Paper presented at the 3rd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Touch me I'm sick"
8 & 9 September 1997, University of South Africa Regional Office, Durban

Touch me I'm sick - Listen and I'll heal

Felicity Bielovich

In this paper I cover and highlight some of the main points I make in my book "The Judas Window": My experience with pain, which led to being certified and committed to a mental institution, iatrogenic illness and mood/mind altering drugs; patient rights; the role of doctor, patient and pharmacist; the need for a paradigm shift from the existing medical model (evaluate, medicate, patient please); and why I believe psychologists should not prescribe.

When Kenneth Wilson invited me to speak here today I never hesitated for a moment. In fact, when he mentioned that the theme of the conference was "Touch me I'm sick," the title of my talk, "Listen and I'll heal" just sprung to mind, because my whole story centres around what the doctors didn't hear!

Several years ago I fell off a grandstand, breaking my pelvis in the process. This entailed undergoing a fusion and spending three months in bed. However, when I finally stood up, I couldn't walk more than a hundred metres because of excruciating pain. I ended up under the care of a neurologist who promptly put me onto a fortnight of sleep-therapy. When I left the clinic I was given a couple of bottles of pills with "Take as prescribed" written on them. I did exactly that. Within a very short time I was experiencing all sorts of side effects... mood swings, nightsweats, panic attacks to name but a few. I saw the neurologist every three weeks and told him how I was feeling. He would modify the dosage either by elevating or reducing it, or prescribing a whole new group. At one point my symptoms suggested to him that I was going through change of life so I was referred to a gynaecologist who pumped me with oestrogen every fortnight! This went on for fifteen months, by which time I was under several disciplines with even more side-effects. I reached the point where I became suicidal and was admitted to the psychiatric ward of the Johannesburg General Hospital, where I spent three months undergoing all sorts of evaluations and tests. On the night I arrived at the hospital I was very frightened, but was made to feel very guilty when I asked if my husband could stay and see me settled in. I was told in no uncertain terms that he was tired and shocked and should go home to sleep!

During those three months I was turned inside out like a rag doll by the professor, two psychiatrists and a panel of students who believed my problem arose out of my being the fifth child and "perhaps my parent hadn't wanted me!" I underwent ECT eight times to no avail. I stayed exactly where I was... in a Godforsaken pit of nothingness.

Fortune smiled on me then in the form of a convict who was admitted for a psychiatric evaluation. We were told not to fraternize, but being anti-establishment, I befriended him. In a matter of days we opened our hearts to each other. I believe this was because of our perceived worthlessness and having nothing to defend or hide. He told me the pills were causing my problem and I should stop them. I asked him how I could when I was under supervision. He suggested I run away and that I would be sent elsewhere.

Without thought of consequence or sequel I did exactly that. I ran into a very dangerous place called the Wilds where I was found by my husband and a posse of policemen in the early hours of the morning. Nicky was absolutely marvellous. Totally non-judgemental, only sorry that he had to return me to the hospital.

My reception back at the hospital is something I have never forgotten. I wasn't asked why I'd run away, only told how much trouble I had caused the staff and patients who'd been woken up and asked where I was. In a matter of 20 minutes the Professor had me certified and committed to Weskoppies... a state institution.

Weskoppies was a cultural shock for me in more ways than one. However, I was met by a good Professor who had the intelligence to ask me why I had run away, the integrity to believe me and the wisdom to stop the pills. Stopping them all at once sent me on another whole trip. My personality changed, as did my behaviour and I soon learned what stigma is all about. Stigma is not something you see or touch. It is something that is felt deep down inside one's being. Somehow you are made to feel different. You live on the periphery and know that you don't belong. One soon picks up the us/them mentality, because of the manner in which they treat the so-called misfits and broken reeds of society.

I had to learn the hard way what the "cooler" and labelling is all about in a place like this. I happened to see a young, pregnant girl kicked around by another patient and I went to her aid. For doing this I was struck and thrown across the room, labelled a trouble-maker and sent to this cooler. A room where the legs of the bed are set in concrete, the window is barred and the only companion in the room is a chamber-pot. When I emerged from that room I was compliant, docile and putty-like. Nothing would ever induce me to go back there.

I spent three months inside Weskoppies and I believed that I'd never get well. I felt so strongly about this that I gave away all my personal belongings and went outside to curse God. I was so busy that I fell over a rock, knocking my head and knee in the process. When I stood up, however, I felt as if my scalp was being peeled back and a physical weight was being lifted off the back of head. In that moment I knew that I had a daughter getting married and that I had her wedding dress to make. I went off to the Professor and with one look at my smiling face, he said I could go home. No psychiatric tests, only the proviso I see an outside psychiatrist. I did. He prescribed more pills . When I questioned them he said he was taking nine of them himself and they were perfectly safe.

In a matter of weeks I was back to feeling suicidal. I called the psychiatrist and he said if I didn't continue with the medication he would have me re-committed. I did the only thing I could. I stopped the medication without telling anyone. I went through a dreadful time on my own. Three months down the track I had to have a lithium test and I had to come clean that I hadn't taken the medication and that I had got better on my own. An ugly scene erupted, but I walked away victorious. When I left there were no stepping stones or bridges. I had to find my own way back. All I carried out of Weskoppies with me was anger, guilt, self-hatred and no self-image whatsoever. I describe my journey in my first book "New Image People - Beyond the Barrier".

