My Substance Intoxication Was Misdiagnosed as Psychiatric

Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

By Tamara S. – May 13, 2022

At 21 I was happy. I had finished high school (in Switzerland this is called “matura”) and was working at my first job, an internship at a big insurance company. Life was unfolding in front of me exactly as I had planned. I was sporty and went for a run every morning before work. I loved spending time with my friends after work and on the weekends. I was perfectly healthy and didn’t have a worry in the world.

At my job I learned fast and met many interesting people — I absolutely loved working in the insurance business and was fascinated. Still, I had planned to go to university after the internship to brighten my horizons and improve my chances at getting a well-paid job later.

During the last weeks of my internship, it was summer in Zurich and I usually went to the lake for lunch with one of the other trainees in the company. But I was quite tired — getting up at 5 o’clock every morning for an hourly run and then going straight to my workplace to work for 8 hours or more a day, then meeting friends for dinner or hitting the gym, had made me tired over those two years as I hadn’t really prioritised sleep in this time.

So when a friend of mine proposed that I take St. John’s wort — an herbal antidepressant — to help with my tiredness, I didn’t think any further about it and went to the pharmacy after work to pick up the strongest preparation of it. At this time, in 2015, St. John’s wort was still prescription-free. As the pharmacist explained to me, St. John’s wort has to build up to a therapeutic level in the body therefore it would take some time until the effects would kick in.

But I was 21 and impatient, I wanted the effect to kick in fast and I wanted to finish my internship well and receive a good job reference and prepare for my studies at a top-notch university. So I thought it’d be a good idea to just triple the daily dose of St. John’s wort — surely a plant-based, prescription-free pill couldn’t be dangerous? I was wrong.

In the course of a few days I became extremely restless, only sleeping a few hours per night. After a Friday evening drink with a friend I was completely confused — half an hour after taking the drink I felt as if everything was turning in my head, although I used to react normally to alcohol in the past. Had someone put drugs in my drink? Where did my strange state come from? Now I was becoming afraid.

At home I went straight to my parents, who asked me whether I had been taking drugs since they had never seen me like this. I talked about the same things over and over again and just couldn’t manage to sleep. My parents, who wanted me to rest, took my phone and computer from me so that I could relax. But I repeated over and over again that I felt intoxicated and that I was worried someone had put something in my drink. In the end I decided to go to the nearby hospital without telling my parents about it, as I didn’t feel taken seriously by them about the whole situation and was afraid they would hold me back. It was 11 o’clock in the evening, after all.

In the small village hospital no one was there, so I decided to go to the station and take the next train to Zurich instead. I didn’t even have my phone on me, as my parents had taken it. But my parents, who had realised I was missing, had other plans instead. They were worried and called the police. At the station the police were waiting for me and took me with them. They called an emergency doctor who sanctioned me to the next clinic due to my restless and confused state. That’s how I got in contact for the first time with the psychiatric system — UNFORTUNATELY.

In the clinic I was brought to a closed unit. It was extremely scary. Patients were lingering around in the hallways and the rooms were spartan, with only a bed and a telephone in the room. I didn’t understand why I was locked in there. I didn’t even know what a mental health hospital was, exactly — I knew it existed but I didn’t know it looked like that. The psychiatric nurses were no help. Neither did they explain to me where I was, nor what would happen to me now. I felt like I was in a prison, but I didn’t know what I had done wrong?

I lay down on the bed in the small patient room and tried to sleep — surely things would be clarified and they would find out that this was all a misunderstanding and that I was a completely normal person with a normal life but somebody had tried to spike my drink with drugs and my confused state was from there.

In the middle of the night I was woken up by a nurse: “We have got to do a blood and urine sample.” “Not now,” I said, completely sleepy. “Tomorrow.”

“Okay,” the nurse replied. But this test was never done. Also, nobody asked me whether I had taken any substances. If they had, they would have found out that I was actually suffering from a serotonin syndrome, caused by the overdosing of St. John’s wort — in total 2700mg, plus the mixture of alcohol from the drink on Friday evening. This substance intoxication was causing my symptoms of confusion, restlessness and, well, the feeling of being intoxicated.

In the morning I got a visit from the doctor — an assistance doctor in the beginning of his practical education. He was so nervous that his hands were soaking wet with sweat. Normally, assistance doctors are guided by an experienced doctor — later I learned that the experienced doctor responsible for the assistance doctor had gone on vacation and the clinic hadn’t thought about a surrogate.

The assistance doctor also didn’t find it suspect that no one had done a blood or urine sample and he didn’t ask me whether I had taken any substances before coming to the psychiatric hospital.

