What happens when you stop taking prescribed medication?

When battling mental illness it is just as important to take your prescribed medication as it is with any physical illness.

Every couple of months I have a period when I stop taking my medication – I either think I am well enough to function without it or I decide I want to be like a “normal”, healthy person. Sometimes I just forget, even though taking my medication is the first thing I do when I get up in the morning.

I am not proud of this, nor am I condoning this – this behaviour is self-destructive.

So, what happens?

1: The decision to not take the medication initially invokes guilt – going against medical advice and potentially lying to people about taking it.

2: Things feel okay, good even. I think to myself, “I haven’t taken my medication for the past couple of days and I feel fine. Maybe I don’t need it.”

3: Something sets off a trigger which results in a depressive, or “low” state. The process leading to this low can either be instantaneous or drawn out.

4: Hysteric crying for seemingly no reason. If I am with people I need to get out. I need to take my medication as soon as possible and calm myself down.

Why do I do this to myself?

There are various contributing factors to why I sometimes don’t take my medication, such as:

  • wanting to be like “normal people” who function without medication.
  • forgetting to take it one morning, feeling okay and ‘deducing’ that one good day means no more medication ever.
  • certain side-effects (e.g. low sex drive) are difficult to deal with, particularly if there’s a partner involved.
  •  medication to reduce your extreme lows can also reduce your extreme highs – as a result I feel neutral towards most things.
  • I just don’t want to.

How my friends and family see it:

I asked some of my friends and family for an idea of what it’s like when I don’t take my medication.

“The first thing that happens is you get snappy with other people. Then you seem to get very defensive. You then with draw into yourself.”

“I wasn’t confused but I didn’t think it would hit you so hard. It wasn’t until we were almost at home that I noticed you started walking a bit faster and I realised you were going to start crying. The walk home you seemed okay. But I know that even though you were quiet all the thoughts were rushing through your mind until they built up too much.”

And finally from my sister, who thoughtfully wrote me a whole essay:

“There is nothing in the world more upsetting then seeing your loved ones in pain. This became my family’s reality when my older sister began to struggle with clinical depression and anxiety in her teenage years. At first we thought it could have been just a tough time in her life, but we soon grew to realise that she was having troubles focusing, leaving the house, getting out of bed and struggling to cope everyday tasks. This led to her not being able to see her friends as much from her severe social anxiety as well. She would have a panic attacks when people would come over to see her, or at birthday parties or any social gathering. She began to hate herself and become consumed with her thoughts and began to push people she loved away as she felt she was not worth of being loved. After a while she was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety and placed on antidepressants. Although this medication worked well for my sister by balancing her hormones and numbing her pain, they had to continue upping her dosage to what she is on now. She now finds it difficult to feel strong emotions; she usually just experiences feeling numb. We all have neutral feelings… for example sitting at home watching a movie, I feel neither ecstatic nor unhappy just a neutral/ happy medium feeling. My sister is only able to achieve this ‘happy medium’ with her medication.

“The most memorable and painful thoughts that pop in to my mind about my sister’s depression have been from when she has decided or forgotten to take her medication for small period of time. It causes her to become mentally self-destructive and stop caring about her own health and well-being. She also becomes extremely anxious of the world around her and social situations. I remember coming home one day from school knowing she wasn’t happy and within the six hours of being at school something inside her had snapped and I found her sitting on the shower floor, bawling her eyes out for no particular reason with the shower on running cold. She was absolutely white and I thought she was going to seriously hurt herself. This could have easily been the most horrifying moment of my life. I pulled her out of the shower and dried her off. And that was when I realised she hadn’t taken her medication. That is the effect depression has on people. It becomes their life and makes them destructive so when placed on medication life gets easier… until it’s forgotten or not taken.

“I have experienced and helped my sister through countless panic attacks and episodes of depression, and I know just how much it affects her. When she forgets to take her medication she also becomes unbelievably anxious around people and anything happening at that point in time. I had a friend over not long ago and was making dinner. I heard a noise coming from my sister’s room so I walked in and saw her sitting next to her bed on the floor having troubles breathing and scraping a pen over a piece of paper repeatedly in a destructive pattern – she just had a panic attack. She said it was all her fault and that she was useless and worthless, and explained she just started to panic over someone else being in the house, even with prior warning. I made her take her medication and within a day or so, she was okay.

“It is easy to try to pretend that everything is okay and normal. But the reality is that it is not. Mental illness is real. It is a huge problem and it affects millions of people in the world, my sister included. She needs to take her medication daily and I remind her to do so because it is horrifying to watch her break down and feel worthless. She is strong, brave and a kind person. But depression and anxiety bring out vulnerability of people, and it is truly terrifying when it is not dealt with, it is a serious medical illness. It kills and it needs to be taken seriously.”

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