When I was younger I, and everyone around me, assumed mental illness was just a place you visited. If you just saw the right therapist for long enough and maybe kicked it in gear with a little temporary pharmaceutical assistance, you’d pack your bags, hop on the happy bus and arrive back in the land of whatever you call the opposite of mental illness…mental health, I suppose. Normal, though I hate that term. Regardless, your battle would be over, you’d tidily flush your pills and return to the status quo where you would live a normal, happy life. Your mental illness would be a dream that faded upon awakening. Eventually you would forget and move on.
What a lovely fable. Such a pretty little lie, and a tempting one, but also incredibly dangerous. Lies like these leave you feeling as though your inability to take up permanent residency in the land of the normal brain is a matter of weakness, laziness, or stubborn refusal to cooperate.
This is also the lie which shamed me into numerous, painfully unmedicated periods, all of which were lauded by well meaning people in my life. When you’re taking medication for mental illness you will inevitably run across people who are suspicious of pharmaceutical intervention and here are two of the most popular stories you’ll hear them tell.
Story 1: The “alternate suggestion”. These storytellers expertly tell the tales of “that one person they knew who beat their depression through meditation.” Or exercise. Or bee pollen. Or acupuncture. Or hot yoga. Or light therapy. Or sheer freaking willpower. The anecdotes are intended as suggestions; “maybe she hasn’t heard about the miracle of essential oils and cupping,” they think. But the thinly veiled reality of their story is, “what the hell is wrong with you that you’re still taking medication?” As if I’d never tried alternative therapies hoping…praying they would work. As if I’d never tasted the disappointment of waking up day after day feeling worse when all that yoga or whatever was supposed to make me better. They may mean well but the tellers of story 1 immerse you in so much shame you start to wonder…is there something wrong with me? You question yourself and your medication over and over again until you find yourself half convinced you ought to give bee pollen a second chance. You stop your pills and when these types hear that you’re off the medication, they nod sagely and tuck your story away in their mental Rolodex to tell the next medicated person. You have become their success story. Meanwhile, all you can do is suffer silently, too afraid of their judgment to reach out when the alternative still isn’t enough and you find yourself yet again sinking to the bottom.
Story 2: The “doomsday story”. These are the horror stories people tell you of cancer cells being tied to x type of antidepressant. Of birth defects and baby leukemia and cleft palate. Of seizures and strokes and blood clots and the loss of all sex drive resulting in inevitable divorce. Shame. Shame. Shame. All under the guise of caring. The problem with these stories is they aren’t wrong. The medication does, in fact, have side effects. Serious side effect which you and your doctor have reviewed in depth. Side effects you know like the back of your hand, that you’ve lost sleep over as you debate back and forth. Is it worth it? Can you afford to take the risk? The answer is a tentative yes at first while you wait to see what the benefits look like, then a staunch yes as you start emerging into the light of a world worth living. But the fear still nags at the back of your mind even as you learn to live with the minor inconvenience of the lesser side effects. You can handle the sex problems now but what about cancer down the road? What if you decide to have a kid? The tellers of story 2 know your fear and play to it siting statistics that may or may not be real and generally terrorizing you into googling all the worst case scenarios until you’ve had enough and decide there’s no possible way all this can be worth it. When they hear you’re off the medication these storytellers can breathe a sigh of relief. They can stop worrying. They finally got through to you and you are no longer a walking medical disaster in progress…at least not physically. Mentally, you’re slipping away.
Desperate for even a shred of normalcy and acceptance, it seemed the last barrier was remaining medicated so as soon as I felt even a modicum of improvement, I stopped taking the pills. People in both camps reassured me I was strong and smart for making the decision. They were proud of me. Well when I’m struggling with depression I want nothing more than to be seen as strong or smart or anything resembling a capable functioning human being. And above all? I never want to disappoint. So each time I quietly and unnecessarily suffered through withdrawal only to have to wade through the slowly thickening fog of inevitably recurring depression. All that normalcy and acceptance was just another lie.
Eventually I would always reach a new low and wind up back on meds. Every time I filled a new prescription I grew quieter and quieter while my shame grew louder and louder. Those little pills became a symbol of my body’s humiliating inability to foster strength, intelligence, capability or anything other than bitter, bitter disappointment.
After this last period of depression and many, many hours logged with my therapist, I’ve finally resigned myself to the idea that I am a lifer. That however my future unfolds, each day will begin with the two tiny white pills that allow me to make it to therapy and to play with my children and to love my husband and to believe I have something worthwhile to contribute to the world. That despite the constant ringing in my ears (yay for rare side effects), the 2pm shakes when the XL part of the Bupropion HCL XL kicks in, or the vertigo when I miss a dose, the benefits for me FAR outweigh the risks. That without a combination of treatments that include medication I will eventually, in some way or another, become a danger to myself.
In many ways I’ve shed the shame of living with mental illness. I boldly write “Therapy” in my planner for any nosy Nelly to see and I no longer lie about where I go for 50 minutes each week. In an attempt to normalize it my kids know, generally, what a therapist is and we openly discuss the basic contents of my sessions. But I still harbor lingering shame over taking medication for my mental illness. Just thinking about publicly owning this part of who I am leaves me in a cold sweat.
But the owning of even the scariest parts is what will heal me. I am one of the almost 13% of Americans over the age of 12 who take an antidepressant and I don’t want to be ashamed anymore.
* I’m not disparaging alternatives to medication; they may work for many people but I am not one of them. I use many of the exact same suggestions I’ve been given to assist in my depression treatment, especially exercise, yoga and meditation, but for me they are not sufficient to replace medication.