It’s hard for me to remember back before the days I began to take medication. It’s hard to remember the insanity that was my constant companion; to formulate with words the second self that lived within and beside and around the self I thought to be me, and yet always struggling to identify which version of me I really was. I remember a deep and unrelenting feeling of being lost, but the particulars have faded with time. I sometimes wish I had kept a journal, I’m often glad I didn’t. Life was so ugly and painful then.
While life before medication is hard to remember now, what stands out like a flash in a darkened room is the memory of standing at the kitchen sink to take that first pill to treat my bipolar disorder. I can study this memory of me quite clearly, hip and waist leaning into the counter, head down, bare feet glued to the floor; a posture of defeat. There are tears in my eyes as I study the tiny orange bottle in my hand and think about what it means, about the lost battle against myself that it signifies, about the statement it makes about my frailty, my weaknesses. It was a different time. Today I stand, strong and clear-eyed, shoulders braced and chin lifted, a woman of strength and confidence, and I watch the self that I once was as she struggles with the decision in front of her.
I wonder, watching the me that is no longer me struggle at the kitchen sink, what would have happened if the doctor had told me I was HIV positive instead of telling me that I had a psychological disorder? Would I have agonized over the treatment of that disease as well? I can only imagine not. But what is the difference? HIV and psychological disorders are both stigmatized in our society and they are both ultimately capable of killing the person who is inflicted if left untreated, so why would I be so much more willing to treat one according to doctor’s orders and not the other? If I were to be diagnosed as HIV positive I would be grateful we have come far enough to have a medical treatment for the disease, not having an internal battle as to whether or not medicine is the right choice.
Why are psychological disorders so different?
Years ago, staring at that ugly orange bottle I could hear the words I grew up with, of parents who mocked the mentally ill and used discriminatory language to describe them, of a mother who railed against a system of pharmaceutical medication as nothing more than a money making system set up to lure you in and get you hooked on one thing after another. The doctors were in on it, the system was rigged, there was no benefit to a single one of those pills and there was nothing wrong inside the brain that a little hard work or, even better, a whole lot of “let’s just not talk about it”, couldn’t remedy.
There are other stories to be told, in addition to the ones my mother was telling me then: if you eat the right foods and avoid the wrong ones, do the right exercises, spend enough time in the right kind of environment (around the right kind of people, with the right kind of pets), and so on, you won’t have these kinds of psychological problems. And if you have one, it can be fixed by finding the perfect balance of any of the above components. Then there’s alternative therapies like essential oils and herbalism, acupuncture and massage, marijuana and mushrooms, and probably a dozen more things I haven’t thought of, or don’t even know about to list.
I knew about some of those things though, staring at that orange bottle of failure. Some I had tried, some I hadn’t. The thing about some mental illness, like major depression for example, is that you have to be motivated to make changes and, for a lot of people, you have to be out of a place of episodic mental illness to begin making those changes. For myself, my bipolar disorder began spiraling out of a controllable pattern when I had my first daughter and no amount of my own laborious wanting and working was going to fix the chemicals in my brain that were ruining my days with my new daughter, and my opportunity for a joyous present and future.
So, I suppose the answer to my own question, then, the difference between having HIV and having a psychological disorder, is that we think we can fix ourselves if we have a psychological disorder. We tell ourselves, perhaps, that we don’t have to take the medicine because we’ve heard there’s a dozen other things we can do and try that will solve the problem. And sometimes that really is true, there really are other ways to solve the problem or, at the very least, to help control some of the symptoms. The question is, though, how often are we really doing those things? And the problem is, it’s only sometimes true: for some diseases and for some people, there really, genuinely is the only treatment of medicine, at least in the beginning.
Which brings me back to the question at hand. If you were diagnosed with HIV, would you take the medicine the doctor prescribed you? What about if you were diagnosed with a psychological disorder? If your answer to those two questions is different, you need to ask yourself why. If you’re still telling yourself that having a mental illness is a personal failing, a weakness that should somehow be brought under your superhuman control, you’re doing yourself and your life a great disservice.
There are times, in my life then and still today, where my thoughts and my voice are not the ones I can trust the most. In these times I go to those I know I can rely on to keep me safe and strong; to those who will keep me alive. Find your truth tellers and dedicate yourself to hearing them. Listen to those who speak life to you and trust them to keep you alive when you cannot trust yourself to do the work of it.
Today I am strong and mostly clear-headed. I no longer wonder which me is the real me, because I am always one and the same. The me that I used to be, that girl by the kitchen sink, took a deep breath, wiped away her tears, and took that stupid pill, because the baby waiting to play was more important than the voices from her history and the stigma in her country. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve never looked back.
I chose life. More importantly, I choose to live my life.