Stop Shaming Me For Taking a Controlled Substance
Shortly after giving birth to my son, I was prescribed a mid range dose of seroquel as an anti psychotic to treat the signs and symptoms of my bipolar. I’ve always been pretty consistently medication compliant, so I gave it a good 2 or 3 months before I couldn’t handle it anymore. seroquel made me sleepwalk on a nightly basis, which was particularly troubling considering I co-slept with my infant son. When I told my doctor I didn’t want to take the medication anymore, she was quick to reassign something more suitable. Anytime seroquel came up in conversation with anyone following my personal experience, I was quick to demonize it, which typically was met with agreement from whoever I was discussing it with. seroquel is an easy-to-demonize medication. It wasn’t until I was prescribed a problematic medication myself, and politely belittled by friends and loved ones for taking said medication, that I realized how wrong I was to openly protest against something that just didn’t work for me.
I have to provide a little back story first to make my point, so bare with me. As an elementary school aged child, I was (like many mentally ill people) labeled as “gifted.” I excelled in artistic endeavors and won state mandated testing awards for my creative writing. On the flip side, I couldn’t stay in my seat, I couldn’t keep my hands “quiet,” and I couldn’t pay attention to anything for longer than a couple of minutes. According to my mother, school officials told her that she should consider Ritalin, which was all the rage for kids in the early 1990s. My mother refused, and despite the fact that I can identify where it would have helped me, I don’t blame her for a second. I’m grateful that she granted me the opportunity to navigate the world of psychotropics on my own as an adult. There are a lot of heated opinions out there on how we medicate young children, and I tend to waffle back and forth on how I personally feel. All I know is that I’m grateful that I gained the experience in learning how to mimic the way neurotypical people behaved, and I wasn’t over saturated in an identity (mental illness) that I wasn’t old enough to fully comprehend yet. I think this varies depending on each case specifically, but we’ll talk about that some other time.
Truly, I have very little history with illegal drug use and I have always been very careful to manage my own medications precisely as I was instructed. This is actually pretty rare for someone afflicted with a mood or personality disorder, as more than 60% of people diagnosed with bipolar report struggling with substance abuse. My own deep seeded paranoia about medication kept me on the straight and narrow and outweighed my desire (which was definitely present) to numb or kill the hindering symptoms of my disorder. I openly and frequently discuss a pretty severe stress induced mental breakdown I suffered in early 2019, as I feel my transparency on the subject is crucial to my work as an advocate. At the time, I was struggling with what I could only describe as disassociation. The sensation of literally just not existing while I went about my day-to-day life was the most debilitating thing I’ve ever felt. When symptoms mutate into something new, it’s natural for a self aware mentally ill person to run down their list and attempt to attribute it to one of their existing conditions. Was my trauma coming back to bite me in the ass? After months of trying to navigate this issue on my own, I finally scheduled an appointment with my doctor to address it. It didn’t take her long to determine that I was most likely suffering from the signs and symptoms of Adult ADHD (AADD), which is more commonly referred to as Adult ADHD.
At first, I thought the likelihood of being diagnosed as having both bipolar AND ADHD was unlikely. Being bipolar (and my advocacy for it) had, at this point, become a huge chunk of my identity. I was much more inclined to accept that my ADHD symptoms were linked to my manic episode, than to accept that I was in fact dealing with co-morbidity. After discussing it further with my doctor, evaluating my history and where certain symptoms didn’t quite fit with my existing diagnosis, as well as following up with some research on my own, I came to understand how the two disorders can play off one another and create a perfect storm: I’d completely skip out on a conversation or activity I was in the middle of, and when I came back down to earth, I was instantly infuriated with myself for not “paying closer attention.” This lead to symptoms of rage, self injurious ideations, and an over all self loathing that can’t be conveyed with words. I had been experiencing this my entire life, but after months of it happening on an amplified level, I wasn’t really in a position to argue with my doctor. I just wanted it to stop.
When I was prescribed adderall, I openly admit that I came right out the gate and asked for it, fully recognizing that I was exhibiting “drug seeking behavior.” The truth is, it WAS drug seeking behavior, but I wasn’t trying to get the “superman” high that everyone reported they experienced when taking amphetamines. I just wanted to be able to focus on a conversation. I wanted to complete a task. I wanted the motivation to shower on a daily basis.
As a predominantly manic episode type, there was a part of me that was naturally cautious. I had always stayed away from antidepressants out of fear that they could kick start a manic episode, rather than “level” me out. Naturally, one would think that adderall could cause the same devastating results. My doctor has always had my best interest at heart (which is increasingly rare these days), and was reluctant to give me what I was asking for. By the end of the session (and a crying fit on my end), she reluctantly agreed to give it a shot by prescribing me a low dose of extended release adderall for one month with strict instructions to check in frequently.
