About this time two years ago I was in a small therapy group as an introduction to the larger ones available through my local health care system. It was hard for me to join, I was neck-deep in my fear of strangers and any place outside, and I remember that for the first couple of sessions, in a very pleasant small room with plush seating and very nice people, that I did not take my coat off. It was a thick navy blue pea coat and it was my armour. On or about the third session I did take it off and began to feel comfortable enough to participate more. In this group, there was also a lovely young woman who, with some nervousness and a bit of shame, said that she’d just been started on antidepressants and was unsure how she felt about that. The implication was that taking them, being prescribed them, was a step beyond just not feeling quite right and into the shadowy realm of mental illness where the trees have sharp claws and flying monkeys are waiting up ahead.
It’s a common thought, and I’ve been as guilty of it as anyone. When I was initially diagnosed and offered the same thing I immediately declined. I said, “I want to try without meds,” because though I don’t think I admitted it to myself consciously at that time, I felt the same way. It didn’t take long for me to learn my lesson, though.
This lovely young woman, so sad in her need to admit her fears, was asking for something to make it okay. Out of nowhere, I came up with this metaphor that has stuck in my head ever since:
“They’re an umbrella in the rain,” I said. “It’s still raining, but they help you stay a little less wet as you work your way towards proper shelter.”
Oh, the joy of a broad imagination.
She loved that. It made perfect sense to her, and she grasped it as I’d hoped she would and immediately began to feel better. I’d thrown a bucket of water on the wicked witch, and though she wasn’t quite ready to click her heels together three times, she seemed more prepared to head off and meet the wizard (an entirely different sort of adventure).
See, we often have our own prejudices and carry our own stigmas, carried over from our experiences and things we learn as outsiders that we often feel the pointy end of when we find ourselves on the inside. Antidepressants, anti-anxiety, anti-psychotics, and other psychiatric medications are just tools we can, and should, have in our chest along with other forms of therapy and techniques to help us manage and move forward. They’re not supposed to be a panacea, and should never be thought of that way.
The film A Beautiful Mind, about Nobel Laureate John Nash, as moving as it was, did nothing to help alleviate this stigma and fear of psychiatric medications. Dr Nash, suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, is shown to begin using prescribed drugs to alleviate his symptoms, but as a result, they also are shown, in a few dramatic scenes, to dull his ability to do the very same things that made him such a brilliant economist. He stops taking them, reverts back for awhile, but eventually, with the help of his loving wife, learns to manage even then and continue his work. The implication was that drugs are bad, mmkay?
Well, they’re not, so just shut up.
Internet forums are wonderful places to find non-judgmental support and validation (that’s not a bad word, get that idea out of your head right now), but they’re also places that well-intentioned folks go for advice only to hear horror stories told by others who rail against medications because they did this, or they caused that, or some such side-effect made life generally far too difficult. I tend to think these are tales of woe from angry people who hang onto the same stigmas they face but feel secure in them like Linus does his blanket (look for that analogy to be explored in another post coming soon); People who do not take as much responsibility for their own care as they think they do, and prefer to soak in their anger at the world for not taking care of them because it’s warm and comfortable in that warm bath, isn’t it?
Not terribly long ago I was prescribed a medication normally given for fibromyalgia but shown to ease anxiety as well. Though I wasn’t always, I’m open to working with my doctor as partners towards my better wellbeing and gave them a shot. I did not look them up, or their particular effects, until strange and difficult things began to happen. I experienced some very vivid and disturbing nightmares, and a general dulling of not only my anxiety but everything else, as well. My imagination, in particular, like John Nash’s ability to see complex patterns, all but disappeared, and that bothered me more than the horrible dreams. My imagination feeds me. It nurtures me. I love being able to look at old, abandoned buildings and see complete stories of the people who may have once inhabited them, or seeing the colours of a world just by the words an author has written. I stopped taking them, and on my next visit discussed with my doc a different tack to accomplish the same goals. That was a couple of months ago, and so far, so good.
We are each unique individuals with unique needs and unique problems. Not every medication will work quite the same way for all of us and may have effects greater or smaller, better or worse, than others. Though the onus is on us to take responsibility for our own health care, it is also important to recognise that we have knowledgeable, experienced partners we should work together with as they should with us (and I admit freely that there are some dickish doctors out there). Find what works, try different things, decide which side effects are manageable if the primary effect of any one medication succeeds in doing what it’s meant to.
I’ll freely admit that I can live with my libido having gone down the shitter (and the physical ability to rise to the challenge even if it hadn’t) because the meds I use now, tools to keep me even-keeled and out of the really heavy storms, do their job well and keep me moving forward.
If it keeps your hair dry when you go out into the rain, does it really matter that it’s a Hello Kitty umbrella?