 1.0 mEq/L.
With the reduction in the posology of lithium, patients are much less susceptible to the bothersome side effects associated with high levels, which were extremely common in past times. Today, the optimal dosage of lithium ought to be carefully administered by professionals, with attention to factors such as a limited starting dose, rates of titration, serum concentration for efficacy and toxicity, drug-drug interactions, dosing frequency, and rates of discontinuation.
Furthermore, nowadays patients have increasing access to communication and information technologies, relationships between patient and physician are more dynamic and interactive, there is increasing awareness and de-stigmatisation of mental disorders, and policies are being put in place to assure the equality of human rights for those suffering from psychiatric disorders and mental health difficulties. It would appear that modern psychiatry has worked consistently towards resolving the accusations of the anti-psychiatry movement in the 60’s, even if there still is much progress and research to be made in the field.
Yet out of the three above mentioned critiques, medicalisation still holds a highly significant following in contemporary society, amongst public figures and patients alike. So what is it, in this day and age, that causes patients to refuse their treatment? My conclusion is that three main factor contribute to this issue: (1) fear of social stigma, (2) fear of physical side effects and (3) fear of loss of control.
Let me explain this further through my own personal experience. A few weeks ago, when my psychiatrist suggested I take a low maintenance dosage of Depakine so as to avoid any fall-backs into manic-depressive episodes, my brain automatically started saying: no, no, no, no. Which has led me, over the past few weeks to a great reflexion in what really hides behind my weariness of this type of drug, regardless of being well-informed about its properties, effects and dosages, and confident in the advancements psychiatry has undergone in recent years.
In this post, I would like to share with you my conclusion, as I believe it is a plausible hypothesis for many patient’s behaviour. While I do believe that fear of side effects and/or social stigma can play an important role in an anti-medication approach, I think there is another, more subtle, yet profoundly existential reason to explain this refusal. When I advised my psychiatrist regarding my doubts over starting a new drug, her response was one that I have encountered many a time in similar situations, or articles advocating the importance of medication for mental illness.
‘If you were diagnosed with Diabetes, and not Bipolar Disorder, would you be questioning the use of a drug in its cure?’
Well, to be perfectly honest the answer is no. I’ve never really had a problem with taking painkiller, in moderation, for a headache, I daily take medication for my asthma and have used antibiotics in several occasions. (Note: I understand there is a whole school that criticises western medicine in general, as well as the motivations that drive pharmaceutical companies, but this is not the argument I wish to discuss in this post).
None the less, the idea of constantly taking a small maintenance dose of a mood stabiliser gives me the heebie-jeebies. And I do not think this is entirely related to my skepticism towards labelling, although I do believe that a strict adherence to labels in psychiatry may pose some difficulties when dealing with individual cases of patients (which I will discuss further in future). I do not even think it is entirely the fear of losing the manic part of myself, which I have come, after much time and consideration, to view as a diversion and not as an ‘up’ side of my mood and personality.
I think what causes my weariness, is my desire for control over all aspects of my life. What makes psychiatric medication different from other classes of drugs, is that what is acting upon is not a physical resentment, but rather a chemical imbalance that plays an enormous role in what constructs my personality. In some way, I suppose my fear is dictated by the possibility that taking such medication, may in some way alter my essence as a human being and my control over my own life.
Let me explain this better. I have been taking 100mg Sertraline (brand name Zoloft, Lustral) daily for almost a year. It is an anti-depressive drug classed as an SSRI (selective serotonine reuptake inhibitor) which essentially means it plays on the level of the neurotransmitter serotonin in my synapses, which is one of the main chemicals responsible for mood. At around the same time I started this therapy, I also undertook many other steps towards well being, such as a better diet, a reduced consumption of caffeine, alcohol and nicotine, physical activity, meditation, therapy and a considerable dose of self awareness and reflection upon my existence.
As of today, I am doing significantly well in my day to day life and, allowing for some minor fall backs, am leading a content, enthusiastic and motivated existence. My main difficulty remains the terror of losing this controlled balance I have cultivated for my self. I almost feel as if I were a blanket hanging precariously on a clothing line, and if one of the many clips holding me up were removed, I may lose my balance, my control over reality. I have found myself asking myself, many a time: how much of my current well being is due to my actions, and how much is due to my pharmacological treatment? Or better, if I had not started on Zoloft a year ago, would I still be in the same place?
I realise now, that this is a rhetorical ‘what if’ question, to which I will never be able to provide an accurate answer. And losing oneself in the hypothetical possibilities of what could have been, is something I hove long deemed unhealthy and unproductive. I spoke with my psychotherapist regarding my skepticism towards medication and a question she asked me really did strike home.
Even if you are doing all these other things for your own stability, and you could potentially be ok without medication, why is it that you still feel inclined to refuse the extra help it could give you, even if it does out-balance the negative effects?
Why is it that we feel inclined to do everything on our own, without other people, without pills, without help of any sorts? Is it fear of weakness? Is it the same reason why so many people around the world keep their issues in the closet and the same reason for which I myself, for many years, ignored my own pain and instability?
I realised in that moment how much my own preconceptions and perception of control have played a part in my decisions and how hypocritical my weariness of Depakine and Sertraline is. After all, when I drink a beer, spend time with friends, find comfort in a lover, or seek relief in music, art, sex, travelling, food, etc., am I not in some ways asking the world for a helping hand? I fear losing control when indeed I have no control: my existence depends upon the world around me and all of the silly little things that keep me hanging on the clothes line. How is medication any different to them?
So yes, until I am conscious and wise enough to be a blanket that holds itself up on its own, I am not ready to give all of these things up and, for the time being, I need them. I need my friends, I need my family, I need distractions, I need beauty and, as hard as it is for me to admit, I need my medication. What I also realise is that the purpose of all these things is not to ‘hold me up’, but rather to ‘hold me upright’, like the training wheels on a bike that prepare you to ride by yourself. They construct me and make me grow, and allow me to pursue the activities and reflections that make me who I am. And one day, I am certain, I will no longer need these wheels. I will be able to live my life with self-awareness and conscientiousness and experience all around me with light-heartedness and care and no longer with visceral need and dependence.
Cooper, David (1967). ‘Psychiatry and Anti-Psychiatry’ Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon: 2001
Foucault, Michel (1961) ’Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason’ Routledge Classics, Abingdon Oxton: 2005
Goffman, Erving (1961) ‘Asylums. Le istituzioni totali: i meccanismi dell’esclusione e della violenza’ Einaudi, 2010
Kesey, Ken (1962) One Flew over the Cuckoo’s nest. The Viking Press Ink.
Lembke, Anna. MD, Clinical Instructor, Stanford University, Optimal Dosing of Lithium, Valproic Acid, and Lamotrigine in the Treatment of Mood Disorders accessed on ‘Primary Psychiatry’ on Nov 12th 2015. URL: http://primarypsychiatry.com/optimal-dosing-of-lithium-valproic-acid-and-lamotrigine-in-the-treatment-of-mood-disorders/
Szasz, Thomas S. ‘The Myth of Mental Illness Foundations of a Theory of Personal Cunduct’ (1960). HarperCollins: 2011