The decision whether to use or not to use medication to treat psychiatric illnesses is something many people struggle with; I know as I was one of those people. In this post I want to share my experience with medication. This is definitely not intended to be medical advice, but rather a reflection of my experiences as a reference point to others who may be exploring the medication decision at the moment.
I’ve experienced the medication debate through both myself and with the parents of the special education students I work with. Many of these children suffer from anxiety, ADHD or emotional deregulation and their parents are often struggling with the decision of whether to use medication or not. I know this feeling well. When I first began seeking treatment for my mental health I was extremely opposed to medication; I didn’t want it and I felt like I didn’t need it. I remember the moment my psychologist suggested I make an appointment with a psychiatrist and the absolute opposition I felt towards this. I also remember my first psychiatrist appointment where I was handed a script for antidepressants and the sense of being completed defeated that came along with it. Taking that first pill may have looked like a simple process to an outsider, but inside my head a battle was going on – I didn’t need medication, I could do this on my own.
Reflecting back my opposition to medication seem to come from a number of different avenues – I was afraid of the dreaded side-effects the leaflet that came with the medication detailed plus all the horrible experiences I’d read about online, taking medication suddenly made my depression seem much more real and serious, and in a way I saw it as weak, as though I should have been able to overcome this without taking pills.
Fast forward 18 months later and I have a real sense of appreciation for the way my medication has helped me. To give insight into what I take, my current medications include antidepressants (Venlafaxine), antipsychotics (Quetiapine) and benzodiazepines (Diazepam and Lorazepam).
I’m not going to lie, these medications have some seriously shitty side effects. I’ve experience the dreaded weight gain, fatigue and drowsiness, a clamping jaw (this was the worst!), vivid dreams, sensitivity to bright lights and lowered libido. Despite taking these medications for over a year I still have this side effects decide to crop up now and again, and some are constant. The withdrawal is also awful. If I don’t take my quetiapine sleep is impossible, without my benzos I become an overemotional, crying mess (yes, even more so than usual which is saying something when you have BPD) and forgetting to take a dose of my venlafaxine before I go to work in the morning results in the absolute worst withdrawals of all – nausea, vomiting, dizziness and these awful electric shock like feelings in my brain. There is definitely a crappy, horrible size to medication that I’m not going to sugar-coat.
Despite this, the benefits I’ve experienced make it worth it. Medication is not an easy fix to mental illness. I still struggle immensely and undertake therapy weekly with both my psychologist and Psychiatrist, have a community mental health worker who I talk to on a weekly basis, and I’m gearing up to start my second round of group Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). I don’t see medication as a sole treatment and rely on my therapy and DBT skills every single day; rather, medication is an accompaniment to this. Medication has lowered my day-to-day level of anxiety to one that is manageable for functioning, it has stabilised my moods during periods of non-distress (somewhat of course, my BPD makes mood stabilisation difficult) and it has helped the depression lift from never-ending and constant to periods of weeks at a time where it is relatively manageable. Without the mood stabilising effects I’d be too heightened to apply my therapy skills, and this is wherein lies the benefits of medication. It allows me to get to a point where I’m able to function enough to try and apply positive and effective skills and changes to help long-term. I see this a lot with the children I work with too – often I teach them emotional regulation and social skills that they can role-play beautifully, however put them in an actual situation and the heightened state they are in makes transference impossible. While it’s not my role to give advice on whether or not medication is a good option, I have seen it help immensely in many situations.
One struggle I have with medication other than the side-effects is the potential to overdose. I have had over 10 OD’s in the past year, and a majority of them have been with my prescribed medication. When you access to an arsenal of medication that can put you sleep or completely zone you out in under ten minutes it’s unbelievably hard not to take them when things become overwhelming. My partner currently manages my medication for this reason, but I often find ways around this and it doesn’t eliminate the danger completely. The management of medication is something that seriously needs to be considered if you decide to go down this route.
Reflecting back of my initial reasons for not wanting to make medication demonstrate how strong the stigma associated with medication is, even for those who are currently in therapy for mental illness. I consider myself to be quite an open and accepting person, and even I was so tuned in to the negative connotations people held about medication that it presented barriers for me in seeking it. I think this is something society really needs to overcome. We don’t judge people who take medication for physiological illnesses such as high blood pressure or diabetes, so why do we judge medication for mental illness where there are proven physiological elements to it?
The decision whether to use or not use medication for psychiatric illness is something everyone needs to address on their own. Each person is different and what works for some will not work for others. However I want to stress there is no shame in taking medication for mental illness. At the end of the day you need to do what is best for your recovery and sometimes medication is part of that answer.