Dismantling the stigma against pharmaceutical treatment for mental illness
By Rebecca Peterson, Humour Editor
Content warning on this article for mentions of self-harm.
“You know, I once thought I had depression, then I started eating tuna every week and it got better.”
“I could never take medication—it turns you into a different person. It’s really just a crutch people use so they don’t have to face their problems.”
“Imagine if they’d medicated Van Gogh!”
If they’d medicated Van Gogh, we might have gotten a few more Starry Nights out of him. Or, better yet, a human being would have been able to live a much happier life, for the theoretical sake of a few depression-fuelled paintings. What a tragedy.
The above quotes are all things I’ve had said to me on the subject of medication; some, from people who have no idea that I’m one of those pill-popping brain zombies that edgy artists like to paint as social commentary. Some, from people who actually do know this about me, and have that pinched, guilty look of a person trying to gently suggest that I might not know as much about my own mental illness as they do.
I understand the trepidation and discomfort regarding medication, and it ties back into the mysticism surrounding mental illness. It’s easy to doubt that mental illness exists if you don’t have it, because it isn’t something as easy to see as a broken bone. The thought of taking a pill that might “control your mind” or “change your personality” can also make people uneasy, and to a certain extent it should. However, just because you don’t need it, doesn’t mean other people don’t need it.
I’m what the doctors call “high-functioning”; I don’t “seem” like I’m sick, which is part of why I’ve become so vocal about my mental illness and the effects it’s had on my life—not because I want people to know what I’m going through, specifically, but so that people can see that it literally can happen to anyone. The frustration of living with an invisible illness is in finding the awkward balance between wanting to blend in, and being able to explain to people why sometimes you just can’t.
Before I started on medication, I lived in such a constant state of emotional flux that I honestly did not know what it felt like to live without it. I thought everyone spent nights lying awake in absolute terror, the source of which was ever-changing.
Once I’d rationalized my way out of the fear that the sun might throw a flare that could cook the Earth and kill us all, I’d still be faced with the fear that once the polar ice caps melt, the methane trapped under the ice could quickly poison the planet and kill us all anyway.
I would swing from anxiety so extreme it would cause my body to shake like I was having a seizure, to depression so all-encompassing I wouldn’t be able to move—sometimes for days. I struggled with this all while holding employment, attending school, socializing with friends and colleagues who had no idea that my thighs were scarred from years of self-harm, and that the night before I’d spent six hours sobbing and watching clips of How It’s Made on YouTube to keep myself from taking that self-harm a few steps further.
The choice to start taking medication wasn’t an easy one. It wasn’t easy to hear from my doctor that I’d likely have to spend the rest of my life on medication. It wasn’t easy when my first prescription smoothed out my anxiety, but left me only with the depression and the dissociative episodes after weeks of constant nausea and insomnia while my body became accustomed to the drugs.
Once it started working, however, it was like some kind of grimy filter over my life was lifted. If you haven’t spent two decades in a constant state of anxiety, you can’t understand the relief when it’s suddenly gone, or, at the very least, reduced to a manageable level.
I don’t truly believe that everyone suffering from mental illness needs treatment through medication. A lot of mental illnesses can be worked through and managed without medication, and I definitely encourage exploring those options first. The choice to take medication—or not to take it—is incredibly personal and shouldn’t be forced on anyone either way. For me, I can easily say that medication has saved not just my life, but my quality of life. I’m not asking anyone to try walking in my shoes to understand this, because without experiencing it first-hand there’s no way you could possibly know what it’s like, and that’s okay. I’m just asking that people take my word for it, and stop trying to tell me that if I try hard and believe in myself, I can replace my medication with yoga and wheatgrass.