5 Easy (ha!) Steps to Finding a Medication

Congratulations on your recent diagnosis of mental illness!  You’ve just won a brand-new prescription!  Here are five easy steps to claiming your prize:

1. Overcome the negative attitude of everyone around you toward taking medication!  (Oh, goodie!)

2. Vanquish the stigma-induced fear in yourself that pills are going to steal your personality or somehow make your world into a playground made of rainbows.

3. Begin an awesome trial-and-error experience that could take years and years!

4. Battle against those pesky side effects that make you sweat, tremble, gain weight/lose weight, feel lethargic, cause drymouth, make you dizzy, impair your vision, induce muscle spasms, and– in some special cases– almost kill you.

5. Persist.  Because it really is worth it.*

 

*At least it was for me.  It was worth years of failed experiments and horrendous side effects– which are over– and years of shaming from others– which are not.  I am unashamed to take Prozac and Effexor XR every single morning and Risperdal every single night.  I don’t think meds are the “right” or “only” answer, but I do think they are a valid option, one that makes a difference in my daily life.

 

prozac2

 

“happy pills”

Whenever I hear medication referred to as “happy pills,” I cringe.  I take Prozac, Effexor, and Risperdal every single day, and let me tell you, they are not happy pills.  They don’t incite any kind of happiness or euphoria in me– in fact, the kinds of drugs that do that are generally illegal stimulants (heroin, cocaine, MDMA).  When people refer to mental health meds as “happy pills,” they are inferring that I get my happiness from a drug, which is point-blank untrue.

My medication essentially brings me to a “zero level” so that I can interact with the daily life in the same way as everyone else.  I still have good days and bad days, and I am influenced by events, experiences, and emotions.  These meds are in no way a blanket stimulant.

Now, I know that most people who use the term “happy pills” are generally not trying to cause a riot, but I believe that society needs to be more careful with its words.  Terms like this cast a negative stigma on taking meds and sometimes prevent people from pursuing psychiatric help, people who could really benefit from it.

I know there are a lot of opinions on medication.  It was a five-year tumultuous experience for me to get on the right cocktail of meds (including horrible side effects [Luvox, Clomipramine], mind vomit [Paxil], and a near-death allergic reaction [Propranolol]), but I believe it was worthwhile.  So while I appreciate the vibrant debate over the value of medication, I wish that we could all agree to not degrade meds by calling them “happy pills.”

meds are not happy pills

end of an era

Last week, I ventured to the Fairview Medical Center at the University of Minnesota to see my beloved psychiatrist Dr. Suck Won Kim for the last time before his retirement.  Dr. Kim is a skinny Korean man with salt-and-pepper eyebrows and sharply combed hair.  I met him first in 2008 when, after years of failed prescriptions, my old psychiatrist essentially threw in the towel and referred me to Dr. Kim, a national expert on OCD who has seen over 3,000 OCD patients.

The first time I met with Dr. Kim, he asked me about what meds I had tried.  And when I had told him, he resolutely said, “No more of that.  You are done with that.”  And he started me on Effexor XR, which I am on to this very day.  Dr. Kim spoke with such confidence that I had felt confident.  I remember thinking, I think this might actually work this time.

But Dr. Kim wasn’t done after he wrote out the prescription.  He turned to me and said, “Cognitive-behavioral therapy.  Tell me, have you heard of it?”

I had.  Horror stories.

“It’s the best treatment there is for OCD.  I’d like you to call Chris Donahue and get an appointment.”

“Okay.”

“It will be hell,” said Dr. Kim, telling me what to expect.

And it was– but it set me free from the reign of OCD.  And that is why I was feeling sentimental as I sat in the office of this OCD genius for the last time, feeling cheesy but needing to tell him that he was one of my heroes.

medication is scary, part two

It took me approximately five years to get on the right medication.

Over the course of the five years, I experienced the following:

* rapid weight gain (30 pounds in one month)

* deep lethargy, during which air felt stale and I had to nap for 2+ hours every day after work

* mind vomit (a phrase I coined, meaning that taking the medication exacerbated my OCD, sending me into frenetic, panicked obsessions)

* a visible tremor

* drymouth, as stanch as if I were eating Saltines and peanut butter

* dizziness and vision loss, usually paired together (One time I had a whole conversation with someone without telling him I couldn’t actually see him … I hope I appeared to be looking him in the eyes.  The dizziness/vision loss combo happened so often that I actually got used to it, could continue walking across my apartment without even slowing my step.)

* Jello-legs, so terrible that I had to lean against the stairwell wall as I descended from my second-floor apartment

* excessive sweating

* lactation (you think I’m kidding, but I’m not)

* a spasm of pain in my back that once DROPPED me to the floor like I’d been tackled from behind

* an allergic reaction that nearly killed me (please, PLEASE do not take new meds unless you have Benadryl in your home!)

And then along came Dr. Suck-Won Kim, my sweet, wonderful expert psychiatrist, who got me onto my perfect dosage of Prozac, Effexor XR, and Risperdal.

And want to know what?

It was all worth it.