I'm Angela. As a kid, I was sensitive to the world around me, outgoing, and loved sports. I was always in the gifted program at school and was a bit of an overachiever, joining all the clubs and activities I could. But childhood was not without difficulties. My dad had a diagnosis of “bipolar” and my mom divorced him and moved out when I was nine years old. At home, I experienced some emotional abuse and witnessed physical abuse. My parent’s divorce and growing up in poverty were traumatic. As the oldest kid, I had to grow up fast after my mom left and had to help raise my siblings. We were latchkey kids in the 1980’s and when single fathers were unheard of.
During high school, I had a ton of friends. I loved hanging out with them at coffee shops during the week and staying up all night at dance parties on the weekends. After graduation, I got a job as a waitress at a hotel next to the airport working the early morning breakfast shift serving pilots and flight attendants before their flights. After work, I attended community college in a general ed program because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. Everything was exciting to me.
Over many months of living on my own and waitressing and studying, I got extremely bored with it. Every time I went grocery shopping, I saw the sign in the strip mall that said, “Armed Forces Recruiting.” One day, I popped in to talk to the U.S. Army Recruiter. He had me take a test and I scored extremely high, and I asked him how fast he could get me out of there. That weekend, I signed a contract for $40,000 in college money and a 4-year contract with the U.S. Army. My high school friends didn’t believe that I really joined the Army, so I shaved my head to prove it and left that February looking like Demi Moore in GI Jane.
I went from a scrawny, pale teenager, to a buff, courageous woman who ran faster than a lot of the male soldiers in two months of boot camp. I loved everything about the Army, except maybe the food. Shooting, obstacle courses, getting muddy, learning my technical job, moving from place to place, the structure, the people. Oh, the people. It felt like I always had 100 big brothers to talk to, to look after me, and to hang out with.
Then September 11th happened. I knew immediately we would go to war. I was deployed with the 1st Armored Division out of Wiesbaden, Germany to Baghdad, Iraq for an undetermined amount of time. Within a few weeks of arriving, I went from 140 pounds of laughter and muscle, to 100 pounds of fear, skin and bones. I was so skinny that I could see each one of my ribs in full definition, just like my cheekbones. Our unit’s job in Iraq was to set up all the communications equipment in Baghdad so that commanders could take to each other and to the Pentagon. We were done setting up and had the full system in place, at least our part, within three days. The rest of the time, we drove convoys all around Baghdad, in extremely dangerous parts of town, with no armor on our vehicles (HMMWV’s), and only 12 plates of armor for our flak jackets for 42 people. Death was palpable and imminent. Every morning, before leaving on a convoy, I would make up the linens on my cot and make sure all my items were well organized in case I didn’t make it back that day and my soldiers had to ship my things home. Every evening, I watched my fellow soldiers come back from convoys completely exhausted, dehydrated, and sweaty, literally swallowing their fear from the day. We didn’t talk about it but we all felt it. It hung over us in the same way the haze of the sandstorms we had been through. All you could do was swallow it down- speaking about it would make it real.
I deteriorated quickly. I began having nose bleeds, fainting spells from the heat, rapid heart rate, low grade fevers, and no matter how much I ate, my body rejected it. I went to “sick call” continually but was only offered ibuprofen. The division surgeon wrote a memorandum that I leave the combat theater and be medically evacuated to Landstuhl, Germany for diagnostic assessment and treatment, but my command said I was not to leave and that I was “mission essential.” After learning this, I would stand on the roof of our building and watch the helicopters land at sunset. I had a deep realization that I was not leaving Iraq alive and that I would never see my family again. I would either be killed by an improvised explosive device (IED), a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) or whatever mysterious illness I had contracted.
Then, we got a new commander and the old one left the country. She took one look at me and knew I was sick, and I finally medically evacuated. A day after I left Iraq, my convoy was hit by an IED and one of my solders was medically evacuated to the same hospital I was at in Germany. I saw him being wheeled down the tarmac with bags of fluid hanging from the gurney and his body was covered in the wool, army green blankets. The nurses told me he was unconscious but that I could come see him in a few days once he was in recovery from surgery.
He told me what happened and was so angry. His voice quivering, his bare chest with staples from chest to groin pulling skin apart while he yelled. As the intensity in the room grew, I couldn’t hold myself together. It was all too much. I asked him and his wife to excuse me and I walked out of his room and down the hall. I saw a sign on the wall with an arrow with the word PSYCHIATRY and I followed it, as I was trained to do by my father who religiously went to psychiatrists when I was a kid.
I remember the doctor I saw was a Major in the Army with the gold leaf insignia on his lapel. He wrote me a prescription for Klonopin and told me to take it and I would feel much better. I followed his orders. I was 24 years old and just a terrified kid who saw too much of the evil side of humanity.
My emotional-overwhelm symptoms worsened very quickly but I was told I had “post-traumatic stress disorder” and many more drugs were added. One for sleep, one for nightmares, one for my high heart rate and hypervigilance, another for headaches, opioids for pain, an anti-depressant for my mood. I continued to worsen and was continually told this was new and emerging PTSD, in conjunction with major depression and panic disorder with agoraphobia. The amount of diagnoses grew as the prescriptions increased. I was taken off duty, away from soldiers and weapons and was medically retired from the rank of Sergeant. I went from a super soldier to a piece of shit in less than a year. Once the Army deems you disabled, they throw you away like yesterday’s cereal milk.
