The following post is part 2 of 2 written by a friend of my about her experience of living with a mental illness. For more info about mental health visit Beyond Blue or Black Dog Institute. Read Part 1 here.
The drugs don’t work (at least not as well as they should)
To drastically misquote Douglas Adams – the brain is complex, you won’t believe how ridiculously, mind-bogglingly complex it is. You think a Sunday morning crossword is complicated, that’s peanuts compared to the brain.
Not only that, but every brain is different – development, experience and those pesky genetics cough up random variations, any of which might make those squishy grey lumps process drugs differently. In short, it’s not just corporate greed that has forced thousands of products into the market – the simple truth is that what works for one person might have no effect (or worse) on another.
Let me be clear, drugs do help a lot of people, I myself probably wouldn’t be alive if I hadn’t gotten treatment, but it can be a long process – mixing and matching different combinations of drugs until you find a cocktail that works, preferably one with few side effects – it can (and has in my case) take years.
But the key word above is ‘treatment’ – because when we’re talking about mental illness we’re not talking about a cure. There’s no tumour to remove, or bacteria to flush out – no quick fixes or easy answers – most patients will be on medication for years, even decades. Decades of taking the same pills every day, no matter how sick you are, or how sick they might make you. Doctors have a word for this – ‘compliance’ and mental illness has some of the worst compliance issues of any disease.
Taking a pill (or even a dozen) every day might seem like an easy thing – but what if you’re on holiday, and forgot to pack enough? What if they make you sleep 18 hours a day? What if they don’t seem to be working, and they taste funny and what’s the point anyway – you’re a horrible person who doesn’t deserve to keep breathing? Add that to a turbulent home life and poor social support that afflict so many sufferers and you’ve got a recipe for non-compliance.
The actual disease part
Yes. This is the part where I straight up bitch about how hard my life is because of my disease. Feel free to ignore it and then comment about how I’m making my illness out to be so much worse than it actually is. You won’t be proving my first point at all.
Let’s start with the physical. About six years ago they put me on lithium, which screwed up my thyroid (the gland that regulates metabolism). I’ll be on thryroxine replacement for the rest on my life.
And then there’re those pesky side effects. Over the years I’ve been on drugs that have made me put on weight, sleep 18 hours a day and made me so dizzy I had to check in to hospital. And it’s not like just stopping the drugs will help – you have to be weaned off many anti-psychotics, or the symptoms get even worse.
It also affects my finances. I haven’t been able to hold down a job for years, and finding a boss patient enough to deal with someone like me would be difficult even with a full CV.
I pay about $100 a month on drugs, which might not sound like much, but on a fixed income, and with the expensive doctor visits, it adds up – even without Tony Abbotts’ threatened austerity measures.
But none of those are anything compared to the mental issues. I have bipolar two manic depression, which for me consists of massive depressive episodes interspersed with random periods of moderate lunacy – I’ve never walked the streets naked singing My Sharona, but I have dumped a slushie over my head on a freezing day. I spend at least one night a month crying myself to sleep, have days when I can’t get out of bed, and had a panic attack at my sisters’ wedding that meant I couldn’t make it to the reception (am dreading explaining that to any future nieces and nephews). I am, frankly, a mess, and despite being better this year than I have been for the last three, I am still at least six months away from being able to support myself.
Yes, my life sucks, and I wonder everyday why I don’t just kill myself, but I don’t because…
I can’t trust my own brain
About eight years ago I was a medical student. I loved being a medical student. I love medicine. If I could do anything in the world it would be a Doctor. And then I had my first major manic episode.
Out of the blue I quit medicine because… I have no idea, but at the time it was a logical, sane and completely rational reason. I have a lot of logical, sane and completely rational reasons – I had one when I stopped taking all my drugs, when I tried to take my own life, when I bought a puppy with my very last pay check.
My brain is sick, so all my reasoning is flawed – I can’t trust anything that comes out of it. I can’t make snap decisions, because I know that tomorrow might make everything seem different. I can’t argue with people, even if I think they’re wrong, because I know that my logic might make no sense whatsoever. I have to constantly question everything I feel about the world, because what’s in my head might not match up with reality. Can you imagine what that’s like? To never be sure if you’re perfectly sane or off-your-head-crazy? And I don’t even have the hallucinations that other sufferers have to deal with.
So I guess it could be worse. And for many others it is. But the question remains, do I publish this under my own name, or get a friend to put it up for me? Will people read this and shun me, or employers check on it and decide I’m not worth the risk? A cancer sufferer wouldn’t have to worry about this, but I have to, because mental illness isn’t just a disease, it’s a plague that infects everything you do.