Med-Free Psychology

Ah. Hm. Yes. This is actually one of the most controversial things I write about, so allow me a moment’s wussy disclaimer: I’m not trying to tell anybody how to live. I’m not trying to make people who take medication for depression look bad. I don’t think I’m better than they are. And I apologize in advance if anyone reacts badly to my insulting his or her shrink. (I almost certainly am going to insult your shrink, however.)

I’m also going to try to do this without telling the whole sordid story of a youth with depression; I imagine most people are pretty sick of that story by now, so I’ll stick to generalities and sparse details as much as possible.

Background

Mine started, as I recall it, when I was eleven. That’s the first time I remember thinking that life had lost its luster and I’d like to quit now, thanks. My parents caught on when I was thirteen and had figured out how to be annoying with it. ;) Over the following five years, I had thirteen therapists, seven of whom were housed in a loony bin I did time in (and they, unlike me, probably belonged there — I had never done drugs, never smoked or drank, never been in trouble with the law, had no history of violence and had never attempted suicide or let on that I’d considered it…I was pretty much there because my parents didn’t know what else to do. And my parents are good people, so this says more about our society, I think, than it does about my family.).

Not a single one of those therapists, in single, group, family or loony-bin sessions, ever did me any good — I’m not kidding. That isn’t to say I’ve never met a good therapist; I’ve just never been treated by one. Well, not in those five years — two years later, when I was in college, I took a plunge and saw the school therapist about panic attacks I’d been having. She listened, watched, stopped the session fifteen minutes before the end so that there was time to explain to me what body-language cues she’d seen me using which might be leverage for preventing a panic attack (when you get upset, she said, you breathe this way and wring your hands. Next time an attack comes on, breathe this other way and sit on your hands — and it worked pretty darn well!) — and didn’t push me about coming back. Her, I liked. The rest of them just sat there trying to find questions that would make you cry, filling out little forms with the results of which ones did and how badly, and then told you that you were XYZ in their Magic Book and that meant you needed pills. The really expensive one I saw when I was 17 threw in the added insult of suggesting acne medication and a haircut to “improve my self-esteem”. When I got six inches cut off my hair the following week, he didn’t notice.

Lifestyle Drugs

Anyway. Though I received plenty of temporary shut-up drugs at various points, especially in The Bin, I didn’t get my first prescription for a lifestyle drug until I was 17 (unless you count the attempt to put me on birth control at 16 to “control my hormones” — let’s just say it didn’t.). But this was a decade ago, and they weren’t so free with medicating children as they are now. I probably spent about five minutes in the presence of the psychiatrist, who looked over some papers, remarked that my mother had taken Prozac for a while with no problems so it was probably fine for me, and handed me a script and left. I don’t think I said two words to him — I could have been a kidnapped Albanian girl and he’d have never known.

Suffice to say, the Prozac was no fun. It did cure the depression, only at the expense of all the rest of my personality — kind of like saying an acid bath cured your acne. After six months I asked to be taken off it (it honestly took that long to muster the initiative to), and only then was I told that a) it was addictive, and b) state law mandated that I remain in therapy while I was on it — mind you, my 18th birthday was coming up, my first chance to be out of therapy — and obviously they knew it. Well, I was a precocious child, so I flushed the drugs and flipped off the therapist and swore to do it all on my own.

In a perfect world, this would have ended my problems, or at least meant they didn’t get worse (once the withdrawal was over). But in the real world, it meant several years of nasty mood-swings, lost friends, hypersomnia, antisocialism and, every few months like clockwork, cutting, suicide ideation and some variety of a close call. The close calls seemed to satisfy some desire that’d been building up in my brain (for drama, maybe?) and after they were over, I’d feel better for about a week, and then start the downslide all over again.

College brought an end to hypersomnia, replacing it with sleepwalking, talking, screaming, trashing my room, punching walls, and having choking fits while sleeping, in addition to good long bouts of insomnia, lost time, hallucinations, paranoid delusions and all sorts of fun. Oh yes, and migraines. Nasty 12-to-48-hour migraines that meant I threw up if there was any light or noise, and couldn’t sleep or move out of a straight-backed chair. Nothing helped those except for some “borrowed” phenobarbitol that would at least knock me out so that I could sleep through some of it.

