Since my Bipolar diagnosis in 2013, I’ve realised that there is a lot of stigma around medication; most of which is based on the assumption that taking meds is fundamentally unhealthy. Although the subject is complicated to say the least, I’d like to share my experience in the hope that it may be useful. I won’t say exactly what drugs I take because I don’t think those details are relevant. Medication is unique to every individual and I do not want anyone to compare their’s to mine as that may be misleading and unhelpful.
Back in 2013, the psychiatrist who diagnosed me with Bipolar type two gave me a prescription for a medication used in the treatment of bipolar and told me to start taking it straight away. At first I was hesitant and frightened, worried about what taking this drug would mean. I was already on antidepressants and the thought of taking another medication was more than I could cope with. I assumed that I would be flooding my body with chemicals, which seemed unhealthy. It didn’t occur to me that I was self-medicating with alcohol – a far more dangerous and destructive chemical.
The prescription was tucked away in my wallet for over a week. Whenever I saw the corner of white paper peeking out from my wallet, my heart sank and a tide of nausea rushed up my throat. Eventually, one of my friends, who has a few medical issues herself, persuaded me to bite the bullet and go to the pharmacy. Once I started taking the meds I had some pretty horrible side effects: insomnia and nightmares, panic attacks and bleary exhaustion. That particular doctor was not very helpful; it took me two years and two more doctors to find a good one who prescribed the correct combination of drugs.
My experience may not give a lot of hope to someone who has just started taking medication, or is in the midst of changing meds. What I can say, which I hope will be encouraging, is that I am now stable and functioning. I still get a little manic from time to time, but it’s manageable and I don’t make the terrible decisions I used to when I was on a high. I no longer have crushing lows and I have not experienced suicidal ideation in years. My depression sometimes feels like a phantom limb, still present in spectral form. There are times when I can tell that, were I not medicated, my mood would be plummeting and my thought patterns would be following the old familiar path. The negative voice in my head used to insist that I was a failure, that everything I touched turned to dust and I might as well give up and accept my fate as an embarrassing loser who did not deserve to live. That voice has never really gone away, but now it’s muffled. There is a more powerful voice that tells the negative one to go fuck itself and that I am good enough.
I still have my blue days, as everyone does, but my medication shields me from the undulating mess of Bipolar disorder. Meds combined with talking therapy and a reasonably healthy lifestyle keep me well and stable. I get annoyed when people criticise Western medicine, assuming that the presence of chemicals in the body is intrinsically bad. When I occasionally talk about my medication, I know people who suck the air through their teeth and look at me askance. They offer unsolicited suggestions, saying I should try yoga, meditation, reiki, or some other spurious alternative. Of course, these things are often helpful and may work for some people. However, I would argue that alternative therapies are a positive addition to overall wellness but not a replacement for proper medical treatment when it is needed.
The attitude towards medication feeds into the stigma surrounding mental illness. The implication being that if you were to think more positively and do healthy things, you could just snap out of it. People who suffer with asthma are never questioned this way and their condition is not associated with personal failure. If an asthmatic were to stop taking their medication because they felt ashamed, the results would be catastrophic. The same is true of mental illness.
The problem with psychiatric medication is that you have to endure a bunch of potentially horrible side effects for weeks before you can assess whether the meds are right for you. There are an infinite number of drug combinations and dosages that might be compatible for any particular condition and individual. It takes time and persistence to figure it out. People who are trying to find the right meds need support; judgement based on faulty information is not only unhelpful but dangerous. If you’re taking medication and suffering with it, keep going. You will get there eventually.