First of all, let me be clear. I am NOT anti-medication, nor am I advocating that anyone else stop taking theirs. Nothing I say here is meant as medical advice and I’m definitely not a medical professional.
But yes, I am off my medications. It’s really not that big a deal at this point in my life; All I was taking was the lowest clinical dosage of bupropion, anyway – far from the cocktail of meds I’ve been on in the past. But I’ve been on bupropion for over 10 years and I finally felt like it was time.
I’ve been on psych meds since I was in my early 20s and I’ve never really liked being on them. It’s not because I view the need for meds as a weakness (I don’t and never have), and it’s not because I don’t feel I’ve needed help from time to time (I definitely have). And when I felt there was a need for me to be on them, or that I was deriving some benefit from taking them, I took them. But over the last several years I’ve been seriously questioning just what the benefits were for me, and I finally came to the conclusion that there just weren’t enough to justify it anymore.
I think the final straw came after watching a documentary about the pharmaceutical industry and its relationship with consumers and the FDA. It really opened my eyes to not only my own history with psych meds, but the way they’re marketed and how they’re used. One segment in particular stuck with me. A young man, who happens to be a doctor, told a story of a time when his elderly mother went to her physician after suffering the loss of her husband and partner of 40+ years. Her doctor asked how she was feeling and she said that she was sad (obviously). The doctor proceeded to ask her if she’d like to be put on any medications. She was puzzled and simply responded that she was sad because she’d lost her husband and asked if the doctor didn’t think that was a normal response to the loss.
I’m not qualified to judge whether or not an individual needs medication. But I do wonder at the statistics. A 2011 report from the National Center for Health Statistics stated that antidepressant use among teens and adults rose nearly 400% between 1988-1994 and 2005-2008. And less than 1/3 of Americans who were prescribed an antidepressant had seen a mental health professional within the past year. The implication is that we’re getting the meds in greater numbers and we’re getting them without getting additional mental health treatment. And frighteningly enough, our kids are also getting medicated at higher rates than ever, even though there are dire warnings against giving children and teenagers antidepressants because of the risk of suicidal ideation and behavior.
I don’t really think that the problem is the meds. I think the problem is we’re handed meds as a solution, when they’re only a treatment. Popping a pill is not going to help anyone deal with a traumatic childhood, a shitty marriage, an unfulfilling job, or a stressful life. But if you’re like most people, your insurance is more than happy to pick up the costs of your psych meds, but good luck getting them to cover anything but a few visits to a mental health care professional. And at upwards of $100 per visit, those costs might just put decent mental health care out of most people’s reach. So the solution for most of us is to go to our doctor, talk about how we’re feeling, get a prescription and hope for the best.
That just wasn’t enough for me. And it didn’t work. I counted, and I think I’ve been on about 17 different psych meds over the last 23 years. Part of that is because I was misdiagnosed as bipolar, which REALLY adds a lot of fun to the mix when you’re talking about meds. Some of the meds were antidepressants, some were anti-anxiolytic, some were anti-convulsants, and some were anti-psychotics. Yeah. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? The really fun part is that a lot of that was experimental on the part of the medical community. They call if “off-label prescribing” meaning it’s been approved by the FDA for some other reason, NOT for the reason they’re giving it to you. So no, I don’t have convulsions nor have I ever been psychotic, but when Drug A doesn’t work, why not try the hard stuff? And none of it made a profound difference on my psyche, but some of the meds made my hair fall out, some made me lethargic, a great many of them made me gain a lot of weight, and some gave me tremors and made me incredibly forgetful. The side effects on psych meds read like a horror novel.
I finally rebelled a few years ago and stopped trying to get anyone to listen to me when I said that I didn’t think the bipolar diagnosis was correct. I actually had a psychiatrist tell me that the diagnosis didn’t matter if the meds worked. That in spite of the fact that I was telling him quite clearly that the medicine DIDN’T work and yeah, I’m weird but I think proper diagnoses actually matter. You wouldn’t say that to a heart patient that you were trying to give insulin to, would you? Abilify (an anti-psychotic) was the last straw for me with the bipolar meds. After being on it for a couple of weeks, I couldn’t sit still for more than 10 minutes and I was so jumpy an anxious I couldn’t function. I went off it and stopped seeing that particular psychiatrist. I was still afraid to go off the meds completely, so I’ve stayed on the bupropion for the last few years even though I never really saw much improvement in my depression while I was on it. But it didn’t give me horrific side effects, so I didn’t worry about it too much.
Then slowly, over the last year or two, I began to realize something. Perhaps there is no magic pill for me. I started to pay attention to patterns and what I noticed was that there were specific actions I could take to help myself feel better. It wasn’t that they made the depression disappear; but it was at least manageable. And the knowledge that there was something that I could do to help myself was so empowering. And I began to realize that there have been things that have happened in my life that have given me legitimate reason to be sorrowful and to grieve and to be depressed. Hell, if I weren’t sad about some of them, then there’s definitely something wrong with me! I stopped trying to run away from the pain and came to the realization that it wasn’t going to kill me to sit with it and try to find a way to cope with it. There’s no medication on earth that’s going to make me stop missing my dad, or my grandma or my mom. There’s no pill that’s going to make up for what I suffered as a child. I am always going to have wounds that no amount of medication will heal. So what do I do?
Well, I do everything I can and everything that works. I exercise, I try to eat well (and sometimes I even succeed), I read lots of books on the subjects that will help me – trauma, abuse, depression, anger, parenting, happiness – you name it. I write. I get plenty of sleep. I am kind to myself. And I fight every goddamn day to stay well and to chase off the negative voices that play in my head (no, not real voices – just that negative “demon voice” that’s always ready to tell you you’re not good enough). I remind myself that my thoughts and feelings don’t have any real power and they are transient things; they’re not going to stay around forever. And I did all this before I went off the meds, and now that it’s been two weeks, I’m doing all the same things and I feel good. Not great, but good. It’s a lot of work but it is so worthwhile.
So yeah, the 20+ year journey with meds wasn’t a pleasant one for me. It was painful and disappointing but like any experience in life, it taught me a lot. And the biggest lesson I learned was that I have to do the work. No pill is going to do it for me. And in many ways, I got really lucky that the side effects weren’t permanent (except the weight but we’ll see how that works out). At the very least, I know that I have the skills to make my life better and that has made a tremendous difference for me. And the moral of this story is – take the meds if you need them, but educate yourself about whatever you’re taking. And definitely, whether you’re on meds or not, get the help and support you need and take good care of yourself because you’re worth it.
Much love. – Mama Bear