A RECENT ARTICLE by an anonymous author sparked great debate about the merits and demerits of taking medication to treat psychiatric issues. It’s a controversial issue, and one that will always invite incredibly strong opinions, ranging from those who absolutely believe that they work and can help people, to the other extreme of believing we’re in thrall to big pharmaceutical companies who are pushing dangerous drugs for profit and nothing else.
I want to put myself out there as walking proof that medication can, and does, work – and more that that, it’s vital for me to keep functioning. Believe me, it wasn’t easy to reach this conclusion. I fought and resisted it for years, insisted that I didn’t really need them, that there was nothing wrong with me, that they weren’t working, that they were making me worse… I tried every reason under the sun not to take them. I too felt the shame, the guilt, the sense of helplessness of this author.
All medications come with potential side effects which are particularly hard to live with, and if there’s an unusual one, it’s almost guaranteed it will happen to me – one made me lactate (it’s many years since I last breastfed), another caused dangerous changes in my kidney function, one made me come out all over in a rash, and all have made me experience extremely unpleasant and ongoing night sweats.
But what happens when I don’t take them? Well, we answered this question very conclusively earlier this year. I was taken off medication for a trial period (actually, I was taken off just one of them, I’m on a combination of antidepressant and a mood stabiliser, so the antidepressant was taken out of the mix). I tapered off them over a period of about six weeks and initially I was fine. But once I stopped taking them altogether withdrawal kicked in – brain zaps, mood swings, erratic behaviour. I had been anticipating this, as had Hubby, my doctor and my counsellor, so we pushed through. There have been so many changes to my medication over the years, so many different combinations tried, that it was felt I really needed to take this trial as far as I could, and give myself the best possible chance of managing without them. It did not go well.
I couldn’t look after myself
I stayed off medication long enough to be sure that it was no longer withdrawal. The brain zaps took about five weeks to clear but they did stop. The rest however, the erratic behaviour, the mood swings, just got worse and worse. I began to experience severe extremes of anger and depression – anger that would quite literally explode from nowhere in reaction to the smallest of annoyances, anger that caused me to hurt myself as it was the only way to break it and calm myself down. Thoughts of suicide were never far from my mind. I couldn’t work. Hubby didn’t trust me to be left alone, and my parents were called in to stay with me when he couldn’t be there.
Still, I persisted, I kept trying, because I wanted to believe that I could manage without medication. But the longer it went on, the harder it got. My usual coping mechanisms – walking, running, yoga, tea and chats with friends – it all stopped. I couldn’t look after my kids. I couldn’t look after myself.
Eventually, after more than two months of this, it was agreed that I needed to be back on medication. This time, and for the first time, I didn’t fight it. I tried another new combination, and thankfully we finally seem to have hit on something that works for me. The side effects are still there. They are still extremely unpleasant. But the alternative? The alternative is unbearable.
It won’t fix me, but it gives me breathing room
I know there are people reading this who will think I should have tried harder, and for longer. On a bad day, I think the same, and I really resent that this is how things are. But for those few months off medication, my illness took over and brought me to my knees. Medication is not a magic cure-all, not by a long shot. It won’t fix me. I have clinical depression and borderline personality disorder, and am still working on reconciling myself with the fact that these are likely to be lifelong conditions that will always need to be managed. What medication does is give me some breathing room. It gets me well enough that I’m able to do the other things that I know will help. I’m practising yoga again. I’m walking. I’m working up to running. I haven’t hurt myself in weeks. When I feel my mood shift, I’m able to take a step back from it and see it for what it is – a symptom of a disorder. It’s not me.
The author of the article that prompted me to really think about this described herself as ‘an occasional writer who has the utmost of admiration for those writers who are braver than she is. Perhaps someday she will join them and venture out of the mental health closet. But for now at least, fear and shame keep her in there.’ I’m not brave. I simply reached a point where hiding such a huge part of me was no longer an option, and I had realised that it was only making things worse. I believe she will get there too, when she’s ready. I’m grateful to her for starting a conversation that so badly needs to be had.
We need to have an honest conversation
I’m not a doctor, or a scientist. I don’t know how or why antidepressants work, not really. I know they have an effect on the chemicals in the brain, but beyond that it escapes me. I don’t claim to be an expert, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. But what I have is proof. On medication I function. Off medication I don’t. It’s as simple as that.
As a society, we’re a long way off acceptance of these issues. But we need to talk about it. We need to understand, and have empathy for those who live with mental health problems, accept that those problems are real, and know that sometimes, medication for a mental illness is every bit as vital as medication for a physical illness. No one should have to hide a mental illness out of fear and shame, there is nothing to be ashamed of. We don’t ask to be this way, any more that a diabetic or an asthmatic does. It just is. It’s not so long since cancer was a taboo subject, but conversation has changed that. Conversation can change attitudes to mental health too, and I for one am going to keep talking.
Fiona Kennedy is a 30(ish) year old, happily married, mam of two, living in a small town in Connemara. She has two crazy dogs, wonderful friends and a loving, supportive family. Oh, and clinical depression. She blogs at Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers. You can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @SunnyScattered. Fiona is an Ambassador for See Change – a national movement to change minds about mental health, one conversation at a time’.