Earlier this month I was asked to contribute to the “Talk About Your Medicines” awareness campaign established by the American Recall Center. The ARC Center provides drug and medical device recall information alongside practical healthcare information and support. Their aim is to make information about medications and medical devices easily accessible to the consumer, mine is to share my own experiences and opinions about taking medications. My point of view is one of a dual-diagnosis alcoholic in recovery who takes psych drugs to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and chronic depression.
I know that this can be a controversial subject, I’ve been to AA meetings where discussions about this have gotten pretty heated. So, I want to stress that I am not a doctor or therapist, and I am not being compensated for this post. I don’t claim to know or have insight into what will work for others regarding medications. I only know what has and hasn’t worked for me. That is my disclaimer. I hope that no matter which side of the fence you are on about taking medications, you will continue reading and let me know what you think.
I grew up in a household that used over the counter medications for things like headaches and allergies, and prescription medicine when antibiotics were recommended by the doctor. Aside from that, I never really took anything. It was during the 70’s and 80’s, before everyone was on an anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs were handed out like candy. While I was a kid, I never knew anyone on psych meds except my Aunt who my mom thought was crazy because, as my mom said, “she was strung out on Valium.” Looking back, my Aunt probably took her Valium as prescribed for anxiety, but it was unusual to know someone who did that, so it had to be crazy.
I never thought that I would grow up and have to be on medication for psychiatric conditions myself. Nor did I think that I would become an alcoholic. Little did I know, those two things often go hand in hand. I believe that I have suffered from PTSD since I was raped as a teenager. My condition was exacerbated when I suffered physical abuse from my ex-husband. Although I went through a few bouts of adolescent depression, I think my real, chronic depression started when I got close to thirty years old. My conditions remained undiagnosed though, until after I went to treatment for alcoholism the first time. That’s where the ‘hand in hand’ thing came into play. I never considered the fact that I might need some psychiatric help, I just self-medicated with alcohol. Again and again. And it worked at first. And then it didn’t.
When I got to treatment and had to go see a psychiatrist while I was there, I wasn’t quite sure why. I knew that I had some issues – I was in rehab, for Pete’s sake – but I didn’t think they were psychiatric. I thought that all of my issues were caused by my alcoholism, not the other way around. So when the psychiatrist said that I needed Zoloft and Abilify for depression, I balked. My primary care physician had prescribed Lexapro for me a couple of years prior when I was going through a divorce, and that had made me feel crazier, almost suicidal, and I didn’t want to go through that again. I didn’t know at the time that suicidal thoughts and ideations can be a side effect of anti-depressants, so I just thought they didn’t work for me. Still, while I was in treatment I agreed to try the Zoloft, but adding the Abilify was just too much for me to accept, so I refused it. I left treatment with a bunch of new tools for dealing with sobriety, but not properly treated for my psych condition. I didn’t want to be on medication, to be ‘strung-out’, or to be reliant on something (drugs) for my mental health.
Guess what happened?
Yep. You’ve got it…I drank again.
When my psych conditions showed up again, I went back to the thing that worked before – booze. But it really no longer worked, it made things much, much worse – but that’s a post for another day. I found myself trying to self-medicate with no success, so I made a second trip to treatment. This time I was, as they say in AA, ready to go to any lengths for my sobriety. And that included being honest with, and listening to, the suggestions from the psychiatrist. This time I went in with an open mind when it came to medication (and other treatments, including intensive childhood work in therapy), and I decided that I would try what was recommended and see what happened. This time, as the Zoloft didn’t seem to be working and Lexapro had made me feel suicidal, Effexor was prescribed. That’s when I learned that for some forms of depression and PTSD, SNRI’s (which Effexor is) work more effectively than SSRI’s do (which Zoloft and Lexapro are). SNRI’s, or selective serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, work with serotonin and norepinephrine, while SSRI’s only affect serotonin levels. This small difference made all the difference for me. Within a short amount of time, I could tell that I was feeling better.
I was also prescribed Seroquel to take at night to help stabilize my mood. Seroquel is an antipsychotic medicine, it works by changing the actions of chemicals in the brain. It is often used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, which scared me a little, because I don’t have either of those. But it is also used together with antidepressant medications to treat major depressive disorders. The Effexor/Seroquel combination has been, and still is, working for me for the last two years. I haven’t had the desire or the urge to drink to self-medicate. I know that it is not the work of the medication alone that has kept me sober, it has taken a lot of self-awareness and step-work and therapy also, but once the medication helped balance my brain chemically, the other things became more and more effective and long-lasting.
So, my thoughts on taking psychiatric medications:
Do I think that medication, as a rule, is over-prescribed in the United States? Yes.
Do I think that there is a stigma attached to taking psych meds? Yes.
Do I think that taking medication is, or can be, a substitution for a healthy lifestyle? No.
Do I think that taking medications, as prescribed, in addition to doing other healthy things (therapy, eating healthy, exercise, etc.), can greatly improve quality of life? Yes.
Am I very careful that I don’t take medications that are not recommended for people in recovery (opiates, benzos, etc)? YES!!! Every doctor that I go to is aware that I am in recovery. I will not take medication that jeopardizes my sobriety.
Do I want to continue to take medication for the rest of my life? Not really, but I will if I need to.
I guess what it boils down to for me is this: If I was diabetic, I would take insulin. If I had cancer, I would do chemotherapy. If I had epilepsy, I would take anti-seizure medication. I do have PTSD and depression, why shouldn’t I take medication to help those illnesses? I know that taking medication isn’t for everyone, nor should it be, but for me, at this point, it’s working, and I want it to keep working. It is no longer something over which I feel ashamed or embarrassed. It’s just a part of my physical make-up; something I do to take care of myself. It took a little while to find what worked best for me, but it’s been so worth it! No more self-medicating, and such a happier life.
I’m interested to know what you all think about this. I would love to hear your comments.