When Medication Works Too Well

There’s a fairly common thing that happens to people who take medication for mental health issues. When the medication is successful, you tend to start feeling like you don’t really have a problem. This especially happens if you share examples of how your particular problem affects you, and other people tell you bracingly, “Oh, that happens to me all the time! You’re fine!” It’s easy to start wondering if you’re overthinking this, if maybe you’re really okay after all.

This happened to me for the first time about a year and a half ago, a few months after moving to Oregon. Since I was no longer working as a teacher, my insurance had expired, and I was now using Aaron’s insurance. With the change in coverage, my copay for the medication I take for ADHD went from $20 to $60. Previously, I’d paid $40 per month for both my asthma inhaler and my ADHD meds; the new cost would be $100. Now, we’re not destitute by any means. But we do try to spend our money wisely and save where we can. It occurred to us that maybe, just maybe, I didn’t need the medication any longer since I didn’t need to maintain a classroom and manage a room full of children. I was only managing one child, a pregnancy, and a house. It would be okay, we reasoned, for me to exhibit ADHD symptoms in the safe environment of our home.

So I just stopped taking the medication. And at first, it wasn’t all that bad. I mean, it wasn’t great. A few days in, the dishes were piled up in the sink. Crumbs littered the floor. I drifted aimlessly, unable to remember what needed to be done for long enough to do it. I fed and dressed Niko and myself, but beyond that, I was in a fog. Several days after that, the trash was starting to smell when I forgot to take it out… and forgot… and forgot. Toys littered the floor, clothes lay in drifts in the bedrooms. The dishes covered the counter as well as the sink, and fruit flies moved in. Niko wore his pajamas all day, and I couldn’t think of a reason to change my own clothes. I wanted to go back onto medication, but the decision to stop taking it had coincided with my last available refill from my Alaskan doctor, and I hadn’t yet found a new provider. I couldn’t find the motivation or focus to search for a new one and make the necessary phone calls.

It got worse. About a week and a half after stopping the medication, the blackness moved in. Strattera is a medication used to treat ADHD, but since I started taking it about three or four years ago, I haven’t had a single episode of depression. (It’s worth noting that it was originally developed for depression, but test subjects found their ADHD symptoms improving instead.) Previously, I experienced it on a cycle of roughly a year from the start of one episode to the start of the next. It’s now been over five years since I’ve experienced depression (I didn’t experience it during my pregnancy with Niko or for the year and a half between his birth and the start of Strattera). I haven’t been sure that Strattera was what was keeping depression at bay — after all, that’s not what it’s marketed for — but whether or not it’s been responsible, it was about a week and a half after stopping my meds that things took a sharp turn for the worse.

It wasn’t a full-fledged episode of depression. It was just a shadow on the horizon. Just a looming cloud of black emptiness, hovering just close enough that I felt its threat. Just close enough to bring a flood of memories of the dark nothingness, the endless pit. And I completely panicked. I huddled on the couch, sobbing, my grasp on reality weakening. My son was being his ordinary self, directing a flood of happy chatter in my direction, unaware of my desperation. As I tried to cope with the waves of hopeless terror washing over me simultaneously with Niko’s needs, I was struck by a snarling, primal need to eliminate the source of irritation. I wanted him gone. Out of the picture. Permanently.

Bizarrely, it was that sudden attack of internal rage that horrified me enough to snap me briefly out of my panic attack. I pulled myself together, put Niko to bed for the night, and started texting my best friend, who lives in Alaska. I don’t remember what I said, but it was worrying enough to her that she called me seconds later (despite the fact that we almost never speak — 97% of our communication is through text). I picked up the phone up, but I couldn’t talk — I was crying too hard. Bless her heart, that girl calmed me down enough that I could tell her what had happened. She told me exactly what I needed to do — BREATHE. Tell Aaron what’s happening when you’re done talking to me, it’s ridiculous to try to protect him from your issues, he can’t support you if he doesn’t know. Find a doctor first thing tomorrow to refill your prescription, never mind the stupid money, it’s not like you’re poverty-stricken. Call me or Aaron right away if you think you’re going to hurt yourself or Niko, no matter what time it is. I love you. You’re going to be okay.

Obediently, I texted Aaron the general gist, then crawled into bed to sob myself to sleep. I woke up the next morning to my phone buzzing. Have you found a doctor yet? Oh. Right. Actually, I had a doctor, or a midwife group, to be exact. I called the office and explained what was happening. They immediately wrote a prescription and sent it to a pharmacy near their practice, where it waited for me free of charge until I could figure out how to get the new prescription costs to fit our budget — it turns out, thank God, that people move REALLY FAST to help when you mention a terrifying urge to hurt your child. Next time I saw my midwife group, I met with a social worker who gently questioned me about how I was doing, reminding me that I needed to find a general practitioner, since they specialized in births, not mental health.

And just like that, I was back on medication. The black cloud receded. The fog in my mind lifted. I cleaned the kitchen, dressed myself and Niko, and breathed a shaky sigh of relief. And then I started searching our insurance provider’s website for doctors.

Yes, sometimes medication works too well. We forget what it’s doing. We wonder if we really need it. And we forget how to cope without it. Strangely, I’m glad I had that experience, because it gives me a strong contrast between who I am unmedicated, and who I am with a bit of help. I don’t want to find myself in that place of utter desperation, ever again. And that’s why I will continue to take those nasty, gag-inducing pills every single night. I like who I am when I have medication to help me move toward my potential. I like having a fighting chance to think clearly, to focus on tasks, to remember to wash those dishes before they get crusty. I don’t like the fact that I need to take pills to keep me sane; I do appreciate being able to like myself and be myself.

So. Bottoms up. Down the hatch. Chug chug. Vive la médecine!

[Photo credit www.safemedicinedisposal.org]

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