Perhaps he was offended at how little guilt I’d shown about my need to be medicated. Perhaps he thought I’d answered the question too matter-of–factly. Perhaps it was that I’d smiled as I answered, with no hint of shame. Whatever the reason, he promptly started to grill me on my choice to take medication, as if it was somehow cheating. How long have you been on it? Have you tried coming off it? Have you tried exercising more instead? How’s your diet? Don’t you want to come off it? Do you intend to be on this medication for the rest of your life?
What was I to say? Should I calmly explain to him my entire mental health history in the next 15 minutes? Or do I kindly tell him to shut the fuck up and get down to why I’m really here?
Growing up, I had a hunch that I was a little odd. As a child I worried a lot. I would lie in bed at night, my heart beating furiously in my chest, unable to sleep. Unable to stop the twisting, fearful thoughts in my tiny head. I was afraid of anything and everything that was unknown and unpreventable. What if my parents die in a car crash one day? What would happen to me? Who would I live with? And would whomever I was sent to life with let me take my dog? What if they didn’t? Where would she go? Would she get sent to a dog food factory? And if so, did that mean the dog food I fed her each night was also made from the dogs of orphaned children? Like I said, I was a little odd and I worried a lot.
As I got older the worrying continued but it took on an even darker tone. This was around the time that Michael Jackson was on trial for the supposed molestation of children, so my concerned thoughts headed down the road of sexuality. What kind of person molested children? Do you just wake up one day and decide that is what you do? Could that happen to me? Could I become a sexual molester? I imagined having to confess my sins to my parents, I imagined their disappointed faces as I told them that I, their own daughter had become a sick child molesting monster. Deep down I knew that I was not in fact said monster, but I felt like I had to confess even these fears, that simply having them made me guilty.
From the age of 10 I was addicted to confessing my sins to my mother, who had somehow become my personal catholic priest. Every night I’d come clean to her, telling her of all my impure thoughts from the day. I looked at a girl’s vagina in the changing room at swimming. When Mr Bruce was talking at assembly I imagined him naked, then imagined him having sex, then I imagined having sex with him. On it went. Out it would all come and my mother would listen and smile then simply say, it’s okay, you’re allowed to have your own thoughts. I would sigh, feeling cleansed and absolved of my sins. For a few minutes. Then the thoughts would start up again and the guilt and fear would start up again with them.
I didn’t realise this for years, but what I had was a serious case of anxiety disorder. I didn’t actually figure out that out until I was 23. Up until the ripe old age of 23 I followed my snarled, nasty fearful thoughts down the rabbit hole and let them eat me up. I went through bouts of depression when it all got too much. When I was 14 I stopped talking. Simply because I was so anxious about saying something stupid that after a while I actually couldn’t open my mouth and speak anymore. At 15 I desperately wanted to get an afterschool job but I was too afraid that I would come across a problem that I couldn’t solve and I’d end up looking stupid. At 16 there was sex and the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy. Broken condoms and STDs. And AIDS. There was the slim, but all be it possible chance that I could get AIDS from my first and only lover (who was also a virgin, or was he??). Would I know if a condom had broken? What if there was only a tiny hole?
I had AIDS for two years. I lived in constant state of fear that secretly I had AIDS and I was already dying. When I finally found the courage to get a test done, at the pleading requests of my friends who were sick of hearing me harp on about my impending death, it became clear that I did not in fact have AIDS. I was fine. I had just spent the last two years worrying, about nothing.
The next on my list was cancer. I had cancer. I was sure. In my neck. There was a lump. It was tragic. I was dying. Now you’d think if you found a lump in your neck you’d get it checked out by the doctor right? Not me. Nope. I didn’t need a doctor to tell me what I already knew. I was dying. That was a fact.
Eventually after another few years lived in sweaty night fits, crying about the children I’d never have, I got my neck lump checked. “It’s nothing.” Said my doctor. “Just muscle tissue”. The second doctor agreed. Nothing? NOTHING?!
Also at 21 I met my current partner. Blissful, newfound love, coupled with debilitating bouts of panic stricken anxiety about, anything and everything. Do I like him more than he likes me? Does he like me more than I like him? What if I can’t have kids, will he leave me? Oh god! What if I can’t have kids!?
It wasn’t until 23 that I finally snapped. My poor mind and heart had had enough. Enough they said to me in unison one day when all of a sudden they sent me a message clear as a bell. Something is very wrong. But what? No answer. They wouldn’t tell me but the panic remained. Something was wrong. Dread filled me. I was consumed by a thick heavy anxiety, the worst panic attack I’d ever experienced. And it lasted a month.
I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t work. I lost around 10kgs and cried constantly. All I knew was that something was wrong. I was afraid. And I didn’t know how to fix it. I was afraid of what I’d do to myself because I just wanted this fear to end. I wanted to go to a funny farm. The idea of going somewhere to be fixed was very appealing. I went to my GP who frowned and nodded and mentioned the possibility of medication. No. I shook my head profusely. I’d heard bad things about medication. The stories from the Prozac popping 90s had put me off psychotropic drugs completely. He referred me to a psychologist instead. It was expensive. My parents offered to pay, though they didn’t understand. Neither did I.
My psychologist was a friendly woman with brown curly hair and a love of cats. I met with her multiple times a week. She’d ask me questions about my family, my childhood. At the time I had no knowledge that I was a little odd as a child. I also didn’t realise that I’d had anxiety problems all my life and problems with hypochondria. I also didn’t compute that my dull office job that had driven me to tears daily for over a year had probably contributed to this final and serious bout of anxiety and depression.
After a month of regular sessions she concluded that I would indeed need medication. In cases this acute, she said softly, we recommend medication as a way to break the initial cycle of anxious obsessive thoughts. By this stage I was willing to try anything.
So this is how I came to be medicated. It took a few weeks but over time the anxiety faded. I realised too that I hadn’t actually been very well to start with. I’d been mentally unwell for so many years that I hardly knew what it was like to be well. It took a while but I was lucky and the medication I was put on was perfect for me. I had no side effects and only got better. Life as I knew it had changed. I was finally well. Finally free.
I have at times come off my medication, like when I was pregnant, but after falling ill again I’d always go back on it. I’ve discovered I am not well when I am not on medication. I have an illness that requires medicine. Much like people with high blood pressure or asthma need medication, so do those with mental illness. They shouldn’t be made to feel bad about it, or like they are weak for needing to be medicated.
Pills aren’t the be all and end all. I still need to look after myself. If I don’t eat well, sleep well and exercise regularly, I start to feel miserable, but then, don’t most people?
No, I didn’t tell the know-it-all doctor all of this. Nor should I have had to. Being medicated is a choice that no one should make you feel ashamed of. It takes a lot of courage for someone with a mental illness to even seek help let alone accept that medication may be the right choice for them. To have that questioned, by a medical professional even, is one hell of a slap in the face.
In response to his questions, I simply smiled and said ‘I have two sons.’ That I decided, pretty much summed up my opinion the matter. No mother of sons should be made to come off her medication. She has enough to deal with as it is!
Though what if I hadn’t been so confident in my choice to medicate? What if I’d been mentally ill at the time and willing to trust completely the opinions of a supposed professional? Well I could potentially be very sick again right now. Doctors need to stop treating their patients like idiots.
In my experience, it’s not the mentally ill people on medication you need to worry about, it’s the ones who aren’t medicated that you need to watch out for!