The topic of medication can be a very sensitive and controversial one. My decade’s worth of experience with psychiatric medication has been characterized by frustration, battles with doctors, confusion and endless, often unbearable, side effects. In my last post I shared that I made the decision, with the support of my psychiatrist and therapist, to stop taking my medications. It was not a decision that was made on a whim or considered lightly so I want to take this opportunity to explain how I came to the conclusion that it was an important step for me to take.
Over the past 10 years I have been prescribed 18 different medications, often taking cocktails comprised of 5 or more meds at one time. Side effects such as dizziness, confusion, hallucinations, fainting, detachment, suicidal thoughts, heart palpitations, and falling asleep while driving became a way of life. Two years ago however, I started to grow very concerned when I noticed I was having great difficulty processing and comprehending information while my short term memory seemed non existent. I also had a lot of trouble verbalizing my thoughts and often stuttered. It was extremely disconcerting.
When I opened up to my former doctor with these concerns she responded by adding more medications to my cocktail. She even suggested I was suffering from ADD. I was very reluctant to add new medications, especially a stimulant, but that only led to being labelled uncooperative and noncompliant which was simply not true. Fear of new side effects was the basis of my hesitation but out of frustration I gave in and sure enough had more side effects to deal with. There was a time when I just resigned myself to the fact that I would never be fully functional again and believe it or not my doctor agreed.
Deep down I knew that giving up was simply unacceptable so I began searching for my own answers. I came across a book called Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker which in part tells the history of psychiatric medications and quite frankly my mind was blown. One thing in particular that I simply could not shake was this statement, “Why are so many Americans today…plagued by chronic mental problems – by recurrent depression, by bipolar symptoms, and by crippling anxiety? If we have treatments that effectively address these disorders, why has mental illness become an ever greater health problem in the US?” I couldn’t shake the nagging question of why is it that if we have access to so many medications and people are being properly diagnosed left and right, why is suicide still the second leading cause of death among ages 15-34 (American Psychiatric Association 2015)? It does not make any sense. And what about these statistics from Dr. Mark Hyman’s recent docuseries The Broken Brain?
1 in 10 Americans takes an antidepressant.
26% of adults have a psychiatric disorder.
Use of antidepressants TRIPLED in the last decade yet for the most part we
are not getting any better.
All of these facts intensified the gut feeling I had that there MUST be more to treating these conditions than a pill. There had to be hope out there somewhere and I was determined to find it.
When I first started down the road of medication I felt like I was forever trapped in a vicious cycle. Of course when we are experiencing a mental health crisis we should seek professional help from a psychiatrist. But their job for the most part is to diagnose and then match the disease with a prescription, send us off to test it out for a month and then see what happens. Once I started medication it was never an option to stop, and if I suggested stopping I was made to feel like I was considering something truly irresponsible. The answer from every doctor I’ve had was to add another med (being on more than 5 didn’t seem to phase my doctors) or increase the current dose until the side effects became intolerable. From the moment I received my bipolar 2 diagnosis any talk of stopping meds became taboo.
When I discussed it with my doctor just a few months ago she actually told me that if I ended up in the hospital because my symptoms returned and was no longer on meds I would be deemed “That patient”. The one who doesn’t cooperate or want to help herself. She acknowledged that it was wrong but in fact the cold hard truth. I’ve actually witnessed patients in the hospital on more than one occasion being ridiculed and yelled at for not taking their meds. Yes there are times meds are necessary and patients can be uncooperative especially when they do not understand what is happening to them, but my point is that doctors should be willing to hear us out without passing judgment.
I can say from experience (and testimonies I’ve read) that what may seem like the return of symptoms at first may simply be discontinuation or withdrawal effects. When I stopped my medication I experienced a period of depression, irritability and what felt like a mixed state from time to time. But I approached it with the belief it would pass once the drugs were out of my system and it did. I was also armed with the knowledge that there are alternative therapies that could help and I was ready to implement them if I experienced certain symptoms.
Now don’t get me wrong… no one should ever feel guilty for taking a prescription. There were times when certain meds calmed me down enough so I could function and in doing so probably saved my life. From there I was able to participate in therapy and learn other coping skills. Now, after years of therapy and research, I am equipped with tools such as nutrition, exercise, crisis plans, support systems etc. which enable me to cope with symptoms.
Through my own personal research and study to become a peer supporter I learned that we are multidimensional and I love the way SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) describes it. (I encourage you to check out their website) According to them there are 8 dimensions of wellness: emotional, environmental, financial, intellectual, occupational, physical, social, and spiritual. If we experience symptoms of mental illness we need to closely examine each of these dimensions in order to understand the big picture because all of these areas are interconnected. Symptoms of depression can be caused by an emotional crisis, loss of a job, stress due to finances, being stuck inside during winter months with a lack of sunlight, or even a spiritual crisis. In any of these instances the way we feel as a result may be the same but the root cause is different so we need to ask ourselves what is the best treatment in this circumstance?
After carefully considering the different facets of my life and the cognitive difficulties I was having I decided it was time to try an alternative approach. I will share specific details of what I’ve learned in each area in future blogs, but what I found most important for me was regular exercise, adequate sleep, improving my nutrition and focusing on getting adequate healthy fats and certain vitamins (specifically B vitamins ) daily.
For over a month I experienced withdrawal as my body adjusted to being chemical free. I was irritable, experienced racing thoughts (which is also a symptom of bipolar), electric shock sensations throughout my body, vivid dreams, night sweats, heart palpitations, headaches and the sensation that my brain was trembling. After two months however I noticed that the majority of those symptoms were gone and my system seemed to be calming down. About a month ago I realized that I was no longer stuttering and the jumbling of words and thoughts that had become very unsettling rarely happened anymore. I sometimes find it difficult to comprehend and process information but I can honestly say there has been improvement. I truly believe that many of my symptoms were caused by the meds I was on so now my focus is on using nutrition to heal my brain. I’m not going to lie…it takes a lot of hard work and patience but I know it will all be worth it.
People should not be shamed into taking meds or judged for stopping them. The ideal situation would be when we seek help from a psychiatrist we also talk to a therapist who is trained in helping us identify areas of our lives in which we need help and teaching appropriate coping skills. They should come together as a team that will work together and communicate about our diagnosis and progress. When medication is prescribed we should be educated about side effects and the reality of what to expect (which often is simply “We don’t know what to expect”). Above all they should provide encouragement that we can get through this and not only survive but by working together we will thrive. Walking out of our doctor’s office we should have hope, yet I can’t even begin to describe how hopeless I often feel after my appointments. If the person treating us has no hope that we will get better, how can we?
But I am living proof that no matter how hopeless a situation may seem or how severe symptoms may be, there are things we can do to get well and they work.
We need to understand that mental illness is real and debilitating. Just because contributing factors or underlying causes may be unresolved trauma, vitamin deficiencies or lack of sunlight and exercise by no means makes the symptoms or illness any less real or serious. It should give us hope however to see that there is progress being made at understanding what causes these symptoms and ways to help heal our minds when they are not functioning properly. And when we look at the WHOLE person — mind, body and soul — and care for each part to the best of our ability so they are working in harmony, we will have much better success living a productive and fulfilling life that God has intended for each one of us.
TIP of the Day: Try eating two handfuls of cashews in the morning if you suffer from symptoms of depression or anxiety. Some research shows this to be just as effective as a therapeutic dose of prozac. Google ‘effects of cashews on depression’ and decide for yourself! Either way there are no side effects and you nourish your brain with healthy fats.
Ephesians 4:16 From whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.