Every night before going to bed, I grab the three bottles sitting on my nightstand, pop them open, and wash down several coloured pills with a tall glass of Gingerale.
Sounds easy, right? Well. It wasn’t always like this.
The truth is, taking psychiatric medications has never been easy for me nor has it been a straightforward process. Over the years, it’s been more like riding a rollercoaster and encountering a few mechanical complications.
I was first prescribed psych meds about six years ago, but it’s only been in the last two months that I’ve taken them as prescribed. If you were to ask me, “What happened?” I’d say, “A few things got in the way: namely anger, fear and shame.”
Here’s how the cycle would go: I’d be put on medication, I’d start to feel better, and then I’d stop taking them, against my parents’ and psychiatrist’s wishes. Although my team made it clear that it was up to me whether or not I wanted to take medication, I felt immense pressure to take them and didn’t feel as if it was “my choice.” My parents would tell me that I needed to listen to my doctor, and since I wanted to please them, I did as I was told, treatment wise.
Beneath the surface, though, I was left feeling resentful and bitter. I was pissed. I hated it when people told me what to do, I couldn’t stand it, so in a passive-aggressive manner, I’d show my discontent by stopping my meds, without caring about the harm it caused my body. I wanted to rebel and took pleasure in not listening to my doctor or parents, or any other authority figure. Not taking my medication also showed how deep I was in denial. I didn’t want to have an illness, so I didn’t even bother acknowledging the treatment.
When I received a diagnosis I didn’t want, I adopted a “couldn’t care less” attitude. I remember feeling childish, immature, irresponsible and self-indulgent, but still, I would not change my mind and take my medication. In short, I didn’t hold the belief that I wanted to take medication in order to be well: instead, in the rare occasions where I became compliant, I took my medication only because that’s what I was “supposed” to do.
Being prescribed psychiatric medication brought a lot of frustration and indignation, but also a lot of anxiety and fear. Over the years I tried about a dozen drugs, and each time I thought, “What if the side effects are really bad? What if they cause more harm than good? What if they make me feel flat and numb and not like myself?”
Taking medication was a risk that came alongside many hesitations. Taking medication meant facing uncertainty, and it meant confronting a lot of my fears. On the one hand, I was afraid that medication wouldn’t work, and therefore I’d be considered a hopeless case with no chance of recovery. On the other hand, being depressed was so familiar and comfortable, that the thought of medication taking effect in such a way as to lift my symptoms, was just as terrifying as sinking deeper into an already major depressive episode.
Mostly though, being prescribed psychiatric medications brought a lot of shame. In the last six years I believed that taking medications to balance the chemicals in my brain was like cheating, like taking the easy way out or giving up. I believed that I was weak for needing them in the first place, and I judged myself harshly. I didn’t want my mental health to depend on whether or not I took pills. I despised the side effects and had no faith in my overall treatment. I thought, “Why should I even bother?” I didn’t think medications worked, so I didn’t even bother giving them a chance. In reality, I was so sick I couldn’t engage with my treatment properly.
At the time, my thoughts were so distorted, my views so inaccurate and my beliefs so limiting that I couldn’t see or appreciate the value of taking my medications daily. I treated it like a game, and thought skipping a few days here and there wasn’t a big deal.
Little did I know, in fact, that I was indeed messing up with the neurotransmitters inside my brain, like my levels of serotonin and dopamine. I also struggled with self-validation. In my head, it was a catch-22. If I took medication, did that mean I was mentally ill? If I didn’t take medication, were my mental health struggles still valid
So how did I get to the place where I am today? It’s easy. Two months ago, I stopped taking them cold turkey.
I had stopped taking my medications cold turkey many times before, without experiencing any drug withdrawal symptoms, but clearly I hadn’t learned my lesson. I’d like to think that perhaps this time around, life got so tired of me playing with fire, it decided to give me a real wake up call.
The story goes like this: I stopped taking my medication and within a week, I was so physically ill, dehydrated, depressed and suicidal that I had to be hospitalized for the third time this year.
Did I learn my lesson? Absolutely.
I made a mistake and it was a costly one. I made a huge mistake, but the good thing is that I learned and grew as a result of it. When I got discharged from the hospital, I took responsibility for my behaviour for the first time and held myself accountable for my actions. I apologized to my psychiatrist for stopping my medication abruptly, without her guidance or her supervising me.
The truth is, going off my meds cold turkey was a careless and irresponsible move on my part and I should have known better. As a matter of fact, I know better. The whole time, I was aware of the potential dangers and harmful consequences, and I did it anyway. If I hadn’t stopped taking my meds, maybe I wouldn’t have ended up in the hospital. But I guess what matters here is that I learned my lesson and can guarantee it will never happen again.
Although quitting my medication suddenly was a “bad” decision, I don’t regret making that mistake at all. In fact, deep down I know that this was the only way for me to learn the value of taking medication. I had to hit rock bottom, which turned out to be a scary place but nevertheless where I needed to be. I still maintain that it was critical for me to experience the negative consequences of my actions, in order to gain proof that taking medication was, in my own eyes, worth the hassle. Before, I believed that medication was not helpful at all. But when the doctor at the hospital adjusted my dosages, and I immediately started to feel better, something inside me changed and as a result, my attitude towards medication started to shift.
Before this admission, I knew from a logical point of view that taking medication reduced my symptoms and was therefore beneficial to me and my overall health. But inside, I didn’t feel that way. It was only afterwards when I left the ward that I believed, for the first time ever, in the power of psychiatric medication and in their ability to stabilize my mood and help me stay well. In short, it’s important to remember that knowing and feeling are two different things: and that sometimes, believing can make all the difference.
So now, I want to take my medication everyday. I feel empowered and in control and you bet that I’m going to take them religiously from now on. Stopping my medication made me feel super sick, but it taught me a good life lesson that I’m not likely to forget anytime soon.
Lastly, in the past few days I’ve caught myself wondering, “What if this had always been easy and medication had been what I needed all along? What if I had taken my meds as prescribed from day 1? And why the hell on earth did I spend the last six years of my life resisting taking psych meds, when they could have brought me this much relief the whole time?”
But here’s the thing: it was never about the pills. It was about the journey. It was about acceptance. It was about mourning the person I used to be and the life I used to have before I fell ill. It was about grieving the loss of so many good days to an illness I didn’t choose to have, and about navigating a collection of symptoms I never asked for; it was about challenging this notion of normality, and it was about facing reality. Mostly, it was about cultivating resiliency in times of adversity, tolerating vulnerability in times of uncertainty, and realizing that if I can go from resisting taking my medications to embracing them, anybody can.
Today, I’m super proud to say that I take my medications as prescribed, and no longer fit criteria for a major depressive episode.
Hooray for Lithium, Zoloft and Risperidone!!!