After this my life took interesting twists and turns. My nephew was travelling in America, where he met up with a young benzodiazepine researcher from Australia. When this young man returned to Australia I started corresponding with him. He suggested I forward my book to the Professors he had met on his travels in England, Wales and the States.

The feedback I received was staggering in volume as well as content. I found conclusive evidence that my whole experience could have been avoided if the doctors treating me had known more about what they were prescribing in terms of risk versus harm. Keep in mind, I'd lost two years to mental-illness, when all I suffered from was iatrogenic illness, i.e. illness brought on by the treatment! I was livid. I wanted to sue.

`At this point John Kehoe, the internationally renowned author of "Mindpower" entered the picture. He read "Beyond the Barrier" said I had a compelling story to tell and told me to go back to the well. I did. It was both painful and cathartic and the "Judas Window" is the result.

The Judas Window is not a diatribe against the medical profession (though it could have been). In it I look at the heart of mental illness associated with depression; examine the role of the doctor and patient; Spell out patients' rights; challenge the pharmaceutical industry; and offer solutions.

Keep in mind, I only went to the doctor for PAIN... which after all is the most common reason why anyone does go. As we all know, pain is idiosyncratic in all its aspects, and an entire conference could be centred around it. However, from a grassroots level, if a person goes to the doctor and says they can't sleep, feel anxious, depressed, can't cope, the doctor would automatically prescribe the pills specifically designed to change all that... the psychotropics. In other words the mood/ mind altering drugs, notably the benzodiazepines, which Prof Lourens Schlebusch, Head of Applied Psychology, University of Natal refers to as The Silent Threat. And I heartily endorse him, because since I appeared on Carte Blanche earlier this year I have received over 500 calls from people desperately trying to come off them.

So what do we know about benzodiazepines? When they first appeared in 1960 they were heralded as the safe alternative to the barbiturates which often proved fatal in overdose. Pills like Ativan, Mogodon, Lexotan, Valium, Librium, Rohypnol and Halcion, soon became household names. It was only 30 years later that problems like addiction, dependence, psychiatric disorder and iatrogenic illness began to surface.

Why did it take so long you may well ask? Outside of pharmaceutical companies, few doctors were aware that there is very little difference between them. This bogus differentiation led them to prescribe a different one for each symptom as they'd been recommended. When patients came back with symptoms suggestive of mental illness, like personality and behavioural changes, the doctor didn't see this as being pill-related, but rather as something wrong with the person. A label was given, another psychotropic prescribed and the road to addiction got under way.

So do these drugs have a place in the treatment of stress and depression? Undoubtedly. Provided they are appropriately prescribed. By that I mean, the right drug, the right dose, the right reason, the right period of time... keeping in mind that no drug might be the right route! Unfortunately, the current mindset of doctors, health professionals and patients alike functions in an ethos that believes, "There is a pill for every ill", and "Every ill deserves a pill." I believe there needs to be a paradigm shift from the existing Medical Model which is Evaluate, Medicate, patient please. We need a more tripartite approach, where doctor, pharmacist and patient are on an equal footing in terms of knowledge and understanding of what is going on. We also need to see some changes when it comes to inserts/data sheets, if you are lucky enough to get one with your medication. I find I need a pair of binoculars and a medical dictionary if I am to comprehend all the jargon.

Another question I would like to ask is why more women are prescribed these pills than men? Is it because there are more male doctors, or does it lie in the doctors' perception that women are emotional creatures? To illustrate my point. If a man presents to the doctor stressed, anxious, not sleeping or coping with his job, the doctor will see this as something physically wrong with him. He will recommend he takes up golf, visits the gym, has a night out with the boys. You can be certain it will be some social activity. Whereas, a woman presenting with exactly the same symptoms will be seen as having something psychologically wrong with her. She will walk out with a script for pills to calm her down!

Mistakes: My greatest was that I kept quiet about how I was feeling. If I had spoken I would never have reached such a low. I suffered from the Deified Doctor Syndrome. I believed and trusted my doctor completely.

Doctors' mistakes: They never listened properly or heard what I was saying. Unfortunately, like me, they also knew nothing about drug-withdrawal-syndrome. You see, many of your future patients could be suffering from nothing other than the side-effects of their medication, and that is why it is imperative for you to know more about this group of drugs.

So what are people to do when they get depressed, can't cope, feel rundown?

Before visiting a doctor, I usually suggest they sit down and listen to what is happening deep down within themselves. I encourage them to get in touch with their emotional roots, which I believe are the most important roots of all. By getting them to revisit their childhood to see how they reacted/behaved when they felt hurt, neglected, overlooked, they can learn new and better ways of coping. This little inward journey also teaches them to learn the art of Naming, Claiming and Taming... i.e name and acknowledge the problem, claim responsibility for it by asking yourself what you can do about it and tame it by taking action!

