Psychiatric Medications Didn’t Heal My Daughter (But This Did)
When my daughter was 13 years old, a well-meaning pediatrician handed her a prescription for Zoloft to treat symptoms of depression and anxiety. After a few months of no improvement, the doctor switched to a different selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), Prozac.
Within weeks, our bright, funny, intuitive daughter was hallucinating. It began as initially innocent, and sometimes amusing, visions of a little girl whom she named Alice. Then came scary voices telling her to hurt herself. Soon enough, suicidal ideations led to our little girl being admitted to a psychiatric hospital. This was the first of eight hospitalizations during her eighth-grade year. We refer to it as her “Lost Year.”
Each hospitalization started with an interview. How was my pregnancy? Did our daughter, Rebecka, have any major illnesses during her childhood? The list went on. But never did somebody ask us: “How are things at home?” Not once. Mental health practitioners based treatment strategies on the symptoms du jour, without any curiosity about what Rebecka was like six months ago—she’d been functioning well—or what she might be trying to communicate.
After a year of medication as first-line treatment, my husband and I asked the attending psychiatrist during her eighth hospitalization to stop all medications. They clearly weren’t helping Rebecka, but rather making things worse. The doctor agreed.
Five years have passed since that pivotal moment. Rebecka is a sophomore in college now. She is thriving and helping others through her own writing and peer support. We’re lucky.
I have since understood that psychotropic medications are not intended to heal people with mental illness diagnoses. Rather, they are intended to manage symptoms—to provide relief. The problem is that when we give these medications to young people, they lose the ability to heal themselves. And it lets parents—and society—off the hook.
Healing is more complex than treating a chemical imbalance with a pill. Healing takes time.
From supporting my daughter’s journey, here are four factors that I believe allowed Rebecka to break free from psychiatric treatment and heal.
A Medication-Free Brain
Rebecka certainly received a variety of therapies in addition to medication throughout the course of her Lost Year, including cognitive behavioral therapy, pet therapy, and music therapy. Yet, until her brain was free of chemicals, she wasn’t able to absorb and use the skills she learned.
This helped her heal.
A Stable Home Environment
If we had gone to see a qualified family therapist, they might have asked us how things were going at home. We may have told them that my husband was living four hours away in Northeast Iowa, while Rebecka and I lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They also would have learned that I was a software executive with a stressful job that paid well, but didn’t make me happy.
Intuitively, I realized during that year that I needed to make a choice between my intense career and my daughter’s health. It was an easy decision. By the time she started ninth grade, we had all moved to the college town where my husband taught and I had quit my job to do consulting from home.
This helped her heal.
Professional Help for Disordered Eating
Not only was Rebecka feeling depressed and anxious when her doctor gave her that first prescription of Zoloft, but she had also lost a lot of weight. However, because the side effects of the medication ended up being so severe, she didn’t receive any consistent treatment for her disordered eating during her Lost Year.
The fall of her ninth grade, she spent four weeks at the Mayo Clinic’s eating disorder program, learning how to feed herself. We learned how to monitor her food intake once she got home and how to make sure that she kept it down. The experience gave us hope.
This helped her heal.
Rebecka was fortunate enough to learn lots of coping skills and strategies during her hospitalizations and extensive therapy. Dialectical behavior therapy was especially helpful, in that it taught her skills which she could use when she was distressed or having trouble regulating her emotions.
She learned that listening to music helped her relax and that watching sitcoms helped cheer her up if she was feeling down.
This helped her heal.
There were certainly other things that helped in her healing process: less pressure from us related to school performance, supportive friends, choir, activism, and having a sense of purpose. The healing continues today and will continue for the rest of her life.
Our family learned a lot from this experience. We learned how to take better care of each other. My husband and I learned to trust our instincts when it comes to our child’s care. And we learned that the healing journey looks different for every person. We’re grateful that Rebecka was able to find her path to healing. She is stronger for it.
Humans are complex creatures and we require complex solutions when things are amiss. Different approaches work with different people, because we’re all different. I’ve learned not to let anyone reduce me, or someone I love, to a diagnosis and a prescription. Healing is more complicated than that.
Good for you! I wish my son would do the same.
I think your story serves as a great model for others going through similar experiences. Thanks so much for sharing it.
You said: “She is thriving and helping others through her own writing and peer support.” As a person with lived experience who waited 40 years before getting involved in peer support and similar endeavors, I am always amazed at those who not only transform and heal, but also then go on to help others. Can you please tell me how your daughter transitioned to helping others?
Hi Don, that’s a great question. It was quite organic, really. A local parent might contact me for advice/support, and I would ask Rebecka if she was comfortable having coffee with the teen daughter or connecting in some other way. Sometimes, she was up for it, other times, she was not. I let her go at her own pace and didn’t push her. I think the fact that we published a book and were very public about our experiences opened the door to peer support much earlier.
So many good points made here which are sure to help other families coping with challenges both complex and heart-breaking!
Sadly, I was a victim of the Zoloft thing. I had taken it for several years… Some 8 years and then it really screwed me up. It stops working after a few years, and a person starts doing things that are self destructive they would have not done before. Trust people whom they would not normally trust, or be pliable to other peoples suggestions. I lost everything financially to bad people because of what I think was the effects/affects of the zoloft… being pliable or easily manipulated by others. Sadly, once I was off zoloft, I could not go without any medication and am now on another medication as I was feeling too too much without medication. The Affects of the zoloft on my brain had already done the damage. I just Hope I will be okay. I got confirmation about the zoloft when I was in the hospital as the person in the bed next to me, his daughter was doing some uncharacteristic things he had said and she was on Zoloft for many a year as well.
Inspiring to know that there is no reason to give up hope that you can help the your loved ones to heal. That the sacrifices you have to make can be beneficial when you’re aware of what’s needed. I applaud you and am very grateful to read your story.
That’s right, Charles. After the dust of our experience settled, what emerged was hope. There is always hope for healing. Thanks for reading.
So glad that you, your husband and your daughter have been able to find your way home to increased health and happiness. A story that will be a wonderful gift for many other families I’m sure.
Julie, thanks for your comment. It has been a real blessing to be able to share our story and support others in similar situations.
Sorry, it should be Julia! 🙂
Wow, Tabita, what a story! It’s incredible what your family has been through together. I admire you for churning those experiences into leadership, creativity, and activism!
Thanks Vironika! It’s a real honor to contribute to and learn from your beautiful community.