In a few minutes he diagnosed me with a psychological crisis — a “psychosis” — and advised me to take antipsychotics. Clearly I didn’t have a psychological problem so I refused taking them. But the clinic also talked my parents, who had visited me in the meantime, into giving me the “medication” as I “wouldn’t get well again otherwise” and the “psychosis” would become “chronic.”

So I was forced to take the antipsychotics in the end. It was the worst thing I have ever experienced in my whole life. I felt like someone had pushed me out of my body — I felt like a lifeless and emotionless zombie, like something had died in me.

The substance intoxication I had come to the hospital with was nothing compared to being on “antipsychotics”. Out of sheer luck I survived. I now also understood why other patients were screaming, like they were experiencing heavy pain.

I had only one thought — that I needed to take myself out of this misunderstanding, this extremely dangerous situation. I needed to save myself and my soul.

In the meantime the experienced doctor had returned from her vacation. My parents, who saw how I was suffering, talked to her to let me go home. Realising that I could not sleep in the hospital as the other patients were extremely loud, the doctor agreed that I could leave. But only under the condition that I would take the “medication” at home and look for a psychiatrist I could see from there.

I would’ve agreed to anything just to get out of this dangerous situation and this extremely scary and sad place that reminded me of a KZ (concentration camp). I thought to myself that surely my parents realised I was a normal person and this was completely the wrong place for me. The dangerous pills that they were referring to as “medication,” surely was a misconstruction — nobody in their right mind could expect anyone to take this! And how should feeling like a dead lifeless zombie help anyone? No, I would just throw it in the trash at home and go back to work after some days and tell nobody what I had seen, I thought. In the end, the misdiagnosis would only create more misunderstandings.

But my parents had other plans. Back at home, they forced me to take the “medication” like the doctors had told them to. The “doctors” had told them that the “psychosis” would become “chronic” otherwise.

What this wrong treatment really did was further intoxicate me, now with psychopharmaceuticals, and never let me recover from the initial intoxication with St. John’s wort that I was sent to the clinic with. I couldn’t sleep and my state got worse and worse. Through a friend, my parents had heard that in the small hospital in our village (where I went to the ER initially) there was a small psychiatric unit. They decided to bring me there.

There, too, no psychiatrist ever asked me whether I had taken any substances initially that caused this state. They just talked about changing the “medication” to find the “right medication” for me, so they force-fed me huge amounts of different pills. Afterwards I didn’t even know where I was or what day it was anymore. I had extremely strong headaches, beat my head against the wall and cried. Every day I told these “doctors” that I didn’t want to take the “medication” anymore as I felt like I was dying on it (and it indeed did huge damage to my before so healthy and perfectly working body).

They just reported me sick with my employer without my consent. Without any legal basis, I was incarcerated and force-fed medication for three weeks. After that, I wanted to die. I was a changed person. And all this for a wrong diagnosis in the first place. Substance intoxications (and the resulting serotonin syndrome) are not treated with medication. Rather doctors should just wait until the substance intoxication passes by itself.

But this did not interest any of the psychiatrists I met. They were only interested in sticking a (wrong) diagnostic label to me and putting me on “medication” for the rest of my life.

Had I not stopped taking the pharmaceuticals at home with the help of my parents, it probably would’ve never come forth that I was misdiagnosed as the very medication I received actually caused the symptoms I was diagnosed with — psychosis.

Also, in the years to follow, whenever I looked for medical advice as the wrong treatment had caused heavy concentration problems and daily headaches (I had to postpone my studies and still today can only study slowly), doctors wanted to give me more psychopharmaceuticals like Ritalin or antipsychotics.

All these drugs induced psychosis-like states in me, which were then treated again with antipsychotics.

Why do doctors not look at whether a person’s symptoms are actually caused by substances? Why are they so prone to just prescribing psychopharmaceuticals and ruining patients’ lives? A friend of mine who had done an internship in the same company as I did killed herself at 21 after being force-fed medication in a clinic.

It could’ve been me, too. But I have decided to write down my story and talk about how psychiatry almost completely ruined my life.

For me it was a wrong diagnosis that led to the prescribing of “antipsychotics,” but my heart breaks for all the other people who simply have life distress or a trauma which could be resolved with psychotherapy but get told they have to take these awful and extremely dangerous pills.

I know now that the main reason behind this is financial interests, and I believe the people who take their lives after taking these pills are not in despair due to their life problems but due to this inhumane “treatment.”

I have strong pains in my whole body every day now, but I live. And I have hope. With the help of the withdrawal community I have learned that my body can heal. And I see this healing happen every day. My life will never be as perfect as it once was, but I am hoping for a better future.

Let’s protect the people who get sucked into this faulty system by spreading the word and looking out for those close to us.