Medications and Recovery

A couple of days ago I posted about depression. After I posted I realized that I hadn’t mentioned anything about medications. I suppose that is because I didn’t use medications in my recovery from depression. There are two reasons for that.

First, and foremost is the fact that I didn’t want to admit that I had a problem. I just thought I was stressed out. Interestingly enough, years later when I was the director of a residential treatment facility for mentally ill adults; I observed that many of my clients were of the same opinion. We have so stigmatized mental illness that people are afraid to admit they have it. We are afraid to ask for help. “I’m not mentally ill; I’m just stressed out.”

Second, when I was struggling the most there were fewer options available for anti-depressant medication. There have been many useful drugs developed in the last 30 years.

I did, however, use medication for anxiety. That medication was alcohol. I self-medicated my anxiety with booze. While I do not currently recommend this practice, and at the time I knew it was not a good idea—I did it anyway. I did it because I was fed up by being immobilized by anxiety in social situations. I will say that I did benefit somewhat by being able to practice my social skills while under the influence. The problem is, of course, I became an alcoholic.

I also used mindfulness practices to overcome anxiety. The effects last longer and there’s no hangover.

Knowing what I know now, I would recommend that anyone with depression and anxiety work with a good psychiatrist AND a good therapist. Medication will help with the symptoms while the therapist helps you figure out what is broken in your life and fix it.

I have seen several kinds of wrong thinking regarding psychiatric meds.

  1. “If I start I will have to take the meds forever.” I have seen many professionals tell their clients this. While it is sometimes true (particularly with bipolar or psychotic disorders), it is most certainly not always true.
  2. “When my symptoms go away I can stop taking my meds.” It doesn’t work like that. Mental illness is not a headache. However, once your symptoms are under control you have more internal resources available to work on your “true recovery”. Perhaps as you make progress on that you can work with your psychiatrist to reduce or eliminate your meds.
  3. “Taking psychiatric meds is the same as being chemically dependent.” I have heard this from people who are passionately devoted to the 12-step approach to recovery—like AA. My response to these people is that there is a big difference between taking a medication according to doctor’s orders and self-medicating. Taking meds as prescribed enhances recovery. Self-medication sabotages it

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