My flight from the American healthcare system began in my late twenties during a period of severe personal crisis, mostly mental. I was suffering from extreme depression, severe anxiety, and poor physical health from years of a sedentary, entertainment-based lifestyle. The American Dream. I had a wonderful marriage with a child on the way, my own home, plenty of friends, and I was working my dream job that came with a great salary and all the health care benefits I could supposedly need. But I wasn’t happy. I was miserable, emotionally wrecked, and very self-destructive. Why?
Eventually I broke down, decided I needed help and turned to our trustworthy family doctor who I’d known for years. After revealing to him personal details of my mental suffering, he quickly diagnosed me with anxiety and depression, prescribed me two medications that very same day (an anti-anxiety drug, and an anti-schizophrenic/depressant drug); he then he gave me an emergency referral to a highly recommended psychiatrist. When I asked if the drugs were truly necessary and for how long I would need to take them, my doctor said I had a chemical imbalance and that the meds were needed for the rest of my life. I asked if getting exercise or changing my diet could help re-balance me, but he assured me it did not matter, that I would not improve without the drugs. He had free samples of the anti-depressant to give me, and with insurance the whole affair cost me just a few dollars at the pharmacy.
The anxiety pills worked to relax me, but the depression pill made me feel so uncomfortable and weird that I had to place an emergency call to my doctor that same evening explaining that I was not only confused, nervous, and having cold sweats, but I was leaking bodily fluids and mildly twitching all over. Urging me to remain calm, he told me the side effects were very normal and that I would grow accustomed to them over time, adding that I should continue both medications, even increasing their dosages at the end of the week. That turned out to be the last anti-depressant pill I’ve ever taken.
Later in the week I met with the psychiatrist, a very distinguished and accomplished doctor. At this point I was fully convinced that I really just needed to talk with someone who could offer sound advice. There was immediate difficulty for me in opening up to him and I told him so. He assured me it was OK because this was only our first visit of many to come and our relationship would develop over time. Besides, he could still prescribe me the right medications, he said. He didn’t need to know or fully understand all the details at once, he assured me.
I mentioned to him my experience with the medications from my family doctor, and toward the end of a rather uncomfortable first visit the psychiatrist wrote out prescriptions for an additional five pills for me; I was to take a whopping seven different pills per day! This seemed like a shocking amount of medication to me, so I asked a slew of questions about why this was necessary and for how long. The doctor remained entirely confident that this regimen would correct all of my issues. It was absolutely necessary; I had a severe chemical imbalance, he told me — not that big of a deal, and actually very common. I just needed the medications, which were available to me free of charge, today, as samples. I could buy them for the rest of my life at my local pharmacy, paying with my insurance, of course.
Leaving the office with a white plastic bag full of pills in hand — and after my experience with anti-depressants earlier in the week — it seemed counter-intuitive to begin taking this many drugs everyday. Even carefully spacing them out during the day as the psychiatrist recommended to prevent an overlap of side effects, this seemed unhealthy. Dangerous even.
My choices became apparent. I could follow the advice of my doctors and take the drugs, ignoring the deep skepticism I was feeling. I could seek out new doctors and new opinions within a medical system that suddenly seemed to not have my best interests at heart. Or, I could acknowledge the growing voice inside me saying my problems were much too complex and too personal to be cured by a medical system this quick on the draw with pharmaceuticals.
I dropped the bag of pills into the trashcan on the way to the car, never seeing either of the two doctors again. How often does this happen in doctors’ offices? How many people are on mind-altering drugs because this was the first solution recommended by their physician? How many people permanently take these drugs because any alternatives were downplayed? How many people got their first dose of a lifetime for free, as a sample?
These events were pivotal in my life because they sent me in search of wellness outside of the American medical establishment. The next few years were difficult and extremely painful, but a transformation took place within me; over time I began to heal myself through improved diet, much exercise and natural medicines. This transformation would not have been possible if I was dependent on drugs and doctors for guidance, because it was the very acceptance of responsibility for my own health and well-being that triggered the transformation. It was a transformation that was absolutely necessary to develop the immense happiness and fulfillment I enjoy today, without pharmaceuticals, just six years later.
It can be easy to want to pin blame on doctors for coming on so strong with a pharmaceutical solution, but that misses an important lesson. Whatever options we are told to have by people in positions of authority, we can always choose to say “no,” even though the consequences for doing so may seem frightening. Being alert to our own interests, and having the simple courage to say ‘no’ in accordance with personal judgment, can mean the difference between wanting freedom and actually being free. Remember that the next time your doctor offers you free samples of an easy cure.