‘Doctors gave me depression pills I DIDN’T need for 20 years’
Coming off his antidepressants drove Viscount Hinchingbrooke to the brink – but his story is alarmingly common
- The Viscount, Luke Montagu, still suffers the antidepressants’ effects 6 years on
- He has constant nerve pain all over his body, and suffers tinnitus and twitching
- After discovering his psychiatrist’s mistake, he sued him for negligence and won
- Now he is launching a campaign to aid thousands trapped in the same nightmare
Six years after taking my last dose of antidepressants, I am still suffering from their effects.
I have constant nerve pain all over my body, like a burning pins and needles sensation.
I’m agitated much of the time and I lose my temper quickly — perhaps understandable for someone always in pain.
I also have tinnitus and can sometimes feel muscles twitching in different parts of my body.
I can’t have sugar, caffeine or alcohol, as these all intensify the symptoms.
Six years after taking his last dose of antidepressants, Luke Montagu (right) is still suffering from their effects. Here, he is pictured with his wife Julie
Some things have improved — for example, my memory is getting better.
However, I’m still far from well and, if it wasn’t for the support of my family, especially my wife and mother, I don’t think I would have made it this far.
My story illustrates how an entirely normal person can suddenly find themselves on the wrong end of a diagnosis and, as a result, spend the next 20 years on a medication merry-go-round of antidepressants and sleeping pills that weren’t needed in the first place.
But this isn’t just my story — as I’ve discovered, a large number of people across the globe have been similarly afflicted.
Thanks to the internet, a once-invisible group of patients is now able to share experiences — confronting together the double injustice of being harmed, and then having that harm denied by the doctors and institutions that are supposed to help them.
My story starts after surgery for chronic sinusitis when I was 19.
I had the operation at a Harley Street clinic and I remember looking forward to a couple of days of pampering.
But I woke from the operation with a skull-shattering headache.
I spent the next two weeks at my parents’ house, unable to leave my bedroom, with the same relentless headache and in a state of high anxiety.
Over the following few weeks, I gradually improved. But while the headaches lessened, I found myself feeling strangely distant from reality, as if my world was contained behind a thick sheet of glass.
I was sure my symptoms were caused by the operation. However, my consultant disagreed, on the basis that several weeks had lapsed since the surgery.
Research has since shown that general anaesthesia is linked to cognitive problems, such as mental fog, both immediately after surgery and longer term.
Some things have improved. For example, Luke Montagu (left) is starting to regain his memory. However, he writes he is still far from well
But I didn’t know that then and, on the advice of friends, I sought out another doctor for a diagnosis.
Dr Green, as I will call him, was a self-assured young Irish GP who had found his niche among the prosperous residents of Chelsea in London.
He pronounced his diagnosis with the certainty I’d been desperately seeking: ‘My dear chap, you have a chemical imbalance of the limbic system in the brain.’
I later discovered that the ‘chemical imbalance’ theory is highly controversial and has never been proven.
But I knew nothing of this at the time — I was just relieved, as this explanation chimed with my sense that my symptoms were quite clearly physical and not psychological.
Dr Green reached for the most obvious tool in his kit: the prescription pad.
The first drug he prescribed was an older type of antidepressant, a tricyclic called amitriptyline.
Luke Montagu’s story starts after a surgery for chronic sinusitis when he was 19
But all it did was give me a dry mouth. He then prescribed Prozac (one of a class of drugs known as serotonin reuptake inhibitors), a relatively new antidepressant that had been launched a couple of years earlier.
My symptoms continued to ebb and flow, so Dr Green decided to experiment with a succession of different drugs — four different antidepressants in less than a year.
I was also referred to a psychiatrist, who came up with a new diagnosis: conversion disorder, a psychiatric catch-all which enables a physical ailment to be blamed on an underlying psychological disturbance.
The psychiatrist’s theory was that I was repressing some deep-rooted emotion linked to my childhood, which was manifesting itself as a headache.
This didn’t make sense to me, as there wasn’t any emotional trauma or unhappiness in my life I could point to.
But because my symptoms were real, I didn’t question my need for the medication.
Over the next two years, I continued to bounce from one drug to another as my ‘illness’ apparently worsened.
