Something that strikes me as pretty funny now is that when I was a kid, other kids were always asking if I’d forgotten to take my meds that morning. I wasn’t on any kind of meds; it was a sick burn because I was … wont to behave a little freakishly. It’s funny now because I’m nearly 30 and I’m still asked if I forgot to take my meds this morning! But these days it’s not a burn, it’s because my face has gone grey around lunchtime. And the answer then is yes, yes I did forget to take my morning cocktail of actual psych meds that I actually have to take. Forgetting my meds doesn’t make me behave like a kooky child, it makes me behave like a limp adult—the experience is somewhere between a bad trip and a hangover. Uh, it did something weird to my feelings, when kids used to ask me stuff like that. I never knew how to respond. I got over it by giving in to it: yes, I will be the crazy one. Sealed my fate, I guess.
I didn’t want to start medicating. I had the typical worry that it would damage my creativity, or remove my personality or whatever. It seemed like bad vibes to willingly dull my experience of existing. But not long before my 21st birthday, I was doing a lot of damage to myself (like physically ☹), getting drunk at 10 am most days, and the only thing on my pantry shelf was a jar of Marshmallow Fluff with one spoonful dug out of it (from when I discovered I didn’t like it). Existing was hurting me real bad I guess. So I gathered up my arse and my courage and did the responsible thing: emailed my parents (I am a businesswoman).
That led to me starting therapy (nice), but also eventually to me giving in and starting on prescription medication for being too sad. It was sertraline, my GP’s drug of choice for entry-level depressives. Sertraline seemed to make a difference briefly, but then my mood plummeted again. My GP’s response was to increase my dosage. She did this at the same time as increasing my dosage of the pill, which, as I learned very soon after from the mental health crisis team, was a pretty dogshit thing for a doctor to do. I can’t find any recorded contraindications for the two drugs, but the emergency psychiatrist said I should never have been prescribed them together in the first place. My anecdotal evidence is that my personal psyche went immediately and directly to hell.
So I was taken off sertraline (and the pill), got given benzos (cos I’d become so depressed I’d started having panic attacks about it) and put on venlafaxine; venlafaxine triggered a hypomanic episode, something I didn’t understand at the time (I threw a party to celebrate being cured of depression; I randomly tried to kill myself); they lowered my dosage and I was chill for a while but the side effects became unbearable so I weaned off venlafaxine (wouldn’t wish it on anyone); I got put on bupropion, which didn’t do anything for my depression but did help me quit smoking (also eating ☹); I was prescribed something else I can’t remember the name of and developed a miniature eating disorder … was that around when I got put on lithium? Must be.
When I was 12, all my little friends thought I was bipolar, because my mood swings were sooo amazing. My mum jumped on the Freya-has-bipolar bandwagon a decade later, but I pooh-poohed it for another few years (‘I can’t be bipolar I am a GOD of DEPRESSION’). Then in 2016 I had a lil 2 am moment of something like clarity, after going ten minutes over a seven-minute time slot at a reading, and writing several pages in all caps about how I am the concept of love in human form. I was like ohhhhhh haha. So I went on lithium.
It fucked me up; I passed out for like three hours in the middle of every day. It was sad for me cos lithium sounds so much more badass than epilim, which came next (same pills as my grandad’s though, cute ☺). The details about what I started taking when get hazy in my memory around here. Time used to cycle pretty reliably between breakdowns and meds changes, but 2018 broke the system, cos I had two separate suicidal breakdowns instead of my usual one. The first was in April, several months earlier than I thought was reasonable. I wrote in my, um, diary:
I am scared … it always just gets worse. I try to look at the undulations as a good thing: it gets better and worse and better and worse, which means the bad bits are always temporary. But actually, each time it gets worse it gets more worse and each time it gets better it gets less better. It’s so drawn out … but I can only see one possible outcome, which is me ending my own life. It’s far away, you know? It has to be. But that means more people to know … which means more people for whom to fuck shit up by killing myself. Which is a strange but strong force telling me to suicide sooner rather than later.
