NO OTHER ILLNESS
I am mentally ill. I have clinical depression. CD is a thoroughly miserable illness. I’m incredibly lucky to live at a time when CD like mine is easily treated by medication. Two pills every morning, and I’m myself again.
The point of writing this isn’t to tell the world that I’ve got clinical depression, or to say “Gosh I like my drugs”. The reason that I’m writing this is gripe about how people react when they hear that I take psychiatric medication. For some reason, the fact that my brain has a problem that’s easy to fix using medication is somehow considered to be a huge strike against me, an inexcusable sign of personal weakness.
No other illness is treated this way.
To contrast things, I also have a dreadful stomach problem. It’s not actually something with a simple name; basically, it’s classic reflux disorder, combined with an extremely irritable stomach, which triggers extremely painful muscular spasms. Those two together are a bad combination: the spasms behave almost like a pump, spraying acid up my esophagus. (Which is exactly as much fun as it sounds.) In order to treat this, I needed surgery. And as an after-effect of the surgery, I now get espohageal spasms, which are excruciating; according to people who’ve experienced both, they feel very much like having a heart attack. The difference is that they are more or less continuous for weeks at a time.
To treat this, I take three different drugs. One is quite expensive; about $6/day. The other two are cheap, but both have unpleasant side effects. One even contains a small quantity of an addictive opiate.
For my stomach problems, if I didn’t take my drugs, the main thing that would happen would be that it would hurt. Not life threatening, not dangerous. It would just be painful. I might end up going through some withdrawal from the addictive one.
How many people have heard about my stomach problems? A lot of people. Partly because of the fact that I need to take drugs three times a day; and partly because of the fact that can create some peculiar symptoms that are visible to other people. Out of the dozens of people who’ve heard about my stomach problem, and know about the drugs I take for it, how many have lectured me about how I shouldn’t take those nasty drugs? Zero. No one has ever even made a comment about how I shouldn’t be taking medications for something that’s just uncomfortable. Even knowing that some of the stuff I take for it is addictive, no one, not one single person has ever told me that I didn’t need my medication.
But depression? It’s a very different story.
What happens if I don’t take my medication? I turn into a zombie. Everything turns flat, it seems almost as if things lose their color, like all the colors fade. I feel like my body weighs so much that I can’t even hold my shoulders up. I don’t feel sad; I feel nothing. Empty, blank, flat. Great things can happen, but they don’t make me happy. Awful things can happen, but they don’t make me sad.
What happens when I take my medication? I’m myself again. The medication doesn’t make me feel happy; it makes me feel. With the medication, my emotions come back; I can feel happy or sad. I enjoy it when things are going well; I get sad or angry when they go poorly.
But how do people react?
Somewhat over 1/2 of the people who hear that I take an antidepressant express disapproval in some way. Around 1/3 make snide comments about “happy pills” and lecture me about how only weak-willed nebbishes who can’t deal with reality need psychiatric medication.
I confess to being thoroughly mystified by this. Why is it OK for my stomach, or my heart, or my pancreas to be ill in a way that needs to be treated with medication, but it’s not OK for my brain? Why are illnesses that originate in this one organ so different from all others, so that so many people believe that nothing can possibly go wrong with it? That there are absolutely no problems with the brain that can possibly be treated by medication?
Why is it OK for me to take expensive, addictive drugs for a painful but non-life-threatening problem with my stomach; but totally unacceptable for me to take cheap harmless drugs for a painful but non-threatening problem with my brain?