But what I was actually dealing with was a range of horrible side-effects and withdrawal symptoms as my brain stewed in a constantly shifting chemical soup.
Eventually, I settled on Seroxat. I remember feeling better compared with the previous drugs, though still not normal.
In 1997, I became CEO of a successful internet business and, by 2001, we had more than 200 staff, with offices in London and New York. But after the dotcom bubble burst in 2001, I resigned.
The pressure was off for the first time in seven years, and I realised that it would be an opportunity to come off Seroxat — surely I didn’t need to take this drug for ever?
My psychiatrist suggested reducing the dose to zero over about a month.
Luke Montagu (right), pictured with Jonathan Sattin at Julie Montagu’s Eat Real Food ‘Pocket Lifestyle’ book launch in London
I was fine for the first couple of weeks, but then I began to feel weirder and weirder.
My mind started racing with strange, unwanted thoughts, and a sense of deep panic began to set in.
I overreacted to the smallest thing. My memory went to pot; I couldn’t concentrate and thought I was losing my mind.
These are classic symptoms of Seroxat withdrawal.
But when I described my situation to my doctor, he instead believed it was evidence of a depressive disorder and prescribed four new drugs, including a powerful benzodiazepine called clonazepam.
After a couple of weeks, I began to feel better and thought how lucky I was that he had come up with this magic cocktail.
Of course, I now realise that, like a street addict, I was only feeling better because I had been given a new ‘fix’ to counteract the previous antidepressant withdrawal.
I had been living in New York and, when I returned to the UK, my psychiatrist advised me to find a suitable British doctor to oversee my ongoing ‘care’.
This new psychiatrist was based at The Priory in South-West London, a well-known celebrity rehab clinic, almost a rite of passage for wayward British pop and sports stars.
Robbie Williams, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood, Amy Winehouse and Paula Yates have all been treated there, with clearly varying degrees of success.
My new psychiatrist continued prescribing the same drugs although, after about a year, I stopped taking two of them.
Having bought into the idea of a chemical imbalance, I used to reassure myself that I still needed the other two drugs (an antidepressant and the benzodiazepine) in the same way that a diabetic needs insulin.
Viscount Hinchingbrooke(far left) and his wife Julie (middle) at her Eat Real Food ‘Pocket Lifestyle’ book launch last year
I was also aware that a high percentage of the population was taking similar medication, so surely they must be safe?
Nevertheless, I was conscious that I was being held together by pieces of pharmaceutical string, as on a couple of occasions I’d become very agitated when I’d run out of pills.
My wife Julie remembers these events more clearly than I do, and the frantic search for an all-night chemist.
While my headaches were better (perhaps due to the tranquilising benzodiazepine), I was getting more tired and forgetful during the day as the years went by, so I decided to come off the clonazepam.
‘You can come off the long way or the short way,’ my psychiatrist told me. ‘The long way involves taking a razor blade and cutting off small slivers each day. The short way involves a quick stay in hospital.’
And so this is how I found myself admitted to The Priory in January 2009, with the expectation that I would be out in a couple of weeks, ready to return to work.
The Viscount writes his wife Julie Montagu (pictured) remembers the events more vividly than he does
Almost everything about my world changed that month, and — eight years later — I have still not recovered.
On the first evening, the doctors took away the drug and I went to bed, expecting to have a couple of difficult nights’ sleep.
Seventy-two hours later, I entered hell. My body became a violent electrical storm, with buzzing jolts coursing through my nervous system, while my mind was overwhelmed with racing flashbacks and hysterical thoughts.
My ears screeched with tinnitus, sounds blared and colours were distorted. I couldn’t talk or think or move.
I had entered a state of severe benzodiazepine withdrawal.
Just ten days earlier, I’d been celebrating Christmas with my wife and four children. I was CEO of a growing film business, comprising the UK’s largest film school and a production company.
I was also fortunate enough to be the heir to the Earl of Sandwich, and was due to take over the family house and estate within the next few years.
Despite my psychiatrist’s reassurance otherwise, it soon became clear my withdrawal symptoms were going to take a long time to resolve.
I took to the internet and was astonished to discover a whole community of sufferers going through benzodiazepine withdrawal. Many people seemed only to recover after two or three years — often longer.
