I have a problem when articles are published, there’s always people who write in the comments about how they stopped taking medication for whatever reason, against doctor’s orders. Inevitably, these people end their stories with how everything turned out fine for them, or for the crazy person they knew who stopped taking meds.
This is a problem.
When you run in mental health circles, be it as a patient, an advocate, a caretaker, or a healthcare professional, you find that one of the biggest fears people use to not seek treatment is the fear of medication. The fear is pretty general: “I’m afraid that if I take medication, it’s going to change me as a person. It’s going to numb me. I won’t be able to feel. I won’t be me. I’ll become a zombie”.
And those are pretty scary things to consider. The mental health treatment in this country (and worldwide) hasn’t been the most progressive in the world, nor has it done a lot except in more recent years to fight that cliché. Before the 1400’s, civilizations felt that mental health issues were religious in nature – most often attributing the disorder to demon possession, or divine punishment for unrepentant behavior. After mental health facilities were started in the 1400’s, people were simply sent away if they behaved abnormally.
These facilities were nothing more than glorified jails, restraining patients, using them as guinea pigs, breeding disease and causing more misunderstanding than progress. Advocates for better treatment starting trying to change things in the late 1700’s, but it wasn’t until 1840, when Dorthea Dix started investigating facilities in the US and began a 30 year career lobbying for improved conditions that people began trying to treat people a little better. Between her, Nellie Bly’s tell-all about her experiences in an asylum, and others finally coming forward, Americans finally admitted that those of us who were mentally ill deserved better.
Doctors began using medications more aggressively to treat patients in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The problem is, these were used as a method of restraint instead of the old straps. The theory was if someone was chemically restrained from harming themselves, they would feel better, or at least act better, and then they would be able to reintegrate into society.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to help the mentally ill reintegrate, and because research now shows us that the majority of mental illness is caused by chemical imbalances there’s nothing wrong with the thought that balancing those chemicals can help alleviate debilitating symptoms and help the mentally ill live a better life – if not normal.
But the problem is that so many of us who do have mental illness have grown up in a culture where we’re shown repeatedly that the mental health care industry doesn’t care about us. They simply want us to shut up so they can move on. Is this the truth? Not that I believe. However, as someone who has had to use free and state-funded mental health services where my therapist is an overburdened caseworker for an entire counties’ population and I can only see her once every three months, it can certainly feel that way. Add to that an illness that might have paranoid features, or a person in the midst of psychosis, or someone who has had bad experiences with their own treatment path, and it’s a recipe for mistrust.
So what does that have to do with what I said above? Well, the thing about being normal is that when you’re mentally ill, you are decidedly NOT normal. The premise is that your brain works abnormally, and in order to be normal, you have to take medication every day. You have to go see special doctors. You can’t tell your employer about it, because if they find out, they will fire you because no one wants a crazy person on staff. You can’t tell your friends or family because they might not understand, or if they do, they might see you as a burden, and you don’t want to be a burden.
When those of us with mental illness start feeling better because our medication is finally working, we are susceptible to the idea that “well, maybe I don’t need these pills anymore”. Our friends mention that we don’t seem to get as excited as we used to, or our family makes a joke about how it’s not the same around the house now that we don’t jump on our soapbox and rant anymore, and we use that as justification to look into stopping our meds. Of course, asking our psychiatrist ends in a no. We don’t really trust the other people on our mental illness message boards when they talk about it – but we DO trust those people who talk about family members or themselves on “normal” sites.
And that’s why it’s dangerous.
We live for anecdotes. It’s very easy for us to turn them into justification. And when we do, we stop taking our meds. And when we stop taking our meds, bad things happen.
I’ve dealt with mental health issues for a very long time now. I’ve had misdiagnosies, been on nearly every single type of pill one can go on, and have been hospitalized a few times. When I was 22, the “S” word was brought up as a potential diagnosis, but instead the doctor at the hospital informed me that he would put down Rapid Cycling Bipolar as my disorder because “The medications are pretty much the same, and this way you won’t have a stigma following you.” The medications that I was on at the time DID help, along with the CBT techniques that I learned, and I was able to return to normalcy.
Then the guy that I was dating at the time started talking to our mutual friends about my medication and how expensive it was. My mom referred to my time in intensive outpatient as “Crazy Kids Day Camp”. My friends started asking me questions, and treating me differently. I didn’t want it, so I went off my meds, moved to a different city on a whim, rode the high of mania for a few months, then became depressed and ended up hospitalized again. That’s when Schizoaffective was made official. I’ve gone off my medication twice since then, both times ending in a depressive hole, clinging to the ruins of those claims about “My sister stopped her medication… my brother stopped… i stopped…” and wondering why I wasn’t good enough.
Yes – now, cognizant and medicated, I KNOW that it’s not any random commentor’s fault for me trying to end my life, but just because I take a pill doesn’t mean that I don’t feel depression or mania, and when one is in those cycles, it’s damn hard to talk us out of things.
Just.. if you find out someone is taking medication, even if you know for a fact that the POPE HIMSELF cured his mental illness out of sheer willpower and his life got so much better after he stopped medication, keep your mouth shut. Don’t encourage anyone to stop taking medication. If you have a friendly crazy friend who is thinking about stopping medication, urge them to speak with their doctor first. And have some damn compassion. It’s hard enough living this way – just let us live, okay?