Mental Illness, Medication and Me: My Personal Journey
I have always had mixed feelings about taking medications. Growing up I watched my mother take daily multiple medications to treat her schizophrenia. I also watched her deal with a host of side effects which almost seemed worse than her mental disorder. Some pills caused her to sleep for most of the day, some provoked anxiety attacks, and some caused involuntary twitches, jerks, and facial grimacing called tardive dyskinesia. It is little wonder that she was never very good about taking her medications as prescribed. She would do interesting things with her pills, cutting them in half, fourths, and even lesser fractions always making some attempt to adjust the dosage.
The effectiveness of my mother’s medications was always questionable. My overall impression was that they did not work for the most part, at least the way she was taking them. She would reach a point of outright refusal to take any medication, have to be hospitalized, and then a new set of medications would be prescribed. It was a heartbreaking cycle to witness and endure for both my mother and myself. Each new prescription seemed to offer up hope for a better life for my mother and it was always a matter of time before those hopes were dashed. Those early experiences did leave me feeling pessimistic about psychiatric medications in general.
It wasn’t until I pursued a career in the mental health field before I was able to see that I was basing my perceptions on a single example of my mother and that I had not allowed myself to see that medications could work for others. In my work at a psychiatric hospital and day program for mentally challenged and mentally ill adults I got to see the full range of effects of psychotropic drugs for treating anything from symptoms of depression to the vocal tics of Tourette Syndrome. I was able to witness firsthand how medications did help to alleviate some of my client’s symptoms. Did the medications always work? No, but when they did work, it was always viewed as an improvement for that person’s quality of life. It was like chipping away at a boulder, take away one symptom of many, and it was considered a success. I began to view medications in a more positive light. Yet despite my ever widening perspective, those clinical experiences seemed far removed from my personal life.
A friend’s story over a cup of tea would have a more profound effect on my perception of medication than all my clinical experiences combined. One day I told my friend about how I suffer from depression. My friend, in turn, confessed that she too had suffered from deep and debilitating episodes of depression. She then told me that in addition to therapy she had been taking antidepressants. When I asked her if I thought they work, she replied, “I would not be here talking to you if it weren’t for my medication.” Her voice, so steady, so earnest, made me certain that what she was saying was true.
In my twenties I suffered from my own dark episode of depression which left me in such profound pain that I was desperate to do anything to end my suffering. I was having suicidal thoughts which prompted my therapist to discuss the option of medication. I fought him on this. I remember feeling hatred for him to suggest this option. All during my therapy with him, I told him straightforwardly, “No meds.” When he advised me to take an antidepressant I felt like a failure. I thought, “It has come to this. He thinks I can’t handle my life so I need a pill.” In the back of my mind the fear of becoming my mother also loomed. I was placing so much of my own history and ego onto this that I failed to get the point. I needed help. My depression was out of control. This was no sign of disrespect, this was a person reaching their hand into my dark well in which I was soon to drown and saying, “Let me help you up.”
I finally decided to accept this offer of help and ended up taking amitriptyline or Elavil for about six months. What helped me to make the decision? It took the realization that medication, at the very least, offered a gateway to the future. It was like a tunnel to the other side, a way to get through the depression without losing all ground. It was a choice to move forward. When anyone describes antidepressants as “happy pills” I marvel at the great chasm between reality and these gross misperceptions of what this experience is really like. The pills never made me happy. They simply allowed me to breathe. They gave me time to catch my breath and feel a release from the suffering depression can deliver. It halted the raging emotional battle which had threatened to take my life. It gave me the time to recover from so much pain to say, “Yes I do want to live.” Happiness was something I had to work at from the ground up as I began to put my life back together piece by piece.
Since that time I have only tried one other antidepressant, Prozac, for some weeks and stopped due to side effects I could not tolerate. I then discovered a supplement called SAM-e which I have been taking now for over a couple of years. It is working very well for me. But if I ever got to a place in my depression where I could not climb out of the well I would try an antidepressant again. Why would I rob my children of a mother or my family of a loved one when I could have done something to help myself? Depression isn’t just about us. It is about our friends, families, and loved ones too.
Sometimes I think about my friend’s story, about how she might not be here if she didn’t get help. I am grateful to still have my friend. I am thankful that she had options for treatment including medication.
We read these articles about drug research full of empty statistics, and one person proving one point or another, and what gets lost is the human experience. Medication is no panacea. There are no miracles. There are no “happy pills.” A pill is not going to bring a loved one back from death, repair a destructive relationship, or get us a new job. Life and its many challenges will still go on despite whatever pill you take. You will still need to work every day to maintain your mental health. Some days may be spent simply treading water. But at least you are trying. Choices are good things to have when you feel like drowning. When you are faced with debilitating depression, medication is one choice I am glad we have.