The Stigma of Medication

Anxiety, with my name in the same sentence, has been a word I’ve heard for a few years now. However, last year, autistic burnout pushed my anxiety to the limit. I became increasingly socially anxious and hit the point where I was scared to leave the house, let alone attend school. I’d tried therapy in the form of CBT and it just made things worse for me. I was eventually referred to a psychiatrist because I was only sleeping a few hours a night. The appointment rolled around and I was given a prescription for melatonin, the natural sleep hormone, to regulate my sleeping habits. At the end of the appointment, something unexpected happened – I was given some information about an antidepressant drug to help my anxiety and, the knock-on impact of it, low mood. I was told to seriously consider it as an option that could improve my life.

I remember walking outside of the appointment, feeling angry. I didn’t need medication to mess with my brain. I didn’t need sorting out. I was fine. My mum and I argued a little. I wasn’t expecting it at all – I went for sleeping medication, nothing to do with my mood.

I was on a beta blocker, at the time, for physical anxiety symptoms, but my psychiatrist told me that they don’t normally prescribe them as they don’t do much in the long run. I was so annoyed that someone could say it wouldn’t do much, when it had already helped me so far. The idea of physically calming me was so far from the idea of something changing my brain.

The drug selected for me was sertraline. It’s an SSRI – a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. Serotonin is often known as the ‘happy hormone’, thought to be responsible for good moods and positive emotions. An SSRI stops the nerves reabsorbing it, to allow more of it to reach more cells without being absorbed. At the time, I didn’t really understand this and just thought the medication would mess with my brain, not necessarily in a good way.

Time helped me come around to the idea, along with the thought of a school trip weeks away. The school trip would mean I’d be away for 5 days, in another country, taking vast amounts of beta blockers to remain vaguely calm. It was at that point I realised something needed to change. I couldn’t be taking medication that would only calm my heart rate for the rest of my life when the issue – that caused all these physical symptoms – was anxiety. I knew those would be days I couldn’t hide away – something that I thought was fine. I hadn’t realised that I only took one beta blocker a day because I was only going out for a few hours. Sometimes, when you’re at rock bottom, you need a change of perspective to realise how unhealthy things are.  Thus, within a few days, I was taking sertraline.

Around a week later, I woke with uncontrollable shakes in my hands, I couldn’t stop them. I realised not long after that it would have been a side effect. At that point, the medication didn’t have an effect so it seemed so pointless, but as time wore on, I slowly improved. I went on the school trip and was okay. It was such a gradual change but slowly I was noticing I was okay. Every single thing I did wasn’t questioned by the anxiety telling me I couldn’t do it because it would go wrong. I could talk to people again, with some nervousness, but I wasn’t avoiding it completely. I began laugh again, something I hadn’t even noticed was missing. I’d get out of bed. I’d leave the house. I’d be part of my family again, not just someone who stayed in their room all day because that’s what felt safest.

There were times when I wasn’t doing so well again, though. Times where I began to slip into my old habits. This time, however, I had a solution, and my dosage was upped. I’ve been on sertraline over a year now and on the same dosage for quite a while. I’ve got my life back, really.

It took me a while, but I realised something not too long after starting to take medication – it doesn’t matter! I need medication to increase my serotonin levels in the exact same way I take iron tablets to increase my iron levels. It’s simple a measure to allow me to function in a way that other people can do without medication. Mental health care, and it’s the same with physical health, is not a one-solution-for-all.  Everyone is different so their bodies are different and will respond to different measures differently.

And then I realised loads of people take similar medication. So many people of all ages take SSRIs and other similar medications to help their mental health. For some reason, caring for yourself by taking painkillers when you’ve falling over is seen as good while when you metaphorically fall down, and your mental health isn’t great, similar self care is seen bad.

Medication for mental health issues is so stigmatised. In most of the media, therapy is the answer. Within a few sessions, everything is sorted and there’s no looking back. It made me feel almost alien – I needed medication and other people didn’t. Therapy worked for others and it didn’t for me. Antidepressants are always made out to be a big deal. You never see anything casual about it. There’s not a TV show where a character suddenly goes “Oops, I forgot to take my medication, I’ll take it now”. It’s always an issue and not normalised in the slightest. Where are the people saying “I need medication to help me, so what?!”

Sometimes we’re given an alternative and it’s someone saying “I don’t need medication, I’m better than that”, which is really harmful. It brings a level of elitism to mental health discussions, the idea that if you don’t need medication, you’re better than others. Again, different things work for different people and you’re not better than someone for finding something that works for you.

My point here is that despite the stigma and the initial feelings I had (probably caused by said stigma) I take medication for mental health issues and that’s fine. In fact, it’s brilliant, because it allows me to live again, something that seemed impossible.

 

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