It’s such a relief to talk about my suicide impulse. When I unravel it properly I can see it and think ‘no, I don’t want that!’ Hopefully it lasts. People do not want to talk about suicide. Everyone says ‘let’s start a conversation’ and then cringes backwards out of the room.
Annoyingly, I had a second breakdown later that year, during which I sort of tried to die again, which was a huge bummer for everyone. But then! The real crazy shit happened. The mental health team apologised to me for failing me??? They assigned me a psychiatric nurse who would check in with me every week and I was allowed to call her any time I needed??? I was like holy shit, is the mental health system good now? But it turns out it’s just more inclined to give you what you need after several years if you’re really meek and pākehā. And they changed my meds.
So in 2019 I was on two mood stabilisers and an antidepressant, I did a fuckload of upsetting but essential therapy (thank you Mum for paying for it), checked in with my psych nurse a whole lot, and didn’t descend into a full breakdown. At some point they stopped one of the mood stabilisers cos they realised it was destroying my eyeballs ☹. Now it’s 2022, and I still haven’t had a full breakdown! It’s been nearly four years. I’m doing amazing, sweetie. All my joints ache and grind, I’m impressively clumsy, my libido is pathetic, my vision blurs if I look at one thing for more than a few seconds, but I’m the most stable I’ve been in like … my whole-ass life. It honestly rocks. I’m in such a happy relationship, I’m able to help people around me, and I don’t worry everyone all the time. I’ve been able to do work that feels big and important to me, without the effort or the culmination triggering an episode. It’s sick.
But it’s also … sick. For one thing, it’s a kind of insanity to feel fine and dandy during the drawn-out shitshow of the Anthropocene. But also, in these days of my great stability, I often look at myself sailing through my life and have a sense that I am not experiencing it properly. I am not seized by it. Everything about the world used to seize me. My creativity hasn’t been damaged, and my personality is still pretty much intact, but I have had most of the scope of my feelings shorn off. It’s palpably weird. I can’t even really cry now, except under certain influences. And I’m built to cry, I’m pretty sure. I’m supposed to cry!
My emotional stability tends to be pretty much attributed to lamotrigine and escitalopram, but that’s not the whole picture. Meds have never changed my outlook; meds aren’t what stopped me hating myself. And meds didn’t erase my suicide impulse, they intensified it. Are we all across the fact that suicidal ideation is a potential side effect of like … so, so many psych meds? I never actually tried to die before I was medicated. It’s the therapy, the changes I made in my life, and the quantity of something I smoke that have made the most recognisable differences in my approach to life, my commitment to it. Therapy helped me stop hating myself; changes I made in my life reduced triggers; smokin’ dope helped me be gentle with my pain. It’s absolutely fair to assume that I wouldn’t have been safe enough to do that work if I hadn’t been on the meds as well. But now I’ve done it, right? I’ve made myself so much safer. I’ve worked really hard on it for nearly a decade. So might I be allowed to go back to feeling my life?
The answer is a resounding no. Everyone knows a bipolar must never go off their meds. Watch literally any movie. It’s so hack: a bipolar person feels fine so they go off their meds and then they completely fuck out and ruin everyone’s lives. The look in people’s eyes when I tell them I don’t feel comfortable with my meds anymore! I’m know I’m not imagining it because I’ve seen it in my own eyes and I’ve felt it—amorphous terror—in my own little heart. I’ve internalised the narrative just like everyone else.
