Tough Pills I Stopped Swallowing: Why I Quit Medicating My Mental Health

I think it’s important to start this article by stating that there is nothing wrong with medicating your mental health. If taking medications means that you are a better-functioning individual, that is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. The stigma surrounding mental health and receiving treatment for mental illness is passé. I am not against taking medications, and I am not ruling out future scenarios where I do decide to medicate my mental health again.

With that being said, my experience with Canada’s underfunded and overloaded mental health system has made me aware of how important educating yourself on treatment options are. When I was 17, I began receiving treatment for the symptoms of various forms of mental illness, while concurrently receiving treatment for traumatic brain injuries. Over the next two years, and at least half a dozen care providers, I received a plethora of different diagnoses. Some are probably accurate and others are categorically incoherent with my overall functioning.

With the diagnoses came the medications to treat the diagnoses. It got to a point where it felt like they were just throwing spaghetti at a wall and trying to see what sticks. At the age of 18, I was prescribed nine daily medications, four of them being controlled substances under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. When I would develop a higher tolerance, I would receive a prescription with a higher dose. For some of them, I was prescribed three times the daily recommended dose for a full-grown man. 

When I was hospitalized for a condition where I was unable to take the medications, I went into full withdrawal from them. With a resting heartbeat of 190 bpm, it became painfully apparent that my dependence was not only psychological but also physiological. I was unable to tell how the medications were making me any better, only that I was an addicted, zombified version of myself. I was on so many medications that it was impossible to tell which ones were causing side-effects and which ones were helping me. Some of the side effects were almost funny, like the sleep-eating and waking up covered in chocolate chips. But others, like memory loss, were much more insidious. I wish I was exaggerating when I say that I remember a generous 25% of my first year of university, but last year, I introduced myself to a girl who apparently lived directly next door to me in residence.

So over the following months, I worked my way down to three different medications. An anti-depressant, an anti-anxiety and a stimulant to treat my ADD. I was well-functioning in my schooling and in my personal life, and I kept with that treatment protocol for nearly a year. However, when a cardiologist suggested that the medications could be causing issues with my heart, I decided to try going without before switching to different medications.

That was nearly 18 months ago. I still take ADD medication on academically heavy days, because my brain is simply not built to handle three-hour exams. But, generally speaking, I’m raw-dogging it through life. There are points where it becomes clear that, oh yes, I most definitely do have mental illness. But I’m capable of doing what no one, not even myself, believed I was capable of doing three years ago: functioning. Heck, I’d even go so far as to say that I generally function well. I have non-pharmaceutical coping methods that allow me to have a flourishing social group and a rewarding academic experience.

I don’t think the doctors who prescribed me all the medications and who gave me a fat stack of diagnoses were intending to cause me greater harm, but I do believe that they were looking for the easiest ways to provide treatment, not the best ways. In a system where it’s so easy to just be a name that’s slotted into a 30-minute appointment, it’s incredibly important to critically analyze the treatment that you’re receiving. Shop around for doctors with who you can establish a good relationship with and, as much as Web Md gets a bad rep, it’s never a bad idea to do your own research about your symptoms and treatment.