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Bipolar Disorder Recovery Is More Than Just 'Taking Your Meds'

I had my National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) presentation today at a college in Orange County, and afterwards, as I was browsing through the student evaluations, one comment in particular stuck out to me. The question was, “What information was most helpful to you?” The student wrote, “How she was able to overcome her thing but with meds.” This was the first time I had seen the question answered this way.

It wasn’t a negative comment, mind you. Nor was it rude or insulting or meant to be offensive. But it really concerned me. This was the one thing this student took away from my presentation. That I overcame my struggles with my illness… but with meds.

It led me to think — is this what I’ve been putting out there this entire time, or only in this isolated incident? That the only way I could defeat my issues was by popping a few pills? Do people in general think this way? Take your “crazy” medication and poof! All of your problems magically disappear?

Going over my presentation over and over again in my head, I don’t center my story on my use of prescription pills. At least… I didn’t think I did. Yes, I do stress the importance of taking them, but I also stress the critical necessity of a strong support group, reaching out to others for help, striving for hope and, most of all, time. Time is a crucial factor in the road to recovery. And yet, this 18-year-old honed in on one piece of the puzzle.

I’d hate to think people in general feel this way, though I know for certain some do. Some believe medication is somehow a magic fix and that after a few days of taking it, you will be cured. However, that is far from how it works.

It took two years for my psychiatrist to get my medication regimen right. To find out which medications worked and which did not, but most importantly, which worked together. And even with the “perfect” regimen, there is so much more work that needs to be done.

You have to have such great will to live with a mental illness. To figure out a way to convince yourself that you can live another day. (Not to say those who don’t want to live another day are weak — only to say there’s more to mental illness survivors than a cocktail of pills.) There’s therapy. There are weeks, months and years of slowly finding a way to not only trust others, but to trust yourself. Years of learning to believe in yourself and the hope that there are better days ahead of you.

I’m really saddened that’s what the college student took away from my story (drugs = how I overcame my struggles), but happy that the other 69 evaluations did not state anything close to it. As I said, I’m not insulted or offended, but I do wonder if I need to revamp my speech to emphasize that while yes, the right medication played a crucial role, it wasn’t the only thing.

In my experience, medications that treat mental disorders do not work the same way that say, medications for headaches or stomaches work. If I have a headache and take an Advil, after an hour or two, my headache (most likely) goes away. Advil has acted on its own to resolve my problem. The drugs I take for my mental health, however, act more like an aide or a supplement. It does not make you happy. You have to be willing to put in the work. Which is so much easier said than done. It can be something as simple as a positive affirmation that you repeat to yourself over and over again. Or something as ambitious as telling yourself, “I will not feel sad today.” Or, “Today, I will do my best to have a good day.” Yes, these medications can help to alter your mood, but you also need to have faith that the medication has the ability to work and work for you, not against you.

Anxiety pills do help alleviate some of my anxiety but they don’t zap it out of existence. I have to be the one to breathe in and breathe out, calm my rapid heart rate and tell myself I’m OK, that everything will be OK, that I will not feel like this forever. I have to be the one to tell myself to get a grip, to not let my imagination run wild, to put myself in check. Anxiety medication can only do so much. I have to be willing to work with the medication and not let my mind run away with my heart palpitations. Even when I take the medication, it takes time to come to my aide. In the meantime, I am the one doing the work.

Also, in my experience, you have to be open-minded when it comes to taking medication. One, have faith it will work. Two, know it isn’t an automatic fix. Three, know it isn’t a permanent fix.

I’ll be totally candid with you. My faith plays a huge role in how I deal with the struggles of my illness. I take my medication and I pray to God it works. So… piece of the puzzle number three: faith. Prayer. A simple request for help. Well, usually, it sounds more like this: Please, God, help me, please, God, help, Please God, don’t let me go down this road, dear God I need you, please, don’t let this happen again. Please… I need your help. God… please.

My requests become as frantic as the negative thoughts running through my mind simultaneously and with every whisper, I aim to beat out the negative.

So, maybe I do need to rethink my presentation. Even if it was only one of hundreds of students I’ve spoken to who made such a comment. I’m sure there are dozens of others thinking that as well. “She overcame it… but with meds.”

Ouch. Ha.

I wish I could talk to the college student who wrote that evaluation, and remind him that the meds regulate, but they don’t dictate. It is accepting that you have a disorder and accepting that you’ll need help getting better. It is having a strong support group. It’s therapy. It’s believing in yourself. It’s believing in others. It’s having hope. It’s saying, “I won’t let this illness beat me.” It’s understanding that healing takes time and that everyone reacts to their illnesses and experiences caused by their illnesses differently. It’s having patience. It’s realizing that you are not your illness and your illness is not you. And though your medication might seem to control your illness, it will never control you.

I may swear by my medication, but I know people, family members in particular, who have a mental illness like me and don’t even take medication. For the most part, they say they are dealing with life OK. Medication isn’t always the end solution. It always depends on the individual.

Make no mistake, medication does help me deal with the stressors of life. But also make no mistake. I believe in hope. In faith. And in myself.

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