It sucks shit, to be honest, because from where I’m at now I genuinely feel that it would be possible for me to navigate my life unmedicated. But I can’t just check out what it would be like. It takes months to wean off most psych meds, and is a deeply shitty experience for both the body and the brain. It would put my mood in serious danger, not because I have a mental illness, but because the meds have their hooks in, and no matter how carefully I try to remove them, my neurotransmitters will still be like, what in the absolute fuck have you done you FUCKING IDIOT BITCH, and then they’ll beat me up. To get clean of my prescription drugs, first I’d have to convince everyone it’s a good idea (impossible) and then I’d have to survive the chemical carnage in my brain during the process and aftermath. And that would be cutting me off at the pass, man ☹. That’d be breaking my ankle at the starting line.
I wanted to reduce my mood stabiliser last year, but GPs are scared to fuck with those so we tried the antidepressant instead. I tried a minuscule reduction of my SSRI, and my mood immediately swung low. Like, duh, cos my body is nine years used to my serotonin reuptake being selectively inhibited (is that how the acronym works?). Attempting to reduce the meds automatically causes in me a reaction that appears to prove how much I need them. It was inconvenient timing for a breakdown anyway, so I bumped my dosage back up and continued with my easy, breezy, medicated-to-fucks ride through my life.
I started on meds when I was 20. I was in such a bad hole of sadness. The meds, several times, made it so, so much worse. I might never have known I had a predisposition towards hypomanic episodes if the venlafaxine hadn’t kicked one off. Now I’m 29 and my body hurts real bad. I hate my side effects. I hate the thought of living with them forever. Some doctors and psychiatrists used to express hope that I would one day be able to go off my meds, but since I got the bipolar diagnosis, everyone has made it pretty clear to me that mood stabilisers are supposed to be a lifelong thing.
Predictably, I have a ballooning discomfort with the whole concept of psychiatric diagnosis. I used to cling to mine as validating, and now I feel suspicious of it, controlled by it. I am beginning to see the insistence on categorising and pathologising and correcting human difference as real yuck vibes. Plus it’s hit-and-miss as fuck. My diagnosis started off as major depressive disorder when I was 21—they told me ‘there’s a chemical imbalance in your brain’ and I lapped it up. Being given a biological reason for my despair felt like being given a lovely chair after standing up for ages (I only learned very recently that it’s pretty much a disproven theory, so now my chair sucks). When I got my bipolar II diagnosis a few years later I felt powerful—I felt believed. I felt like for once I was being treated as the expert on my own mind. It’s funny in retrospect, cos it turns out a bipolar diagnosis essentially kneecaps your credibility in the long run.
So who the hell should I listen to? I’m supposed to put my trust in doctors who have repeatedly fucked me over with their shot-in-the-dark prescriptions. I’m categorically not supposed to trust my own thoughts and feelings, cos they’re riddled with diagnosed wrongness. I hear myself screeching ‘medication is a trap!’ and I know exactly the hands I’m playing into. I’ll be the crazy one. The trap tightens.
Ah, I know I should be grateful, given I did actually cry for this help multiple times. And I am! I’m so, so lucky to have all the support that I do. I’m so, so stoked that I’m not dead yet. It’s amazing that the meds finally started doing what they’re supposed to. It’s just that they’re also doing a whole bunch of really horrible stuff too, so it feels like I’m swallowing a double-edged sword every day.
The greed of humanity and the resulting sickness of our planet are extremely and increasingly palpable. Despair is a valid reaction, and its presence in our society will continue to deepen and intensify. To state the obvious, we’re strapped into an exponential rise in depression and anxiety as the climate crisis worsens (not to mention … everything else). Given that our mental healthcare system is still very much the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff (I’ve spent so much of the past decade thinking about the phrase ‘not suicidal enough’), I reckon the multiplying herds of sad psychos are gonna get shoved into this holding pen of iffy meds, and the gate’s gonna get locked behind them. I foresee disaster, bodies rotted from the inside, minds numb and incurious, the last vestiges of our care for each other and the planet stripped away. Full doom vibes. But don’t listen to me, I didn’t take my meds this morning. •
Freya Daly Sadgrove is a Pākehā writer and performer born in Aotearoa, living on Gadigal Country. She is the author of Head Girl (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2020).