Did the Meds “Erase” My Personality?

The thing I don’t like about being angry is that it isn’t the me that I want to be. It’s a nuclear fireball, a complete eradication of the rest of my personality. For a few seconds, everything that I love becomes less than a memory. The witnesses to my explosion see a six foot six inch tall brute with a beard screaming at the top of his lungs and waving his arms about. Wouldn’t you be scared? Wouldn’t you keep that memory in your head purely for reasons of defense?

These scenes came more frequently when I was soaring in and out of manias and mixed states. It isn’t hard to see that my anger could be tied to my suicidal inclinations. Because I could not and would not destroy the objects of my ire, I turned that impulse towards myself. One time too many it brought me to a place where I was studying the veins on my wrist. Beyond the eradication of myself that was caused by my disease, lay the prospect of self-annihilation as punishment or revenge.

Maybe now you can understand my reaction that came while I was planting vinegar weed at the Native Seed Farm. I had done something stupid — I had mentioned my involvement in the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance in a passing comment. Most people let it drop, but this one woman wanted to know more. What were the people like? Was I ever scared? And then the most stigmatizing thing someone can say about someone who takes his meds faithfully: don’t the meds erase your personality?

I had a simple answer to that. No, I said, the meds let me be the person I always knew that I was behind the symptoms.

I’m not sure where this idea comes from, but I have a few promising clues. First, we all know how the meds can hit us hard when we first start taking them. They change our body, give us fatigue, blur our minds. The intensities we knew in our manias and the catastrophic depressions we felt afterwards disappear. We flat line — usually a byproduct of overzealous psychiatrists who over medicate us. In this worst case scenario, we stop being able to feel our feelings. As time passes and our psychiatrists grow confident that our mood swings have stabilized, they lower the dose. Or we get used to the meds. We no longer do wind sprints to the extremes; we start having emotions of a more reasonable nature again. But it is that early period that we complain about most. Many of us resist the calming of our minds by going off the meds and returning to the fractured, destructive, comfortable selves.

This life never appealed to me, but others wax about their lost euphoria. I think a certain shallowness and lack of shame must accompany the notion that our grandiosity represents who we truly are. I have seen many who are resistant to the idea that there is anything wrong with their combativeness, that they have a right to batter others with words and sometimes with fists. Eventually, only those who are afflicted, too, with narcissism or sociopathy or great stigma continue like this. The rest of us begin to feel for our loved ones and change.

The second point of origin for the strange belief comes from our friends. They knew us in our manias as the life of the party. Mood stabilizers change that. We may have sought out help because what we do in mania shocks us and scares those closest to us; these others attach themselves to the glamor of our extravagances. They love to watch us party and can’t understand why we don’t want to do that any more. Their lack of respect for the limits which the disease imposes on us can shame us into ignoring warnings about mixing alcohol or cannabis with our meds. If we lack a strong personality or self confidence, we capitulate to their whimsies. Or we find ourselves very alone and without people who will accept us for who we are, especially when melancholy constricts us.

A few months ago, I read an article in the Quaker publication Friends Journal which made a curious claim: diagnoses cause stigma. The idea is that when a psychiatrist puts a label on us, we are treated in keeping with peoples’ ideas of what that label entails. This leads to a third point of origin: stigma. We can’t blame the existence of the medical model for stigma. People were putting us on boats and shipping us down to the next town well before doctors took an interest in our ailments. The folk labels “mad” and “crazy” originated before psychotropic drugs and mental hospitals. The “normals” knew we were different and they persecuted us for it.

The whole intention behind the diagnoses cause stigma belief is noble, but wrong; and it leads to a different, very destructive type of oppression of we who do take our meds. The woman who said that my personality had to have been erased bought into this noxious belief and spread it. But no one could wreak as much harm with it as I could myself.

Thoreau wrote in the time of slavery: “It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself”. No one can wreck our lives in quite the same way that we can wreck them. Mania lifts us one way and depression jerks us down. My attitude and my willingness to embrace helpful treatments make the difference between peace of mind and chaos.

I know people who will not medicate themselves because of the terrifying thought that they will suddenly have to bear the label of mentally ill. Never mind that people around them already see they are peculiar. (People used to ask me if I was drugs. I was stone cold sober.) In their minds, it is the meds create the illness instead of cure it. Such beliefs stigmatize those of us who choose to be on meds as being somehow worse than those who won’t take them.

Fourth, many people do not understand the recovery process. If you just take your meds, you will be reduced to nothing more than an empty shell, a thing without substance. You were this way without them, but you couldn’t see that because of your symptoms. Medications do not cure bipolar disorder: they put down a floor upon which can be built the house of our personality. Manias and depression prevented our growth as persons. We have a lot of catching up to do when we stabilize; we must undergo therapy, develop interests, read, reflect, get adequate sleep, and seek insight — things we tended to skip over in the panics of our manic and the despair of our depressed days. Because of our illness,little in the way of personality developed. Outsiders mistook the flourishes of our highs for having more substance than they actually had. Some say that when you finally get treated for your condition, you have the chance to grow up. I concur. I have more of a personality now than I ever did in those strange days when I believed I was God, fought endlessly on the Net, and went up to San Francisco with my girlfriend one week and came back with my girlfriend two days later, but they were two different people. Those things defined me for the longest time, but now they seem like cracks in the dirt of the fantastic garden that I call my life.

This existence without extremes is my personality; and unlike the old days, it is changing and evolving. I am not helped when you imprison me in your love of the party boy or your stereotype of a drug-stupified drone. Love me for the real me that I am always creating.