Risperdal and a Pound of Flesh
This is going to be one of those awkwardly personal posts. In it, I’m going to be talking about a very personal, very sensitive subject. In light of that consideration, I’m going to ask for a degree of respect and gravity, on a human basis. On my end of the bargain, I’ll try to keep it with some small degree of stiffness in it’s upper lip.
Psychiatric drugs and the treatment of their associated disorders are a subject that occasionally surfaces in the media. I’m thinking of Tom Cruise and the reaction he generated from going on Scientology-based rants regarding prescription drugs. As many may know, the Church of Scientology is very much against psychiatry as a discipline, along with many fundamentalist religious groups. I consider that I’m walking on eggshells to talk about my personal experiences and opinions in the matter.
This post is largely inspired by an episode of Law and Order: SVU that was just on the television while I was writing a different article. In it’s classic way, the show went on about subjects that the writers seem to have little personal experience with. I say that because of the tasteless drama and superficial examination of the subject matter which populated that particular episode, which I do not care to find the name of. It is individually unimportant and will not be referenced. I saved the draft that I was working on at that time and started this one, to catch the wind of my emotional response evoked by the program, hopefully to allow my discomfort to transform into something beneficial to others. I am not a medical expert, though, and nothing I say should be construed as medical advice. It’s not, and the benefit that I wish to convey could best be described as serendipity.
Anyways, my mother was diagnosed schizophrenic when I was four years old. Schizophrenia usually exists as a genetic propensity that requires a trigger mechanism to “set it off”, and she’s the only one in my family history that is known to have had it. I have few and unreliable memories of her before that time. I spent the better part of my formative years wondering if I would “catch” it, or inherit it. That fear has lent a degree of anxiety to my life that, in some cases, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure and alienation. I spent much of my teenage years learning that life continues regardless of its imperfections, and that you have little better to do than to work on making your life enjoyable and sustainable, since it’s rarely your choice what you survive.
It was just that simple, growing up. There was a lot of pain and the sense that my family wasn’t “normal,” but no earthquakes or tidal waves ever resulted from it, and it turns out that you just don’t die from emotional suffering. Rather, I didn’t know the half of which parts of my life would seem abnormal to others. You can tell a person who has been through a similar experience, because the questions they have vibe with the things about it that seemed more important to you, and they’re more understanding of which aspects you prefer not to talk about.
I’m shocked and saddened to be in my 30’s and know that for my entire life, I’ve never made the best of what I had with my mother. I’ve always been afraid to get too close to her, because when I was very young, I understood what it meant when I was told that there was no cure. From a single-digit age, I intuited that my mother would die some day, and that it would break my heart. With how little she was present, either through the haze of her cocktail of medications or the lunacy she suffered when she would try to quit them, I decided on some level that it might not be worth it to be close to her. I hate myself for it, for the pain that it has caused her and myself, and for the pain that I would have felt anyways. My single biggest fear in writing this post is that she would read it, and that it would hurt her.
I often think of my father, and what it must have been like to watch the fairy tale life burn up in front of you. My mother was beautiful, smart and sarcastic, and my parents were in love, once. My father stayed to raise my sisters and I, and through it all we found our moments of happiness, though it’s impossible not to question whether life owed you more of it. It’s our nature to be unappreciative. The abnormalcy of my life lead me to question everything, including much of what many assume to be true. Part of my childhood fear of being crazy presented as a need to develop my own system of cross-checking minutiae, to assure myself of my continuing sanity.
I have recently learned that my mother does not have long to live. She has advanced congestive heart failure, largely due to smoking and also in part from the effects of decades of medications which are, in fact, poisonous. The vast majority of my life, she was constantly on Risperdal and Clonazepam. The side effects of those drugs are frightening. I gave up drinking a long time ago because I wanted to live my life with a clear head, I could not fathom trying to live through such a heavily medicated fog, and knowing that it was slowly but surely killing me. That my weight was increasing inexorably past obesity, that my liver was failing.. That all of my internal organs were shutting down.
At the same time, what I know of my mother, the person I spent so many years living with, I may not have had the opportunity to know at all if it weren’t for those drugs. They worked, to a large extent. The person that my mother was, in the times when I lived with her and she was off her meds, was a person trapped in their own mind. She could easily become so trapped in her own hallucinations that she would fail to notice you being in the same room as her. She was too busy talking to herself to notice you.
My mother has had to live out her lucid moments knowing how easily people would dismiss her thoughts for being those of a “crazy” person, and I’ve spent more time watching my mother cry than anyone should have to. If there were a perfect drug that could have “fixed” her, I’ll say that the lives of each member of my family would likely have been so wildly different as to defy speculation. And while I hate the drugs for what they have done to my mother, I also thank god for them, for providing me the opportunity to defy nature and experience some small degree of the love of a mother. I wish it never had to have happened to her, far, far beyond wishing that I had lived a happier life.
I no longer fear for my sanity, as I’m far past the age when schizophrenia is likely to present and have yet to experience hallucinations. In fact, after my own personal bout of extreme angst and situational depression in the early part of high school (revolving entirely around those heady early relationships and their inevitable failure), I largely adopted a mind set of not caring terribly deeply about what I’m thought of. Although, I do sharply resent insults revolving around mental stability, and also prefer to think of myself as a “good” person.
So, to nudge the post somewhere into the neighborhood of the titular topic, I would like to say that I feel that Scientology and other organizations which prefer to rely on the equivalent of “faith healing” are largely full of crap. The positive effects which they may occasionally experience are likely the result of the placebo effect, which does in itself deserve respect. Placebos have become a medical standard against which to test the efficacy of experimental treatments, from medication to surgery, and in some instances have as high as a 40 percent success rate in improving symptoms. What’s even more interesting, is that the effect is still prevalent even when a patient is told that they are taking a placebo. Science is still at a loss to understand the mechanisms through which placebos can affect physical change, and it does seem enticing to the romantic mind, as if there were still hope that magic exists in our world.
However, psychiatric medications often fall short of fixing a problem, and can be prescribed in situations where they are not appropriate to great ill. For example, the vast majority, if not all, of recent mass shootings occurred at the hands of people taking medications in the class of Selective Seratonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). It turns out that severely altering the brains’ processing of evolutionarily-developed reward and punishment mechanisms has a tendency to de-stabilize one’s actions. The intent of psychiatric medication is to lower the arc of the swinging mood-pendulum, not increase it, so excessively “positive” reactions to a medication can be as dangerous as negative ones. That is why oftentimes a person will be hospitalized for a period of a few days to a few weeks when initially diagnosed, so that their behavior can be monitored by trained professionals while their bodies adjust to medication. A similar period of monitoring should accompany any attempt at cessation, or any significant change.
The title of this post was “Risperdal and a Pound of Flesh.” The “pound of flesh” is an idiom from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, wherein it refers to a price owed, although it is cruel to have to pay it. The play itself specified that the pound of flesh to be paid was that which was nearest to the merchant’s heart. For some of us, both literally and metaphorically, the pound of flesh is the heart; and that, for one of each, is the price my mother and I paid to know each other. “Fate” is a term which was invented to provide a scapegoat of nature, and I choose to invoke it now. The only institution for me to blame is fate, not psychiatry.
By Brian Whittemore