Though I don’t know why I chose to smoke sess
I guess that’s the time when I’m not depressed
But I’m still depressed and I ask what’s it worth?
– Inspectah Deck
I take a drug called Lithium. Yes, that same one Kurt Cobain took. I’ve been prescribed the drug for about four years, but after the first year was through, I secretly stopped taking it for two straight years. I did this because I thought I didn’t need the drug, because I was concerned about side effects, and because I wondered whether the drug was really doing anything. Nothing seemed different those two years, but after coming clean with my psychiatrist I realized that the benefits in the above reasons didn’t seem to me like they outweighed the risks anymore.
So I’ve been taking Lithium diligently for a year, but the part of me that wonders whether I’d be fine (or better) without it has not gone away. It’s the same part of me that thinks I can now handle the same psychotropic drugs that ignited my mania five years ago. When it comes to alcohol, this part of me believes firmly that I’m just as capable of handling my liquor as my peers here in college – after all, it hasn’t been a problem yet. To sum up all of this cognitive dissonance in a question, what is the right balance of medical and – for lack of a better word – recreational drugs for me to be my healthiest? I’ll start with the medical side.
Lithium is an old drug, and along with some others (Haldol, Thorazine) used to be taken only by those committed to a mental institution (think 12 Monkeys or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). I was first prescribed it in a hospital, but there are many people who never enter a hospital for mental reasons who have been taking Lithium for years.
The reason that uncommitted, regular citizens are now taking lithium and other once super-serious drugs is that there has been change in society’s relationship to psychiatric drugs in the last forty years. These drugs are now far more commonplace. This also means they are more abused. While I wasn’t a witness to this change, it is chronicled in Charles Barber’s Comfortably Numb: How Psychiatry is Medicating a Nation.
What changed? First, Valium was released to the public in 1963 as an anti-anxiety drug, and became massively popular with regular people. “Mother’s Little Helper,” as the Rolling Stones called it, was the first psychiatric drug that no one would shun you for taking. Valium’s success paved the way for Prozac’s even greater success as an antidepressant when it was released in 1988. This led to waves of celebrities and then everyday individuals admitting to mental conditions and signing up for prescriptions to cure themselves. The 90s saw the U.S. become the Prozac Nation, with that drug opening the floodgates for countless others, with new brands of drugs still being produced. This has been great for the pharmaceutical industry, as they received lifetime subscribers for many new medications – helpful, harmful or unnecessary.
Of course, we’ve been curing ourselves of mental ailments with recreational drugs for ages. The effects are temporary, hence the quote above. While many turn to drugs to escape from the grind of life, those who use it to combat chronic mental conditions often end up worse. You can see Kurt again for this. One could argue that people with addiction problems have an underlying mental illness, but this would be speculation. What I’d rather like to know is whether those with mental illness have to live in fear of consuming even small amounts of alcohol and caffeine.
I hope you’ll forgive me if I make a sharp turn towards an answer to my question – that of finding a balance between drugs (psychiatric and recreational) for myself. The history of recreational drugs is ancient and not as simple to look at as the history of psychiatric drugs (I’d still like to discuss these drugs more, somewhere in this column). Unfortunately, the quantity of recreational drugs I’ve decided to use may lead me down a narrow path. I won’t make any promises here that I’ll never consume alcohol, caffeine or sugar again, but all of these things I strive to avoid. The things not in that list I won’t go back to, or ever try. Again, this is the balance that I find for myself.
I’ll continue taking Lithium, because I hope that it is beneficial. Studies have shown that Lithium keeps people healthy and productive, but there are other variables involved (career, exercise, diet, friends, family, environment, etc.) which complicate these results. I believe that working on those things in the parenthesis will give you better results than any pill. It’s just like trying to achieve physical health through pills – you’ll never see the same results as eating fresh whole foods (which is actually impossible in this country, but that’s another story).
So what am I getting at? One day I’d like to stop taking Lithium. I see it as the ideal balance, no drugs of any kind. That day is not today. If that day comes, it’ll be the day when I am no longer an amteur with regards to my mental health. When I no longer allow myself to feel the pull to drink or smoke with friends. Careers, financial responsibility, physical health, a family – these and more (when or if they come into my life) will be indicators that the day is approaching. But the actual fact that the day has arrived will be when (or if) I shift my personality. This is the territory of psychology, something often underplayed and stereotyped in the realm of mental health. Next week, I hope to talk more about balance, but looking at it from that softer side.
PAUL BEREZOVSKY can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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