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Why I Hide What's in My Medicine Cabinet

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I have a secret. I had a birthday party. We had over many of my friends (and all of their children). Many of them are colleagues from past jobs and continue to be an important part of my professional network. When cleaning the house my first stop was to the medicine cabinet. I’ve been to parties at other people’s homes. I always look. The temptation is too great. I couldn’t risk it.

I caught the shame in my eyes as I looked at my reflection in the mirrored cabinet. I opened it and faced the little orange bottle. I carried two fists full and buried them in my sock drawer. I left the prescription allergy and migraine medications. Somehow these were safe for public viewing. The other pill bottles though, they were not something I was ready to have other people aware of, even some of my closest friends. Even if unfamiliar, a quick Google search of these pills would let my secret out. I have a psychiatrist. I am being treated for a mood disorder. Google would quickly decode the esoteric name on the bottle into a list of potential diagnoses: insomnia, anxiety, depression, possibly bipolar disorder. These meds point to a defect in my mind, a big chink in the armor that I have built around me with a facade of normalcy. They point to a person who has grappled with serious mental illness and come out the other side. Those of us who survive serious mental health crises aren’t likely to trumpet our success on social media and in our professional bios.

At various times in my life, since I began taking antidepressant medication at 19, I have tried to stop. I felt weak. Fists full of vitamins would be much more acceptable than one little pharmaceutical pill. In the culture I came from, taking these pills was the ultimate shame. If I only meditated more, bared more of my soul to another therapist, opened to the true bliss that was really me, ate more vegetables and less sugar, continued to rebel against our toxic mainstream society by standing for social justice, found my true passion, went back to school again, then I would be OK.

I tried to quit, I really did. I ate right, I exercised, I went to therapy, I took lots of vitamins, but to no avail. The darkness always came back. One morning when I faced my executioner in the mirror once again, I wept and reached for the phone. I was sick, really sick, and I needed help.

I have come to terms, quietly, humbly, that for me, taking medication every day is what I need to do. If you read the message boards online, as I often have, people write about multiple medication trials, horrible side effects, unrelenting symptoms. Others encourage them to hang on and share that their doctor has finally found the right cocktail for them.

My doctor found mine. I take daily high doses of a mood stabilizer and antidepressant. My thoughts may be slightly dulled, my stomach slightly rounder, but otherwise I am no worse for wear. The darkness isn’t allowed to get too close anymore. I have plenty of bad days, but I bounce back quicker. Some of this surely comes from experience and maturity, but a piece of it is chemical.

I am a little bit emotionally numb. I still laugh, I still cry, but I am a little flatter than I otherwise might be. This though, is nowhere near the flat shape that depression has hammered into me on so many occasions. It is much easier to laugh, to cry, to be present to my own life, when I am not ruminating on my failures and plotting my own demise. I am not weak. I am not broken. I have a disease. I have been treated with the best evidence-based pharmaceuticals and psychotherapies that modern medicine has to offer. I have great doctors.

I am normal. Typical. That is what I project to the world anyway. No one ever has to know about my disability, unless I tell them. Do I have one? On the first job application I applied for after college there was a page where you had to identify as having a disability or not. Major depression was listed as an example. At that time I was diagnosed with and taking medicine for that condition. I have completed this form many times and it always gives me pause.

I checked no. The last person I want to know about my troubles with emotional stability is a new employer. I come across as put together, intelligent and capable. I am stable. I am white. I am a man in my late 30s. My resume reflects a steady, uninterrupted, rise in experience. I speak about marriage and fatherhood as a world I have been in for a long time and have no intention of abandoning. Dependable, responsible, trustworthy, solid. Depressed, anxious, scattered, suicidal. Those don’t go together.

For now I will keep it to myself. Maybe someday I will stand in front of a room of strangers and tell my story. Maybe I will put my name on a book that lays my secrets out for the world. I’ll go on “Ellen.” But next time I have a party? I have no doubt I’ll empty my medicine cabinet into my sock drawer.

This essay is excerpted from the forthcoming book, “The Day Hospital: Featuring ‘Hello Lithium, My Old Friend’ and other essays on recovery,” and originally appeared on Medium.

Getty image via francescoch

Originally published: October 21, 2020
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