Leah I Harris
“How wrong it all was I wouldn’t realize until over a decade had passed and I began to educate myself about the psychiatric survivor movement. Now that I look back, I think it’s obscene that a traumatized little child would be drugged up. It makes me sick. I want to reach out to that 7 year old child, to hug her and hold her to me and tell her that it was going to be OK, that she would get through it and she would be a better person for it.”
Contact info: Washington, D.C.,USA
Currently doing: Leah recently finished her master’s degree political science and is currently looking for work as a consultant in the international development field. She is an experienced worker in the international human rights community, and is actively involved in the American Jewish peace movement.
Mental health experience: Inpatient, Outpatient, Psychiatric Drugs, Forced Treatment, Coercive Treatment
Psychiatric labels: Major Depression, Dysthymia, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Severe Borderline Personality Disorder
Psychiatric drugs taken in the past: Aventyl, Triavil, Pamelor, Lithobid, Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Tegretol, Desyrel, Visteral, Wellbutrin
Off psychiatric drugs since:
Recovery methods: Self-Help, Family/Friend Support, Peer Support, Spirituality, Social Activism, Art/Music & Exercise
Greatest obstacle: Lingering feelings of shame and fear regarding the mental illness diagnosis and her past.
The mental health care industry tried to turn me into a career mental patient. But I fought and resisted, and I am thankful that I am here today to tell my story.
By the time I was born, my mother had been in and out of mental hospitals for 7 years. She would become a career mental patient. My father had difficulties of his own, and he soon became a career mental patient as well.
So I went to live with my maternal grandparents. Although they gave me lots of love and care, at about the age of 7, I began to make statements like “I should never have been born.” Something was obviously wrong.
My grandmother sent me to a psychiatrist, whose opinion she of course fully trusted. And I don’t blame her for that. She only wanted me to get help.
So at 7 years old, I too was diagnosed as mentally ill.
I don’t remember what I talked about with my first psychiatrist, but she must have decided that it was serious enough to warrant my taking some antidepressant named Aventyl, and later, something called Triavil. In very mild doses, but enough to make me happy and stop saying the distressing things I was saying. Sometimes I think that they medicated me because it was easier than actually trying to help me.
Well, I had gotten into the system and I couldn’t get out. Pills were a daily part of my life, and it made me feel so ashamed. The stigma and terror of “mental illness” had sunk into my heart, making me loathe my parents as much as I loved them. I felt alone and isolated in my own supposed illness. I had a secret after-school life of doctors and blood tests, which I of course kept from the other kids at school.
I remember reading somewhere that most people only take antidepressant drugs for a little while, to help them get through the rough patches. But my rough patch never seemed to end, and no one ever considered for a moment that I should be taken off those drugs, those chemicals that were seeping into my brain and the rest of my young body, doing God knows what.
There came a succession of doctors. In Pennsylvania, Florida, and California, wherever I lived, they were always a constant in my life. And they all served the same function. They all drugged me up, in the name of science and progress. These doctors didnt encourage me to talk about myself and the childhood traumas that had obviously caused my emotional problems. That was never the focus. Instead, I was always asked whether or not the drugs were working.
And I didn’t trust my own emotions. The lingering sadness I felt last week, the hopelessness I experienced a few hours ago, the human emotions that we all feel, meant that the drugs weren’t working like they were supposed to.
When I would tell the truth, that I didn’t really feel any different. The doctor would increase my dose. Why not, more is better right?
When I was 13, things changed. My psychiatrist was now talking about a new miracle drug called Prozac that would work where the others had failed. I was so hopeful about Prozac that I vowed to stop flushing it down the toilet periodically and to take my medication faithfully.
And yet, after a brief period when I felt “better than ever, Prozac just stopped “working.” So my psychiatrist just kept upping my dose. Then a minor problem developed. Those green and white capsules made me so wired and hyper that I couldn’t sleep at night.
