My apartment was on the twenty-first floor and my bed was placed beside the windows, which were about six feet wide and eight feet high. My old apartment had been very dark and set against the side of a hill; I now had a window on the world and could see thirty miles on a good day. After the long, hard winter (Syracuse averages ten feet of snow per year with wind chill temperatures below zero), it was finally spring. I opened the windows, sucked in life, and stopped taking the Ativan.
I only slept twenty minutes in the next three days. My blood pressure was through the roof. I couldn’t eat. I was in torment. Even-numbered days, I’d go to doctors; odd-numbered nights, I’d be ambulanced to the ER, where they would continue to abuse me because I was a psychiatric patient. The interaction of my illnesses was so chaotic that the medical doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
It was psychologist Paul Cohen who finally made the diagnosis: Ativan is a benzodiazepine, benzodiazepines are narcotics, and—by following doctor’s orders—I had become a drug addict. I was now going through cold turkey withdrawal and the doctors could not see it for what it was because, after all, they’d prescribed the medication, and I was a middle-aged white woman, not some black hooker from the ’hood.
We continued to try to medicate me for various things, including the kidney damage, but every time I took a drug it would make me both physically ill and suicidally depressed. Most particularly, in the middle of the night I would awake with a terrible, terrible sinking sensation. It felt like low blood pressure or low blood sugar. It was neither of these things, but something had fallen below the level necessary to sustain life. It was something that our great doctors haven’t yet learned to measure, and it was death, and I knew it.
I could no longer take any drugs for anything. Now, I had to fix things!
Wow, there’s a concept.
The damage to my brain and central nervous system from a quarter-century of psychotropic medications was incalculable, not to mention the terrible shock of my system no longer getting the steady dose of drugs to which it was accustomed. Emotionally, I was raw and suffering.
In 2002, I went back to inpatient psychiatry again. I entered through CPEP, the Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program—a psychiatric emergency room that is a free-standing facility nextdoor to the hospital. People casually and frequently describe some place or experience as “hell,” but there is only one Hell and after you’ve used that image, where do you go to describe anything worse? I do not casually or frequently use the word “hell” as a descriptive term, but I will tell you this: CPEP is hell. The only substantive difference between John McCain’s imprisonment in Vietnam as a prisoner of war and my incarceration in CPEP is length of time served.
From CPEP, I was again transferred to the inpatient unit of the Catholic hospital but this time I wasn’t drugged. I could see—in the classic Buddhist sense, I was awakening to what was real, and what was real on inpatient psychiatry was systematic abuse, humiliation and degradation. The only way the psychiatric system could get away with it was by keeping people drugged—but I could not be drugged. Dr. Ghaly refused to write drug orders for me or, more correctly, he refused to write drug orders for the staff. No matter what I said or did, they were not allowed to drug me into submission.
It was an interesting time, and it hurt unbearably. After I got out, I started to write about what I’d seen with un-drugged eyes because it was the only way I could cope with the horror of the experience. My writings were filed with the NYS Office of Mental Health as a complaint. OMH did nothing.
I was on a slow and bumpy road to recovery. In place of drugs, I learned to treat my multiple illnesses with air, light, liquids, diet, exercise, chiropractic, hypnotherapy and acupuncture. I spent a great deal of time in bed with my laptop computer, searching and researching. I found PNIE, that is, psychoneuroimmunoendocrinology, which says that there’s a relationship between mental illness, the nervous system, the immune system, and hormones. Mental illness and psoriasis are incidental, not coincidental, likewise menstrual cramps and depression. Migraine headaches, food allergies, psychosis and post-partum depression are all related. There is some common causality.
As the winter of 2003 set in, I settled down to write a book. I got a lively young black cat named Chase, and he variously lay in bed beside me or walked across my computer as I wrote, but I soon became too sick to work. My blood pressure was so high that I was at risk for a stroke. I couldn’t breath. I had to sleep sitting up. The doctor told me I had congestive heart failure and offered to put me in Hospice on morphine. That’s what he offered, but what he actually provided was nothing.
I couldn’t breath and I couldn’t maintain myself alone. Something had to be done immediately, so Dr. Ghaly admitted me to inpatient psychiatry at the community hospital. It was not an appropriate placement but it was what Dr. Ghaly had available, so he offered it and I accepted.
The good news was that within three days my blood pressure was down to something like normal and I could breathe again. I could sleep lying down. I did not have congestive heart failure. I had an allergic reaction to my beloved cat. (To be continued)