After the army, I became a mental health patient full-time. My days revolved around support groups, psychiatry appointments, therapy sessions and sitting in the drive-thru at Walgreens waiting on prescriptions. Everyone around me was monitoring my mood, my sleep, my social life, my symptoms. Before long, the only people I saw were medical or mental health professionals. On Sundays, I would load my weekly pill reminder case with green and red, white, and brown capsules and tablets.
Deep down, I knew something was not right, but it took me years before I listened to that feeling inside. It started as a whisper: “Who are you beneath these drugs?” A few diagnoses later, I wondered why so many diagnoses? Ten medications later, I wondered why I wasn’t back to work, or functioning like normal people. If these meds are supposed to help, why are they not helping me? Why am I agoraphobic and too afraid to leave my house if these drugs are so great? Suspicion grew when I was fired by my civilian psychiatrist when she told me my problems were too complex and that I was “treatment resistant.” How could that be when I was doing everything, she told me to do?
At the Department of Veteran Affairs, I was assigned a new psychiatrist. He told me once that he was “a psychiatrist who didn’t believe in psychiatry.” He helped me taper off some of the drugs the previous psychiatrist prescribed, probably way too fast, but I was so grateful to be on fewer. I don’t think I ever had it in my mind that I would come off all medications, but fate didn’t offer me a choice.
At the height of my patient-hood, I was prescribed 18 medications; about 10 of them were psychiatric and the others were to treat the side effects or pain. I had been prescribed more than 45 psychiatric drugs in a 13-year period and was deemed to have “chronic, severe, and persistent mental illness” and “unlikely to improve.” I suffered two seizures from drug interactions, have been hospitalized seven times, have seen many specialists, went on military veteran retreats, have tried every lettered therapy you can think of (ACT, CBT, EFT, EMDR, etc.), read more than 300 books, tried church and 12-step meetings, equine therapy, a service dog, volunteering, and so many other things to help myself. I eventually ran out of things to try.
I didn’t know that antidepressant withdrawal was a thing until I tapered Effexor under the guidance of my new, hip psychiatrist. I ran out of my 37.5 mg capsules on a trip and woke up with brain zaps. He then bridged me to Duloxetine (Cymbalta) and told me to increase it to the highest dose in hopes it would control my chronic pain and depression at the same time. I just wanted OFF. I was tired of trying things, tired of feeling like I was stuck behind a glass wall with life on the other side of it. I barely recognized myself. I grew to 230 pounds, survived off tubs of hummus and pita chips, binged Dr. Pepper, and had the concentration of a 2-year-old, so I was unable to read or watch movies to pass the time. I really don’t know what I did all those years. The drugs erased a lot of my memory, too.
I finally came off of all the antidepressants, sleep drugs, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers. I saved benzodiazepines for last. During my slow taper, I got worse as I got lower, but the withdrawal symptoms were seen as signs of mental illness, not as withdrawal effects.
As my taper got lower and lower, I developed intrusive thoughts, then suicidal thoughts, then suicidal urges. Right after Christmas, I was standing in the kitchen cutting carrots for soup, and I had the strongest urge to stab myself in the stomach. The urge scared me so badly, I dropped the knife and called my sister to come get my service dog, so I could check myself into the hospital. I developed akathisia that was mistaken for “agitated depression,” in which my newest psychiatrist tried to get me to take Lithium. I told the ER doctor, “The anti-anxiety medicine I am taking is obviously not working, so just take me off of it.” The psych ward obliged. Four days later, I was back at home feeling cautiously optimistic that the urges were gone and maybe I would now start feeling better. After all, I was now four days off of 13 years of psychiatric drugs! Freedom, right? Wrong!
On day five of no psychiatric drugs, it was as if the gates of hell opened wide and swallowed me into a dungeon of torture. My body, brain, central nervous system, every cell of my entire body went haywire. I had suicidal and homicidal thoughts 24/7 with no rest. I had an intense feeling of restlessness and agitation where I felt like Hulk Hogan himself was inside my body trying to rip my skin open to come out. I had so much energy I felt like running marathons without stopping. I had so much fear in my body, it felt like I was going skydiving with a gun pointed at my head. My own thoughts scared me. I counted my heartbeats to try to hang on to the tiny sliver of sanity I had left that was anchoring me in this world. I didn’t speak a word for four months. I couldn’t look at social media; the faces scared me. I didn’t shower standing up for two years. I literally felt my soul or consciousness itself move around my body looking for a place it could rest then finding nothing and leaving my body. I knew that if I told anyone how I was feeling, I would surely be put back on the medications and would probably die or kill myself.
I am now five years and three months off all medications. I have been too scared to even take a Tylenol in all that time. The experiences I had both before, during, and after my years as a psych patient have deeply traumatized me. I may never fully heal from the betrayal, harm, and gaslighting I received from psychiatrists and other mental health professionals. However, I have my freedom now. And my mind. I will never, ever, trust an outside force with my body, mind, or health ever again. My autonomy is precious and I will spend the remaining years of my life fighting for recognition of the harm done in the name of “mental health.”
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Angela had her life destroyed by a cocktail of drugs for PTSD