In 1997, as an angry, despairing, self-injuring young teen, Laura was sent to her first therapist. That therapist, feeling ill-equipped to help her, soon sent Laura to a psychiatrist. That psychiatrist, at the end of their first session together, told Laura that she had an incurable condition called “Bipolar disorder” and would need to take psychiatric drugs for the rest of her life. She was fourteen.
Fiery and defiant in those early years, Laura refused to accept against her diagnosis. She hid her pills, didn’t tell anyone about what her psychiatrist had declared about her, and continued on as best she could through high school. By the time she got to Harvard University for freshman year, she found herself more overwhelmed by darkness than ever before. She spiraled out into a vortex of self-destruction and chaos. Tired of the struggle and deeply afraid herself, Laura grew desperate for an explanation for her suffering and the promise of relief. At eighteen, Laura returned to a psychiatrist and accepted that she was, in fact, “mentally ill”— and would be for the rest of her life.
Over the ten years to follow, Laura took nineteen different psychiatric drugs. She accumulated a long list of other diagnoses, including “Major depression”, “Eating disorder NOS”, “Substance abuse disorder”, and “Borderline personality disorder”. She crossed paths with countless therapists, outpatient programs, and partial hospital programs. She was hospitalized four times. Despite all this “care” she received, however, she never seemed to “get better”. Her ability to maintain relationships, pursue goals, move forward, and take care of herself fell progressively more apart. She eventually grew convinced that this “incurable disease” in her brain requiring indefinite pharmaceutical and professional intervention was too much to bear. At the age of twenty-seven, Laura decided that suicide was the only logical conclusion to her “seriously mentally ill” life, and she acted on it (to hear more from Laura on her long relationship to suicide, you can read this article and watch this video).
In 2010, two years later, Laura came to the realization that this system of “help” to which she’d been turning through her most formative years— the mental health system— was not only unhelpful, but actually making her problems far worse. (To learn more about what this time looked like for her, you can watch this talk.) She decided to come off her five medications (lithium, Lamictal, Abilify, Effexor, and Ativan), leave behind all of her diagnoses, and “break up” with all of her doctors and therapists. She knew with conviction that if she stood a chance at reconnecting meaningfully with herself, she needed to go through this process of liberation.
Since becoming an “ex-patient”, Laura has been writing and speaking about her personal experiences and about the broader social and political issues sitting at the heart of “mental illness” and “mental health”. She wrote extensively about her journey at her now-archived website, Recovering from Psychiatry. She has worked both within and beyond the mental health system. In the Boston area, she worked for nearly two years for a large community mental health organization, providing support to and advocating for the rights of individuals in emergency rooms, psychiatric hospitals, and institutional “group home” settings. After leaving the “inside” of the mental health system, she began consulting with individuals and families seeking help during the psychiatric drug withdrawal process. Laura has also given talks and workshops in Europe and across North America, facilitated mutual-aid groups for people in withdrawal, and organized various conferences and public events such as the Mad in America International Film Festival. She also educates psychiatrists and mental health professionals about safer tapering protocols, and is regularly contacted by professional organizations looking to implement withdrawal supports and resources.
In January 2018, Laura launched Inner Compass Initiative (ICI) and ICI’s The Withdrawal Project, of which she serves as Executive Director. Through her personal journey she’s come to believe that the darkest parts of ourselves are often our best teachers, and that our pain is something to listen to, lean into, explore, learn and grow from—not fear, suppress, run away from, or pathologize and seek to shut down.
Today, Laura sees the experiences that get called “mental illness” not as sicknesses, but rather as opportunities to deepen our connections with ourselves and with each other.
She is currently working on a memoir called UNSHRUNK.