Mental illness is unlike anything I’ve ever come across. At times, it can defy explanation, defy categorization, defy logic. It turns your entire world so many different directions at the same time it’s hard to know which way is the right way to go. And maybe because there’s no right way to go. Every brain is unique, every person is unique, every mental illness is unique.
So why do we so often treat mental illness the way we do? With medication?
Since the beginning of this year I’ve been slowly getting off as many of my medications as I can. I’ve already eliminated one anti-psychotic completely and the amount of another anti-psychotic has been dramatically reduced – the amount I take now is more like an honor guard compared to what I used to take.
And the results?
I see my psychiatrist every two months instead of every month – the longest I’ve ever gone between seeing him since I was diagnosed ten years ago. I would have to look back at my Hobonichi to see the last time I had a legitimate psychotic episode because I do not remember the last time I was tortured by that experience. I used to get psychotic daily, it used to come like clockwork and now it seems like a distant memory.
Of course. I’ve also been diagnosed with OCD in that time. But that’s likely just sometime that popped up because of the elimination of one my anti-psychotics (which is the primary medication-related treatment for OCD). The expression of more OCD-like tendencies coincides almost perfectly with when the last of the Risperdal would have been leaving my bloodstream.
I’ve seen more improvement to my every-day life in the past year than I ever have. But it’s been harder. I’m playing a new game now. The medical model of treating mental illness tries to match the right pill (or, more likely combination of pills) with your illness – it’s largely a guessing game. Certainly an educated-guessing-game, but when my psychiatrist prescribed me my first anti-psychotic he didn’t know, for certain, if it would help me. He didn’t know what side-effects I would experience. It was try one thing and if it didn’t work (which it didn’t) there’s a whole slew of other medicines to try, one right after the other, until we finally stumbled on the right combination of medications that works (worked) for me. At the height of my pill-taking days I was taking 57 pills a day. A lot of the actual bulk of those 57 pills were supplements, but it was still ten prescriptions.
I was tired all the time, I was incapable of following complex arguments in articles and books, I was incapable of thinking to the true extent of my mind’s capabilities. The side effects of the various medications are so numerous and so varied it’s almost comical – everything from shaking hands, to insatiable hunger (I could eat my entire refrigerator’s contents in a single evening – and gained about 135 pounds doing so), to my body being unable to control its own temperature. I had seizures, I woke up paralyzed. And, I think, considering the medication from the stand point of their side effects, they don’t seem like medicine. My psychiatrist explained the insatiable hunger one time as the pill trying to act on a certain brain receptor which was right next to the one which activates hunger, he described it as the medication being more of a shotgun – hitting a lot of other receptors in its attempt to hit the correct receptor. I countered that it was more like a blunderbuss, and my psychiatrist thought that a far more apt description.
Western medicine often seeks to comfort and alleviate pain first and foremost (and we’re arguably in the midst of an opiate epidemic because of this philosophy), but I don’t think it works that way with mental illness. You can’t apply the same logic to fixing a computer as you would to fixing a typewriter. And the same is true when you’re trying to “fix” a mental illness – they’re totally different things.
I remember sitting in a class about mental illness, a class designed to teach people with mental illness more about their own illnesses, and being shown two pictures of CT scans of brains. One was the brain of a person without schizophrenia, the other was a brain with schizophrenia. While there were certainly differences – I don’t quite buy that those differences add up to a malignancy, I don’t quite buy that because the brain of a person with schizophrenia looks different it means that brain is sick or deformed or malfunctioning. Sometimes different is just different – especially when “we” don’t know enough about how the brain works to express what those differences mean in any sort of meaningful way.
I don’t deny that the effects of mental illness are horrific, I don’t deny that mental illness is a terrible thing to go through. But you don’t use the same tools to fix a toilet as you would an electrical transformer; but that seems to me exactly what we’re trying to do when faced with a mental health problem. We seek solace when we should be seeking solutions.
