Switching Medication for Meditation

By Amy Dresner 12/24/14

Pills seemed just to replace my addictions and made my bipolar disorder worse. Being introduced to transcendental meditation was the best thing that happened to me.

Don't medicate, transcend. Shutterstock

I’ve been on psych meds for over 20 years. The only people who never believed I was “crazy” were my parents even after decades of behavior that could be called nothing else. Certainly all the shrinks and psych wards and rehabs believed I was nuts—and I never doubted them. Sure there is a certain stigma that comes with being “mentally ill” but I flaunted it in a punk rock “fuck you” sort of way. It also allowed me a convenient excuse for not having my shit together. Ignore the fact that Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, Winston Churchill, Amadeus Mozart, Ralph Waldo Emerson and countless others were also bipolar and still went on to accomplish amazing things. I was thinking about and referring to more modern crazies whose illnesses had certainly sidelined their promising careers, if not lives: Axl Rose, Sinead O’ Connor, Mel Gibson, Kurt Cobain, Macy Gray, Amy Winehouse and Margot Kidder. 

What I’ve noticed recently are sober people on a slew of psych meds who use their meds as they did their drugs.

When I got out of my marriage I was on six different medications: Lithium, Prozac, Abilify, Phenobarbital, Effexor, Zyprexa. And I still felt insane. Mood swings, depression, impulse control problems, and self-destructive behavior. The meds put a cap on the highs (which I didn’t particularly want) but didn’t do much for the lows (which I was desperate to alleviate). I was tired and lethargic and unmotivated and my liver hated me—we’re still not speaking but I think he’s coming around. My thought process was if I feel this bad on all these meds, imagine how bad I’d feel without them. Which, by the way, was my exact thinking when I was strung out on crystal meth. If I’m this depressed high, I don’t want to know how depressed I’ll feel when I’m sober. 

Thanks to a freak, unwanted pregnancy I got off the meds. And thanks to the urgings of my then-boyfriend, an avid 20 year meditator, I learned transcendental meditation. I miscarried and broke up with him soon after but since I was almost medication-free (except for a mild dose of Prozac), I decided to stay off them unless it became unbearable. 

And guess what? I feel better. Sure I’m still a little bipolar (which I guess is like being a little pregnant) but I’ve got my highs back (which is the only time I accomplish anything at all). It may not be “happiness” but it’s as close as I’m going to get most of the time. And the lows? They are still there, but they are not worse nor more prevalent. I’d dare to say that when I meditate regularly, they are better. My roommate can’t tell the difference from pre/post meds. Though, she can see from a mile away when I take a break from meditation. I am no hippie but meditation is a scientific brain technique and I’m all for science.

It is weird to be writing this piece after having written a previous article a few years ago that was very pro-medication. And please note, this is my experience. I am not urging everybody to go all Scientology/Christian Science...especially if you have any psychotic features. I titrated off my meds slowly with the cooperation and supervision of both my psychiatrist and my neurologist. And do heed the story of David Foster Wallace, brilliant writer of “Infinite Jest” and other works, who decided in sobriety and at the behest of some AA people to get off his bipolar medication. He committed suicide not long after. Not that you can’t take yourself out whilst still ON your meds because I certainly have tried but you get what I’m saying.

What I’ve noticed recently are sober people on a slew of psych meds who use their meds as they did their drugs. Feeling out of control? Double up on your Neurontin. Depressed and want to check out? Take your sleep med at 7:30. It’s that same old thinking that this outside thing (this drug, this pill, this guy, this job, this handbag) will fix whatever is going on the inside. And it might, for a little while...

Although I think it is important to treat the mental illness of any dual diagnosis patient (as it is doubly hard to stay sober if you’re trying medicate a mood disorder), it is equally important not to treat every addict as “mentally ill.” I remember countless times people in AA saying, “You’re not crazy. You’re just an addict.” I would scoff but now I wonder if they were right. There are plenty of rehabs that put addicts on some ridiculous regime of heavy meds and then they are shipped off to some sober living that must titrate them off.

If you’re newly sober, of course, you’re a mess. You burned your life to the fucking ground as an addict. You alienated everybody you love. You blew lots of opportunities. It’s normal to be depressed when you awake to the mess you’ve created and see all the needed reconstruction looming ahead. Some of the mood swings and depression will abate in time as you completely detox and your brain chemicals normalize. It may not be as soon as you want, but it will happen.

But of course, if your brain chemicals have always been off, prior to your addiction, by all means, address that. I had my first bout with clinical depression at 15, my first nervous breakdown at 19, and didn’t pick up drugs till 24, so I get it. And there may be some permanent damage from your drug use. People who have abused meth often need anti-psychotics or (anti-convulsants, like yours truly) for a brief time or interminably. I only did meth for a year and a half, but for a delicate Jew like myself, that was a year and a half too long. And now I have “hyperactive lesions” on my frontal lobe that have remained stubbornly in place since an MRI detected them 10 years ago.

Despite my attempt to be natural and medication-free, after seven months of being off my anti-convulsant, I had a stress-induced grand mal seizure and was forced to partially return to my medication regime. No, I’m not hunting down homeopathic remedies for epilepsy. I am not anti-medication. I just think that as addicts we can get carried away—myself included. I was the first one at the “med shack” in rehab. And the last one to get onboard the valium titration. But when I hear fellow sober people refer to their medication as “their drugs,” I begin to wonder if we haven’t transferred some of the problem from the bottle to the beta–blocker.

Just a friendly warning from somebody who has a VIP parking place at the local pharmacy. 

Amy Dresner is a columnist at The Fix.

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