Lately, I’ve been thinking about the Pete Davidson bit on SNL (start at 2:28) that’s been making the rounds. Davidson talks about Kanye West and his own mental disorder.* There’s a line in there that I can’t get out of my head. He says, “No shame in the medicine game.”**
Davidson, as y’all may know, has been pretty open about his struggles with anxiety and depression as well as his diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. I, too, have struggled with with anxiety and depression.
However, my diagnosis of bipolar 2, however, came a year after his in 2018. I was 38 when I was diagnosed. He was 23. In my 20s, I was so afraid of being diagnosed with mental disorders that I absolutely refused to seek help. This was, in spite of the fact, that I had low periods that lasted for weeks and weeks, in which I wanted to stay on my couch and not interact with the outside world. I trudged to my graduate school classes anyway, completely overwhelmed by just sitting in seminar rooms much less the work. Despite the fact that my thoughts spiraled and that I went through periods of obsessively washing my hands because I was convinced that I couldn’t get rid of the germs—my hands raw, red, and cracked. Despite the fact that I sometimes sobbed until I couldn’t breathe while panic overtook me. Despite the fact that I knew, deep down, that I likely had an anxiety disorder and went through significant periods of depression.
I was so afraid of being diagnosed with mental disorders that I absolutely refused to seek help.
Why didn’t I get help? The stigma around mental illness kept me from admitting to myself that I was ill. I was afraid to speak the truth of what I experienced. I was ashamed that maybe I did need therapy and meds. Why couldn’t I power through on my own? And I did for awhile until I couldn’t. I knew something was wrong, but I kept that wrongness to myself.
So, when one of my sisters sent me a clip of the Davidson video, I found myself watching it over and over again. “No shame in the medicine game.” I repeated the words aloud as I watched the video. I said, “Take ’em” with him too. Both later swirled through my head.
No shame in the medicine game, I would think.
Take ’em, I would think.
As I took my meds each morning after I watched the video, I would say under my breath, “No shame. Take ’em.” Clearly, I am currently in the “medicine game,” and I have been for almost exactly four years. I started with a med for bipolar 2 disorder. My doctor added in a med for anxiety later and then another acute one. A month ago, my doctor and I agreed that my meds weren’t working, so she added in another med to counter depression that I just wouldn’t leave me be. Now, I’m okay with taking meds. I didn’t use to be.
Now, I’m okay with taking meds. I didn’t use to be.
When I first went to a psychiatrist to be evaluated for a mood disorder and about my severe depression, I felt weird when he wrote me a prescription. I knew I needed medication, but I also didn’t want to need it. I wanted to be able to manage on my own while I also knew I couldn’t. Riding out the wave of depression was no longer working because I was in a major depressive episode. The worst one I had ever experienced. The kind in which I wondered if everyone would be better off if I ceased to exist. I knew I needed something because things could not remain the same. But as I was leaving the psychiatrist’s office, I was conflicted about the prospect of taking meds the rest of my life. I didn’t want to, but I knew I would because I had to get well.
I was conflicted about the prospect of taking meds the rest of my life. I didn’t want to, but I knew I would because I had to get well.
Why didn’t I want to? There were lots of reasons, but one of the main ones was the stigma around taking meds for mental illness, and I couldn’t avoid it. People around me already talked about mental illness as if it was something to be ashamed of (especially bipolar), and they further noted that taking meds was for people who couldn’t just hack it. And I couldn’t hack it anymore. I felt ashamed, so ashamed.
When I went to my therapist the first time, I explained my hesitance about taking meds. They looked me dead in the eye and said, “If you had diabetes, you would take meds. Why is it any different for depression or anxiety?” Why is it, indeed. Their response stunned me. I hadn’t thought about it this way before.
My therapist continued that I had an illness that needed meds, so I should take them because I needed them. They also reminded me that these meds would save my life. They were correct. I was in a bad place. But, I wanted to live.
I started taking my meds and tried to work past the shame plaguing me. These meds don’t work immediately; it can take weeks and weeks before they kick in. Eventually, they did. The depression lifted slowly until one day, I realized I was smiling because I was happy not because I was faking. I felt good—better than I had in a long time. Not just weeks or months but years, maybe.
How could I explain to my kiddos that their mom is depressed and bipolar?
Every day, I took my meds in the morning. When my kids (then 9 and 4) finally noticed and asked me about my meds, I kind of panicked. I didn’t know what to say. How could I explain to my kiddos that their mom is depressed and bipolar?
My partner, however, knew exactly what to say. He explained when we are sick, we need medicine, and that Mom takes meds to make sure that her brain stays healthy. That was a enough of an explanation for them. But, it made me feel itchy and uncomfortable.
In that moment, I realized that I was still ashamed that I needed meds, even though I thought I was over this hang-up. So, I made the decision that I would stop being ashamed, and I would normalize taking meds. I would show my kids that sometimes we need extra help to make sure our brains stay healthy.
(I also normalized going to therapy. They both know that I have an appointment every two weeks, a phone call at 9:00 am on Friday. They routinely ask what my therapist and I talk about. I tell them when it is appropriate.)
I didn’t want my kids to grow up like I did, in which taking meds for mental illness was coded as “weakness” that that you should avoid. The folks who raised me maybe did this unintentionally. Maybe not. It’s hard to tell.
We all need to know taking meds for mental illness is normal.
My biodad had bipolar disorder 1, diagnosed much later in his life. He went through periods, in which he refused to take meds and derided their effectiveness. His approach to meds definitely influenced mine. It’s no surprise that I was initially ashamed of taking meds and I struggled not to be. Until, eventually, I wasn’t ashamed. For me, for my family, and for other folks. We all need to know taking meds for mental illness is normal because it is.
With each med my doctor added to make sure my brain stayed healthy, I still have to push past my knee-jerk reaction of shame. I remind myself that everyone needs help. Some of us need extra help, and THAT IS OKAY.
So back to Davidson, who is, of course, right. No shame in the medicine game. Take ’em if you need them. He does; I do. I will always need meds to manage my mental disorders. Right now, I take meds four times a day (because I need all of the anxiety meds apparently). I have a rainbow-colored pill case that tells me when to take them (and all the reminders because I forget without them). I also have another med that is break-in-case-of-emergency one to prevent panic attacks.
There’s no shame in me needing five medications to treat my mental illnesses and keep my brain healthy. None. No shame if you need medicine either.
Meds (and therapy) saved my life.
The way that shame and the stigma surrounding mental illness kept me from getting help. They were why I was reluctant to do what I needed to do to stay healthy. They are why I am so open about mental illness now on Twitter and in my day-to-day life. Taking meds for mental illness is normal and life-saving.
Meds (and therapy) saved my life. Let me repeat that: Meds (& therapy) saved my life. I wouldn’t be writing this post right now. I wouldn’t be here at all without both.
Y’all, for real, Davidson is so right that it hurts. No shame in the medicine game. Take ’em if you need them. I want y’all to know that. It took me so long to realize it. I hope it takes y’all less time.
Go ahead and say Davidson’s words with me, “No shame in the medicine game.”
There isn’t, there isn’t, there isn’t.
So, take ’em.
You won’t be alone because I am right there with you.
*Please note that I’m not getting into the weeds of the video. I am just not.