Sunday, June 7, 2015

To Medicate, Or Not To Medicate? That is the Question!

Over the past years I have read many biased opinions on why people should not medicate mental illness. Here are just some of the comments:

“It ruins your body”
“you can self-heal”
“It’s just the drug companies trying to get money off you”
“it’s addictive”

And then there’s those who tell me what I should be doing instead:
“you need to sleep more”
“you need to exercise more”
“you need to eat healthy”
“you should be in therapy”
“try natural therapies”

So, what happens though, when you are already doing all those recommendations? When, no matter how much you sleep, how healthy you eat, how many natural therapies you try, how much you exercise, or how much therapy you get, your mental illnesses are still stopping you from living a fulfilling life? I have tried all the above, and I still do all of the above, however without medications, alongside my sleep, exercise, healthy eating, and therapy, I am a danger to myself.
I’m not denying that these things help…they help a lot, and for many people that’s all they need to change their mindset, but for some, those with severe mental illness, often caused by both nature and nurture, more is needed.

First, let me explain that this is only my opinion. Different things work for different people. These are my observations, and I have observed totally different things that work for others. For example, I have had friends who have appeared to be in a state of depression after a break-up, but what I believe they were experiencing was grief. They were suffering from what Freud would call “mourning”, which is a stage that passes over time, and usually, does not need medicating. I say usually, as if one experiences this over a prolonged period, it may then become a state of “melancholy”, otherwise known as clinical depression. It is essential to take each case separately. You should not simply say “this worked for me, therefore it will work for you”, or “medication did nothing for me, therefore it will do nothing for you”, because everyone is different. We have our own genetics, our own childhoods, and our own life experiences. This is simply one experience…my experience.

I have suffered from social anxiety for as long as I can remember, general anxiety for roughly 13 years, and depression for about 16 years. I have previously done a blog on this (Dealing With Depression) so I will not go into the details too much. I have also been diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, an attachment disorder (which is sometimes what triggers major depressive, and anxiety episodes), and told I have “aspie traits”, though I believe these traits are symptoms of my early childhood, and not a disorder. I have only been getting treatment for all the above for the past 9 years, so life has been a struggle at times. To try and list all the medications I have been put on, would be stretching my brain, however they range from anti-depressants, benzos, anti-psychotics, and stimulants like Ritalin. Some have worked…some haven’t.

The Ritalin was great as it enabled me to focus, however the anxiety when it wore off (think of the contrast of having a focused TV channel for a day, then suddenly having a brain full of static and switching channels constantly), was horrendous, and had to be balanced with Valium or Xanax. I swore to myself that I would never become the person who needs one pill to counteract another pill, so I stopped the Ritalin, and work on others ways to manage the ADHD symptoms. The anti-psychotics were a nightmare, and not something I will ever allow someone to prescribe me again (falling off a chair, while asleep in the middle of a uni tutorial is not exactly pleasant). The benzos help in emergencies, but…my saviour of all these has been anti-depressants/anxiety pills, and other than that, Xanax here and there. That is all I regularly take now (along with fish oil, and natural treatments).
There has been times though, when I have not been on anti-depressants. I have tried to fight against them, and saw myself as ‘broken’, or not the ‘real me’ if I were on them. I thought they were inhibiting my writing, and stopping me from reaching my full potential. Being off them though, was even worse.

When I was not on them my panic attacks were controlling me. They would occur when: I crossed the road, when I put my foot on concrete, when I served a customer at work, when I wasn’t sitting near an exit, when I was in the cinema, when I drove on a freeway, when I drove through a tunnel or over a bridge, when I drove through a major intersection, when I was on a train, when I was on a tram, when I was in a crowd, when I was in an elevator, when I was walking through the shops and not holding onto the wall or a side ramp, when the green man was flashing for me to cross the road, when I had to talk in front of a crowd… you probably get my drift. Any moment, where I was not in total control of the situation, resulted in a panic attack. For those who have experienced panic attacks where you start sweating, feel like you can’t breathe, everything goes blurry, you can’t stand or move your legs, and are convinced you are dying…well you will understand how hard simply living daily life was. People would tell me how they used to experience them, and how they got better, but during the year when this was happening daily, I could not seem to find the hope they offered. Around this time I was adamant that I would get through this un-medicated. I consistently told my therapist this, and thought exercise, healthy eating, sleep, and therapy would heal me. As I have previously mentioned, all that did help, however, it was clear that this was not something that could be fixed that easily. When I finally decided to go on medication, my life started to improve. I’m not saying that I did not still experience anxiety, however, it was not as debilitating as it was pre-medication.

