Stigma of Psychiatric Medication and This is Water
I watched ‘This is Water’ for the first time this year, if you haven’t watched it yet, I highly recommend it. The commencement speech was delivered in 2005 so I’m late to the show. But despite the speech being 8 years old, it still holds precious truths and narrative that is especially important to keep in mind during the busy hustle and bustle of our everyday lives.
What struck me the most about ‘This is Water’ was the knowledge that David Foster Wallace, such an elegant wordsmith and intelligent mind, talking in the video about an individual default setting, and learning how to choose to think about the world differently, committed suicide in 2008. The New York Times published an obituary that for the first time publicly addressed Wallace’s long-time struggle with depression. Readers discovered that he’d been on an antidepressant for 2o years when the drug started to produce serious adverse effects. On a doctor’s recommendation, Wallace tapered off. The depression returned, however, and no other treatment was successful. Wallace’s father had seen his son in August. “He was being very heavily medicated,” he said. “He’d been in the hospital a couple of times over the summer and had undergone electro-convulsive therapy. Everything had been tried, and he just couldn’t stand it anymore.”
It is tragic that Wallace could not find a replacement therapy in time to save himself from that, “default setting” he so adamantly warned us about. But that just goes to show that even an intelligent and gifted mind can be easily overcome by mental illness. Look at what those 20 years of using an antidepressant helped him accomplish. As someone who knows well how deep in despair ones mind sinks with depression, I am glad that at least for that time he was able to live with a clear mind. Look at what he contributed to the world with the help of medication.
Listen, I’m so tired of people complaining about Big Pharma. Sure, it’s corrupt, and money driven. YES. I know this. But what is someone like David Foster Wallace and the millions of people in the world suffering from mental illness to do without it?
The truth about medication is that for people like me, and David Foster Wallace is that we don’t have any other choice. Sure, I could play around with St. Johns Wart, exercise all day, and eat only foods that fall off of trees, but unless you are me, you may not grasp the fact that my mental illness, unmedicated, causes my brain to be unable to make consistent healthy decisions. As someone with bipolar (DFW had depression but for people living with MI, in my opinion the stigma puts us all in one category.) I tend to be grandiose and spontaneous in a dangerous way, and on the flip side, I have unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide a total of 4 times, instead landing myself in mental institutions.
Yes, medication for mental illness has side effects that are potentially dangerous. But what people don’t seem to understand, is how dangerous someone with my level of mental illness can be without taking the right medication. I’m talking danger to myself, but in some cases danger to others as well. What choice do I have? Am I supposed to allow myself the chance of getting so low that I see no other option than death? Or so high on mania that I ruin my life and that of my loved ones by making decisions that put myself in harms way?
I’m sorry that Big Pharma is corrupt. I’m sorry that the list of potential side effects on the average psychiatric medication is a mile long. But most of all I’m sorry every time I see another post, or meme, or news story that perpetuates the stigma of taking medication for mental illness. I’m sorry when I get unbidden advice or hear of others being told to meditate, eat raw, juice, and exercise, etc. in place of taking medication. You have no idea how many different things I’ve tried outside of taking meds. My family and I suffered many years of chaos because I refused to take medication. I see and know people now who are suffering emotionally and causing their family’s great distress because they refuse to “give in” to taking medication. That’s what society makes it feel like, giving in.
What I know is that in my 31 years on this planet the last 5 have been the most even tempered, safe, and content that I’ve ever known. Until I “gave in” and worked with my doctor to find the right medications for me, I never had a clue that life could be like this. When I look back at the “unmedicated me,” I actually fear for ever going back there again. I fear losing what I’ve built in these 5 years of emotional sobriety. I never fathomed going months without an argument, laughing at myself instead of getting enraged, being able to trust myself and my loved ones no holds barred.
This is me. I know people who are seemingly happy living with mental illness unmedicated and that’s okay. But for me, and others like me, I’d really love it if people would stop bashing psychiatric medications, causing people who need them to fear and fight it. There is peace to be had that Big Pharma provides. I’m sorry if people don’t like that. Idealistically, the drive behind the pharmaceutical machine would be a genuine want to help people with mental illness, and money would have nothing to do with it. But until that happens, which is probably never, we have to take the good with the bad. Tell me now, without advising me to resort to unproven homeopathic remedies, what are my choices? Have you lived in my shoes?
I told the story about a great man like David Foster Wallace as an example because he is someone many people respect and look up to. He is the kind of person who proves that mental illness can affect even the greatest among us. But there are millions of us, like him, who really do need psychiatric medication to function on a daily basis. One important step to fighting the stigma of mental illness is also to fight the stigma of taking medication for that illness. Imagine asking someone with diabetes to stop taking insulin, that’s like asking a paranoid schizophrenic to stop taking anti-psychotics. Please be mindful and aware. Not all of us can get by on clean eating and positive thinking.