Overcoming the Stigma Surrounding Medication

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Overcoming the Stigma Surrounding Medication by Sydney Raby - Photo by Zoe Oppenheimer

Everyone has taken medication at some point in their lives. It’s simple. When you have a fever, you take a Tylenol; when you get an ear infection you take amoxicillin. When you get sick, your doctor gives you a prescription, and you take it. It means absolutely nothing. Have you ever heard anyone tell someone with diabetes not to take their insulin? No! It would be crazy to stigmatize something that keeps people healthy. However, our society actually does stigmatize some medications that keep people not only healthy, but alive. Medication for mental disorders.

I have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Tourette’s Syndrome, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), an unspecified anxiety disorder, and a phobia of fire. Although I always struggled with these issues, I didn’t receive most of these diagnoses until recently. I now am taking medications to help with these issues, and they have greatly helped me, but both internal and external stigmas surrounding medication made it hard for me to accept the fact that it was necessary.

Ever since I was young, I was different. I could never sit in a chair for more than 30 seconds, I couldn’t look anyone in the eyes, I would make weird noises uncontrollably, and I couldn’t wear denim for the life of me. My parents knew, but I was always doing well academically, so it was okay. Until it wasn’t. In fifth grade, when my symptoms were getting worse, my parents wanted to have me evaluated. When they did, we were met with an incompetent evaluator and a teacher who was appalled by the idea of getting me tested. The evaluator claimed that since I got good grades, I was sure to be fine. She said, “There is something there, I don’t know what it is, but I know she would make an amazing graduate student, you [my parents] just have to get her there.” When my teacher heard the idea of getting me tested, all she said was “you can’t medicate her! It will ruin her brain.” So that was the end of that. No support, no medication. That was, until the summer before ninth grade.

When I was entering high school, my mental health took a turn for the worse. At camp that summer, I had multiple panic attacks, I couldn’t handle everyday things, and in the end, I needed to be sent home early. My parents then took me in to see a therapist to address these concerns. I met with a therapist who said my case was too large for her to handle, so she referred me to Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). I was terrified. Why was I too much? Was I crazy? This is someone trained in this stuff; why couldn’t she handle me?

A psychologist at MGH decided that I should not try medication yet, but rather intensive ERP (Exposure Response Prevention). I was excited to get therapy to help me and was relieved that I was not at the point that required medication. Therapy was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I was exposed to the obsessions that caused me to panic and was not allowed to do the compulsions that soothed me. After a year of therapy, my therapist decided that my case had gotten to the point where therapy alone would not help me. She wanted me to get another neuropsychological test, and she wanted to add medication, so she referred me to a psychiatrist. I was again too much for my medical team to handle without medication.

All of this to say that in tenth grade I was put on medication for my anxiety. When I first was prescribed the medication, I was ashamed that I had to take it. My whole life I thought that therapy was a helpful thing that was for people with mental health issues, but that medication for mental health was only for people who were too crazy or too broken to fix otherwise. And now I had a daily reminder that I was too sick to function without medication. I didn’t want to need store-bought serotonin; I wanted my brain to just produce it. Despite these feelings, I knew that I needed to take the medication, so I did. The first few days of taking the medication felt bad. I hated that I had to take it. But, within two days of starting to take the medication, I noticed my anxiety begin to fade. It was actually helping. I was able to start to take notes in class again without rewriting them at home, something that I had not been able to do for years. I began to love taking notes. By the time I added in a stimulant, I was no longer ashamed to try it. I took it confidently. And guess what? It was amazing. It was like putting on glasses for the first time. I could focus on one task! I was now happy to take the medications that helped me get control of my life.

I will not say that it is perfect, because it wasn’t. Almost a year and a half later, we still have not worked out all the kinks, and we are still looking at new medications. But I am no longer ashamed to take them. I know now that taking my medication for my mental health is the same as taking medicine for a headache. I think that the world needs to really start destigmatizing medication for mental health issues so that no one else ever has to feel the way I did. I love what makes me. I am proud to be an autistic gay theater nerd. I love my incredible mind that needs some medication to help it function. I am me, and that makes me happy.

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