Shit + Fan = Neurology with a Meat Tenderizer

College also brought the closest call of my life, and the time that I was closest to giving up and going back on medication. Being of a philosophical bent, though, I really found psych meds intolerable in a way that I think many people don’t; I felt very strongly that they made me unreal, that being on them negated a very important part of my autonomous self. It’s melodramatic, but I used to refer to this conflict with statements like, “If I’m going to die, I’d rather just die and stop existing than die and have to keep walking around.” But at the end of my second semester of college, I knew very clearly that if I didn’t do something, I was doomed. I could feel my ability to resist the sweet escapism of Epictetus’ “open door” deteriorating under the constant barrage of negative thoughts and miserable emotions. I couldn’t sit back and let my own death creep up on me without taking some evasive action, but I really felt completely lost as to what. I had no faith in psychologists, mostly because I refused to take drugs until I’d at least explored another option or two — that was always my main complaint, that drugs were the FIRST thing a psychologist suggested, and not in the sense that “You need to be stabilized so that we can explore ways that you can change your thinking and be happy” — no, it was always, “Here, take this pill. Come back next week and cry some more; that’ll satisfy your need for drama and make me a smooth hundred bucks. If you don’t like the pill, I’ll give you a different one. Expect to be taking them for life.”

And the truth is, if you’re taking pills for the rest of your life just to survive, then what are you? Unfit to live? Or trapped in a society so flarged up that it needs to medicate its people just to keep them from self-destructing? And if society is that bad, then how will it ever get fixed if we all keep agreeing to take the pills?

But what it all came down to was, I was and am a student. I was in a college where they pride themselves on churning out ridiculously overconfident scholars (seriously, ask anybody who went there — we are honestly prone to statements like, “What, the text I want is in Ancient Sumarian? Hmm, well, I guess if I have to I could learn enough to translate it in a few weeks…”). I had access to shitload upon shitload of books, plus the whole Internet.

I decided that Know Thyself, in these modern messed-up times, had become Fix Thyself.

Deferral and Pseudo-Conclusion

And that’s the story, really. Obviously I’m still alive. I haven’t been medicated yet, unless you count small amounts of self-medication here and there with nonpharmaceutical substances. I don’t smoke anymore, I never developed a drinking problem, I have no addictions nastier than a morning coffee and anime. I don’t cut myself, though it is a struggle sometimes not to bite all my fingernails off. ;)

It’s not a magic cure, what I did. (The details of “how I fixed myself” will merit a separate page, if not more than one, which is why this is called the “Pseudo-conclusion”.) I’m still what psychologists would call a “depressive”, though my symptoms are at an all-time low and, even when they aren’t getting better, my getting better at handling them is almost as good as being cured, and it has its own benefits that a “magic cure” wouldn’t have. I can’t ignore my “illness” like people on medication often can — I have to be mindful of things, what sets me off, when I am and am not in a good mood for doing certain things, when I’d better adjust my diet or my activities or risk bringing on a nasty episode…but even if that happens, I have a pretty solid arsenal of ways to manage an “episode” (or “major depressive episode” if you like), and have only been really scared for my future once in the last several years.

Not only am I doing better on my own–after a rocky start, for sure–than I was while under professional care, but I feel infinitely safer this way. I’m still me; I know where I stand in my own head; I don’t need a pill in order to “be myself”. I know that I can hack as much stress as the next guy, and I’m probably better than the next guy at knowing when to say no to more. Yes, I have to deal with feeling depressed now and again, and with pretty serious depersonalization symptoms (which it turns out I’ve always had, but which had been misdiagnosed by every one of my therapists as either imaginary, or schizotypal — I came to that diagnosis on my own, and have since had it backed up by smarter professionals). But depersonalization is a million times less frightening when you know you have it, and you have some information on what it is. I can deal with that, nine times out of ten with nothing more than breathing exercises. The depression I fend off when I can, and when I can’t, treat it like having a cold or some other physical upset — go gentle on the system, watch the diet (mental and physical), be patient. And it passes.

