To Medicate Or Not…That Is The Question
Disclaimer: This article is not written by a certified health professional. I am not qualified in any way to give advice on whether or not to take any type of medication for symptoms of mental illness. The reason I am writing about my own experience with medications is to further emphasize that my mental conditions are of equal importance to my health as my other medical concerns. I have struggled over the last twenty years with decisions on what medications, if any, to take. I hope to shed more light on this challenge and to let others know they are not alone. Similarly, Challenge the Storm and its representatives are not certified mental health professionals. For any questions regarding medication, please seek the counsel of your health care provider. See our Disclaimer page for more information.
What you will get from this piece
I would like to accomplish at least these three things with this article: share some of my own history with prescription medication, give you some pros and cons from my own experience, and talk about what all of us can do to further break down barriers between the people who need help and the professionals who give their help. The goal is to work past the stigma and to challenge ourselves to believe we are worthy of help and helping others by spreading our message. When discussing this piece with my therapist, I explained that my number one goal in writing about my struggles with mental health issues is for normalization of mental illness to any other illness.
When I was growing up, I specifically remember several family ties to mental health and illness. My mother had been a Psychology major in college and was always spouting psychobabble (as I thought of it then). For example, “it’s not you, he’s the one with the problem,” when my uncle would go off on one of us. Or, “you can’t change her behavior, you can only change the way you react to her,” in regard to my struggles with my only sibling. The other thing I distinctly recall is that most of the women in my family “took a Valium” when they were upset. I didn’t understand that my Grandmother had taken herself off her medication treatment (after the death of her 19-year-old daughter) and ended up hospitalized. I also didn’t realize that the pills were just passed around and I don’t even know in whose name they were written or by whom.
Since I started taking prescription medications, I have taken 13 different psychiatric medicines over the course of 20 years. When I first began a regimen of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications in my early 30’s, I never imagined I would still be taking them for this long. Starting in my teens, I have experienced anxiety, including panic attacks. I never saw a professional during that time. Back then I was a self-medicator, mostly with alcohol, until I became pregnant with my first child at 23. During the next 10 years, I functioned on adrenaline and being extremely busy raising my family. It all came to a head after the two years in which my mother was dying of cancer.
Then something changed
In my case, and I would guess in many others, looking backward always involves an “uh huh, I knew it” moment. When I finally relented and allowed myself to be tested for ADD, I knew it explained so much about my life and my difficulties with attention and distractibility. Along with pages of questions and interviewing my husband, the final test back 20 years ago was to do a computer test of flashing lights and then test me again after medicating me with a low dosage of Ritalin. After my diagnosis, I was treated with short acting Ritalin, suspended dosages of the same medicine. I also have taken non-stimulant medicine. At different times and under different school and work situations, some worked better than others. I have thought a lot about taking these medications for the rest of my life and I don’t like it but when I choose to skip a day or two, I definitely feel different. It is generally not in my best interest to be off any of medication regimen.
For example, recently, I have dealt with the withdrawal of my controlled substance because I accidentally threw away my hand written prescription. My current medication manager (my nurse practitioner) requires me to see her every 28 days and to take the paper prescription to my pharmacy. Last month, they hadn’t unloaded the controlled substance portion of their order (which apparently had to all be checked in at the same time.) so EVEN THOUGH there was product in the store, I would not be able to access it and they couldn’t tell me when it would be available for me. UGH. But then this month, without my original script, I would have NO access to my medicine. Finally, my practitioner relented and allowed me to make an appointment before the 28-day window. But I still was without my medication for two weeks. It was an unpleasant couple of weeks for me.
MY PROS AND CONS OF TAKING PSYCHIATRIC MEDICATIONS
|(ADD) Ability to focus on tasks||Have to see NP every 28 days; Sometimes feel heart race; Interferes with sleep|
|(Depression) Evens out my emotions, improves mood, keeps any suicidal ideation at bay||Overall numbing of body and mind, slows me down (drugged feeling), experience drowsiness or sometimes insomnia|
|(Anxiety) calms me down, less anxious, sleep better||Extreme and immediate drowsiness, over medicated feeling|
|(Sleep) ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, sleep longer||Severe drowsiness, inability to wake easily if necessary, waking up feeling drugged|
What does this all mean?
I can live without most of my psychiatric medications. I can even function at a reasonable level. The issue is I can perform at a much higher level on my prescribed medications. With medications such as the ones I take for high blood pressure and diabetes, I feel no choice is available to me, unless, losing weight and changing my diet can change the fate with which genetics (my dad has both) have given me. But with psychiatric medications, the possibility of reprieve is less often achieved. I have, in the past, changed the dosages, changed medications and even stopped a medication without replacing (never change dosages or medications, or stop taking medication without consulting your health care provider first). For the most part, it has been unsuccessful. It was even dangerous in my case. One of the medications I have changed more often than others is what I take for sleep. There is a strong correlation between my ability to sleep well and how I can manage my symptoms. Sleep is such an important part of my overall health.
Of special note is how I manage my sleep. One of the medications I have changed more often than others is what I take for sleep. There is a strong correlation between my ability to sleep well and how I can manage my symptoms. Because some of the medications I take for other conditions have the side effect of insomnia, I have found it necessary to take nightly medications to help me sleep. The best combination I have found for my overall health is good sleep, a healthy diet, and exercise practice and sticking to a medication regimen, agreed upon by myself and my doctors.
What I strive for in my life
One word says it all for me and the word is BALANCE, in every aspect of my life. And I have been pretty terrible at achieving and maintaining balance. But that’s my cross to bear. And I will get up again tomorrow and do it again and again until I get it right. As I stand up again and again, I hope to pull up those who similarly struggle with mental illness. The challenges that we all are experiencing can be faced with courage and the professional help we seek out. Whether psychiatric medications are a part of your treatment plan or not, let’s all work together to curb the stigma and move forward. A final word on whether or not to use any prescription medicines should NEVER be attempted without the supervision of a health care professional.