Meet Our Contributors: Q&A with Ann Bracken

Veteran writer and frequent LPR contributor Ann Bracken returns with an arresting memoir titled Crash: A Memoir of Overmedication and Recovery. She is the author of three collections and co-facilitates the Wilde Readings Poetry Series in Columbia, Maryland.  She volunteers as a correspondent for the Justice Arts Coalition, exchanging letters with incarcerated people to foster their use of the arts. Her poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, her work has been featured on Best American Poetry, and she’s been a guest on Grace Cavalieri’s The Poet and The Poem radio show. Her advocacy work promotes using the arts to foster paradigm change in the areas of emotional wellness, education, and prison abolition. Our conversation follows.

Artwork by Damien Hirst, The Cure.

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The author Ann Bracken

LPR: The last time we spoke you had just published your poetry book, Once You’re Inside, which I very much enjoyed. Now you have Crash, a very personal story about your journey through depression and anxiety. I should also add that Crash explores just how overmedicated our society is. Was this a project you had been thinking of doing for a long time, or was it something you just recently decided to divulge?  

AB: Thanks for your kind words about my two most recent books. I need to preface this interview by saying I’m not a medical or counseling professional, and everything I talk about here I’ve learned from extensive reading and research since 2002.  I’ve also supported many of the things I reference with links to relevant sites. 

Even though I’d say both my mother and I were severely overmedicated—meaning we each took more than three drugs at a time for a condition—I had no idea about the extent of the problem in the United States or that there was a name for such over-drugging—polypharmacy. I decided to write the memoir when I found Sam Quinones’s book, Dreamland, and began to learn about the extent of the opioid crisis. Quinones revealed that Purdue Pharma told doctors to reassure their patients that as long as an opioid was used for pain relief, there was no chance of addiction. Unlike thousands of others, thankfully, I escaped addiction, but I realized that my doctors had told me that exact story and jeopardized my life by prescribing dangerous combinations of drugs.

In my case, I struggled with a severe, daily migraine for seven years and a depression for four years. My psychiatrist prescribed four drugs for me, one of which was Valium (a benzodiazepine or Benzo) for anxiety. My headache doctor prescribed opioids for the migraine—MS-Contin, OxyContin, and Methadone. Neither doctor ever warned me of the sedation and suppressed breathing that could result from the combination of Benzos and opioids. But my daughter saw the dangers every time I drove her somewhere and fell asleep repeatedly at stop lights. 

LPR: I was so taken by your mother’s struggles with mental illness. It is a haunting reminder that generations of women suffered alone, often bed-bound, self-medicated or wrongly medicated. Talk to me about the experience of seeing your mother in your own mental health journey.

AB: When I was growing up, my mother was the only person I knew who suffered from depression. Because she never got well for more than a few weeks, I thought that once you “got depression,” you were stuck with it forever. That thought terrified me, while at the same time steeling my resolve to forge a different path for myself. 

I thought that once you “got depression,” you were stuck with it forever. That thought terrified me, and I resolved to forge a different path for myself”

The question that nagged at me was this: If Mom was doing everything the doctors told her to do—taking her pills, visiting her psychiatrist, and sometimes getting electroconvulsive therapy treatments—why didn’t she get well?  I assumed the answer had to be that she self-medicated with alcohol, and I knew drugs and alcohol were a dangerous combination. It wasn’t until 2018 when I discovered my father’s 30-year cache of Mom’s medical records that I found my answer to her pain—overmedication.  The two things Mom suffered from the most were anxiety and insomnia—both of which were listed as effects of several of the drugs she was prescribed. Indeed, the drugs kept her ill rather than helped to heal her. 

LPR: This idea you speak of in Chapter 21 of “The Damaged Brain”: It’s such a scary notion to be informed that your body must rely on medication forever. What moved you to take the stance you did of weaning off these drugs? Also, do you think younger generations, more equipped with the knowledge of these medications, might follow suit?

AB: In 2002, a couple of my students at the University of Maryland wrote papers on the dangers of over-prescription of psychiatric drugs and cited the book Prozac Backlash by Dr. Joseph Glenmullen of Harvard Medical School. I immediately read the book and was shocked to discover that antidepressants don’t cure a chemical imbalance in the brain; they actually cause an imbalance by disrupting the way the serotonin receptors behave. Furthermore, Glenmullen explained, the drugs have never been tested for more than a six-to-eight week period, even though they’re often prescribed for years. And lastly, they can cause neurological damage in the form of chronic depression, tardive dyskinesia (a fine-motor disorder), and impaired sexual functioning. Glenmullen warns his readers: “…prescribing an entirely new class of drugs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors or SSRIs) to millions of people is nothing short of an on-going experiment.” 

Glenmullen published Prozac Backlash in 2000, so the information he has to share is hardly new. More recently, in the summer of 2022, Drs. Joanna Moncrieff and Mark Horowitz released their report on a meta-analysis of antidepressant studies and concluded: “We suggest that the idea that depression is caused by low serotonin or a chemical imbalance should no longer be communicated to patients as it is not supported by research.” And yet, surveys show that 85-90% of people believe that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance. So even though the scientific and psychiatric communities are well aware that no chemical imbalances exist to cause depression, average people are still under that delusion. 

LPR: What message would you want most to impart to female readers who also find themselves depressed and are considering medication?

ABBear with me, because what I’m talking about it a paradigm shift in the way we think about conditions like depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety. Along with many people in what I’m calling the psychiatric reform community, I no longer talk about such conditions as mental illnesses. There’s nothing wrong with your brain if you feel depressed because you’ve lost your job or your partner is abusing you or you were abandoned as a child. Those are all painful and traumatic experiences that can cause someone to feel hopeless, lose energy, withdraw, and toss and turn at night. 

From the reading I’ve done and my own experiences, I’ve come to believe that most forms of anxiety have a root cause in the past that gets triggered by a situation in the present, rather than anxiety being a brain disorder. Anxiety often initially develops to warn us of danger. All of that to say—don’t ask “What’s wrong with me?”  Ask instead “What happened to me? What tools do I need to help me through this crisis or to deal with these feelings?” And while anti-anxiety drugs, particularly Benzos like Zanax, Klonipin, and Valium work really well in the short term, they should not be prescribed for more than 4-6 weeks.

And if you and your doctor decide that medication may be helpful, make sure that you have fully informed consent.  By that I mean that you and the doctor will discuss the nature of your problems, the possible benefits of psych drugs, the negative effects you can expect, the difficulty and process you go through to withdraw from psych drugs, and the holistic (non-drug) alternatives that exist. You also have the right to take all the information, think about it for a bit, and then decide. 

LPR: You are such a prolific writer! What’s next for you?

AB: I’m working on a hybrid collection of poems and flash memoir that look at relationships, aging, and acceptance. How do we grow through our experiences? How can we make peace with our past? What are we grateful for?  I’m also toying with a few ideas for some historical fiction. 

Note: I have a resource guide posted on the homepage of my website for people interested in learning more about psychiatric drug withdrawal. Always consult a medical professional before attempting to taper off of any psych meds. 

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You can order Crash or any of Ann’s other books by visiting her website,  www.annbrackenauthor.com

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