When I was first diagnosed with a mental illness at 18, nearly half a lifetime ago, I assumed it was something that I would be medicated for for a while until I felt okay again, like bronchitis or a chest infection. I figured eventually with treatment, it would improve until it outright disappeared and I would be cured. My Psychiatrist never told me any differently, and I didn’t know anyone who was affected by mental illness, so I had nothing to really go by. So, in my first year of treatment, there were half a dozen times I felt like I was doing better, and in turn ceased taking my medication. Off the antidepressants, I’d have perhaps a week, if I was lucky, of relative contentment, but then I’d slide downhill into Depression with the force of an avalanche, and reluctantly and begrudgingly resume my medication regimen again. Each time I quit taking the medication, I believed it would be different. I thought I’d be better. Fixed, even. But I wasn’t. In fact, unmedicated I was worse than I was before I sought treatment, completely crippled by sadness. Each and every time I quit the medication would end like 747 nosediving into a field. A fiery explosion of carnage and debris that leaves onlookers shaking their head with disbelief at such a grisly scene. After seeing this scene play out several times, my doctor finally sat me down and told me that I was likely to require medication for my mental illness for years, not months. And that was the positive prognosis. The alternative was that it would be something I would have to deal with for a lifetime. I cried so hard when I came home from the Shrink that night. I was so angry and confused. I was barely an adult, and here I was having to learn to navigate a very real and confronting condition I’d have for the foreseeable future, and possibly forever. But as the Depression grew into Anxiety then Panic and Agoraphobia, I realized that I was in this for the long haul. I would never live a life where mental illness wasn’t a factor I had to work around.
I had to begin to look at my mental illness in a different way if I wanted to get to know it. After all, it was hanging around for the foreseeable future, it made sense to get acquainted. I started doing a lot of reading about the issues I was facing. My first few books were by Bev Aisbett. Her “It” series spoke to me so clearly. To see my illness portrayed there in black and white shook me into realizing that I wasn’t alone on my journey. These were symptoms and diagnoses that other people were dealing with as well. It was so comforting to realize I wasn’t the freak of nature I’d assumed myself to be. It was such a relief to find out there were other people out there just like me. Along the way, I collected more books to try and learn about my illness that was very readily taking over my life. I read one book that compared my diagnosis to any other chronic condition that requires ongoing treatment, for example, Diabetes. It reinforced that it’s a lifelong condition that requires daily medication, and there’s no shame in that. I was smart enough to realize I wouldn’t attempt to go off my Diabetes medications just because I had a day with average blood sugars, so why would I do it with the medications I take for Depression and Anxiety? It was the rational epiphany I needed, and I’ve remained a compliant medication taker ever since.
It was around that time, I began to realize I would be medicated til the day I die. Currently, that equals 19 pills each night. That number will probably fluctuate over time, but there’ll never be a time I don’t manage my illness with medication. I know this, not because I’ve abandoned taking them after a poorly thought out ‘maybe I’m better now?’ stunt that I pulled as a teen, but because I’ve had to taper off them and give my system a break between ending one type and beginning another new medication. The fifteen or more times I’ve gone through that, I’ve not done terribly well. It generally involved a lot of sleeping, crying, agitation, sadness, and increase in symptoms like Panic Attacks and unrelenting anxiety. I’ll always need to be in therapy of some sort. I’ll never be able to delete the numbers for Lifeline and the Suicide Call Back Service out of my phone, just in case. I’m highly aware there’s a good chance that I’ll end up back in hospital at some point, maybe even a few more times throughout my lifetime, and I’ve come to peace with that. This is what it is to manage a lifelong illness. For some people, mental illness stays a while and then disappears, never to be seen again but for me, I know I’ll fight it for the rest of my days.