Rather than take me off the drug, I was given an antidepressant with a tranquilizing side effect to help me sleep. It was so powerful that it knocked me out in a matter of fifteen minutes. I couldn’t keep my eyes open and would pass out into a deep, thick, dreamless sleep that left me groggy in the morning until I had my Prozac, which woke me up. And thus the cycle would never end, day in and day out. Uppers and downers, uppers and downers. I felt powerless to stop it.
Within months after I was prescribed the drug, I began to experience brief periods of a mystifying and terrifying desperation. There were these new urges to cut myself. The urges to self mutilate began to grow and develop into full-blown suicidal ideation. Whenever something even mildly distressing happened to me, my thoughts immediately turned to suicide. These thoughts tormented me.
Then, when I was 14, in response to a minor confrontation with a family member, I tried to kill myself by slashing my wrists. That landed me in the hospital for the first time. Then, a few months later, at the age of 15, when I got a “B” on my report card, I swallowed a whole bottle of pills in a compulsive fury. I was saved only by my family’s surprise return home, when they found me passed out on the floor. Once again, I visited the hospital.
After a third suicide attempt when I was 16, I voluntarily agreed to go into a long-term treatment facility for teens. Since the facility was so expensive, the doctors coached me on what to say during the SSI interview. I was to say that I was severely emotionally disturbed, which prevented me from performing the most basic tasks to take care of myself. Keep in mind that before entering the treatment facility I had been an honor roll student.
Well, I got into this facility and my “treatment” consisted of nothing in the educational sense except remedial classes where the “students” watched films all day.
After getting out of long-term treatment, I was too embarrassed to face my old friends, so I enrolled in a continuation school for “bad” kids and pregnant girls where I earned my diploma. But at age 17 I was still considered a minor, so I wasn’t allowed to stop taking the prescribed pills, pills that I believe drove me suicidal. I made another suicide attempt in 1993, for reasons I can’t even remember, and was returned to the hospital, this time the adult ward, since I was so close to 18.
In the adult ward, a visitor convinced me that my grandparents, who had done nothing but love me, were my problem and that I should live in his home for mentally ill people. The place turned out to be a total nightmare, and after a few months, I begged my grandparents to take me back. After this experience, I realized that I had truly hit bottom.
By the time I was 18, I decided that I had had enough with the doctors and the medications, and I convinced my grandparents to allow me to go through a trial period without them. It wasn’t easy at first, and I was soon back to old patterns, becoming addicted for a brief period to methamphetamines, which mimicked the effects of Prozac, because I still hadn’t learned the coping skills I needed to deal with my problems. I only knew how to medicate myself.
But in time, I saw the error of my ways, and went to Narcotics Anonymous meetings to get my head on straight. NA taught me that being “sane” meant being willing to stop blaming others, to stop seeking happiness and completion in a pill or a drug, to take responsibility, and to take action to try to fulfill my dreams.
Happily, I went on to get married to a wonderful man, recently completed a master’s degree in political science from a prestigious East Coast university, and just spent my second year abroad in Egypt on an academic scholarship.
I have found healing through relationships with supportive mentors, through keeping a daily journal and writing, political activism, and spirituality. I became strong, and proved to myself that I could survive anything, even the excruciating grief of my mother’s untimely death, without returning to being “mentally ill.”
And now I have been off medications, I have not made one single suicide attempt, and I have been out of the hospital system for eight years.
I look at the scars and cigarette burns on my arms, lingering reminders of the past, and they are like a road map of confusion.
Especially as a child and then as a teenager, you can’t fight these things, even though your gut is telling you it’s wrong. Nobody will listen to you. How wrong it all was I wouldn’t realize until over a decade had passed and I began to educate myself about the psychiatric survivor movement. Now that I look back, I think it’s obscene that a traumatized little child would be drugged up. It makes me sick. I want to reach out to that 6 year old child, to hug her and hold her to me and tell her that it was going to be OK, that she would get through it and she would be a better person for it.
Interviewer’s Comments: At 26, Leah is an extremely bright, articulate, and talented political activist. Still a young woman, Leah is bravely “coming out” about the torment she went through at the hands of the psychiatric system as a child and teenager.