Monthly Archives: June 2008

An overmedicated nation?

Dr. Charles Barber, a lecturer in psychiatry at the School of Medicine, Yale University believes Americans are an overmedicated nation. With prescription medicines advertised on Television, there has been a demand created for powerful anti-depressant drugs, which might not be needed and could be better served by the utilization of cognitive therapy before the immediate reliance on drug therapy. This cultural change -only the United States and New Zealand allow televised advertisement of prescription drugs, in all other countries it is illegal -is assisted by our system of managed care, which has made it more difficult to see therapists for mental health problems and to get talk therapy. This too results in the prevalent prescription of antidepressants.

I have no arguement with Dr. Barber on his description of America as an overmedicated society. I would argue that there needs to be one word added to the phrase. We are an over self-medicated society.  And the addition of this one word opens up a whole range of criticisms about the overmedicated society and the cognitive therapy alternative. 

Americans seek self medication through alcohol and drugs, and they have for a long time. I dispute the commonly held theory behind the 12-step programs that chemical dependency is an question of low tolerance, an allergy if you will to chemical substances, and can be cured by  abstinance and cognitive therapy.  The success rate of these programs is only 33% or so I am told. I would imagine that a great deal of what motivates people to drink or drug is depression, and that is generally not cured by sobriety. It may be cured by cognative therapy, but that is not my experience.

I was a drug addict. I was hung up on marijuana and crack cocaine. For years I went to psychologists and psychiatrists trying to cure my periods of severe depression. Nothing worked, but drugs mitigated the effects of my disease. Indeed they made it better for a while and then made it worse. All the talking I did; all the journaling I did; all the personal self discovery I did; did nothing.  I went to drug rehab and relapsed. The more I followed the 12 steps, the more I wanted to use. Not until I reached my end point where I decided to commit suicide did I get the help I needed. 

This was not the end where I had reached a bottom that would make me embrace the 12 Steps of AA, but the bottom where I final received the help I needed as a person severely afflicted with Bipolar Disorder. Once I recieved the proper medication my desire for illegal drugs went away. I have never used them since. It has been more than five years now. 

I wonder what my life would have been if there had been the ads on TV 20 years ago for ABILIFY as I struggled in vain to free myself from the devils that plagued me.  But 20 years ago not many people knew much about Bipolar Disorder.  They were just ready to sell you some gin, rum, or whiskey to cool you out after a rough day.  Your analyst was always available at some outrageous sum per hour to talk to you about your problems. I always felt better for about an hour after I went for a talk.

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The Gift of Bipolar Disorder

Art Dockument

I have the gift of Bipolar Disorder; so it is believed did Leonardo DaVinci and Van Gogh, my mentors as artists and writers. For more than most of my life time, 20 years to be exact,  I didn’t know I had the illness, and just thought I was different from other people. I was crazy, wild, and had periods of severe depression,  where I went into my studio and hid in bed for days on end.  Most people did not know I was sick. They just saw me as erratic and difficult to get along with.

Often I felt life was not worth living. Like William Styron, who in his memoir of depression DARKNESS VISIBLE quotes Camus saying, “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental problem of Philosophy,” I was constantly asking myself that question. Twice I found myself answering that life wasn’t worth it and attempted suicide. Once in college I ingested 150 aspirin tablets and a bottle of scotch, but survived. I spent a month or more on the mental ward of a large hospital. I didn’t learn much except if you want to get out of the hospital, learn to play sane. Once when much older and it appeared that my life had completely failed.  (My life as an artist had gone nowhere. My career as an architect was a dismal failure. My writing was blocked.)  I attempted to jump off a bridge. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t put other people’s lives at risk in order to end my own.

I was placed in the hospital again and this time diagnosed as Bipolar One. The beginning of a big change happened for me. I finally got off drugs. For years I had self-medicated with cocaine and marijuana. I finally got the help I needed with my extreme mood swings. And it wasn’t the 12 steps, which hadn’t worked for me in the two times I placed myself in drug treatment programs where the prescription was to give it up to God. Well, God alone could not do it for me. I needed medication and I got it. Immediately, I didn’t want crack or pot anymore. Gradually my severe mood swings lessened and I began to feel like a whole person rather than two different people: one a likeable and gentle person and other a disagreable and violent person. The former was male, but the latter was female. I lived for many years a split life.

As legal medical drugs calmed me down, however I could see that all that happened  to me was not bad. My mania gave me an energy and the courage to try new things. My depression gave me an understanding of the low points life can reach. I have had a wide range of experiences, which are a gift to only the few, and if we can keep ourselves from self-destruction we have much to offer the world in terms of insight and compassion. I know now that I can answer the question “is life worth living?” in the affirmative.



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