Since then, I could fill notebook after notebook with the love letters I’ve compiled for this pill. For the first 3 weeks or so, I couldn’t help but tell EVERYONE that I spoke to that I was taking adderall. Although they probably felt like I was bragging, the truth was that I was so enthralled with my new found quality of life, I just wanted everyone to know that I finally felt better. My mood stabilizer and anti psychotic are obviously effective, but I always regarded them as keeping something nasty at bay. Adderall on the other hand made me feel like I had been cured of what made me feel crazy.
I’ve been taking adderall for a couple of months now, still on a low dose and extended release. I’m meticulous when it comes to my mental illness treatment plan, so naturally I’ve done all the research that I needed to feel comfortable with this prescription. Yes, I know that my tolerance will increase. Yes, I recognize that it can negatively impact a mood disorder if not taken correctly. I know these things. I also know that without it, I’d be hindered in the worst possible way, because hey, guess what– I’ve been there. I did that already. I deserve to feel okay, and this medication makes me feel okay.
When I tell people that I’m prescribed adderall, I’m often reminded that it’s a habit forming medication with severe side effects when it’s abused. Even after I explain to the best of my ability that the medication has an entirely different effect on me than it does on someone that doesn’t need to use it on a long term basis, I’m typically met with what feels like judgement. I’ve come to realize that people either love adderall for the wrong reasons, or they hate adderall for the wrong reasons. The same can be said about most, if not all, controlled substances. As a mentally ill person whose actually prescribed this medication, it’s my right to determine when and where I feel obligated to elaborate on why I need this specific medication, as I don’t owe anyone any explanation when it’s regarding my own well being. I have been told a handful of times (typically by people belonging to an older generation) that I should expect to be judged if I wave my “problems” out there in the open for people to form opinions on, but we don’t shame diabetics into not discussing their diabetes, so why shame someone with a diagnosed disorder for discussing what affects them?
What this experience has taught me is that it isn’t my right to determine what medication is harmful to others, based on what the overall opinion is of that medication. That is precisely what I was guilty of in my protest against seroquel as a form of treatment. It isn’t fair to the people that actually NEED the controversial psychotropics for society to designate the medications effectiveness based entirely on the experiences of those that weren’t a good candidate for the pill in question, or those that outright abused the medication for recreational use.
By freely pressing a narrative that mentally ill people shouldn’t take certain medications that were designed for them, we’re indirectly messing with someone’s recovery. This isn’t like telling someone they shouldn’t take a max dose of NyQuil and drive. By default, we don’t tell people with cancer to not undergo chemotherapy just because it’s bad for them. So when did society decide it was okay to tell a mentally ill person they shouldn’t take a specific medication (or any medication at all) because a neurotypical person decided it was a bad idea? When did we collectively conclude that the well being and literal livelihood of mentally ill people were less important than pushing an all-natural agenda?
We, as the mentally ill, already live in a culture where we can’t trust ourselves sometimes, and we definitely can’t trust every doctor we’re treated by. There has to be a way to discuss malpractice in America without demonizing the medications that literally keep us alive. Being able to openly discuss our relationship with medication would be wildly helpful to our cause, as we’re still stuck in the era of being concerned about what people think about us, over worrying about our right to mental healthfulness. It’s a crucial step in any mentally ill person’s journey through recovery to stop giving a shit what others think about the fact that they’re prescribed medication, but it’s an extra hidden level to overcome the stigma surrounding specific medications that might make or break someone’s ability to function. Is this just a long winded way of saying “mind your own damn business?” Probably. But ultimately, what I would urge people to do, is to openly and pointedly accept what their mentally ill loved ones are trying to tell them, which is to give us some space and let us make these decisions on our own without fear of judgement.
As a final note, I would also suggest to my fellow mentally ill to be mindful of how they discuss their own negative reactions to specific medications, which I failed to do when I had a bad reaction to seroquel. Let’s take this all the way back to kindergarten, and remind ourselves that we’re all uniquely individual snowflakes. It’s a social symptom of mental illness to be especially vulnerable to the opinions of others, more so when we’re navigating a particularly rough patch. Any mentally ill person will agree, at some point in our lives, we’ve wanted nothing more than to feel the way we think “normal” people feel. Its direly important for everyone to keep in mind that when we casually throw out our possibly misinformed opinions on the medical treatment available to the mentally ill, we might potentially be hurting the mentally ill people we love.