My boyfriend and I sit in a tiny exam room, waiting for the emergency department doctor on call. I’m here for the second time in one weekend. Not my favorite way to spend a Sunday night, believe you me.
He must be some kind of patron saint of patience, my partner. He sits by my bed on a stool, his bad back unsupported, watching my heartbeat on the monitor like it’s one of the most interesting horror documentaries he’s seen in a long time.
We both love horror films — but only when they’re fictional. My real-life horror of struggling with depression and generalized anxiety disorder is for the birds. I’m as panic-stricken as Tippi Hedren in the Hitchcockian classic of the same name.
For those who struggle with mental illness, you probably know that breaking down to the point where you fear for your life and need a trip to the ER pronto doesn’t happen overnight.
I built up to this moment over the course of four months — when I decided to try to wean off my medicine. I thought coming off the pills would be a measure of my willpower. A testament to my strength. I was lured by a voice — implanted mainly by society — that told me I was a failure for needing it.
But, for the sake of our sanity, the stigma surrounding psychiatric medication for mental illness has to go.
Professional and Personal Stigma
In the United States alone, an estimated 40 million Americans take psychiatric drugs. And yet, society as a whole still feels some kind of way about people who need medication therapy to treat their mental illness.
Take this experience from my freelance days as an example.
A few years ago, I maintained one website for professional editing and copywriting work, and a different, totally unrelated blog site for my creative writing.
I had mentioned a blog post about my anxiety in one of my copywriting groups — a tight-knit community where we shared a lot more than work-related issues, and a gal advised me to take it down immediately. Someone could connect it to my professional persona, make a snap judgment, and not hire me if they knew I had to be medicated for anxiety.
I don’t know why, but it hurt to hear it from this person I’d only ever spoken with online. I was a lot more impressionable and sensitive about my online presence back then. As a single mom and freelancer, I couldn’t have anything going against me if I was going to pay my bills and feed my kid.
Today, I realize she was trying to be helpful with her unsolicited advice. She wanted me to protect my professional reputation.
Today, I also realize that I don’t give a flying fig about who knows I need medication to treat a condition I inherited. In our digital gig world where people won’t hire you for something as simple as not liking the font on your website, my anxiety is actually a strength in my field.
My obsessive-compulsive disorder, while maddening at times, actually has some upsides. It affects my work in a positive way because I check it more times than your average writer/editor to make sure things flow well and are grammatically sound.
In another online encounter, I once saw a real-life friend post a long, personal dear-diary type post on her Facebook feed. She announced she was going off her meds and turning to healthy nutrition, exercise, and vitamins to deal with her chronic mood and sleep disorder.
Her post cited vague blanket statements about the dangers of psychiatric medication. And while she brought up some real points, she also got into personal judgments about those who “relied on meds to make them feel better,” and that she was “deciding not to do that anymore.”
I did my millennial thing and felt personally attacked. I’m in a situation where I feel wrong off my meds and balanced when I’m on them. There’s something out of whack with my hardwiring that the meds correct — makes sense, as they are literally altering my brain chemistry, and I seemed to have been born with a lack of serotonin.
My mom has been hospitalized for anxiety and depression more times than I can count on one hand. It runs in the family.
When it came to my friend’s declaration of a med-free lifestyle, I worried about her and the reaction her body would have to suddenly coming off prescribed meds. Vitamins are not a replacement for mental health care, and you have to wean off a lot of medications with a doctor’s guidance.
It was maybe a month later when she posted about going back on her medication again. Turns out it was something that was necessary to maintain her health.
As someone who also tried to come off meds but had to get back on them later, I understand her predicament. But I think we’d all make the world a happier place if we approached these decisions from a place of kindness and understanding rather than judgment.
Meds Come With Risks
Of course, the use of any medication comes with risks. Psychiatric drugs, including antidepressants, sedatives, and anxiolytics (anti-anxiety meds), can be abused. They can be addicting. They can be incorrectly prescribed. They can have terrible side-effects.
Everyone reacts differently. A medication that isn’t tolerated by one person is sometimes a life-saver for another.
It’s vital that people on medication keep up with physical and mental wellness checks and work with their providers to adjust or eliminate or increase a med, depending on how their body reacts.
Another concern is keeping up with the cost of that necessary follow-up care. Some meds might be affordable enough. But constant visits to your general practitioner and psychiatrist or psychologist — not so much.
There’s also the question of whether a person truly needs medication or if they rely on it as a crutch — a factor our mental health professionals and medical doctors are supposed to help us with.
Our loved ones and friends may try to make that call and pass their “wisdom” on to us, encouraging us to instead turn to light and sunshine and romps in the forest with fairies for that good ol’ natural medication.
Most of us know someone with a mental health condition. Please understand that it often doesn’t help to advise someone in a crisis that they should strictly turn to eating right, working out, and stress-relieving breathing exercises to reach the truly enlightened path of not being medicated.
Not all of us who turn to medication do it because we want to. In fact, part of my anxiety is a serious phobia of new medications and how I might react or whether I’m unknowingly allergic. For the same reason, I was never big on experimenting with recreational drugs.
The trial period for my anxiety and depression medication was a rough one, but once my body balanced out, I stopped having terrifying panic attacks. I also stopped feeling like a numb, black void with no emotion. Though some people think medication equals robot, for me, it’s quite the opposite. My medication made me feel something again.
There’s a silver lining to battling the horrors of mental illness, even when you “rely” on medication. If your condition is worse with meds, then the focus should be on non-medicinal therapies. If it’s worse without the meds, then, by all means, find a medication your body can tolerate well, but still work the non-medicated paths of talk therapy, healthy living, and life changes for stress management.
And be proud that you are giving your body the thing it needs to thrive.
I have to thank my lucky stars for having a patient partner and a hand to hold.
A world riddled with anxiety and depression can be an agonizing place for those who suffer from either situational or clinical cases.
When my symptoms are at their most severe, waves of burning chest pain radiate to my back and arms and throat. I feel like I’m going to pass out, or maybe that my soul is being ripped from my body. These episodes can be singular, or they can return multiple times over the course of a few hours.
I’m left a prisoner inside my own body. Add to that the erratic breathing and the pressure in my head — always in the same spot — and it’s enough to make me want to take a vacation in some other person’s body. Just for a week or two.
This time the symptoms became so terrifying that I couldn’t calm down. Multiple tests showed nothing physically wrong, and after a few hours of bodily torture, the episodes finally let up.
By the point I needed to make a couple of pop-ins to the ER just to make sure my body wasn’t imploding, I’d been off my meds for four months. I’d thought, ‘Hey, I’m older now, I’m probably mellowing out. I don’t need a pill every single day. I can beat this thing!’
But we have to understand that those battling mental illness cannot simply will themselves not to be affected. Just as we take medicines to treat physical ailments, we must sometimes turn to medication to treat mental ones.
And the worst thing you can do is judge someone who is on a different path, guided by a doctor, when it’s working for them.
No, you aren’t a numb, emotionless robot if you have to take meds for mental illness. You can fall in love. You can be strong. You can be organized. You can be professional. You can be kind. And mental health treatment in the form of a pill doesn’t take away from the person you are.
So let’s help and support our friends who suffer from mental illness. Listen to them. Ask them questions. Make them laugh.
Or simply offer us a hand to hold.