Why medication is not the enemy | mental health / chronic illness

Disclaimer: as said towards the end of this post, I am not advocating for the use of medications, I am only discussing my personal experience and the stigmatisation of such medications.

A couple of days ago an opinion column was posted in the LA times, discussing one man’s experience with attempting to come off anti-depressants. As a community, many people have written threads on the issues there are within the piece such as this one by @coffeespoonie including his use of addiction and dependence as interchangeable terms, as well as implying that an anti-depressant is not a prescription drug. Whilst these threads have taken apart the piece very effectively and better than I ever could, I wanted to talk about my own experience of long-term medication use, why it isn’t the enemy, and how much it annoys me that medication are continually demonised in traditional media.

I’ve been on some form of mental health medication since I was fifteen. Originally, for six months beforehand, my GP placed me on a beta blocker as a measure until I could see a psychiatrist, who put me on my first of many tries at an SSRI. I was very unlucky and had a major reaction to it, but it does come down to being unlucky – what happened to me would never happen to more than a couple of people. When I then went into inpatient care a month later, I was instead placed on another form of anxiety medication and, although I’ve tried several others over the last four years, it is the one I am still on today. I couldn’t imagine life without it.

Actually, that’s a lie, because I know what my life is like without it, where there have been periods off it, as well as my life beforehand. I was in Year 9 at a grammar school when I started having panic attacks and they quickly became daily, and often twice daily, occurrences which meant I was out of lesson after lesson and often unable to even make it through the gates. I moved school, and though my anxiety was reduced they were still happening. Fast forward two years of therapy, I attempted to come away from my medication, and it just wasn’t sustainable – my brain moves at a pace that I often can’t even explain; I have five trains of thought running at once, most of which aren’t even relevant and causing unnecessary levels of panic, at such a fast speed I can’t focus on them.

I’m at the best I have been for four years at the moment; those two years of therapy had a huge impact, and in the last year I have had my chronic pain management programmes which were quite holistic and focused a lot on my anxiety. Apart from during exam season, my panic attacks have been increasingly rare. But with my move to university, I don’t know how I am going to be. Often, doctors question me as to when I’m going to come off the medication as if it’s simply for an acute illness. Mental health medication is often seen as the last resort, something avoided if at all possible, and whilst I am a big advocate for therapy, I don’t think it should be demonised the way it is. Therapy got me out of crisis, but my medication is what keeps me afloat. If anything, it was my medication which meant I could get the most out of therapy.

In a similar vein, I’m also on a long-term painkiller, which are equally as demonised in the time of the opiod crisis. It began with 6-8 tablets of paracetamol a day, before endless different painkillers that were all completely ineffective or gave me side effects. Eventually, I found an NSAID that seemed to at least take the edge off the pain and I was on that until I finally saw a specialist rheumatologist who recommended the one I have been on for the last two years. I could probably survive without it – but could I live? Could I have done my A Levels? Almost absolutely not.

I am not advocating that people turn to medication before therapy, whether that be talking therapy or DBT or physio, or even advocating it’s use at all. I’m not a doctor, and I will never recommend a certain medication or slander those which have caused me issues, because everyone is different. All I want is for it to stop being so stigmatised, particularly by people who have never experienced the trauma and issues that mental health problems and chronic pain can cause.

Am I dependent? Or even an addict, as David Lazarus implies in the LA Times? Perhaps I am dependent. But I am no longer constantly frozen by anxiety and out of action due to pain and panic attacks. Is that such a bad thing? Those who say that my age means I should not be depending on medication are correct, because no I shouldn’t have to be – I don’t want to be either, but I have chronic and mental illnesses.

And yes, there is significant irony in the fact that I have been sat writing this piece for two hours and have only just realised that I didn’t take my meds this morning, but here we are. Let this be your reminder!