When You're Ashamed of the Number of Psychiatric Meds You're On

Editor’s note: Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.

Imagine you visit your doctor for a surgical procedure and the nurse performing your intake is aghast as you discuss your current meds.

“Five medications?! You have one to keep you awake and another to put you to sleep!”

I uncomfortably try to explain so we can move on, but she interrupts me, “What is bipolar disorder II? Who is prescribing all of these?”

You might guess why I withhold the truth when medical professionals ask me about my current medications. Throughout my life I have been judged for and embarrassed by my mental illness.

Bipolar disorder can be difficult to treat. Doctors have the challenge of maintaining a steady mood, while reducing the highs and lows, without tipping the scale in either direction. Everyone responds differently to meds too, making it even more difficult for doctors to properly prescribe to their patients. On top of that, people with bipolar disorder often take more than one medication due to the comorbidities associated with the illness. In treating bipolar disorder, a doctor may have to simultaneously treat depression and anxiety — both of which may require their own drugs. Although these meds may make me feel more “normal,” the reality is they also make me feel shameful.

While rationally I understand why I’m prescribed the meds I take, it still pains me to be honest about it. In fact, I often ask my psychiatrist to reduce the number my meds simply because I’m ashamed. Yet I wouldn’t bat an eye at the amount of chemo and radiation my friend fighting colorectal cancer needs. Nor would I criticize a family member for taking eight different medications for her cystic fibrosis and diabetes. I wouldn’t judge them because I don’t see them as “defective” or “flawed.” I deserve that same compassion — especially from myself.

I will never forget what a mental health professional once told me about taking psychotropic medication. I was upset that I needed my meds and was contemplating how I could live without them. We were at a restaurant and she told me to bring a menu to the man next to us, take off his reading glasses, and ask him to read it to us. He had a visual impairment that impacted his ability to read. He had a disability, but one that is widely accepted by society. The same should be true for people with mental illness. We are not freaks of nature. We are human beings who struggle with an illness like so others many do.

Mental health discrimination includes both social stigma and perceived or self-stigma. I struggle with both, and stress about being judged for taking so many medications. But at the same time, these meds improve my quality of life exponentially, and enable me to live a healthy and productive life. I know from experience that my mental health would suffer considerably without them.

My hope is that the more I write about bipolar disorder, and the more educated people become about mental illness, the less stigmatized it will be. Oftentimes I want to give up, exhausted from dealing with my illness. But it’s critical that people, including myself, push on and continue to open up about mental illness. Only in this way will society (and those with self-stigma) become more accepting and less judgmental. Because after all, I would someday like to go to my pharmacy to pick up my prescriptions without the clerk saying to me “Wow, these are a lot of medications. Are they all yours?”

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Thinkstock photo via ironstealth.

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