By Sarah Merritt Ryan
Taking an antipsychotic medication can be a painful and difficult decision, mostly because of the stigma surrounding serious mental illness (SMI), psychosis and the medications themselves. When I first began taking an antipsychotic, I struggled to accept my situation. Ultimately, the fear of taking a stigmatized drug impacted my course of treatment and overall health outcome. I fell into powerful traps and pitfalls that are common among patients with SMI who take antipsychotic medications.
I wish I had known then what I understand now. So, let’s debunk these common myths that hinder treatment and positive health outcomes.
As I began my journey with treatment, I believed that not taking an antipsychotic meant that I didn’t actually have a mental illness. In other words, I am only sick if I take this medicine. The truth is, refusing to take the medicine obviously will not make the symptoms of any illness go away.
We don’t think this way about medications for any other illnesses. For example, when you have heart disease, you would never reason that, “If I don’t take this heart medicine, then I don’t have heart disease,” because, obviously, that doesn’t make sense. In fact, this line of thinking would be life-threatening.
Yet, many of us who could benefit from taking antipsychotic medication resist our treatment plans; after all, stigma tells us that we can “fix” ourselves on our own terms. And if we can fix ourselves without antipsychotics, then there was nothing really wrong or flawed about us after all.
When I was first prescribed medication, I thought my life (particularly my social and professional life) would be over if I took an antipsychotic. I complied with treatment for many years, but I was hard on myself and lived in fear of anyone finding out about my “big secret.” I constantly judged myself for taking such a powerful medication, and I ended up going off of it prematurely solely due to self-stigma. This, naturally, led to an avoidable relapse.
I also firmly believed taking an antipsychotic would keep me from being in a romantic relationship; I worried that I would face rejection as soon as anyone found out about my medication.
I knew how my treatment might be perceived; the pervasive stigma made antipsychotics sound like a threat or a judgment, rather than a positive, lifesaving answer. But the reality is that I could not start that a relationship until I took an antipsychotic and prioritized my treatment.
The medication saved my life and, in fact, provided a foundation for the future and the relationship I had always wanted. While disclosing my history and medication regimen to my partner was scary, it ended up being an important and necessary passage to build a trusting and supportive relationship.
What I now know, in hindsight, is this: my life is only over if I don’t take an antipsychotic.
Receiving a stigmatized diagnosis can be intimidating and painful — I’ve been there. Receiving a diagnosis like schizophrenia can feel isolating. So, naturally, many people hope to avoid receiving the label at all. I, like many people, avoided treatment because I wanted to avoid facing the issue altogether; accepting treatment means acknowledging an illness and preparing to weather the social stigma.
I know that some people hesitate to see a psychiatrist because taking an antipsychotic medication seems like just one more step toward social condemnation. The fact is, you can’t change your reality by refusing to address it. If you suffer from heart disease and have a heart attack, you would immediately seek medication to prevent another crisis. Psychosis is no different than a physical ailment — the only way forward is to treat the symptoms.
The inaccurate and unhealthy messages we receive about mental illness change our perception of treatment. Accordingly, many of us see an antipsychotic as something more than a medicine for medical condition — it is a confirmation or proof that there is something wrong with us as human beings. We have internalized stigma to the point that we believe that needing this form of treatment is a moral failing.
The stigma also changes the perceptions of others; people often receive the message that they should be wary of anyone taking an antipsychotic; they may be unreliable and even dangerous. Because some people believe that taking an antipsychotic is proof of a “red flag,” it is easy to view your illness through the perception of others.
Only when you choose to look at your illness through your own perspective and sense of compassion for yourself can you act logically, making decisions based on what you know is right for you.
I have been stable for a decade while taking a maintenance dose of an antipsychotic each day. In this decade, I have gotten married, have had a child, have developed a career and thrived. The truth is that the rest of my life could not begin until I accepted and consistently took my antipsychotic medication. And I learned what works best for me — I will be taking this medication indefinitely.
My medicine is no longer a secret to the people in my life, and now, taking an antipsychotic is no different than taking my contacts out every night. It is my safety net to ensure that I don’t have to suffer through psychosis again, and I will just continue to move forward in my life with this wonderful existence I have cultivated for myself. I once chose to see my illness through other people’s perceptions instead of my own. But now I know better.
Sarah Ryan is a writer covering mental illness topics like stigma, recovery and hope. She is a survivor of schizophrenia, and she is now a wife, mother and proud owner of two pitbull rescues. She is also an ongoing NAMI Wake County blog contributor and NAMI Connection support group facilitator in North Carolina.
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