For many of us living with mental illness, medication is a part of our daily life. It can be one of the most valuable tools we have in maintaining healthy and happy lives. However, many people that are prescribed medication have a love hate relationship with it. We are caught up in this intricate dance of side effects, stigma and, emotional choices. The idea of all those side effects taking over our lives is frightening. We are plagued by the feeling that we should be strong enough without medication. No one wants to be labeled, seen as weak, or crazy. What if meds don’t work for us? But what if they do? The unknown of what happens next can be terrifying. Who will I be on these pills? What will happen to my life?
I have done the medicine dance over and over, stumbling around the dance floor in rhythm-less halfhearted attempts. I felt ashamed and foolish relying on pills. I suffered side effects and I was sick from the wrong meds. I was consumed by fear of the what ifs. I would decide that I didn't need this medication because “I feel better”. Each and every time I took myself off the meds my world would crash down again. I became empty, exhausted, and full of misery and anxiety. I isolated myself because I couldn’t handle people. My sleep patterns were a mess, fluxing between constant sleep and insomnia. I would live in fear of turbulent terrifying dreams. I felt as though I would come apart at the seams at any moment. The voices in my head rose to a discordant chorus beating me down as they scratch at my insides trying to take over. I was unable to function in any sort of meaningful way. There was no sunshine and I lived in metaphorical darkness. I had to come to terms with the facts if I ever wanted my bleak reality to change. I do need the meds and I will always need them. It was a very bitter pill to swallow but the alternative was so much worse.
The very first medication I was ever prescribed was Paxil. For some it works wonders, my body did not like it. I was practically comatose when I took that medication. I could not stay awake, often sleeping three quarters of the day away. The doctor convinced me that the side effect would lessen over time and I just had to ride it out. I allowed myself to endure this for over a month. Finally, my doctor agreed to let me try another medication. Another prescription my body hated was Haldol. I had a dystonic reaction when I took Haldol. What that meant for me was that I didn’t feel right and my thinking became extremely muddied. I began to feel pain and stiffness in my spine. My lower jaw skewed outward to the rights side as far as it could go. I could not move my jaw back into its normal location. I was in pain and I was scared for hours. Even though I knew this reaction was not ok, I believed my doctor when they told me to wait it out. However, after four hours the pain was too much to bear. I called my doctor back and begged for relief. Thankfully the doctor finally listened to me. I was given medication to help me relax and rest until the Haldol ran its course. Of course, not all my medications had catastrophic side effects. Some worked well for me and some didn’t. The process of finding the “good” ones was not easy.
I want to be clear; side effects are not limited to drugs used for treating mental illness. During the process of finding the medication and dose that works for you there will likely be bumps. Some people do have bad reactions to medications. Take penicillin for instance, some people are allergic. There are those who are drug resistant. For those people medication doesn’t work well or at all. However, as discouraging and scary as the idea of side effects and other medicine related issues can be, it should not keep you from taking medication you need. Learn to be proactive in your own health care. Work with your doctor to form a plan that works for you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Educate yourself about the medications you take. You need to know how the medication will react with other medications you are taking. Be aware of any side effects your medication may cause. Are the side effects adding to an already troubling issue such as a good night’s rest? What is the best time of the day to take them? What happens if you miss a dose? Speak up, if the medicine isn’t working or side effects are interfering with your ability to function properly tell your doctor immediately. Being up front and vocal with your doctor is also a must! The doctor cannot help you receive the best care if they don’t know how the medication is affecting you.
It took me several tries before the right type of medication and the right dose was found for me. Further complicating the issue; circumstances in my life such as child birth and aging changed my body chemistry. I had to learn to be flexible because I needed different medications at different stages in my life. It wasn’t easy, and I gave up making it even more difficult on myself, way too many times. I worried too much about what other people thought. I refused to see my illness as a medical issue. I didn’t always keep my doctor in the loop. I had to let go of my fears and unrealistic expectations to understand medication isn’t a magical potion that cures you. It certainly isn’t a crutch you lean on either, no matter what people told me. It is a valuable tool used in the journey to good mental health.
I understand how difficult it is to make the choice to help yourself. I struggled with that choice for over fifteen years. I was told by well-meaning people that I wasn’t sick, I was doing this for attention, it was all in my head, and I just have to pick myself up by my own boot straps. I was even told “your therapist is putting these thoughts in your head”. The stigma associated with mental illness and the medications prescribed is enormous. Getting past that stigma can feel like a Herculean task. What people so often fail to understand, is that with other illnesses such as a heart condition or diabetes, it’s understood that taking this prescription is part of maintaining good health. If you are prescribed medication for mental illness, it is no different than those other illnesses. The point of medication is to help your body in coping with a medical need. It is not a weakness, a lack of will power, or some sort of deficiency in your character as an individual. No one asks to be sick or chooses to have a medical condition. My truth, is that I have a mental illness that through no fault or desire of my own, requires medication to help me maintain a happy healthy life. I take the lead in my medication dance now. My doctor and other health care professionals help me in finding the rhythm that works for me. The dance goes on and on, but now I twirl gracefully across the floor.