Yes, I take medication for my 'mental illness' – but there's nothing wrong with my spirit

By admin
16 October 2016

A third of South Africans have a mental disease – 75 percent of them will never get any help, and I am one of the lucky ones. October is awareness month for mental health for this reason.

Cellophane, cotton wool, head immersed in water. Have you ever gone through the day feeling as if you’re covered in some of these?

Then, like me, you might be taking psychiatric medication.

You’re aware of cracks in your mental state; that your heart could explode like an egg in a microwave oven. But the chemicals in your blood and brain are keeping everything together even though you’re feeling nauseous and giddy most of the day.

I’m psychologically unwell – mentally ill – as people refer to it. But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with my spirit. To the contrary – it’s very robust, because I remain hopeful.

Luckily for me, it started sparking brightly the moment I was put on the right medication. With optimism you can survive even if the side effects of the medication often are unbearable.

At night and in the first few hours after getting up in the morning my mouth is so dry my tongue feels like sandpaper against my palate. I always need at least a litre of water close by or it’s almost impossible to talk.

And for a journalist who has to conduct interviews this is one of the biggest nightmares. Recently I had to give a lecture in trauma reporting and it got so bad I had to cut short the class as quickly as I could.

I also have an insatiable craving for bread, pasta, pies, potato crisps. It’s even worse than my smoking habit which has resumed after more than 10 years of quitting. Doctors call it “self medication” and “comfort eating”.

The smoking helps to settle the tremors wracking my body. I stuff my cheeks so much that I look like a hamster – that makes me feel good...

Read more: What it’s like to love someone who has bipolar disorder

After an absence of three months I’ve returned to the gym but my smoker’s lungs and poor fitness have sapped my energy after just 10 minutes on the running machine.

But I will stop smoking again when the time is right. For the moment it’s my comfort blanket. And then I will also again get fit by climbing Table Mountain and the Twelve Apostles.

But first my medication has to restore the balance in my brain. It can take between three and six weeks, the psychiatrist has warned.

I’m using antidepressants of a strength of 75 mg and 100 mg anti-psychotic, and 25 mg of it in the morning.

The side effects are severe sometimes, but I know if I didn’t take this I’d probably not be able to sit here writing this. It’s keeping me alive.

More than 1 million people in South Africa live with depression, drug abuse, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, statistics of the Mental Health Federation of South Africa show.

Between 70 and 90 percent of psychiatric patients’ symptoms clear up significantly and their quality of life becomes improved with a combination of medication, psychosocial treatment and support.

I’m sitting here in my office seven floors above ground. Behind me the view of the harbour has disappeared in recent months with a new building rising ever higher. A loss of vision?

Read more: ‘We can also be happy if we’re just given a chance’: Pretoria man with bipolar disorder shares his story

I’ve been a journalist since 1999. I’m 43 now. As crime reporter in the early years panic attacks and in time anxiety disorder nearly cost me my job.

Fortunately I quickly saw a psychiatrist. The medication prescribed for me helped me for a while, but I started abusing sleeping medication and tranquillisers and became addicted to them. It took six psychiatrists and three psychologists to get me the right treatment and medication.

And here I am still. Each day, surrounded by millennials who are multimedia skilled and have to teach this old dog new tricks, I have to prove myself. That I still belong here; can make a contribution. My mind might have faltered, but I am not broken. The medication is the glue that keeps me together at this stage.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Sometimes people treat you as if you’re stupid or a little slow. Laugh it off. They’re just demonstrating their ignorance.

Sometimes it feels as if the young people working with you lose respect for you when they find out you’re on treatment. Remind yourself all the time that your life experience aren’t something you could’ve acquired at a university or college. Maybe they’re able to create a YouTube channel or their own app but do they have advice for people going through a tough time?

People take medication for high blood pressure, cholesterol, heart conditions . . . these pills aren’t fun to take, but depression could be the cancer of the soul. And just like you can die of cancer left untreated you can die of depression due to suicide.

Read more: A mom’s story: I regret keeping my baby

People refer to us as the “Prozac Nation”. I regard us as fighters in the daily battle against diseases of the mind. Respect us for that. Give us a chance.

And to all who are part of my “tribe”: I am here for you.

Let’s hold our heads high, take a deep breath and embrace life.

Here’s help

Living with someone who has a mental health condition can be challenging. So says Dr Ajesh Janki, psychiatrist at Akeso Clinic in Umhlanga, who provides the following answers to frequently asked questions to help people with mentally ill family members cope with this often challenging situation.

Q: What do I do if my loved one is refusing help?

A: Try to understand their reasons and to reassure them about their concerns. Remind them that an assessment is not necessarily a commitment to taking treatment or being hospitalised. Remind them that treatment does not necessarily involve taking medication and that there are psychological therapies as well.

In severe cases where there is a lack of insight or the person poses a danger to themselves or others, involuntary admission might be necessary. This involves a legal process of compelling a person to be admitted to hospital despite their unwillingness to consent. This is usually done in the interests of someone's health or safety or for the protection of others.

Q:  How do I deal with difficult behaviour?

A:  It is helpful to anticipate potential problems and devise plans to reduce the risk of commonly encountered behaviours such as drug or alcohol misuse, threats of acts of aggression or threats or acts of self-harm. Verbal or written agreements on what is appropriate can be helpful.

Harm minimisation strategies are sometimes preferable, for example, it might be better to agree on drinking small amounts of alcohol at home as opposed to someone going out and binge drinking.

Self-harming behaviour can be particularly problematic. Learn to identify triggers to this behaviour and strategies that might help reduce it. Likewise dementia presents specific problems like shouting, wandering, and fire risks from leaving the stove on due to memory disorders and from the side effects of medication.  Try to monitor for these risks and make practical adjustments where possible, for example disconnecting the stove, monitoring exits by means of cameras. If appropriate, consider the services of a care agency or in extreme circumstances, an individual might best be placed in a home.

Q: What do I do if someone is suicidal?

A: Try to establish how the person is feeling and what is contributing to their feelings of desperation. Offer assistance within your means and remember that you are not a therapist or psychiatrist.  There are many support groups that might be of assistance. These are listed at the end of this article.

Seek an urgent appointment with a mental health professional and if this is not possible, take the person to the casualty department for an assessment and if necessary, an emergency admission to hospital.

For help, contact:

Akeso Psychiatric Clinic

South African Depression and Anxiety Group

South African Society of Psychiatrists

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