• Ashleigh Kendall

Medication and mental health

“I would rather die than take medication”, I said to my therapist one day in a session. I honestly felt back then that if I got to the point where therapy alone wasn't working, the worst thing would be having to go on medication for my anxiety and depression. 

I have lived with anxiety and depression for most of my adult life but used to be in denial about it for so long. While I could accept, help and listen to others around me about their struggles, for some reason I couldn’t lend the same kindness to myself. I couldn’t accept that mental illness had become a parasite within me, slowly taking away every little thing I enjoyed and making my flame burn a little less each day. My world had become very small before I finally took the first step towards changing things. And when I took that step, I wasn't even aware of what I was doing. If I had been, I probably wouldn't have been brave enough to take it at all.

I always thought of myself as living my life to the full but what I didn't realise was how much of my joy and love of life had vanished. You don't notice as much when it is a gradual process. Because I wouldn't face these parasites within me, I wasn't true to myself: I had only conditioned myself to believe I had been making the most of my time. I was someone who dreamed but had no actions to back it up. I was in such denial, I wasn't even aware of the harm I was doing to myself. I wouldn’t allow myself the time I needed to recover and I was hell bent on ever talking to a professional about it. I was limiting myself because I couldn’t find the courage within me to work through it and develop healthy coping strategies.

Of course, this wasn't all conscious. I didn't realise what I was doing to myself, I didn't realise how I was enabling these demons to take over my life. My recovery started over a year ago, by chance, when I went to see a psychologist about my mindset in sport. I didn't realise this was in fact my first step towards accepting mental illness and beginning the recovery.

We started a more intense therapy about non-sport related issues and, while I was slowly able to accept this into my life, it's only been recently that I have given myself the best chance of recovery by taking medication. Sadly, I lost good friends who – out of concern and care, not as a personal offence I had taken it for – had dared to suggest that medication might help. It was at the time when I wasn’t ready to accept it as a solution for myself. Now I know the therapy alone is not enough for me.

Mental illness is a condition one needs to learn to manage, just like a diabetic would manage their health. I need to manage mine with medication and healthy lifestyle. When I understood this connection, it became easier to appreciate the importance of taking positive steps for my health. I also began allowing myself the help I needed.

I hope that sharing my experiences might just make a difference to someone else’s life. Taking medication for me was such a huge thing. It wasn’t easy to start with. After I left the doctor’s office with my first prescription I was so angry and mad that it had come to this. I hated every part of it but I knew I had to at least try.

Taking medication doesn't fix anything, but it is like having crutches for a broken leg. They help you carry on long enough to be able to recover. I was afraid I would feel like someone other than myself but in actual fact I have never felt more like me. Depression and anxiety had changed my outlook so much that I couldn’t see myself for who I actually was anymore. Now I look forward to taking it because each day my flame burns a little brighter and I realise a little more of who I actually am. That mental illness isn't me. I rediscover parts of me that I had let mental illness take away. Parts I had forgotten existed. It’s like a beautiful garden in the spring, blooming and growing. There are flowers you forgot once grew, but there they are sprouting and growing brighter by the day.

The stigma around mental health and medication is real, it lives within society and it’s time we stood together and squashed it. It’s time we stopped persecuting each other for not fitting in with what we like to consider normal. In fact, a huge number of people experience some form of mental illness in their lives, whether we want to admit it or not. Yet so many still consider this to be unacceptable, it astounds me. And there are many reasons for this, one being that sometimes when we haven't accepted certain parts of ourselves then we can’t accept others. But that is another issue altogether!

In addition, I have seen a few alarming reports in mainstream media, highlighting stories of people who have tried certain anti-depressants but experienced more negative side effects than positive. Everyone reacts to medication in an individual way, so that would be okay, if it hadn’t been reported in such a sensationalist way. It worries me that it might stop people from reaching out for help that could really benefit them. 

It worries me a lot that the reports I have seen don’t provide readers with a balanced or fair view. I would even go as far as to say it is borderline scare-mongering journalism, sensationalising negative effects of anti-depressants. This is not to devalue anyone’s experience. With that in mind, I would just like to highlight a few things that are important to bear in mind when you are faced with recovery from mental illness.

Medication works best when combined with therapy. Unfortunately, in New Zealand at the moment, therapy isn't that affordable to many and people are forced to take medication without the support to form new behaviours and thought processes. In this scenario medication will only get so far. My worry is, in the reporting I have seen, it is mostly about how bad medication can be for some people without considering if these people had the extra support critical to recovery. 

Another troubling issue with this reporting, and I know I am not alone in this view, is that there is little regard for the fact that some medication doesn't work for some people, but it does for others. Many people will need to try a couple or more before they find the right fit. This can be a really difficult time to go through but doesn't make anti-depressants inherently bad.

Yes, some side effects of medication (not only anti-depressants, but all medicaments) can seem to make symptoms worse, or can have negative effects but that doesn't mean that medication is no good. Mental illness is life threatening for many and it’s time we started treating it that way with responsible journalism, support for one another in the community, and by being more accepting and understanding of struggles, just as we would be with illnesses like cancer or stroke. 

Recovery is a hard and often slow process. I know this because I am going through it myself. I know this because I speak to so many whose lives have changed for the better because of it. I know this because after a year of struggling and going to the weekly therapy, I finally decided to take medication and I responded well to it! It isn't the answer for all, and I am certainly not trying to sway anyone’s beliefs. I am only trying to emphasise that medication can be helpful and, if one doesn't work, then another may do.

If you are feeling stuck like I once did, then please, I beg you, take the first step. Don’t waste any more days crippled by something that is actually so much smaller than you. You are so much more than anything holding you down, so don’t let it. I wish that I had done this sooner for myself. You can do this, allow yourself that.

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