I grew up in one of those families that that didn’t believe in mental illness. Depression? Anxiety? Please, everyone gets sad and nervous, get yourself together and let’s get going. Therapy? For what? Psychology is a crock.
So it’s no wonder that in this environment the idea of pharmaceuticals was laughable. Not just for us, but for anyone. My parents laughed at the commercials we saw, at the ads in the magazines, at the folks we heard about who took them. Mental illness was a personal failing, a loss of self-control not a disease, and the idea of treating this failing with an actual medicine was the ultimate display of weakness. Even more ridiculous, these uneducated and gullible people were treating something that wasn’t real with a pill that was causing very real side effects and then taking *more* medicine to treat those side effects and then even *more* medicine to treat new side effects caused by the new medicine. The cycle was endless and dangerous and it all began with an imaginary illness made up by Big Pharma designed to trick us into becoming lifetime addicts… I mean “patients.”
You get the idea.
I believed most of this to be true. For a very long time. Even as I struggled with depression and anxiety. Even as I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and, despite my misgivings about such things, knew the diagnosis to be true.
It took me a long time to come to terms with my diagnosis. I went back and forth for years questioning myself and many others, “how do you know I’m not just moody? Maybe this is just my normal? Why do we have to label this?”
Those were searching years, asking years, probing years… Unmedicated years.
I was finally able to accept that, yes, I was a person with bipolar disorder. But there was no way I was going on those medications. Those poisons of the mind. I was not going to start popping one pill only to have it demand another and have that one lead to another. No way.
I went a long time as a person with unmedicated bipolar disorder. I was high functioning. I had a pattern of behavior that was predictable and coping mechanisms that worked well enough. I had good jobs and strong relationships. I was strong and healthy. There was no need to medicate the wide spectrum of my moods. Awareness of where I was in my rhythmic system of fluctuation, and the willingness to set personal boundaries was an effective method of care for me.
And then it wasn’t.
Through no fault of my own, unless you count conception, the path of living that had successfully kept me pharmaceutical free into my mid-30s was suddenly rendered entirely ineffective. My psychiatrist has told me since that it’s not uncommon, that a woman’s brain undergoes incredible changes after the birth of a baby, thanks to the hormones of pregnancy and childbirth. My brain, like most other parts of my body, decided not to bounce back.
Within just a few months of giving birth to perhaps the most deliciously beautiful baby girl on the planet I was no longer able to control my moods, my thoughts, my reactions. My life was entirely out of my control. I was often emotionally flat, unable to bond with my daughter and distant from my husband. Filled with rage one minute and deeply depressed the next. The months went on and I could fill pages with stories to prove the point I’m trying to make, to make you believe that what I’m saying to you is true. Because even now I feel like I need to make you believe me. But to save us time, I will say this: it became clear that I was no longer able to handle this on my own. I needed help or I would die.
There is so much stigma, still, surrounding the decision to take pharmaceutical medication for mental illness, but I’m not sure anyone could be harder on me than I was on myself the first time I allowed a psychiatrist to hand me a slip of paper with a scrawl of illegible writing on it for a mood stabilizer. I sat frozen, tears of shame pooled in my eyes, momentarily blurring out everything else in the room. My stomach burned, my heart ached; I had failed. I was the weakest of the weak.
But then I did the strongest thing; I left that room and I filled the prescription. That night I stood in front of my kitchen sink and, despite the tears in my eyes, I took the first pill.
Here’s the thing, you guys. Mental illness is just so real. I’m so worn out from hearing that it isn’t. I’m tired from fighting for the basics. I will fight this fight to the death because of all the people who still have no voice, but it is sometimes stunning to me that we are still having to say that, yes, it is real.
I’m a big believer in pharmaceutical treatments, but I am not a blind puppet for Big Pharma. There are so many ways to treat yourself well and kindly. There are a dozen paths to wellness and it’s your privilege and your right to pursue the one that is best for you and for your brain. You should be able to do so without stigma from either side of the aisle of opinion. You have the right to change your mind, to be wrong, to try new approaches, to try all the ways, to guess, to guess wrong, to take the hard way, to take the lazy way, to find your best way to your best health.
I am not you.
But I want to support you as you work to find your path to wellness.
Nothing more and nothing less.
Be well. And tune out the noise. Even if it’s your own.