But solace doesn’t help you grow. Just like helicopter parenting is ultimately damaging to the maturing of a child, so it is with my chemically “running away” from my illness. I’m not suggesting that everyone go out and do this. I’m not saying I should have never taken the pills in the first place. I believe it’s my medication which has brought me to a certain stability, which has then enabled me to take this bold stand. As I’ve maintained since I started this blog in 2014: every person is unique, every brain is unique, therefore every treatment is unique.
What happened was, at the beginning of this year I was going through a sort of crisis. Maybe it was me turning 30 and having to deal with still being dependent on my parents in ways that other 30 year-olds just aren’t. Maybe it was me dealing with more rejection from people I thought would be my friends. I sat in therapy and assured my therapist that every time a felt a wave of depression hit me, every time I felt that electric haze of psychosis begin to take shape, I took some extra medication. And her reaction was unexpected. She suggested that maybe instead of running away from my experiences, I try to be curious about them, I try to sort of embrace them (though as cautiously as I could) to learn more about them. And so I did.
And now I can stop myself from getting psychotic with the power of my own mind, I can do things I never thought I’d be able to do – I went on a 1,400 mile road trip this summer without experiencing any ill effects whatsoever, I sat in a crowded church and watched my sister get installed as a professor at a college without having to leave before it was over. I’ve sat in a crowded bar and enjoyed hanging out with two of my best friends, live music playing behind me, without giving second thought to the fact that I shouldn’t be doing it. And in doing all of those things, I didn’t get psychotic, I didn’t dissociate, I didn’t have to call my parents in the middle of the night to have them come get me. I used to sit on my stoop and have to assess every single person who passed, as if sizing them up to see if they were a threat or not. Now, I find myself lost in thought or talking to my neighbors – not distracted by the thought that someone walking by might be a threat.
Seeking solace is certainly easier – the process of putting pills in a cup and then swallowing the contents of that cup is easy. Facing your demons, facing the unknown void that mental illness presents you with is far more terrifying, far more dangerous, and far more intimidating. Because the solutions don’t come from someone else – in going to therapy I don’t look to my therapist to tell me what to do. She can’t tell me what to do, all she can do is guide me. She’s almost more sensei than doctor. A doctor has the authority of science and a head full of knowledge – a doctor has the right pill for every ailment, a doctor has deeper knowledge of your own anatomy than you do. But I know my own mind’s anatomy far better than any does. I’ve had to live with my mind my entire life. My therapist’s role isn’t any less important or any less involved – it’s just been a far more “spiritual” experience than I would have expected.
I use the term “spiritual” not in the sense that it involves any kind of religious belief, but rather to harken back to the original meaning of spirit – a kind of incorporeal, vaporous, wind. In dealing with mental illness you’re dealing with something that’s insubstantial but which has great consequences for every aspect of your life. And it’s worked for me – facing this unknown, facing my demons – trying to commune with them and understand them, even befriend them rather than just running away by bathing my brain in chemicals.
I don’t purport to have any answers. I’ve always maintained that every brain is unique, every person is unique, every mental illness is unique. What works for me isn’t necessarily going to work for you or your loved one. I don’t think it’s bad, or wrong to take pills – though they certainly come with risks and consequences: everything comes with risks and consequences. This space of the unknown – the subconscious, the unconscious, whatever you want to call it – is interesting to me, it’s something I understand in an innate kind of intuitive way. I’ve always followed my gut, largely in recognition that the thinking/cognitive parts of my brain don’t work so well anymore, and this is where it’s led me.
But I do believe there’s inherent value in facing the things which frighten us, the things which seek to destroy us. I think there’s inherent value in seeking solutions (though they’re certainly not the kind of traditional solutions touted to us by technology companies) rather than solace. I’m not suggesting everyone flush their prescriptions down the toilet and go embrace madness. All I’m suggesting is that you do what you have to do to feel better – there’s more than one path, more than one way to achieve/obtain mental health; but it must be done responsibly, it must be done with care, and current support systems can’t be abandoned until you have another support system firmly in place.
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