Reprinted from "Medications" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (2), pp. 13-14
Medication can be a ‘tough pill to swallow.’ I am currently on two mood stabilizers, an antipsychotic, an antidepressant, an antianxiety med and a sleeping pill. The balancing act of getting the most benefit and the least side effects from my medication has been difficult and can be very frustrating, to the point of not wanting to take them anymore.
My frustration has built up over 18 years. Let me fill you in on my ride over an ever so bumpy road.
A rocky road downhill . . .
My trip down medication alley began in 1989 with my very first breakdown. I was flown from my home town to Vancouver, where I spent six weeks in St. Paul’s Hospital psychiatric ward. There I was given antianxiety and tricyclic antidepressant medications for a major depressive episode.
By the time I applied for Canada Pension Disability in 1991, I had seen five different psychiatrists and had five varying diagnoses. Because of conflict between family members, who lived in Vancouver, and my psychiatrist at St. Paul’s, I was shipped off by ambulance to the psych unit in Kamloops. The doctor there saw some other symptoms and gave me an additional diagnosis, along with a change in pills.
After two weeks on the new medications, I was sent home. A day or two later I cut my wrist and was sent to Prince George Regional Hospital. Guess what? They saw something else, which meant my diagnosis and medications were altered once again. Every doctor I encountered had a new diagnosis for me.
By about 1993, I had been given all the following DSM1 ‘labels’: dissociative disorder not otherwise specified, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, traits of obsessive-compulsive disorder and panic disorder. Borderline personality disorder was added later.
Over the next five years or so I became increasingly addicted to Ativan. I also struggled with cutting for 15 years.
I had a lot of emotional pain because of a very traumatic childhood. I felt that feeling physical pain would alleviate my emotional pain, so I used to walk or hang out in dangerous areas or situations, hoping someone would rape or beat me. On one of these walks, I started the cutting. I often cut myself so badly that I needed stitches. I became addicted to the pain. I felt so ugly on the inside that I felt I should be ugly on the outside. I would punch walls to try and break my fists. I became obsessed with X-acto knives. If I saw one in a store I couldn’t leave without buying it, then I’d take it home and cut myself with it.
I was first given Ativan by my GP, back before my breakdown, to help me cope with panic attacks I was having. Because, where I live, there is a high turnover of doctors, and it was easy to keep getting it prescribed and to stockpile it.
I wanted to dull my emotional pain by becoming comatose, so would take six Ativan at a time for no other reason than to go back to bed and sleep away my life. I’d wake up, have a meal, take six more Ativan and then it was off to bed again. The cutting was also easier to do while under the influence of that favourite little pill of mine.
In my efforts to become comatose, I frequently overdosed on the Ativan and other meds accidentally and wound up in the emergency room. When a psychiatrist—who I’ve now been seeing for about five years—recognized what I was doing, he took me off the Ativan cold turkey and replaced it with gabapentin. This is an anti-convulsant medication, but it helps with my anxiety and mood.
With the Ativan gone, I then began taking my sleeping pills during the day to try and achieve a comatose state with them. Once again my psychiatrist took my source of solace away from me.
A few years later I was put back on sleeping pills. I was also under the close watch of a counsellor by this time—I had to check in weekly. But despite her supervision, some of my bad habits returned. I still craved Ativan and the wonderful stoned feeling that came with it, so I again attempted to get the same feeling from my sleeping pills. One day, I took one sleeping pill, then another and another and another. I thought it was no big deal. Boy, was I wrong! I woke up the next morning in the intensive care unit, not knowing why I was there. This was extremely frightening. Apparently I awoke during my sleeping pill stupor and consumed the contents of five other bottles of my psych meds. I was very lucky that my son found me unconscious and 911 was called.
Dying from an accidental overdose is a definite possibility. It truly hit home when I returned to my house and saw the disposable oxygen masks the paramedics had left on my bedroom floor.
Either way, damned—and yet . . .
So what can I say about meds after all these years? You’re damned if you take them, and you’re damned if you don’t.
Today I still have my ups and downs, but I’m in a far healthier place. The psychiatrist is still juggling the amount of each individual chemical I ingest—I’m on six different meds right now. Without this concoction, my personality and nerves unravel rather quickly. I start to lose control of my emotions and dissociate. I also start cutting to numb my emotions.
There will always be some side effects. My body’s latest run-in with Epival (also an anticonvulsant) landed me in the emergency ward with acute gastrointestinal distress. Two days later, I was given yet another pill to help ease the trouble caused by the Epival.
Up here in northern BC, we have trouble seeing a psychiatrist on a regular basis and this can make the medication madness even messier. There is no psychiatrist based in my town, so the town relies on monthly visits. I didn’t see a psychiatrist at all for a number of years. And then for a long time my GP and my psychiatrist weren’t passing on my prescription changes to each other. There were too many people in the mix who weren’t communicating.
It is easy to become addicted to drugs that seem to help you climb the mountainous terrain of healing by making it easier to forget. But be careful, because there is a dangerous, slippery slope.
I’m grateful to my GP, counsellor and psychiatrist. I’ve had this team, talking to each other and working with me for the past five years. It’s important to always make notes of your side effects and any other drug-related issues to share with your physician, psychiatrist and therapist. When you work together as a team, it makes drug treatment more user friendly, which makes everyone happier—and you healthier.
About the author
V.J. is a 50-year-old divorced mother of three adult children: one daughter and two sons. She lives in northern BC, where she works part-time as a mental health advocate at the local peer development office
- American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders DSM-IV (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.