I’m Done Hiding the Fact that I Take Medications for My Mental Illness

Photo of multiple prescription medication bottles. One bottle is on its side with white pills spilling out.

At my first rights-oriented mental health conference, I was unsure whether or not I would be accepted.

Wait, what? you may ask.

Bear with me. You see, I’m a survivor of overmedication.

Wait, is this going to be one of those anti-medication blog posts that invalidates my experiences as a person who benefits from Prozac? you may ask.

No, bear with me. You see, I was carrying a covert bottle of my current Lamictal prescription in my pocket.

Wait, is this going to be one of those meds-work-for-everyone blog posts that invalidates my experiences as a person who was traumatized by forced medication? you may ask.

No, bear with me.

As someone diagnosed with mental illness, I often feel expected to choose between two constantly warring sides. One the one side, there are those willing to call out “Big Pharma” for its sins: foster children overprescribed powerful drugs, the people caught in a cycle of agonizing withdrawal and disbelieved by their doctors. On the other side, are the “stigma busters:” the people ostracized for taking their meds, the people told their very real challenges are simply weakness.

I refuse to choose. You see, I hold space for the reality of both of these experiences. I believe both, and I have lived both.

Which brings me back to the conference. I was there hoping to connect with others who, like me, had felt ignored by doctors, whose PTSD was not just a product of childhood abuse, but also blurry memories of nights at the ER with agonizing medication-induced abdominal pain. Yet, I was also there with a secret bottle of Lamictal, tapping against my thigh as I walked.

I ducked into a bathroom stall, pulled out two pills and swallowed them down without water. My shameful deed complete, I scurried back to the next session, an introductory discussion for newcomers.

We sat in a circle. I was afraid. Presenters spoke movingly about their traumas inside institutions and their skepticism regarding the quality of long-term research on psychiatric drugs. How to explain myself, as a woman who still had nightmares about the residential facility where I spent two years and the psychiatrist who medicated me as she saw fit, regardless of my preferences. How to explain myself as both that woman, and as the woman with secret Lamictal in my pocket.

There was a pause. I took a deep breath, and out of my mouth fell,

“I just took my Lamictal in a bathroom stall. I don’t know if I belong here. Look, here’s the thing. I take medication, no one medicates me anymore. I’m in charge.”

A smile spread across the face of the presenter. “You don’t have to take your Lamictal in a bathroom stall. We don’t care if you take Lamictal; we just don’t want anyone to force you to take Lamictal.”

“Oh,” I replied. “Then I think I’m home.”

When it comes to psychiatric disabilities, we too often fight with each other. “Those people are killing me by trying to get me to stop taking the medication I find helpful,” or “those people are killing me by trying to get me to take the medication that I find harmful.”

But here’s the thing: any frame that requires us to deny the stated experiences of half of us is the wrong frame. If our focus is on drugs—their goodness or their badness—then both sides are doomed to lose and be forever in conflict. Drugs are neither good nor bad. Instead, it is our varied and individual relationships with drugs that matter.

Our focus, instead, must be on people. People have human rights, and among those rights is informed consent. Informed consent is made up of two distinct and equally important words:

“Informed” means good data. It means holding “Big Pharma” accountable for ethical marketing and research. It means thorough, straightforward information from doctors about the risks and benefits of drugs, and also an honest assessment of what is unknown. It also means support and information about how to withdraw.

“Consent” means it’s up to me. It means I get to decide what risks I take, whether or not my doctor agrees. It means being able to withdraw consent at any time, which means the right to withdraw from any drug at any time.

“Informed consent” thus means doctors are advisors, not authority figures. It means my body my choice. It means a framework that provides me with both the tools and jurisdiction to make decisions. It means I am a human being.

With this more appropriate frame, those who choose medication and those who refuse it are allies. By focusing on the innate rights of people instead of the innate qualities of drugs, we can lift one another up instead of tearing each other down.

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Katharine Celentano is an advocate and writer working at the intersection of harm reduction, mental health, and disability rights. She currently serves as Policy Coordinator at Drug Policy Alliance and on the board of directors for the Columbia University Alumni Association. She takes "noncompliant" as a compliment, thank you. Follow Katharine on Twitter @kcelentano.