Isaac James Baker shares his personal story of how his psychiatric drugs helped to save his life, as he battled anorexia, anxiety and depression.
When my psychiatrist told me he was prescribing medication, I told him, “No thanks, I’m fine.”
But he insisted, rolling off an impressive list of reasons that demonstrated how I was, in fact, not fine. Not by a long shot.
I weigh about 165, but at the time I teetered on the scales at 95 pounds. My muscles had shriveled, tiny lanugo hairs covered my body, and my brain had literally shrunken, all part of my starving body’s attempt to stay alive. I couldn’t remember anything for more than a few seconds and I was stuck in a constant teeter-totter of extreme anxiety and bottomless depression. When it became clear that I was close to death, I struggled to find the energy not to give up and let death take me.
My diagnosis: anorexia nervosa, acute anxiety and depression.
That’s what the file says, but the story of how I ended up in such a dire situation is much more complex. (It’s a story I unpack in my 2014 novel “Broken Bones.”) I had been struggling for a long time with untreated anxiety, depression and compulsive fits. When my wife left me, my mind and body unraveled quickly. I stopped eating, drinking water and sleeping in any sort of meaningful way. Actively killing myself seemed too much effort, so I subconsciously took the road of self-induced starvation.
When I ended up in the hospital emergency room, I didn’t know who I was. My organs were closing in on failure. I needed serious, long-term rehabilitation. Food, basically. And medication. At the rehabilitation center, I ate lots and lots and lots of nutritious food. At first, I had to pair my meals with phosphorous powder and water because my body could not properly metabolize the food I needed.
For years prior to my hospitalization, I had been averse to medication. I rarely took anything for headaches or muscle pain. When I broke a rib surfing, I didn’t bother going to the doctor. When a mole on my arm looked sketchy, I sterilized a knife and cut it off. Medication for mental health problems? No fucking way.
My family has a long and complex history with mental health problems, and we don’t have the best history of talking openly about these kinds of problems. Through that prism, I viewed taking drugs prescribed by a psychiatrist as a sign of personal weakness. It was an indicator of my inability to get my shit together on my own, a sign I had given up on myself and bought in to Big Pharma’s marketing gimmicks.
Of course, this is all bullshit, but stigma about medication for mental health is commonplace. Ending the stigma that surrounds mental illness cannot be achieved if we continue to view drugs this way.
Sometimes, people need drugs. And there’s not a damn thing wrong or shameful about it.
I see a lot of my friends deride Big Pharma and denounce medication as a crutch: “Natural remedies will save us all!” “America is full of over-medicated sheeple!”That’s their prerogative.
I’m open to non-medical remedies, and I’m more than sympathetic to criticism of a massive industry designed to profit as much as possible off the sale of prescription drugs. But, when I broke my foot, I used crutches. I got better and left the crutches behind, but if my foot were perpetually broken, I would be an idiot to toss the crutches aside.
My anxiety severely disrupts my sleep, which begins a downward spiral of waking up, being unable to go back to sleep, becoming exhausted and even more anxious, which is followed by even worse sleep. It gets so bad that I lay in bed unable to sleep, yet find myself passing out in public. This is what happens when I stop taking my medication, something I’ve unwisely done on multiple occasions. I scratch at my skin until I bleed, grind my teeth until my jaw aches and wander aimlessly through the house with a higher heart rate. Then the panic attacks rise up again. I start skipping meals. Suicidal thoughts, which are always pecking at me, start gouging. It’s not a good place.
Sure, there are myriad things beside medication that I use to help keep myself together. I exercise several times a week and eat plenty of healthy food. And I make time for things that keep me together as an individual (outdoor activity, music, reading, writing, sex, etc). And I experiment with other methods of stress relief, like meditation, controlled breathing, mental exercises. The healing power of the ocean, through surfing, has been key to my recovery.
But, for certain people in certain times, these weapons fail. Sometimes, people need drugs. And there’s not a damn thing wrong or shameful about it.
If you have a mental health problem, medication can (and in many cases must) be a part of the solution. I say “part of the solution,” because a personal desire to remain strong and healthy is the crucial factor. Medication or not, I would not be out of the psychiatric ward eating healthily and refraining from suicidal tendencies if I was not personally committed to my own mental and physical health. But medication helps me keep my feet balanced as I move forward.
Implicit in my argument is the presence of a good psychiatrist. A person with whom you can speak openly about your dark places. A person who prescribes medicine because they feel, from their position of knowledge and expertise, that drugs are necessary. A person who will listen as you discuss any doubts or questions you may have about your medication. I’m lucky enough to have access to medical professionals I trust, and I certainly wish this were the case for so many less privileged people who struggle with similar issues but have no access to a caring professional.
If you’re able to see a psychiatrist, it can be a scary thing, admitting you have a problem and trusting that medication from a doctor will be helpful. But shame and stigma related to medication should not factor into the decision. And while those suffering from mental illness make that decision, those people who do not need medication should be careful in the way they talk about this issue.
There are men and women just like me among your friends, and they need support, not judgment.
Isaac James Baker has worked as a freelance writer, editor, and reporter. His novel Broken Bones debuted in 2014, which chronicles a month-long stay in a psychiatric ward. He is finishing up a novel based on his years at a missionary boarding school. He blogs about Reading, Writing & Wine and contributes to the award-winning daily wine blog Terroirist. Follow him @IsaacJamesBaker.
This post is part of a joint series by The Good Men Project and Stigma Fighters in sharing stories of real men living with mental illness. To submit your story, see below.
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