The stories were all very similar. Usually, a life event (such as a bereavement or divorce) or an illness or operation led to the initial prescription.
Then, in spite of clear guidelines restricting use of benzodiazepines to a maximum of two to four weeks, many doctors continued to prescribe beyond this point, in some cases (such as mine) for years.
Over time, a higher dose is required as the patient develops tolerance. They can also get adverse effects, such as tiredness and memory loss.
In spite of clear guidelines restricting use of benzodiazepines to a maximum of two to four weeks, Luke was prescribed them for years
Eventually, the decision is made to withdraw the drug. But, despite clear guidelines which state that patients should follow a slow taper, often the doctor would detox the patient rapidly.
The internet community mockingly referred to this as ‘die-tox’ because the symptoms are so severe, you’d rather be dead.
After a couple of months, I tried going back to work. I would sit in my office without knowing what I was supposed to do, as if my mind had somehow been erased; often, I would simply retreat to my car and cry.
Eventually, I realised I just couldn’t go on, and so I left the film company I’d founded and had worked so hard to build.
Over the next year, I tried to recuperate and slowly came off the last antidepressant I was still taking.
It took 14 months, but the revelry of finally being drug-free for the first time in more than 20 years was short‑lived — for almost as soon as I stopped, I was hit by a new wave of withdrawal symptoms.
Worst were the burning pins and needles in my spine, arms and legs, like someone was scraping a hot cheese grater hard along my flesh.
I screamed out, cried, threw myself to the floor. My GP even offered me opioids to combat the pain, but I was determined not to take another drug.
Even worse than the physical symptoms was the disturbing sense that I was losing my mind.
I could no longer process thoughts in an orderly way and would spend long chunks of the day obsessing over entirely trivial and nonsensical issues, such as worrying about how on earth any house was able to stay upright.
I spent the next three years at home in this tortured state, unable to work, unable to participate in family life, unable even to leave the house.
It was, of course, indescribably horrific for me, but also devastating for my wife and mother.
I survived by getting through hour by hour until, eventually, night came and I got some relief by falling asleep for a short time.
Luke, pictured outside his country home in Dorset. After suing his doctor for causing his suffering, he was awarded £1.35 million in compensation
Most of the day was spent online, communicating with others going through the same thing. We dragged each other through the trenches of this shared misery.
Today, I am still recovering, but am able to work and my remaining symptoms are slowly improving.
Looking back, I am, with some justification, angry about what happened to me.
I was diagnosed with illnesses I did not have, then treated with drugs which did not work and which ultimately caused me great harm.
And when I sued my British psychiatrist for negligence, it was suggested my withdrawal symptoms were due to my personality and not the drugs (he eventually settled out of court for £1.35 million).
There is something very rotten at the heart of mainstream psychiatry; in league with the pharmaceutical industry, it chooses to perpetuate two fundamental hoaxes.
‘It may take a decade or more before today’s mass psychiatric drugging is consigned to the bulging dustbin of failed psychiatric treatments,’ Luke writes
The first is that mental illness has a biological basis, like cancer or diabetes, caused by a chemical imbalance.
The second is that today’s drug treatments target and correct this imbalance, just like antibiotics fight infection.
There is no research which proves that either of these claims are true.
On top of this, psychiatry denies that its drug treatments are harmful, and responds to negative symptoms by diagnosing yet more illness — for which more harmful drugs are prescribed.
One day, these beliefs and treatments will seem as misguided as the theory of the four humours, when bloodletting, blistering and purging were believed to restore the correct balance of blood, phlegm and black and yellow bile.
It may take a decade or more before today’s mass psychiatric drugging is consigned to the bulging dustbin of failed psychiatric treatments — but I hope that telling my story will help bring the date forward, and thereby reduce this entirely unnecessary contribution to human suffering.
Viscount Hinchingbrooke is co-founder of the Council for Evidence-based Psychiatry and is campaigning with the British Medical Association for a national 24-hour helpline for people dependent on prescribed medicine.
For information on existing support services, go to cepuk.org/support.
Aadapted from The Sedated Society, edited by James Davies, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan on Friday at £25.
To order a copy for £20 (offer valid to Thursday, P&P free), go to mailbookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640.
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