Know When to Fire ’em: Should You Change Psychiatrists?

“You are a loner!”

My psychiatrist practically shouted that sentence. It was my second week in a private psychiatric hospital in Greensboro, NC, in 1987. I admitted myself on the recommendation of Dr. Garrett, after I’d called him to say I thought I was causing the snowstorms.

“You are not causing the snowstorms,” he’d said on the phone that night. “You have a chemical imbalance in your brain.”

Do psychiatrists actually think that means anything to someone experiencing her first psychotic episode? (“Oh, gee, I guess that must be it. Thanks for your time, doc.”)

Dr. Garrett went on to make three serious mistakes and several lesser ones. Besides the inaccurate assessment that I was a loner (would YOU try to be buddies with people you thought wanted you to kill yourself?), he:

  • Ordered the dexamethasone suppression test for me, which had been discarded by most shrinks as being ineffective.
  • Started me on Stelazine, which had absolutely intolerable side effects, rather than putting me on one of the milder antipsychotics that had recently been introduced (Trilafon was available in 1987).
  • Diagnosed me as paranoid schizophrenic after observing me for only a few days.

Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

These events started a spiral that led me to go off my meds, quit a job I loved, move 1200 miles away, and pick up the psychotic episode where I’d left off. It would be months before a new doctor put me on Trilafon, which quieted my symptoms with minimal side effects.

I should not have gone off my meds. I should have told Dr. Garrett I couldn’t live like that, and asked for a med adjustment. He had increased my dose from 10 to 40 milligrams (the max dose) in about three weeks, rather than giving a lower dose the time it needed to work.

He asked me once if I thought he, too, was trying to convey dark messages to me through hidden meanings in language. Oddly, I didn’t, and I told him that.

“Well, maybe I’m the voice of health,” he replied, beaming.

If you’re seeing a psychiatrist or getting psych meds from your family physician, is he or she the “voice of health” to you? In retrospect, I should have gotten a second opinion from a different doctor after my horrific experience in the hospital.

I’m not advocating doctor-shopping. Psychiatry is so imprecise, and mental illness is so hard to diagnose and treat. I honestly believe most professionals are doing their level best to treats their clients. And they do know many things that we don’t.

But please don’t settle where your emotional well-being is concerned. Aim for the best mental health you can achieve. Psych meds have improved so much since the 80’s, and sometimes the docs need to get creative if you’re not responding to standard solutions.

Or maybe someone else needs to evaluate your symptoms, see you and your history through fresh eyes. You wouldn’t keep going to the same mechanic if your vehicle wasn’t running smoothly when you picked it up. Give your doc a chance to make adjustments that could help, but learn from the mistake I made 30 years ago. Know when you need to move on.



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