MY TAKE ON MEDICATIONS
Most of psychiatry these days has to do with meds, and if you go to a psychiatrist you’re likely to come out of the office with a prescription in your hand. For better or worse, the profession has turned to the “medical model” as the standard treatment for mental illness, meaning that those with MD after their name play a huge role in all this.
When I got started in this business, that is, when I was 22 and didn’t have a clue what was wrong with me, I had no knowledge that there were medications people could take to make them feel better. Rather, I was aware of sedatives such as were given to wild beasts in order to quiet them, and illegal mind-altering drugs that were best avoided. I had never heard of antidepressants, antipsychotics, or mood stabilizers.
I first found out about these drugs that saved my life when I became a “client” at Options Day Treatment in the fall of 1981. I truly believed at that time that this brief experience in this program would cure me, but what I found when I got there shocked me: the people in the program had been in “the system” for years, decades even, and many had no hope of ever getting off the mental health merry-go-round for a long, long time. A fair quantity of the “clients” talked to themselves non-stop. Others could not stop shuffling their feet; this, I discovered, was a side-effect of some of the medications they took. Some contorted their faces into grimaces and twitches. Several were mentally retarded, and many drooled and had significant hygiene problems. One “client” smelled like sour milk; I could never figure out if it was the odor was in his jacket or himself.
I was ashamed, actually, that I came from an upper middle class family, had healthy teeth, and had been educated at UMass and Bennington College. I was embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t on welfare like everyone else, and wasn’t receiving food stamps. In order to convince fellow “clients” that I belonged, I started smoking cigarettes, wearing make-up, and watching soaps. I tried wearing heels, but ended up with nasty blisters.
And then there was the question of meds. I was fascinated. It was more than just “uppers” and “downers” as I had learned in 10th grade biology class. Some medications, which in those days included Imiprimine, Elavil, and the like, took away depression. Lithium leveled mood swings. Thorazine, Prolixin, and Stelazine eased psychosis and mania. And if you were anxious you could take Ativan or Librium.
The list of possibilities increased over the years with the advent of new drugs, the most significant of these being the “newer” antipsychotics that started with Clozapine and continued with Risperdal, Zyprexa, Seroquel (yuck yuck), Geodon, Abilify, and of course the SSRI antidepressants such as Prozac that caused people at least in the US to feel more accepting of psychotropic medication in general. Several anticonvulsants have mood stabilizing properties as well: Tegretol, Depakote, Lamictal, and of course my pal Topamax, and are safer than Lithium.
(In case you were wondering, all this is coming out of my head; I am not reading off some website; this is out of my own knowledge of these meds–impressive, eh?)
Fascination aside, no doctor would give me medication until 1983, though I desperately needed it. Why? I think they had trouble pinning down a diagnosis for me that justified giving me meds. “Spoiled brat” doesn’t have a listing in the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (DSM-IV), the standard for diagnosing patients.
It baffles me even now why my successive “treatment teams” didn’t give me medication sooner. The Road to Hell was not paved with good intention; it simply wasn’t paved. I think my life may have taken a drastic turn for the better if someone had put me on the right medication early on. By the time I took my very first psychotropic pill (which, incidentally, was Mellaril, an antipsychotic) I was suicidal (and had voiced this to my treatment team),” rarely bathed, had major eating and sleeping problems, drove recklessly, suffered extreme anxiety and panic attacks, and was tortured every day by something I called “Monsters”–these were strikingly similar to the Beings I experience nowadays. I did a tremendous amount of cutting with a dull box-cutter blade I’d found on the front lawn one day that fall; I picked at these arrow-shaped cuts on my arms and they had become infected. And those fools thought I didn’t need meds?
There is one reason I can think of why the docs held off so long. Once you get on the chronic mental patient merry-go-round it’s hard to get off. Meds are a big part of it. Most, I repeat most, people who take medication are not chronic mental patients but “high functioning” people who just need a little help temporarily. For me, though, and for millions of other “chronics” (sorry) taking meds becomes a permanent daily routine. Am I sick of it? Of course I’m damned sick of it! Some people opt for injections they can have once every two weeks or so; that way they don’t have to remember the pills; this is a very popular method used in Canada and parts of Europe to encourage compliance (“compliance”–see?).
Now, I take Thorazine, Risperdal, Topamax, Lamictal, Cymbalta, Abilify, and Synthroid; the latter is for my thyroid. I take enough medication to knock most people out for at least an afternoon, if not all day and all night. Luckily, I don’t get many side effects except for postural hypotension, which is a nuisance and a little scary at times, and I drink a heck of a lot of water.
My medications don’t make me “high.” They make me “normal.” They help me manage my symptoms so that I can function like other people do. Meds help me carry on conversations, take care of myself, eat, sleep, and bathe. Meds help me concentrate on writing. Without meds, I wouldn’t have been able to return to school, earn my degree, and go on to grad school. If there were no such thing as these meds, I’d probably be in some back ward somewhere, if I were alive at all, unable to think straight, unable to converse, unable to relate to others.
It amuses me now to recall that Lithium made my hair curl! It did, better than any perm! Shh…don’t tell my secret…it’ll put hairdressers out of business! (see photo)
Here I am with Tiger in 1992, and the curly hair is from the lithium I took.