In a recent conversation with a friend I accidentally referred to anxiety medication as “aspirin for the brain”. I meant it in a good way. Why is taking something for anxiety any different than taking the exact same thing for insomnia?
There is much stigma around medications and it is tempting to believe any number of ridiculous cognitive distortions we all battle, from time to time. As simple as it sounds, people generally push back when a professional prescribes a stupid little pill to cope with the uncopeable. We have been told that people with depression are emotionally weak and need to “snap out of it”. Anxious people seem skittish by nature and those panic attacks might just be a personality flaw. Taking medication for depression or anxiety or (insert name of mental health issue here) means that I have somehow failed or given in or given up. I shouldn’t need to see a counsellor to take an SSRI or go on disability. People who take meds because they cry allot are weaklings.
Much of the stigma around medications for mental health issues comes from inside, as well as outside.
Don’t write a comment and accuse me of telling you that it’s all in your head (interesting allusion) or that I fail to appreciate just how freaky the people in your life are. I understand that there are still morons who think you should “suck it up” but they don’t read this blog and you do. I’m preaching to the choir, we’re all friends here.
It’s just that I sit in this chair, 7 hours a day. Stories begin to sound familiar, in a good way. One of the skills your counsellor brings to the table is vicarious experience. That individual has heard the most heinous things, day after day, and understands that human interaction and emotional cognizance forms patterns. We share a common human experience, in spite of the fact that what you are facing is yours alone. Counsellors see thousands of people in their lifetime. At twenty a week I crack that number every year and so do many of my colleagues. Commonality allows us to figure out the threads of abuse and distortion and unrelenting life experiences, and thereby help you experience the combined wisdom of hundreds and thousands of others who have faced a storm not unlike the one you are slogging through.
So when I tell you that many many people have struggled with guilt and self-esteem around taking real medications you can believe that this, for millions of us, is a shared human experience. Almost every day I argue with clients about their belief that SSRI’s and Benzo’s are somehow magically indicative of some bizarre deformation of character or weakness of spirit. Untold people convince themselves that succumbing to medication is failing at life. Untold people are wrong.
If you struggle with such feelings, you are probably normal. But please understand, a little information can go a long way. Think about medication, just for one minute. A pill is full of medicine which is made up of molecules which interact with something in your brain. Maybe you are short on serotonin, to use the one that everybody constantly harps on. The doctor gives you a pill that has a scary sounding name and your mother calls to tell you that for some reason, one which defies logical explanation, taking a substance to replace the short supply of serotonin (which you are convinced those friggen kids probably caused in the first place) is somehow a moral issue or sign of emotional imbalance. If I have a shortage of Vitamin C I take one of those big orange tablets, you remember, the ones you chew and they taste like a sour orange crapped in your mouth. Take Vitamin C, hand it out like crack, chew 20 if you feel a cold coming on. Snort the C.
A little short on dopamine? You’re screwed.
It’s not quite as simple as that but you get where I am headed. We are chemical beings, bunches and bunches of things from the Periodic Table, combined to make you the special little muffin that you are. Eggheads talk about things like neurochemistry because at the end of the day it’s all chemistry, baby. Neurologists and Neuropsychologists have informed us, time and again, that we are a porridge of chemicals, all the way to the brain. Depression happens when certain combinations of stuff in your melon combine in a particular way; so when you thought I said it was all in your head I kinda was. Medication for depression is often from a family called SSRI’s, Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. These little pills do exactly what the name implies, they stop the reuptake of serotonin. That may not blow your shorts off but it basically means that once serotonin is released in your neural junk, cool words like dendrites and axons and stuff, these drugs keep things rocking until you come back into the range of not quite as crazy, one more time. What do you think an aspirin does or a melatonin or a Vitamin C? When you are short on something the body gets out of sync. This is never to be confused in Nsync. Ever. Gummy bears and Lattes and Cipralex, they are all just chemical interactions about to happen.
Enough with the elementary school neurochemistry, here’s the obvious point. Somehow we have been taught that taking a medicine for certain ailments has more to do with a value system or some outdated notion of chivalry. There is no inherent morality in taking a medication because you have been walking through hell and this has had a profound impact not only on your mental state but your physical as well. Chronic mental health challenges take a toll on your entire being, as anyone who has gone through this can attest. When my life fell apart all the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in the world couldn’t have convinced me to not hate my life. Recognizing that we need assistance when we can no longer control or survive in our current state is a medical calculation, not just an emotional one. Doctors prescribe such medicines because they know that sometimes, every once in a while in a life, current realities overwhelm best intentions. Some doctors don’t know what they are doing (see my last rant) but sometimes they do; and there are times in our journey when we may need to listen to the voice of reason, not just the voices in our head.
I’m not telling you to go on meds. If there is any way you can manage your current issues than by all means, let’s talk about coping. I’m not telling you to go on meds. If, however, you ever start planning for your own demise than by all means, for the love of god, take a stupid little pill.
I’m not telling you to go on meds.
p.s. – this is my 400th blog. I never imagined I would still be writing.