The “Chemical Imbalance” Lie


So there I am at Peter Breggin’s Empathic Therapy Conference, in the workshop on SSRI Antidepressants Adverse Effects, and the unknown M.D. starts talking about “chemical imbalance.”  He says there is no such thing.

I was put on antidepressants, told I had a chemical imbalance and that I would have to take drugs for the rest of my life.  I took them for twenty-six years.

This guy says that there is no such thing.  He says that a group went to an annual conference of the American Psychiatric Association and set up outside the door of a workshop room.  As the psychiatrists exited, they were asked, on camera, about chemical imbalance.  Most said there was no such thing.  The others said they only told their patients that to keep them taking drugs.

The psychiatrists were not prescribing antidepressants because it was scientifically demonstrated to be medically useful; they were prescribing antidepressants because it was morally desirable:  when a patient was drugged, the doctor felt the patient behaved better—that is, was more compliant to the doctor’s orders.

The presenter at the workshop—who is, keep in mind, also a doctor—goes on to say that a group kept pressure on the American Psychiatric Association (APA) until the APA wrote a letter—put it in writing!—that there is no such thing as a chemical imbalance in the brain!

THE FUCKING BASTARDS KNEW!  THEY LIED TO ME!!  I cannot walk because the God-damned psychiatrists lied to me! And they knew it was a lie!

Viscerally ill, I wheel out of the conference room.  April is the cruelest month, and now this.  THIS!  Tormented by pain, I wheel out and around, doing the wheelchair equivalent of pacing.  I desperately need to connect with someone, talk to someone.  I don’t see anyone with whom I can.  I wheel outside, seeking comfort in the natural world.  April is the cruelest month.  I turn away from spring—from life renewed—and go back inside.

There is only one person whom I know at the conference and I can’t find him.  I wheel back and forth, crying, and thinking, “This is insane.  I am surrounded by every ilk of therapist and I can’t find a single person to talk to.”  But it wasn’t that I couldn’t find anyone; it was that I dare not ask.

Twenty-six years of therapists and doctors had kept me on drugs that had destroyed me, body and soul.  I had been at this conference and under the influence of non-druggers for only two hours.  I didn’t trust anybody.  Too distressed to think rationally, I was afraid to make contact with anyone at the conference for fear a stranger would do me more damage.

Finally, I wheel up to the sign-in table and park beside Ginger Breggin.  This is the Ginger Breggin who put me ahead of the money (https://behindthelockeddoors.wordpress.com/2011/04/09/a-new-kind-of-therapeutic-relationship/).  I can’t ask for help and can’t speak without crying.  Ginger begins to play guessing games, trying to figure out what I need.  Finally we establish that I want to talk to the man I know but can’t find.  She goes looking for him, but returns unsuccessful.  She proposes that we have a cup of tea together.  I think this is an excellent idea.  I am crying; she is trying to find Kleenex.  I tell her one of life’s lessons that I’ve learned:  you don’t need Kleenex for simple crying, only when your nose starts to run.

We settle in the dining area with our tea.  Ginger makes a modest disclaimer that she’s not a therapist.  I reply that sometimes all one woman needs is another woman to talk to, so we proceed on that basis.  My overwhelming story starts to flood out—drugs, damage, disrespect, recovery, learning-learning-learning, except that we haven’t gotten to the learning part and are pretty much on the hurtin’ part when some big guy shows up and asks if he can join us:  enter Richard Gottlieb, clinical social worker from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The three of us talk for an hour.  The conversation is normal, i.e., random, disorganized and friendly.  These two people—Ginger and Dick—keep telling me how awesome I am.  It doesn’t sound like the planned interventions of clinicians who are trying to “build the patient’s self-esteem.”  It sounds like the effusive conversation of a couple of really terrific people who have just met someone equally terrific—and I find it hard to believe.  My family abandoned me because I am “mentally ill.”  My friends abandoned me when I started using a wheelchair.  My church abandoned me when I became too sick to get across the threshold.

I took drugs to treat a nonexistent “chemical imbalance.”  The drugs made me too sick to work, so I became poor.  The side effects put me in a wheelchair.  Poor, sick, alone and unable to travel, I am condemned to live in a HUD-subsidized apartment building:  176 tiny two-room apartments occupied by people living alone together.  The population probably has an average I.Q. of 98—and that’s a serious estimate, not a cynical metaphor born of frustration.  I am the most alone person I know, and I’m here at this conference where I belong as a colleague.

At some point I talk about how I can’t remember the 1990’s.  I lost a whole decade to drugging.  In half an hour, I could tell you everything I remember about those ten years.  I know where I lived, who my therapist was, and that I was frequently hospitalized, but think of this in terms of 500 40-hour work weeks:  where did I go?  What did I do?  I can’t remember:  I took drugs.

At another point, Dick is pretty insistent about how smart I am.  I demure, reporting my I.Q.  He asks when the I.Q. testing was done.  I think about that and say, “About five years after I stopped taking drugs.”

Dick replies, “Right.  After a decade you can’t remember.”  He estimates my intelligence at fifteen points higher than the test results.  Is there anything more loving than being told you’re a better person than you think you are?

The time comes for the call to the next workshop, which we are all going to attend.  I happily—the tears are all gone now—ask if I can sit with Dick for his protection.  He assures me that I sure can, and we are off to hear Peter Breggin talk about the Federal Drug Administration.

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About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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