‘When I tell people that I have schizophrenia the usual reaction I get is surprise, followed by a line of questioning. The first most commonly asked is: “What do the voices in your head say?” This is understandable, people are naturally curious.
But the second question never fails to amuse me:
What happens if you ever stop taking your medication?”
Hollywood films have led many to believe that coming off antipsychotics ends in disastrous consequences. This is not the case.
I’m medication free
In fact, I am currently medication free. For years, I started and ended my day with an array of tablets. Huge cocktails of drugs taken daily with horrific side effects.
Vomiting, dizziness, headaches, hypotension, weight gain and stiffness left my joints in agony. I also developed restless legs syndrome (RLS), temporarily lost my peripheral vision and was no longer able to drive.
Coming off medication was not a decision that I took lightly. My dosage was reduced slowly and carefully over a long period of time. The truth is, for me, the drugs don’t work.
Learning coping mechanisms
I have trialled many antipsychotics and the best result I ever had was the slightest reduction in symptoms. I have had psychosis for a long time, long enough for me to learn healthy coping mechanisms.
I live with schizophrenia without taking any medication, but my situation is an exceptional case. For most others, medication is completely necessary in order to live a fulfilling life. Also, side effects are on a case by case basis, many people can take antipsychotics without experiencing any adverse side effects.
Recently RTÉ One aired a documentary, “Medication Nation,” where Dr Eva Orsmond looked at Ireland’s apparent overuse of medication. Highlighting the issue of addiction to over the counter and prescription drugs is, of course, important and the documentary did an excellent job of bringing awareness about how destructive these addictions can be.
My only issue with the programme was the lack of balance on the subject of medication in relation to mental health problems. Just to be clear, if there was a magic pill to take away my psychosis, you can be sure I would take it.
I may not be on medication now but if my psychosis gets to a point where it is negatively impacting my life, and all my other recovery methods are no longer working for me, then I would go back on medication.
Not an “easy way out”
Antidepressants are not happy pills that solve your worries and prevent you from dealing with life’s problems; medication is not the easy way out. When I was on meds, I got the “easy way out” line quite a lot.
Looking at the side-effects I have listed above, does it look like taking medication gave me an easier life? No, but I needed it at the time. People who are on medication for any kind of mental health problem, don’t take meds because they want to, they take them because they have to.
My late mother was a reiki practitioner and my dad is a pharmacist, therefore I grew up with a balanced view of both sides. Talk therapies alone can be more helpful than medication for mild to moderate depression or anxiety. Everyone knows exercise, mindfulness and a healthy lifestyle are good for your mental health but the problem is all of this depends on personal circumstances.
Medication is a helping hand
When you are too mentally unwell to get out of bed, any thoughts of exercise and mindfulness go out the window. Medication can be the driving force behind what gets a person up in the morning so that they can bring the dog for a walk, cook a healthy meal or participate in therapy.
Medication is not a crutch but a helping hand towards stability. There is a huge stigma surrounding mental health problems, I do not agree with anything that encourages this and creates a sense of shame around taking meds to help with an illness.
Irish people are more mindful than ever of how effective a good diet and exercise is to our mental health. We now live longer than the generations before us. It cannot be ignored that medication plays a huge part in this too.
Nicola is an ambassador for See Change and Teenline. Using her personal experience of schizophrenia, Nicola writes about mental health for multiple news sources and also for her own blog prettysane.com. For more information visit www.seechange.ie.