Mental Illness Comprises Part of My Personality

Cyrus Eosphoros , Online Editor

Erin Jones sparked the #MedicatedAndMighty hashtag after she decided to resume psychiatric treatment and posted a photo on Facebook: The selfie of her with her new prescriptions spread to Twitter and the phrase took on a life of its own. The hashtag has expanded beyond people taking photos with blue slips and pill bottles to become a space for people to talk about their experiences with psychiatric medication, their current situations and their illnesses.

People daring enough to talk about their experiences with mental illness in public have, of course, drawn others who are angry at this trend. Some criticisms are obvious: telling people who’ve been on psychiatric medication for years that they’ll soon get sick and regret medication. Others are a bit subtler, such as “You shouldn’t take medication you don’t need,” “What if those symptoms are just withdrawal?” or “Do you really want to be on medication for the rest of your life?”

I first saw a psychiatrist on Oct. 1, 2013. I walked out with my first antipsychotic prescription soon after. Within a month of beginning medication, I stopped having manic episodes. I’ve whittled down other symptoms since then, one by one.

My current psychiatrist isn’t bad. The first time I saw him, I texted all my friends, “I think I actually like my doctor.” But when I met with him last, I matter-of-factly told him that I was doing well enough in other areas that OCD treatment had become non-optional. I gave him an example I thought was kind of funny: Stevenson Dining Hall keeps cups in five-by-five grids, and whenever I walk past I rearrange them until they’re symmetrical. But it means I lose time off lunch, and I’m sick of being late to class.

He looked worried, tried to smile. “But aren’t you being too hard on yourself?” he said. “That might just be, you know, you, not necessarily a symptom.”

No, I said, I didn’t think bursting into tears in public because I couldn’t move until I made an arrangement of plastic cups make sense was a quirk of my personality.

There are still people who want to reassure themselves by telling me, “That’s not a symptom, that’s who you are.” I cannot speak to how pathetic they must feel that my disability threatens them personally, but I have two truths to offer them.

I am the utmost authority on myself. I have 20 years of experience under my belt. Being disabled does not revoke my basic human right of identity. I am the world’s most reliable witness on the subject of “I started crying because I didn’t want to do it.” I have seizures regularly; involuntary compulsions are just another form of my body acting against my will. Neither are a feature of my personality.

At the same time, taking medication has allowed me to form a coherent idea of who I am. Previous questions about being human, let alone being myself, are ones I’m beginning to answer. What is it like being sad in response to external stimuli? What kinds of things make me sad? What is forming friendships like when I’m not convinced my friends hate me? What makes me angry? What makes me happy? Do I believe in God? What does it feel like to fall in love?

I’d be late to class in elementary school because I was trying to put cups in ROYGBIV order. Now I’m late to class because of Stevenson’s glasses. There is an infinite gulf between being the kind of person who likes arranging things symmetrically and being held hostage by your own body.

Adding stigma to being medicated also makes it harder for people to find a set of drugs that work for them. Our understanding of how brains work is incomplete, and even within those with a given diagnosis, there is huge variance. People claiming “concern” try to convince anyone seeking treatment that their symptoms are a feature of their medication or a feature of themselves. If people have to muster a huge amount of courage in order to get on their first antidepressant or antipsychotic, it’s infinitely harder for them to find that drug not working and say “Okay, we need to try something else” instead of blaming themselves or giving up on medication entirely.

Sometimes people are misdiagnosed. Sometimes a dose that’s been stable for years stops working; sometimes it’s just the wrong drug. Sometimes, as with me, relieving the most obvious symptoms allows problems that have been festering for a while to come to light — no one would’ve been able to diagnose me with ADHD while I was on suicide watch. I have severe, chronic depression, but the typical treatment for it, SSRIs, doesn’t work well for me, a fact that I’ve only been able to determine because I’ve been on and off three of them. For people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, it’s even more of a roulette, since no antipsychotics work the same way.

By the time that I was 15, I knew schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression all existed. I knew that there had to be states of being that were “not depressed,” “neither manic nor depressed,” “not hallucinating.” Over the past two years, medication has given me steadily longer tastes of each of those states: my first week without suicidal ideation, my first year without a manic episode. Now, for the first time, my doctors and I can move to talking about “quality of life” as opposed to “continued existence of life.”

I’ve had people complain that I’ve sprouted disabilities out of nowhere. Since when do I have OCD, what’s this ADHD diagnosis, don’t these doctors just want to feed me drugs? Not being suicidal is important, they’ll concede, but now I’m just nitpicking. Can’t I just be normal?

Throughout all this, I knew that it was possible to not be suicidal, that other people didn’t believe cats could read their minds. I knew I could aspire to live long enough to be one of them. But no one had told me that I could grow up to be anything more than “alive.”

“Recovery” is the wrong word. When Oberlin’s insurance falters and I’m forced off my antipsychotics, I still have manic episodes. A year ago I was hospitalized for attempting suicide. I need to be able to say: That was a bad year, that was a bad set of drugs. I can get better, I got better. But “recovery” implies that someday I won’t need treatment, that my illnesses will magically disappear. I will probably be on psychiatric medication for the rest of my life. I don’t see why I should mind.

Being able to feel real emotions in response to real stimuli and being able to get to know myself and the people around me has made me an objectively better person. Imagine what I’ll be capable of when I can devote the brainpower and energy I use to manage untreated symptoms of OCD, ADHD and anxiety to my work, my life, my writing.

#MedicatedAndMighty is right. If this is what I can do when I have to fight myself every step of the way, what will I be able to do when I can bring all of myself to bear? People want to consign me to an existence in the darkest shadows that my mind can create, with only occasional glimmers of who I am, and tell me that’s living. I’m not going to listen any longer.