The Quest for a Pill to Stop the Pain
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The Quest for a Pill to Stop the Pain

One of the hardest aspects of living with a mental illness is the searching for the right medication, and then the right dosage.
09 May 2017, 10:45pm

This article is part of That Feeling When—a partnership between VICE Australia and youth mental health initiative headspace.

For some, the use of prescription medication for mental health issues is recommended, and can have life-changing and positive outcomes. Others may find it can take a while to find the right medication and dose that works for them – having patience, taking note of side-effects and being in-tune to your body can help with this process. It's important to take the time to discuss, and then consider what options are recommended with a trusted mental health professional. Whether that's talking to your GP again, or if you feel like you'd like another opinion regarding your treatment plan, you can contact your local headspace centre.

Vikki Ryall, Head of Clinical Practice at headspace , the National Youth Mental Health Foundation.

Starting on a new pill is exciting and terrifying: you're unsure how much it will affect your cognitive ability, your personality, and your capacity to not shit blood. Most times, it feels like a roll of the dice. From antidepressants to mood stabilisers, Xanax to Cooperin, placebo to slow release speed—I've walked through the shadow of the valley of brightly coloured capsules and I'm still uncertain about what works for me. All I know is, as The Who once sang, "uppers and downers, either way blood flows."

Go on any forum for a psychiatric drug and you'll realise that people's experiences may have consistency, but never universality. So in writing about the complexity of the relationship you develop with your medication, I want to state outright that this is my personal experience, and I'll tell it as I know it, which may be different from how you know it. I've run a gamut of meds to treat a gamut of disorders, so I'm going to be talking in broad terms of ideas and feelings as opposed to the "Cymbalta gave my hands the shakes" specificity that fills countless message boards all over the net (I highly recommend these boards, however, if just for the sense of community.)

I like to think of my relationship with my pill on generic romcom terms. It's a love-hate affair that is 90 percent awkward stumbling and questionable emotional abuse. The meet-cute is more of a "meet-nausea," and in that sense it's not unlike watching 50 First Dates. Sometimes these relationships fall sour in the third act however, and they rarely recover.

Admittedly, one particularly aggressive bipolar drug felt less like Drew Barrymore and more like a Serbian civil war veteran running a dogfighting ring out of his brother's garage. I call these pills "Pesci Pills" as they resemble an easily offended Joe Pesci character who can turn menacing at the flip of a coin, like in Goodfellas.

It is hard to express the complex levels attached to starting a new medication, especially one you are wary of. Psychiatrists can often feel like peddlers (some are) and it's hard not to feel mistrustful of someone who has known you for all of 20 minutes putting you on a medication which will change your fundamental self. My last Pesci pill turned me into a high-functioning sociopath—perhaps I was crippled by neuroses for a reason—and what felt like restrained mania turned into a three month blackout of impulse and aggression.

Paradoxically, to the layman, some psychiatric medicine can be linked with suicidal thoughts. One treatment for depression had me in a fire pit of dread and self-hatred, and I was only saved by a random intervention. There's very much the feeling of "you had one job, man" when you start feeling sad. This is why you should never go it alone on meds, tell your friends and loved ones you're starting something new to forge a safety net. Think of it as an exploratory venture.

Then there's the physical side effects. For me, it's usually a spike in my already shitty joint pain. For some, it's hives and rashes. I get pill-fat like late period Elvis. A friend started calling me "Cunt Belushi" perhaps forgetting that the guy died foaming at the mouth, stuffed with chemicals. These side effects suck, especially when your friends pile in for your increased size and sluggishness. They don't always last though, and despite the fact that most of these pills are chewing through your liver like corn whiskey, I think that water weight and joint pain are a fair trade for depressive thoughts and dissociative states, any day.

These are just the random variables inevitably stemming from mass pharmaceuticals. I have a piss poor public school education in the sciences, but I feel comfortable in offering the tepid cliché that "the brain is a mystery." A friend and I are on the same slow release amphetamines at the moment: He's been up for four days rearranging his apartment, I've taken up afternoon naps. When the Bible said "to each his own" it was probably referring to Xanax.

It's difficult to talk being about medicated. Every 4Chan tosser with a protein shake dependency will throw their opinion your way—either ignore them or wolf it down with a fistful of salt. Asking for help and going through the processes of treatment is extremely difficult. So allow yourself some pride in taking the steps. It's a harsh dehumanising system that can often feel isolating and antagonistic. Starting a new med is terrifying—I am a week into this new thing and I am scared. If you're like me, and you live in a hippie town riddled with Western medicine-hating luddites saying "depression is a state of mind" and "have you tried Pilates?" I recommend you stuff your chemist receipts in your ears and ignore everyone. In the end, no one knows your state of being better than you, and secondly (hopefully), your doctor.

I know the wet browed desperation that comes from trying to find a magic cure that will set your skull straight and out all the demons. It doesn't exist. I waited four months to get approved for my new medication, and I felt idiotic when on the first day of treatment, I wasn't elevated to that mythic plane of sanity I hear so much about. You have to meet the meds halfway, perhaps three quarters of the way. And it's okay if you're halfway is just a step towards survival. It's okay if it takes you from catatonic to comfortably numb, or from hypomanic sex addiction to hypomanic apartment cleaning. Because in the end, it's just all about living.

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For more info or help with anything in this article please contact your local headspace office, or call Lifeline on 13 11 14