I Was Twelve and Anxious. My Doctor Gave Me a Lethal Drug

Here’s how I survived

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The approach to anxiety in children has changed a little over the last 50 years. The problem is steadily increasing and the issues of the pandemic have made it worse. I was treated brutally, but now I have the privilege of helping others navigate their way through this common childhood concern. However, my view is that the main cause of the problem is located in the structure of education and society, not in the children themselves.

I have recently begun counselling clients in the ten-to-twelve age group. This experience helped me understand and face the things I endured when I was twelve and suffered anxiety. I had no access to counselling, and there was no attempt to understand what I was going through. Like many children before and after me, society saw my behaviour as a problem rather than a symptom. My GP sedated me with a lethal drug, which has had a devastating effect on my life since that point.

It All Began In My Counselling Room

After a long conversation with my mum about the circumstances around being given this drug, I ran my regular counselling session in a school hub.

I was doing a review of the first five weeks with a twelve-year-old client suffering anxiety and panic attacks. I asked too many questions.
“What did you hope to achieve?”
“Dunno.”
“Have you any specific goals you want us to work with?”
A shrug
“Has anything changed since coming here?”
“My mind’s a blank.”
“Was there anything we did together that made a difference?”
“Don’t know.”

They did not answer any of the questions.
After I had given up asking, they said,

“I see this as a place where I can come and lay everything on the table, and we can have a look at it.”

This phrase has stuck with me, and I have started quoting it to other clients struggling to break free from a linear model of logical thinking.

It has helped me to explain the role of a counsellor to myself and others. It has also helped me gain perspective on the changes that took place for me around that age. I am not interested in blaming anyone or finding cause and effect. Still, I can create a broad view in my mind of how I was affected physically, emotionally and spiritually—an overview, which stops me scurrying down blind tunnels looking for answers that don’t exist.

“I see this as a place where I can come and lay everything on the table, and we can have a look at it.”

This phrase describes the counselling process better than I ever could and certainly better than any description I have read in academic texts or professional websites.

Why make it more complicated than this? Do we complicate it to make it seem more important and specialised? To make ourselves seem more qualified and necessary?

Has the process of making counselling a profession with vast theoretical backup and a stringent qualification process had the effect of turning it into a Frankenstein monster? A monster created by humans from human experience that has lost its humanity?

My twelve-year-old did not come to me with a problem that needed solving or a mental health issue that needed diagnosing or curing. They came to me because the structures we have built up as a society are no longer working in their best interests. They wanted to be in school but were reacting to that institution as a hostile environment. Their body’s fight or flight system had kicked in. One of the effects of this is that they were no longer capable of logical thought. The body took over. Rage, fight, scream, run or freeze. Do anything to counter the perceived threat.

There is nothing wrong with the child. Everything is working perfectly as it should. Their body and soul are sensing a threat to their existence. They are reacting in the way every living creature reacts when they perceive a threat. Fight, flight or freeze.

Suppose a child is experiencing school as a hostile environment. In my world, it is the education establishment’s responsibility to change that environment to one that is perceived as safe. It is not the child who has a problem. It is the system that is creating one.

My child client coming to counselling has recognised that his issues are not located in his logical mind. Even if he could come to some rational understanding of the processes involved, it would be of no use because his analytical mind has gone offline amid a panic attack. I made it crystal clear to my client that it was not my job to get them back to school. I am not an agent of the state trying to enforce social structures on an individual.

Anxiety in children is a societal problem. As a counsellor, I can work with an individual. I can help a young person lay everything on the table and take a look at it. Part of that overview may reveal that the structures and limitations imposed by school-based education are not in their best interests. It may reveal a whole load of other stuff too.

My Experience Of Childhood Anxiety

I feel a solid connection for young students suffering from anxiety. It is not a new problem, and I am delighted to be asked to help some of them find their way through. When I was twelve, I was plagued by pains in my stomach. My GP diagnosed me with anxiety. Unfortunately for many of my peers with mental health difficulties and me, the approach to dealing with mental health in the ’60s was nothing short of barbaric.

Rather than make any attempt to listen to me, to allow me to lay my issues out on the table and take a look at them, I was medicated. My GP put me on a course of Phenobarbitone. Researching this drug now, I see that it is banned in most areas. The primary use currently is as part of lethal injections in some states of the USA.

That was a shocking discovery.

I Was Given A Lethal Drug Because I Was Suffering From Anxiety

Processing the barbaric enormity of that phrase is helping me make a lot of sense of my life from that point onward. The immediate effect was that I shut down parts of myself.

What else would you expect? My whole being was seen as unacceptable, and the medical establishment attacked me viciously with a drug they were testing out, which later found its proper place on Death Row.

Over the course of seven years, I went from A + student to drop out. I was medicated within an inch of my life to conform and go back to school. I did that. I conformed to the system of the time, and it did not serve me. It was not in my best interests.

We do not serve children by medicating them when they do not fit in with our societal structures. We serve children by finding ways of understanding their needs and providing for those needs.

The Many Layered Effect of The Medical Abuse I Suffered

The actual physical effect of the drug may have been minimal. What caused the real damage was the emotional effect of being treated brutally like a misbehaving animal and the impact on my spirit. Like my soul took a massive punch.

You are too noisy, tactile, fidgety, talkative, sensitive and too clever for your own good. You are too much altogether.

I survived by partitioning parts of myself off. My soul created a secret creative inner world where I could be myself and explore my heart’s content. Music, poetry, art and stories flowed out of me in this private world.

As soon as I stepped outside of my cocoon, I erected the walls. That inner world was locked up safe. I withdrew my essential authentic self from public view. I feared if it accidentally showed its face, I would be ridiculed and humiliated.

This seemed to be the case throughout my schooling. On most occasions where I felt free to express myself in art, music or creative writing, it would be written off as ill-considered rubbish. I remember only two occasions when I felt pride in something I had done, and I had the quality of the work acknowledged. This reflects my desperate need to protect myself from a hostile environment.

I have spent over 50 years constantly shifting the balance. I have explored my creative spirit in many ways, but I am recognising now that there is always a point where the balance tips and I run scared. I no longer need the medication to sedate me. I sedate myself.

I learnt my lesson well. If I express myself too openly, the establishment will try to kill me.

I Survived By Shutting Down

What I am very grateful for is that I am one of the lucky ones. I have managed to open those gates to my inner core and feel a sense of authenticity over many years. I have managed to find periods when I can honestly say I am living a life I love.

How many people were shut down similarly and found the only way to survive was to lead a bleak and unfulfilling life?

I am also grateful that I can work with young people. To let them know they are perfect as they are. Maybe I can lead them on a path of survival where they open up parts of themselves rather than close them down.

Maybe I can influence more to follow the lead of Greta Thunberg and many before her, who challenge the establishment rather than allow themselves to be crushed by the weary words of adults who have given up on themselves.

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