Last thing I want to mention is that the act of keeping tabs on my mental state, watching my mind and body and how they interact, and formulating knowledge of the patterns that govern my thinking and emotions, has been hella good for me as a person. There’s nothing so positive, I think, to someone’s life as paying attention to how you work, and getting good at working with yourself, and becoming less afraid of making changes to your own code. You want self-esteem? Learn to accept what you can’t change about yourself, and take responsibility for what you can. I really wish they’d teach that in schools, instead of constantly lowering the age at which psychotropic drugs are prescribed.

Yeah, yeah, soapbox. Still. Drugs seem like an “easy way out” for most people that doesn’t offer a real solution, instead keeping them in symptom-suspended limbo. If it’s that or balls-crazy, yeah, I’d take limbo too; but I don’t feel wrong in thinking that the psychiatric establishment concentrates a lot more on quick-fixes lately and a lot less on health, to the benefit of drug companies and the detriment of everyone else, especially children.

If you read this far, thank you. This is an important issue to me.

-PD

About puredoxyk

Word addict, kungfu/taiji nut, and life-partner to polyphasic sleep. Rabid fan of as many hobbies as the world will let me pry into its piddly fourth dimension (it helps to have knocked out the fourth wall).
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One Response to Med-Free Psychology

  1. Harry says:

    I wouldn’t call your views particularly controversial. My experiences have had some similarities and some differences, but I know people whose experiences were almost identical to yours. We all agree that medication cannot be a long-term solution to depression, and nor is it a “magic cure”.

    All my therapists have been really good, but I think I know why. Firstly, none of them was able to prescribe, as they were psychologists not psychiatrists. I had a psychiatrist to prescribe meds, but therapy and the meds were kept as separate parts of the same treatment. I think that’s smart.

    Secondly, none of them ever tried to tell me I had “a condition”, and in fact the last one actively avoided “diagnosing” me. He said it wasn’t what was “wrong” with me that mattered, but rather how I dealt with it. His job, he said, was to help me change my thinking, and that’s what’s worked for me.

    What I liked most about him is he didn’t treat me like an idiot. He provided me with the names of books I could read so I could both verify what he said and do a lot of things to help myself, rather than simply relying solely on him. Most key of all, I learnt that there are things I can do to change and there are things I simply can’t control. I now focus on the former and let go of the latter.

    As for meds, this is where I’ve had both similar and different experiences to you. I was never on Prozac myself (my sister was, though, and her experience matched yours; she came off it at her insistence), but I was put on a Tetracyclic that caused me similar issues to yours with Prozac.

    Sure, I wasn’t depressed, but I wasn’t ever particularly “happy” either. I never laughed or smiled; I was “numb”, just going through the motions. I came off it and in a few days ended up in hospital puking up blood after an overdose. My psychiatrist recommended that given my suicide attempt I try another drug, rather than simply go without. I was a bit hesitant, but finally agreed. Happily, this time it worked.

    Not only was my personality left intact (I could laugh and joke like I’d always done), but I even felt down sometimes, just never so extremely bad I wanted to die. Rather than keeping me in “limbo”, it simply seemed to stop me hitting the extreme lows I’d felt earlier. So It bought me enough time to conclude my therapy, and then my psychiatrist then asked me if I wanted to come off of the meds.

    Perhaps the difference is the fact our health care is public? Psychiatrists in the States actually have little incentive to help you; they make their money by you coming back. Anything that can make it easier for them (drugging you up) is OK in their book. Over here, psychiatrists get paid regardless of how many patients they see (the public ones, that is; the private ones still bill). I wonder if that helps.

    I’ve been drug-free for five years now. My drinking problem is also a thing of the past and I don’t self-harm anymore. Not only did my therapy help me change my thinking, but I’ve found that regular exercise really helps. I’m now more certain than ever than a healthy body leads to a healthy mind, so I eat well and even started taking vitamins. I’m quite philosophical so I think that helps me cope too; I look at the world differently now.

    Hopefully Polyphasic sleeping will help as well, because I remember when I used to have a siesta sleep schedule, I felt really good. Depression obviously affects your sleep, so feeling rested can only be a good thing.

    Thanks for a great read,

    Harry

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