Then there is the depression. This is something, that I think when you have a chemical imbalance, you will struggle to treat without medication, however, I’m sure some people do. I have battled with this since I was 16, although it was unknown to me at the time that that’s what it was. I often wonder if I would have taken a different path had I have had an earlier diagnosis. My depression presents itself in very stereotypical ways. Suicidal thoughts, no hope or dreams for the future, nothing seems positive in the world, self-hatred, self-harm, extreme negative self-talk, all the classic traits. I have tried managing this on and off the meds. Being off them, always leads to me being a danger to myself. This year I decided I would go off them again. I started weaning down at the start of January. By February, I was self-harming again, and on a suicide action plan with my therapist. During the time off, I still kept up all my exercise, ate healthy, etc. I was even working more closely with a naturopath to try natural medications. She had me on the strongest doses she gives out, and resulted in needing to say “I want you to go back to your doctor to get on anti-depressants/anxiety medications. It is my duty of care to talk to you about this, as you clearly need something much stronger than I can give you”. When a naturopath says it, you know it must be needed.

It took until April for me to stop being so stubborn, and to go back on them. I am now in a much better place, and even don’t need to see my therapist regularly anymore. It’s amazing how much it shifted me. Something I have hated during all this though, is feeling the need to defend myself against people who are anti-medication, and even anti-mental illness. As though an illness in the brain is not real, because they can-not see it through blood tests, or x-rays. I suppose partly this entry is my response to all those people. When someone is in such a deep state of depression and anxiety, the worst thing another person can do is argue with them that it doesn’t exist, that it is all “in their head” (no shit! Isn’t that half the problem?), that they have somehow caused this themselves. I am so fortunate to have had an amazing therapist (and my new one is also wonderful), a great personal trainer, some loving friends and family, and a once in a lifetime partner, who have been so patient and understanding during the journey. When I hit rock bottom my partner lets me stay in bed, makes me chai, and puts my favourite TV show on, but then helps me back up when she knows it’s time for movement.

So, what I hope you can take from this, is knowing that everyone is different. What I recommend though, is making sure you try to eat healthy, sleep well, exercise, and find a good therapist, although often medication may be needed in order to get sleep, and exercise happening in the first place. It all depends on the individual. I suggest not to let a doctor you don't know well, treat you the same as everyone else. Don’t let them just instantly medicate you because you’re grieving through a break-up. Find someone who knows you, who takes the time to listen, and who understands you. Listen to your body. Listen to those who listen to you. I know what I need to do to maintain my health, but it has taken a long time, and a range of treatments to work it out. It has taken intense therapy, complimented with treatments, and good health. I don’t believe I could find progress in one area, without coupling it with the other areas. You will find your own strategies, and during the hardest times other people can say things, that while they think they mean well, can be damaging. Surround yourselves with those who understand you and love you, and know that when you get through the other side, you will be a much stronger, and empathetic person, than the one you were before. This is what I have done, and in 8 years I have gone from being someone who could not talk in front of a class, to someone who teaches high-school students every day. From someone who could not drive anywhere, to someone who can now drive interstate. By no means am I perfect though. I still jump at the sound of a loud noise, become traumatised by violent films, experience night terrors, am hyper-sensitive, and go through days riddled with anxiety and depression, but, I am living. I am waking up each day, and wanting to make the world a better place. I am wanting to help young people overcome these kind of issues, and teach others to be more tolerant and understanding of each other. This is why I need my medication. I hope you find something that works for you. 

Here is a picture of me not on meds, and on meds. See if you can notice the difference.

And if all that fails, get a kitten (or if you're a dog person, get a puppy). No-one can be sad when playing with a kitten or puppy. This is me and my cat Olie. He makes me smile every single day. 

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