ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Is Antipsychotic Medication a "Chemical Straitjacket"?

Jack Bragen
Thursday August 18, 2016 - 08:30:00 PM

Author's Note: Just to remind the reader that this column is an opinion column only, and does not represent expert advice. It is up to the reader to judge whether the material presented is useful or not. The author does not assume any liability for mishaps attributed to reading this column. 

Being heavily medicated on antipsychotics can feel like being in a chemical straitjacket. Having been on these medications since the early 1980's, this feeling has become part of "normal" for me. However, I still sometimes notice side effects even after taking antipsychotics for more than thirty years.  

I have been fortunate that I haven't so far acquired Tardive Dyskinesia, which is a syndrome of tongue, mouth, face, and upper body movements-- which are involuntary and uncontrollable. Tardive Dyskinesia is often irreversible, even upon discontinuing medication. The chance of getting this is a risk for anyone who takes drugs in this class.  

However, the sensation of being medicated still feels physically like being constricted and restrained. Sometimes I get what is termed, "motor restlessness" in which it is hard to sit still. There are a number of other side effects as well.  

Because I have been taking these medications for nearly all of my adult life, I am past the temptation to try going off medication for purposes of relief from these side effects. On an emotional level, I am in complete acceptance that this is part of my life; and life isn't always comfortable.  

Meditation practices are sometimes harder for someone who is medicated versus someone who isn't, but they can still be done if one compensates with extra focus and extra effort. Reading can be harder while on medication. However, I have pushed past this difficulty as well, via extra effort, which, by now, I don't even notice most of the time. Medication, at least in my case, hasn't hindered the ability to try.  

Body movement is harder while on medication. Exercise for most non-afflicted people is a great release of tension. However, if on antipsychotic medication, a wall of restriction makes it a lot harder to accomplish physical activity. The continuous physical discomfort and mental restriction is a significant factor in widespread noncompliance among people with schizophrenia. Antipsychotic medication sometimes also induces depression.  

Why, you might ask, would anyone take these medications if they are so bad? The answer: the alternative is much worse.  

To begin with, if you want to go medication noncompliant, you are very much on your own; the mental health treatment system will not support you in that. Secondly, and more importantly, there is the factor of untreated mental illness.  

If you are a multimillionaire, you might have the option of exploring alternative treatments that might work and might not. Schizophrenia and bipolar are believed to have medical causes; and because of this, the treatments given involve drug therapy.  

I have heard of widely famous movie stars as well as other well-known people who have been forced to conclude that their psychiatric conditions require treatment. These are individuals in a position to seek any doctor or any alternative treatments available regardless of the cost. (I won't name names due to the issue of liability.) 

Untreated mental illness is hell. 

If you go a few years on medication without relapsing, the memory might fade of how bad it was to have a psychotic, manic, or depressive episode. You might believe you could get through another episode, get to "the other side", and cure yourself through some type of purification. This is likely to be a grave mistake.  

When I was eighteen and had been recently diagnosed, I did just that. I became medication noncompliant, I worked full-time as a janitor, and I moved out of my parents' house. However, the illness caught up with me a year later. In successive episodes of noncompliance, it didn't take nearly as long for me to relapse upon quitting medication.  

Having fully-blown psychosis is nothing to trifle with. It can create grave danger, legal liability, and long term damage to one's level of function. It can be a terrifying and incredibly painful experience.  

Is it worth it to try going off medication against medical advice? In the vast majority of cases, apparently it is not. If you look at me, for example, I have an above average I.Q., and I have at my disposal tremendous cognitive techniques that help the condition of my mind. However, I know that if I went off medication now, I would lose everything. Not only would my living situation fall apart, but also, another psychotic episode would cause me, in the aftermath (which would include returning to the hospital and subsequently recovering, again), to lose functioning--that I am now likely to be too old to restore.  

Is antipsychotic medication a chemical straitjacket? Sometimes it can feel that way, however, a person can work around it, and furthermore, there is no acceptable alternative.  


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