Medications, Part Two: The Dark Side (Effects)

A few weeks ago I talked about medications and the stigma behind taking medications to help ease the burden of certain mental health problems, but there’s another side to medicating that has the opposite problem; there’s really no stigma surrounding medications for almost any other malady, but those medications can have some really nasty side effects on your mental health.

When I moved down to the US from Canada I was warned by a close friend that doctors in the states are, in her experience, very eager to prescribe a pill and forget about the whole thing. She described medical treatment in the states as more of a band-aid approach to health problems instead of an actual curative approach like the treatment she’d received in Canada since moving a few years previous.

This made me really nervous, especially when it came to my mental health. I used to work in a medical office, and between my few anatomy classes in university and various CPR and first aid courses I’ve taken I am able to research medications and minor ailments that come up (Sprained ankle? Rest Ice Compression Elevation – RICE). Mental health, though, is a totally different ball game and my research on medications has never been able to give me the answer to a question I ask quite frequently: What are the possible or probable side effects of this medication on my mental health?

When I was tying up our lives in Calgary in preparation to relocate to a different country, I asked my doctor to prescribe me a whole year of birth control pills. I wasn’t sure what my situation would be in the US as far as cost to see a doctor and get a prescription, plus I know that medications are usually way more expensive down here. He offered up one specific brand that I’d never been on, but it was similar enough to others I had tried before that I didn’t give it a second thought.

I started taking them, we drove for four days and eventually got settled in our new home and our new life. My husband started settling into his new job, which meant 6 days of not seeing him and then having him back home for 3. At first those six day shifts were really hard, but I was prepared for that. I knew it was coming and had prepared as much as I could have. Eventually he was moved up to 14 days on with 7 days off, and soon I started noticing that days 2 through 4 were the hardest on me, and those were my worst days. I wouldn’t get out of bed, I was lethargic and either overeating or not eating at all, things were not okay.

I blamed everything I was feeling on my husband being away. “I just miss him,” I’d tell my parents when they’d call. Things got marginally better after a few of these shifts but I never really felt ‘okay’ – I just accepted that this was how I was now.

I actually went off my birth control pills because of the painful cystic acne it was causing. I’ve had problems with acne ever since my pre-teen years, but this was particularly bad and nothing was helping. In hindsight I’m glad it was such a problem though, because it made me read the fine print of the birth control pamphlet in great detail.

Would you care to guess what showed up on the common side effects?

Depression, anxiety, and mood swings. Accompanied, of course by the usual host of problems – weight gain, acne, nausea and headaches.

The pamphlet for Lolo.
Only about 30% of it is instructions on proper use.

Naturally, I stopped taking the pills and found another method of birth control. What’s the point of taking birth control if it leaves you feeling so depressed and broken that there’s no longer a need for contraceptives in the first place?

All of my other problems eventually subsided, including the migraines and the acne, but it was surprisingly validating when my anxiety and depression got measurably better the longer I was off the medication. It took a few months to finally be rid of it, but my days are generally on the mend. While I’m still coping with feelings of anxiety and melancholy regularly, I feel a lot more capable of bringing myself out of that place.

Not all medications are created equal, and even the Lolo manufacturer treats the physically visible side effects as “major” side effects while bundling the damaging mental health side effects in with the less harmful ones, like nausea and menstrual cramps.

I guess the stigma surrounding mental health and its medications is even present in the manufacturers of the very pills that are stigmatized against.

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Medications

I had a close friend of mine ask me the other day about what I take for my anxiety, and I was so happy that she felt comfortable enough to ask me this question because there’s a very obvious social stigma around medicating for anything relating to mental health. She’s been dealing with some anxiety issues in the last few weeks herself and she wanted my opinion on medications before she took the plunge.

Conversations about mental health are becoming more commonplace but in my experience it’s still not easy to discuss the medications as openly, and I have to admit that there’s a little part of me that was ashamed to admit to my friend that I’m proud to have not medicated with my anti-depressants in almost a year. Let me clarify – I’m not ashamed that I took them or that I needed them, I just don’t like how proud I am that I’ve been off them for that long, because nothing changed in my brain’s chemistry and I do feel like going back on them would benefit me.

I have been struggling without my anti-depressants, especially with all the changes I’ve faced lately and I’m not off my meds simply because I don’t need them anymore. I haven’t developed coping techniques that out-perform my meds, and nothing I’ve done has earned that sense of pride I feel.

I told my friend that I’m not on anti-depressants anymore, but I did tell her that I have lorazepam tablets as an emergency backup medication. It’s like an inhaler for anxiety; you feel like you’re spiralling? Nothing else is working? Take a tablet and have a nap. It’s an easy out in the event of a panic attack, but that ease of use can be very addictive. It would be so much easier to simply pop a pill instead of doing yoga, breathing exercises and meditation, after all, who doesn’t like pushing their inner demons into the back of their closet like an old pair of shoes?

The simple fact is that I fall prey to the stigma about medications. I would rather rely on my own behaviour to feel better than be on medication for the rest of my life. I want to deal with my demons even if they never go away fully, but at least my closet will be cleaner.

Medications also aren’t cheap in the US, and unlike Canada where I can walk into my MD’s office and say the magic words (“I need a refill”) I would have to pay around $200 to have a conversation with a doctor I’ve never met, and he/she will be a lot more likely to try and get me on some ridiculously high dose of a medication that is way too powerful for what my anxiety and depression require, not to mention that prescription could run me another couple hundred bucks if it’s not covered by my health insurance.

The other side of the medication argument is the more herbal remedy.

I’ve heard very different opinions on marijuana as a treatment for anxiety and depression, but I always thought I would give it a try if my medications were ever not an option. And, well, now they’re not. But of course, the day marijuana became something I could try without going through bureaucratic red tape came two days late. We left for Texas on October 15 and marijuana was legalized October 17.

Not all is lost, though, because down here I’ve noticed that CBD oil is offered almost everywhere I look. Not only is it offered as a medication (for a fee, of course – approximately $32,500 annually for use 2 times daily) but even massage parlours are offering it as an essential oil substitute, and CBD body butter is available for purchase and certain grassroots shops. Some bakeries are even offering “special” brownies and other baked goods.

I should clarify that unlike marijuana (in whatever form) CBD does not contain any THC – the component of marijuana that gets you high and alters your state of mind. The CBD oil simply offers the medicinal benefits but would be about as ‘fun’ as taking Tylenol instead of Percocet at a house party.

All of that in mind, I am thinking of trying out CBD oil next week. I have planned a surprise trip to Austin for my hubby when he gets home, and on our itinerary there is an ice cream shop that offers boozy ice cream – and their newest addition is a CBD oil-infused red velvet ice cream with cream cheese swirls. Besides sounding like my kinda ice cream flavor, I’m very curious to try out the CBD oil in a sweet treat to see if it helps my anxiety at all, especially if I’m sleeping in an unfamiliar place because for me, that’s the true test.

I will report back and let you know how the CBD oil worked out for me.

I said in my last post that I would report back on that anxiety and purpose app – unfortunately it was a paid app and I am not about that. The first week was a free trial, but most of the first week was diagnosing and getting a read on your current state of mind, after which you pay $5 a month to continue “finding your path” so I deleted the app almost instantly.