ON MENTAL ILLNESS: The Despair That Fuels Noncompliance

By Jack Bragen
Saturday March 10, 2012 - 08:29:00 AM

Even when ill with a physical disease, most people without a mental illness take for granted the normal functioning of their physical bodies and their comfortable presence in their environment. Most people have no concept of living in the misshapen world created by medication side effects. Antipsychotic medication creates a continuous suffering that I will try to describe for you.  

It is something like having a severe hangover and at the same time going snorkeling. You lose the immediacy of your physical environment and have a constant awful feeling at the same time. Perhaps someone who has had a stroke or has brain damage from an episode of oxygen deprivation may experience something akin to this. The other thing about medication side effects is that it takes years for them to go away. They don't really go away at all-they become the new norm to which a person's consciousness becomes accustomed. Having taken antipsychotic medication for thirty years, I still experience a small amount of suffering due to medication side effects, and it is not as bad as it was in the first few years. 

(Additionally, antipsychotic medication in general causes muscle stiffness, weight gain, diabetes, and makes it difficult, if not impossible for many people to concentrate well enough to read a book. Before becoming medicated, I read a couple of books every week; now I'm lucky if I can get all the way through a book.) 

With those things said, it could be no wonder that most people with schizophrenia would rather not take medication. I have not yet covered the "meaning" part of taking medication, however. 

If you must take medication to make your brain function properly, it "means something" about you. It means that part of your brain is "defective." This can be a difficult idea to swallow, especially if, in that person's past, they demonstrated high intelligence. It can take a lot of emotional work to come to terms with having a "defective" brain. The fact of having schizophrenia does not do anything to make a person oblivious to this quandary. You can't say that we're no better than animals and that we shouldn't care about having such a defect. Such a concept of mentally ill people is not accurate. 

What finally worked for me, to accept the need for medication, was the Buddhist idea of not identifying. Thus, on an ego level, I do not identify with the concept of my brain, and so my self concept can accommodate having a brain defect. This is an accomplishment that is beyond what most American adults are able to do. 

Above, I have described the painful circumstances brought about by taking psychiatric medication and the hard fought solutions I have arrived at, at age 47. It has taken a number of years to adapt to having schizophrenia. Beforehand, the thought of being medicated for the rest of my life brought me despair. When taking psychiatric medication, there is more than a bitter pill to swallow.