CW/Disclamer: In this post I discuss a lot of the attitudes I held about taking medication as a young person both prior to and immediately following my diagnosis. Many of these preconceptions are stigmatising and ableist in nature. My reporting of these thoughts is not intended to promote them but to show how I have grown. Thank you for your understanding.
I am on two types of medications to control my Bipolar disorder: mood stabilisers and antipsychotics. I feel like I am finally at a point where I am okay saying that. I have had a difficult time coming around to the idea of taking medication. I’d like to share with you all how I went from being a person who refused to take medication to a person who now owes their life to medication.
Funny story. I was actually diagnosed with Bipolar due to a medication mishap. Like many people with Bipolar, I was first misdiagnosed with depression. This happens because many of us don’t recognise our manic symptoms as problems. For me, I just thought mania (especially hypomania) was my personality. I thought I was a creative, energetic, sometimes anxious and paranoid, often irritable person who occasionally got depressed. That was my normal. Or so I thought. So when I went to see my therapist I only told them about when I was feeling blue. Which lead to me falsely being diagnosed with depression.
My therapist suggested I go on antidepressants many times over the years but I always resisted. I wanted to do it all by myself. I thought going on medication made me weak. I thought taking medication meant that I was crazy. I saw taking medication as a failure. So I didn’t take medication until I was completely at the end of my tether. Here’s the thing though, when you have Bipolar antidepressants can make you manic. Which is exactly what happened to me. I had my most severe manic episode up to that point and this time my therapist saw it all unfurl with their own eyes. I was sent to a Psychiatrist and when they took my history and examined me the diagnosis of Bipolar was crystal clear.
From that day I was put on medication for the rest of my life. At the time, I saw this as a death sentence. In the course of a month I went from being willing to try medication for the first time (and having it backfire spectacularly) to a person being on medication for the rest of their life. This put me through a whirl. I suddenly had to accept this identity as a chronically ill person. I struggled with this a lot. I’m a young person, I’m supposed to be in the prime in my life. To me, I thought being on medication every day meant you were old, sick or dying. And I didn’t feel like any of those things. I just hated being reminded that I was actually sick. Every time I looked at my medication in my hands I felt like a failure. With each swallow of the pills I swallowed the idea that I was failing to be a ‘normal’ human being in society.
There was a lot of trial and error over the next 12-18 months to find the right medications and dosages. What a lot of people don’t realise about Bipolar is that just as mood is always in flux, medication is always in flux to respond. Mood stabilisers in particular take a long time to start working. So I took them diligently, as the doctor ordered, hating myself all the while. But eventually I started to feel a difference. And it was like this fog cleared. Like I had been wearing dirty glasses my entire life and finally cleaned them for the first time. It is really difficult to explain. But I finally started to feel like myself. For literally the first time in my life I was getting to know who I was. I was not this manic person. Or this depressed person. I was someone completely different, who borrowed from both mania and depression from time to time.
As I began to get to know myself better my whole life began to improve. My relationships improved. I was able to make better decisions for my self-care. I was able to focus on my studies. A lot of the clutter in my brain had been cleared out which made it easier for me to make the right choices to look after myself. I was much more receptive to talking therapy because I was levelled out. The person I once thought I was, the person living at the edge of existence who fell into despair, even became unrecognisable to me for quite some time. I owe all of that to finding the right medication.
Now just because I’ve found the right medications doesn’t mean I get off easy. The other shitty thing about medication is that even when it works you are often left with all sorts of side effects. These are also difficult to come to terms with. Mine include drowsiness, dehydration, weight gain and slow but steady damage to my liver and kidneys. The latter is estimated to shorten my lifespan by approximately ten years. That’s a hard pill to swallow. Taking pills that do that to me is a big decision that I wish I didn’t have to make at this point in my life. But when I really think about it I’d rather lose ten years to live the rest of my years a healthier and happier person.
So how did I, a person who hated the idea of being on medication to the point I refused it for years end up so devoted to the medication cause? Because it works. I know that sounds so simple but I had my mind blown by how much medication was able to help me. It changed my life. And has literally saved my life thousands of times over. Medication won me over. Because I gave it the chance to. This would not have happened if I hadn’t persevered and challenged myself to look past my preconceptions and put trust in my care team.
Speaking of my care team, my Psychiatrist C said something wonderfully humbling to me when I was complaining about taking medication one day. I only drink on special occasions but I would drink more if it wasn’t for my medication. So I was complaining to C about this one day, about being in my twenties and not being able to drink at a party. He pointed something out to me. Quite astutely, he said ‘Nobody said you couldn’t drink. You made that choice when given all the information. You complain about not having autonomy because of your mental illness but making that choice, given all the facts, is the ultimate form of autonomy.’
And I think that sums up how I feel about medication now. I choose to take it, despite side effects and stigma, because it helps me to live a better life. It is an autonomous choice I make to look after myself. And now when I swallow those pills I no longer swallow down ableism and stigma. Instead I swallow the idea that I value myself, my life and my own wellbeing. Taking my medication is now an important part of my daily self-care routine that makes me feel good about myself. Now when I take my medication I think about improving my mental health and my hopes for the future.
To tell you the truth, it just gets to a point where it feels normal. It’s part of the routine. It’s just what I do now. Have my dinner, have my meds, have a shower, go to bed. And to me that is the ultimate form of acceptance. My medication sometimes doesn’t represent anything. It is just part of my life now. But to tell you the truth, some days my medication is still a reminder that I am sick. But I no longer resent that. Because guess what? I don’t hate myself for being sick anymore. It happened in parralel, as I began to accept the reality of life with a chronic mental illness accepting the idea of taking medication, and being open to the process, became a lot easier.
The decision to take medication is an exceptionally personal one and I would never begrudge anyone for making a different choice to me. What I will say is that is important to keep an open mind. I was closed off for years and that continued my suffering unnecessarily. I’m happy I finally made the choice to give it a go, and for better or worse, medication has helped me tremendously.