The UK Times Magazine today publishes a long article describing CEP founder Luke Montagu’s terrible experience with antidepressants and sleeping pills:
When he was first prescribed these drugs at 19, Montagu was not depressed and had never been diagnosed with depression. He was a student at New York University, and had recently undergone a general anaesthetic for a sinus operation that left him with headaches and feeling, as he puts it, “not myself”. Without carrying out any tests, a British GP announced that he had a “chemical imbalance of the limbic system” and prescribed Prozac. Montagu, “impressionable and in awe of doctors”, swallowed them unquestioningly.
However, he didn’t feel any better and over the course of the next five years saw various doctors who, no less than nine times, switched him to different drugs. Montagu was given a variety of different diagnoses, with no two medics seemingly able to agree. “One doctor said it was anxiety, another suggested conversion disorder. None of them seemed to accept what I knew – and would point out quite heatedly – which was this was all a consequence of the sinus operation and the chopping and changing of the various drugs.”
On a couple of occasions, Montagu had tried to quit, but always felt so bad that he quickly resumed the drugs. “I thought it was because I needed the medication; now I understand that it was because I was going into withdrawal each time I tried to come off the drugs. But the doctors never spotted that,” he says.
“When I restarted the drugs, I would feel better, at least initially. At the time, I didn’t realise that I was just like a junkie who needed a fix – my body and brain had become dependent on these chemicals. My life was going well otherwise: I was living in Kensington with a girlfriend, extremely busy with my internet business. Eventually, I decided just to stay on the drugs and only went to the doctor for repeat prescriptions; I kept taking what was prescribed and managed to keep functioning even though I didn’t feel 100 per cent.”
At the end of 2008, however, Montagu, by then 38, resolved that enough was enough. He was on a new antidepressant, Effexor, that made him feel wired. To counteract this, he’d been prescribed sleeping pills, clonazepam, but they made him forgetful. He decided to start the new year clean.
At the time, he was seeing Dr Mark Collins, a psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital in southwest London, whose patients had included Princess Margaret, Ruby Wax and the Marquess of Blandford. “Dr Collins went to Eton; he was from a similar background. He seemed to be somebody I could trust,” Montagu says ruefully.
On Collins’s advice, Montagu checked himself in to the Priory, where his clonazepam was taken away (he stayed on Effexor). “I thought I wouldn’t sleep for two or three nights, then I’d be so tired I’d crash out. Instead, it felt like my brain was torn into pieces.”
Collins, he later learnt, had made a dreadful mistake – long-term users of sleeping pills need to taper off over months, or even years. Over the next few days, Montagu experienced a “tidal wave of horrific symptoms”.
Initially, he couldn’t walk. “I couldn’t coordinate my body or judge distances, I didn’t know how far things were away from me. There was this incredibly loud ringing in my ears. I couldn’t see – everything was blurry and I was having flashback after flashback of distant memories, things dredged up from years gone by. I was crying for no reason, sobbing hysterically.
“It was like the detox hell I’d seen in films like Trainspotting. I thought, I’m just going to have to ride this out and it will get better in the same way heroin withdrawal eventually loses its grip. But I had no idea that withdrawal from long-term use of sleeping pills can take months and sometimes years.”
A few days later, Montagu discharged himself. “I was in a state of absolute terror. I just wanted to get out of the hospital because I knew that something dreadful had been done to me. Somehow I made it home, but there I realised everything was different. I’d left the house as one person, but returned as another. In a quite literal way, I had lost my mind.”
Since then, Montagu has endured seven years of what can only be described as hell. A softly spoken man with a gentle demeanour, he is mainly calm as he describes his ordeal, but occasionally his voice wobbles.
Back home, he found himself unable to focus. “I could barely put a sentence together, remember who I was or what I was supposed to do. It was as if parts of my brain had been erased. For the first couple of years, I had to try to pretend to be the person that I was, while knowing inside that that person had gone.”
[His business] needed him, but he couldn’t function. “I’ve always been very good at getting things done and knowing what to say, but now I’d sit in a meeting without knowing what to do next.” At a board meeting he burst into tears in front of his fellow directors. “I had to say, ‘I just can’t do this. I’m really not well.’”
He realised he could no longer work. For the next three years, Montagu was stuck at home in agonising physical and mental pain. Horrified by the risk of additional drug harm, he decided to wean himself very slowly from the Effexor, leaving him with severe burning nerve pains, like pins and needles, all over his body, that continue to this day.
…As he slowly began to feel better, Montagu poured his energies into fighting back. Knowing his experiences would be dismissed as anecdote, together with various credible medics, he co-founded CEP, the Council for Evidence-based Psychiatry, which gathers evidence of the harm caused by psychiatric drugs in order to lobby politicians and medical bodies. To give others hope, he uploaded short films of recovery stories to the website. They have become a popular resource.
“It’s pretty shocking that there are virtually no NHS resources to help people get though the hell of withdrawal, particularly since the problem has largely been caused by NHS treatment,” says Montagu, still measured in his speech but his passion rising. “It’s getting worse – more than 57 million prescriptions for antidepressants were issued in England last year. That’s 7 per cent more than 2013 and 500 per cent more than 1992.”
CEP’s message upsets many, who retort that such drugs have saved countless people from suicide. Montagu shrugs. “Psychiatry is a corrupt and dishonest business: it treats so-called illnesses that don’t exist with drugs that don’t cure and can cause great harm. And once you have been harmed, it then diagnoses further illness and prescribes yet more drugs. I know they can help some people in the short term, but they’re just psychoactive like alcohol or cocaine – they can make you feel better initially, but over the long term they cause dependence and destroy your physical and mental health.”
Montagu eventually sued Dr Collins for the rapid withdrawal and long-term misprescribing of clonazepam, which led to a £1.35m out of court settlement, including legal fees.
The full article can be viewed at: http://cepuk.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Times-Magazine-18-July-2015-pdf.pdf