Mental illness is not a sign of weakness, neither is taking medicine

Since my bipolar diagnosis when I was 19, I have read several books by people who are also bipolar. Often, the memoirs are filled with tragic and scary stories.

One of the books I’ve read is called Life is Like a Line. I cannot remember much about the book. I do know that it has one of the most depressing bipolar-related stories.

The lady who wrote it was not diagnosed as bipolar until she was in her 40s or 50s. Up until then, she self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. As she got older, her mental health spiraled out of control. She was rapid cycling, and each day was a struggle to distinguish what was reality and what was psychosis. It was a heart-wrenching tale of what happens without medication.

Once she was diagnosed, her psychiatrist put her on lithium. (I’m pretty sure this was in the 80s or 90s, when lithium was prescribed more often.) Immediately, the woman saw vast improvements and she was well for the first time since her childhood. She could think clearly, and her mind felt cogent and lucid. She physically felt better as well.

After being well for a while, she decided to stop taking her medicine. This is a common practice among people with bipolar disorder. It’s almost impossible not to think we can live without the medication. I sometimes have thoughts that I don’t need the medication. However, the memory of my first conversation with my psychiatrist keeps me from submitting to the thoughts.

He told me if I stopped taking my medicine, my mental health would revert right back to where my last episode ended. There wouldn’t be a build-up to a decline. It would be immediate and total. That scared the crap out of me, so I’ve always taken my medicine. I’ve only had the one episode, and I know it is mostly due to staying on my medicine and being almost religious about sleep.

Sure enough, the woman immediately started rapid cycling and she lost all sense of reality. The sense of clarity and lucidness that had been foreign up to that point slipped through her fingers. She soon recognized she needed to go back on her medicine.

Tragically, the lithium didn’t have the same affect after she’d been off of it. The medicine didn’t work as well, and so she continued to struggle with the illness. I do not remember what happened next. That story stuck with me, though. It’s a depressing tale of what happens when treatment is ceased.

Memoirs by people who are bipolar often entail stories about not taking prescribed medication. It’s a hallmark of bipolar, and it’s also a part of human nature. When someone is well, medicine shouldn’t be necessary, right?

That’s not always the case with mental illness, and it’s especially true when someone doesn’t consult their psychiatrist before stopping taking the medicine. Mental illnesses are a symptom of chemical imbalances in the brain. It’s not something you can fix on your own.

It doesn’t help that there is a stigma about having a mental illness and requiring medication. Fortunately, I haven’t run into too many people who carry the stigma. I know it exists, and that it is hard for some people, depending on their circle of colleagues, friends, and family. It makes me sad to think some people don’t take their medicine because they are embarrassed by their illness.

The flip side of not being able to fix your chemical imbalances is the simple truth that those imbalances are not your fault. I didn’t choose to be bipolar, to have whacky brain chemistry requiring medication. People without mental illnesses need to understand this vital aspect of mental health.

I honestly do not care what others think of my bipolar diagnosis. If someone has a problem with it, I don’t want to be associated with them anyway, so they can suck it. It isn’t about them and what makes them comfortable. My mental health is my responsibility, and I want to be well. That’s why I take my medicine.

The people who love me are not bothered by it, and they are supportive of my journey to manage my illness.

Keep taking your medicine. Be your own advocate for your mental health. Work with your psychiatrist to find the best treatment plan.

Fight for your sanity with everything you have. Work on being your best self, which can include taking medicine. Those things are not mutually exclusive.

Keep on going.

It’s worth it.

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