Going on medication for mental illness can be a difficult choice, but for some of us, it’s the best one we can make. I’ve been on meds for going on 5 years now and while I don’t regret the move, there are some things I wish I’d known before embarking on the journey. Here are 4 of them.
1) Diagnosis Is Step One
This is true. Only the steps don’t look like this
They look like this
When you develop an infection, the doctor gives you antibiotics. It’s a pretty straightforward transaction (for most).
Mental illness isn’t like that. You may be diagnosed with a specific disorder, but all that does is allow your medical practitioner to lump your nebulous set of symptoms under a really shaky diagnosis umbrella and attempt to apply appropriate medications to shore up the holes.
None of the meds you’re prescribed are guaranteed to help. In fact, some can exacerbate the situation. Sometimes, your reaction to certain medications will actually change your initial diagnosis. All of this sounds terrifying, but it’s actually hella common.
Mental illness medication is trial and error. If diagnosis is step one, medication is like having a teleporter on every step you take from then on. You won’t know until you’ve lifted your foot whether you’re one step up or ten below where you initially started.
This uncertainty sucks, but humans are adaptive fuckers – given time, you become less Jennifer Connelly and more David Bowie, able to hang upside down on stair ledges and spontaneously exude glitter like the rock god you are.
2) The Steps Are Never Ending
So you’ve found a medication regime that works for you? YAY! Party! That’s it! You’ve won mental illness bingo! You’re cured!
Finding meds that work for you is AMAZING. Often a good regime will give you months if not years of being a real live human. But alas, these meds are not your forever home. Because your body is really, really good at countering foreign substances, and as far as it’s concerned, your mental illness is the norm to which it should be aspiring.
Your system will adapt to medications, rendering them ineffective. When that happens, you get to start the medication trial and error roller coaster all over again.
On the upside, this knowledge will fuel the fire of a thousand hells behind the glare you’re sure to turn on people who learn about your mental illness and go, “So… when will you be better?”
3) You Will Have Good Days. These Will Invariably Be Followed by Bad Days.
When I first started on meds I had a beautiful four days where they worked as expected and I suddenly found myself a functional human being. I got my first nights of restful sleep in years. I was productive. Birds sang. Rainbows spewed forth from the heavens. It was fucking beautiful.
So when my brain settled into the new meds and wrestled control of my life back it was the absolute worst thing that’d ever happened to me.
Because here’s the thing: when you’re mentally ill, you often don’t know that you are. Your experience has always been that of a mentally ill person, so you cannot fathom the idea that the way you travel through life isn’t the “norm”.
Not until you have a good day.
Suddenly you find yourself with a very clear understanding of what it means to be functional. You’ve seen the light at the end of the tunnel.
So when your brain invariably causes a cave in and you find yourself staring at a mound of crushed rock bigger than the one you started with, you’re gonna want to curl up on the floor and sob for about ten million years.
Because for the first time, often ever, you know that things can be better. Which means you know exactly what you’re missing out on.
The first months of my medication roller coaster were some of the hardest. Not because side effects were making life difficult (though they played a part, no mistake) but because I’d had a taste of freedom and I was utterly terrified that I’d never get it back.
Four years on, I can tell you that it does get easier. You learn to manage your expectations and roll with the bad days, just like you did unconsciously before starting on medication.
Four years on and half a dozen meds changes later, I’ve had a heap of good days. Four years on, I’ve learned to appreciate the good days while also accepting that the bad days are often right around the corner. Because they’re giant assholes.
4) All Your Hard-Won Coping Mechanisms Now Mean Fuck All
Humans are amazing. Plop us in an adverse situation and we’ll adapt coping mechanisms for survival like we’re Pokemon. Suffering from mental illness is no different.
As a mental illness sufferer, you’ve spent years of your life developing mental coping mechanisms that ensure you continue to be a (mostly) functional human being. Often times, you don’t even realise you’re doing it. I certainly didn’t realise I had. Not until I went on medication and suddenly found myself with brain power to spare when the meds made many of my concentration-heavy coping strategies obsolete.
Well yes, but there’s a flip side.
Depending on your medication, you will invariably suffer some side effects. These side effects are (ideally) less severe than the symptoms of the mental illness they’re supposed to be counteracting (if they’re not, bee-line back to your doc, kids).
But here’s the thing: less severe ≠ easier to deal with.
Because you’ve spent years adapting to the symptoms of your mental illness. You’re a freaking pro, okay? Side effects… Not so much.
Dealing with medication side effects is like having trained all your life to be a pro baseball player, only to find the game has switched to basketball between the third and fourth inning. You’re gonna fumble the ball, probably a lot, and it’s gonna be frustrating as hell.
Good news is, this is just another one of the many experiences you get used to over time. Some side effects are obviously more random than others, but you’ll learn how to roll with the punches. Because you’re David Bowie, remember? You’re awesome.
Bonus: You’re Not Alone
1 in 5 Australians will suffer from mental illness this year. Since being diagnosed, I’ve not been afraid to be vocal about my experiences, mainly because the more I talk about them, the more people I meet with similar stories. Some of those people have since become my best friends, and by beautiful extension, the best support network a girl could ask for.
So if you’re suffering — if your brain is doing its best to make you feel like you’re alone — the statistics and I are here to tell you: you’re not. Not by a long shot. There’s support, understanding, camaraderie, and friendship to be had. I promise.
If you need to reach out there are resources available: