Teens and Medication
It is increasingly common for doctors to prescribe drugs to help teens cope with emotional distress and behavior problems. In these articles, two young writers discuss their different experiences with medication.
Mending the Mind and Body Divide
By Ashley Stewart, 19
During my first year of college, the question of taking anti-depressants evolved from a theoretical issue covered in magazines such as Time and Newsweek to a reality I had to face.
It all started when I arrived, suitcase and guitar in hand, for my first year at Sarah Lawrence College. The front lawn was swarming with purple-haired students sporting Bauhaus t-shirts and labret piercings. Aesthetically, it was everything I expected, as though the administration had yanked the one, weird “art kid” from every high school across the country and amassed them on one campus. I had dreams of discussing Descartes and Nietzsche over a frothy cappuccino.
But almost everyone was too concerned with skyrocketing to fame with their indie band or landing a bit part in some MTV movie to be bothered by academics. I was ready to buckle down – but nobody else was. The apathy permeated everything. Was I the only one who’d consider turning down an invitation to chug Colt 45s in the woods?
I ended up locking myself in my dorm room and living on black coffee and Chinese takeout. I was experiencing intense mood swings. One minute every object seemed to hold exciting promise, the next I felt utterly alone, cut off from everything. I ate and slept very little, dropping down to 95 pounds. I left my room only to go to class, even then walking with my head down to avoid meeting the eyes of anyone I might know.
I worked long nights in the library. I spent hours sobbing on the phone to my parents in California. I was desperate for some escape from the loneliness and from my own violent mood swings, but I was also determined to finish out the semester.
In the second semester, there was an abrupt shift in my energy level. I began to complete everything – even little tasks like making coffee – with fervor and a supreme kind of motivation and energy. I became a vacuuming maniac, almost coming to tears when my roommate let incense ash fall to the floor. My ideas flowed with the same unmatched intensity as my cleaning rituals.
Overwhelmed with the wonder of every living thing and the consciousness it contained, I started writing constantly. The physical world seemed different. Objects held more meaning and became more distinct. I felt invincible, breathless and overwhelmingly strong.
I hardly slept and still weighed barely 100 pounds. I bought things compulsively: clothes that I would wear once and throw away, two cases of vanilla-flavored protein shakes. It was like I had a continual, intravenous caffeine infusion. My patterns of thought were briskly paced, words tumbled out of my mouth, and I flitted from one subject to another like a stunned hummingbird.
This period, roughly from January to May of 2003, I now recognize as a manic episode. In the middle of May, after returning home to the Bay Area, my mood took another turn. I became weak, fatigued and often unable to get out of bed. I cried over everything, from spilling cereal on the kitchen floor to getting a “B” on an Anthropology exam. I sleepwalked around the house in my pajamas, barely talking to my parents. I couldn’t focus, not even on reading novels or poetry, and swallowed fistfuls of kava kava and valerian root in an effort to sleep off my depression.
Melancholy lingered in every nook of life, like snow collecting in the elbow of a tree. It all came to a head one night in the shower, when, dragging a razor across my forearm and seeing blood rise to the surface of my skin, I realized something needed to be done.
At my mother’s urging, I called our family doctor. She saw me immediately and issued me a written test, with questions about my family history as well as my current symptoms. She concluded that I was suffering from bipolar two disorder, a disease in which symptoms of mania and depression are present at the same time. On her recommendation, I started taking a new anti-psychotic called Zyprexa, a mood stabilizer.
The idea of taking medication has always been something I’ve struggled with. I firmly believe suffering is an intrinsic part of being human, something that everyone has to confront and find their own ways of coping with. Medication has always seemed like some sort of bogus escape hatch, a way around dealing with reality and the issues at hand.
But I soon came to realize that I needed something, anything, even if it was the dreaded blue pills, to pull me out of the slump I was in. I was not able to work, academically or otherwise. My particular brand of misery is not rational and cannot be treated as such.
When I started on the Zyprexa I was barely functional, often sleeping past noon and then padding around the house the rest of the day, spending aimless hours in front of the computer and refusing to answer the phone. There was no one I could bear to talk to. After two weeks my sleeping patterns became less erratic and I got a bit of my old energy back. I started taking bike rides again and had a renewed interest in writing and reading poetry.
I never thought I would be sitting here, praising medication. Believe me, I’d much rather go through some sweat-lodge healing ceremony in New Mexico than be on a steady dosage of Prozac. But medication has really helped me. I was born with a brain that happens to be a little erratic in the serotonin department, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy life. I’ve had to make peace with my body, and mend the mind and body divide.
© 2004 Wiretap. www.wiretapmag.org.
A Hard Pill to Swallow
By Gloria Williams, 18
When I was 5, I had to go to therapy. My therapist was cool. We would talk about Mommy and Daddy (who were not together). They became the main subject. That, and Mommy’s sickness.
I went to her for five years. Having her to talk to was a big relief.
Then I moved, and that meant a change of therapists. I didn’t want to start over, but part of me thought I should give the new therapist a chance. When I tried, though, I just couldn’t connect. She always seemed distant and uptight, not laid back and chill like my old therapist.
Then, every few weeks, she wouldn’t be there and I’d have to talk to some old geezer. He would just stare at me, then ask another question. He made me uncomfortable, but he still expected me to share my world with him (please). Sometimes I would talk, but other times I wouldn’t say a thing.
Time went on and it got worse in therapy and my life. I hated my foster parents and my sister was getting in trouble. Mommy got sicker and my father stopped coming by.
A lot of the time I would stay to myself. I would sit in my room and think about all the things I’d do if I were an adult and could do whatever I wanted.
My second therapist left and I got a new one, and then I got a few more. The more they changed, the more I hated therapy.
Then one of them decided I was depressed. She wanted me to go on medication. She said it would help me have a “normal” attitude toward things.
I was 12 and at that age I was like, “What the hell did I do?” I said I didn’t want to take it, but she told me it was mandatory. I felt like I had no rights at all.
The first drug they put me on was Wellbutrin. I took it once a day, and my foster mother would check my mouth every time to make sure I’d swallowed it.
I couldn’t sleep at night at all. Instead, I’d play with my toys or read my books. I would think, “I sure hope I don’t turn into a potato tonight.” I’d also get sick to my stomach almost every other day.
Then I felt my moods begin to change. I’d get hyper and then I’d feel low. I told my doctor. After about a year she took me off that drug and put me on some different ones.
She put me on Lithium and Prozac, which are stronger drugs. I remember my doctor saying it was going to help me “be OK.” I was used to being a good girl, so once again I thought, “OK, I’ll take it,” even though I didn’t want to.
For a little while of almost every day, I would be out of it like Alice down the rabbit hole. I would be low, just cut off from things. Then the roller coaster would go up and I’d be crazy, like I’d just drunk a million gallons of coffee and was going to the stars. I felt like I had two heads with different personalities.
Sometimes I really did feel happier. But when I was low, I felt so low I didn’t even have the energy to cry. Then I felt lost in an endless cycle of regret. My main regret was that I had ever opened up to anyone.
I saw my psychiatrist and told her I didn’t want to be on the medication. A few times they changed the dosage, but usually the psychiatrist just said I should keep taking them and they’d make me feel better.
By then my foster mother trusted me and didn’t check whether I was swallowing the pills nearly as much, so I began to hide them or throw them away any chance I got. That probably made the drugs do even weirder things to me. But at the time, I felt like no one was listening to my protests, so that was my only way.
I was on those drugs for almost two years. Then, about two years ago, they sent me to the residential treatment center where I live now. I was taken off all the medication that I’d been put on, and the doctor said it had been unnecessary to put me on them in the first place. He said that I didn’t act depressed.
I’ve been off medication for about a year and I don’t ever want to be on them again. I know that some kids are helped by medication, but I also believe that sometimes kids are put on them when they shouldn’t be, mainly because there just isn’t anyone who knows how to help them open up and deal with their problems emotionally.
After the experiences I’ve had with therapy and medication, I’m not sure I will ever really trust a therapist again. But I still say my first therapist was off the hook. She didn’t treat me like a lab animal. She was real and upfront and helped me out. She was an outlet for me. I believe that’s what I really needed.
© 2003 Youth Communication/N.Y. Center Inc. www.youthcomm.org
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