The best alternative of all, however, is to seek out an intervention therapist. That rare breed who still have hearts. Hearts that listen/touch/feel... for and with broken humanity. That breed who don't have a pen sitting on top of their ear like the village grocer, waiting to take down the order. That breed who is not there to judge, blame, label. The breed I am talking about are the social workers, the ministers, but above all... you, the psychologists!

Your role has always been to promote/defend the fundamental right of a person to grow and reach their full potential. Do you want to surrender, give away your noble calling and meaning, because your profession is currently stalked by fear?

Anyone would be blind not to notice how psychiatry is spreading like an octopus into every modality of medicine, as it takes a larger and larger slice of the healing-of-the-mind pie. Yes, they are the ones who make the big money, drive the luxury cars, lead the fabulous lifestyles. How very tempting it must be to take up the pen and lay aside your ears. But are you prepared to pay the price?

It has been said that the unexamined life is not worth living. But what about the unfelt life? Is it life at all? To become pill-pushing prescribers, means denying a person their fundamental right to feel, experience, taste the seasons of life. Keep in mind, these smart drugs, the psychotropics, can blunt feelings, diminish coping skills, straight-jacket minds as well as take away one's power and turn one into a puppet!

Are you prepared to defend the right of doctors to prescribe Prozac to children as young as eight years old when no clinical trials were ever run regarding its dosage and side-effects? To go along with 46% of a class of school-children being prescribed Ritalin for ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)?

Are we parents and doctors going crazy? Why can't or shouldn't children be allowed to experience the pains of emotional growth? How will they ever self-actualise, become critical thinkers, reach their potential, if their feelings and minds are blunted, blocked, straight-jacketed with inappropriate/questionable medication?

What about the elderly, often diagnosed with Altzheimers when all they are suffering from is a drug-induced fog? And if medication fails to sort out that mind, be it young or old, there is always ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) waiting for them in the wings. In fact, to-day you can eve get maintenance shock treatment!! All you need do is pop into the clinic twice a week for a shock... lie down for an hour or two afterwards, and then you can get back to work. How is that for the power of the pen!

Is this where you see yourselves in the new millennium? Is that where you want to be? Breaking down the very fibre of selfhood! Choose the easy road of the pen and that is exactly where you will be.

If you really want to find out more about the machinations and shenanigans which surround these drugs, I would recommend you read the definitive book on benzodiazepines Power and Dependence by Charles Medawar. Another mind-sweeping book is Peter Breggins' Talking back to Prozac. Having had access to the Freedom of Information Act, he courageously tells us the ugly and frightening truths about these drugs.

Before you buy into the prescribing modality, I also advise you to test the pharmaceutical waters. Keep in mind they are an industry, with products to sell. They are not really interested in whether Mrs Jones sleeps at night or not. What they are interested in is profits. And they make billions. Prozac alone brings in 28 billion dollars annually!

Not only is the industry very powerful, but they also police and monitor themselves. They present papers in the best journals, have their own experts/defenders/promoters. They also sponsor programmes, seminars and individuals... anyone, who is willing to advance their argument that there is a naughty gene to blame for everything. Panic disorder, is just one example of how well a disorder can be marketed. Last year, their support group (sponsored by 10 pharmaceutical companies) had 300 members at R25 per head. This year they are close to the 3000 mark, all of whom are on medication...yes, the psychotropics! I am not saying this disorder doesn't exist. I am only illustrating how it is being exploited along with many other acronymic disorders.

Undoubtedly, the field of genetics is exciting, challenging, mysterious, even frightening for some, but do we really have to or want to believe that a naughty gene lies at the heart of every human condition? Are we to believe that we are not responsible for anything that happens in our lives? That there is nothing we can do to help ourselves other than to swallow a pill?

To believe that, is to deny and exclude our spiritual dimension, wherein I believe most of our answers lie. When we were born, we didn't arrive armed with a bag full of anti-depressants, tranquillisers and sleeping pills to see us through the tough times in life... which are going to happen whether we like it or not. We are uniquely designed to cope from within, if we can just get deep down inside.

Psychologists have always led the field in helping us tap into and touch these deepest, richest roots at the core of our being, thereby enabling and empowering us, to better know, believe and trust in ourselves.

Humanity is hurting like never before. If ever a safety-net was needed to hold/cradle/nurture, that time is now. Your ears are our safety-net. To bend them, even for a moment, for the sake of a pen, would in my opinion be a betrayal, a stepping back into the dark, leaving the door wide open to those whom we have every reason to fear... the charlatans, the quacks, the questionable alternatives.

As we approach the new millennium, psychology stands on the threshold of advancement or retreat. Either you help us embrace our inter-connectedness, whereby we help each other grow as we ourselves evolve, or you hand us over to medications that can cause drug-induced brain-dysfunction which will render us helpless to explore our human potential.

To remain at the listening post will require more than courage. It will require your hearts.

Fax/tele: 011-740-7349

Paper presented at the 3rd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Touch me I'm sick"
8 & 9 September 1997, University of South Africa Regional Office, Durban
critical methods society - -