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Balance in a Bottle?

September 25, 2009

This topic has been on my mind for a while now, having had this cluster of lessons driven home through hard personal experience.

Jane at Bipolar Recovery wrote an excellent piece on pernicious lies used to sell Geodon specifically: “the insulting marriage of psychiatric drugs to spiritual wellness and a healthy lifestyle as embodied by the Geodon image.”

A similar marketing theme used to push various psychiatric drugs has deeply disturbed me. In essence, Big Pharma is trying to sell balance in a bottle.

This is slimy in too many ways to count. They are dealing in false promises, and preying on people who are vulnerable, willing to try almost anything that might give them some relief. People who desperately need some peace and balance in their lives, and frequently suspect this–else the marketing images (and brand names such as “Paxil”) would not work so well. Besides the frequently strong pressure to “improve” for the benefit of people around you, it’s also impossible to give true informed consent when you’re operating under such false promises.

I find this more appallingly deceptive–and ultimately counterproductive–than Jesus as a necessary aid to duyukta; and if that’s not an “if you meet the Buddha” scenario, I don’t know what is. Just one simple example: if you are sleeping 20 hours a day and feeling like a zombie the rest of the time, you are simply not going to be able to make real changes in your life circumstances. You probably won’t even be able to see what’s been causing your preexisting distress, through the cognitive disturbances and physical malaise. Even worse, you might not even be able to care anymore.

More disturbingly, this marketing has reached such saturation and acceptance that the claims do not look as absolutely ludricrous on their face as Jogging in a Jug. What these companies are selling amounts to Jogging in a Jug for your brain. The mainstay of advertising–and what most medical professionals and laymen have come to believe is behind mental illness of all descriptions–is the chemical imbalance hypothesis. There is no evidence to support this simplistic explanation.

As the author of that highly recommended series over at The Healthy Skeptic points out, “But, as Valenstein shrewdly observes, ‘there are few rewards waiting for the person who claims that “the emperor is really nude” or who claims that we really do not know what causes depression or why an antidepressant sometimes helps to relieve this condition.'” Just saying that you have no idea what is causing the problem will not attract a lot of customers; it’s admirably honest, but doesn’t offer anything to sell. A snappy explanation including an easy remedy obviously does work, even if most of the customers do not find lasting relief.

At least Jogging in a Jug is pretty harmless in itself: a mixture of cider vinegar and juice. Psychiatric medications are designed to give you a specific kind of chemical imbalance. That’s what they do. The manufacturers are trying to sell us an illusion of balance, while delivering engineered imbalance. Altering levels of neurotransmitters in the body is a potentially dangerous business. These meds will also disrupt other body systems, throwing your endocrine system out of balance. It’s playing with fire. More on this later.

As Jane describes in some detail with her post, it’s really hard to find any lasting and real peace or balance while taking these medications. Not only are they a false shortcut, they will actively impede a person’s efforts toward duyukta. Nowhere do George Byrd’s (of United Keetoowah Band) comments ring truer than in regards to psychiatric medications:

The drugs that we receive from the pharmacy, and as much as we depend on it, it only numbs our bodies. Long time ago, our medicine was made for us and we had it anytime we needed it. We could just reach for it anytime and drink it. That’s the real medicine. There is too much numbness today. They [sic] why when someone finds that kind of medicine, there are many people who will tall [sic] you that it’s not worth anything. Even the medical doctors will fight its use. Too many people are dependent on pharmaceutical drugs today. I think we are being dragged in that direction. I guess someday we will realize again that taking drugs is not right. Sometimes I think that’s the reason for all our maladies.

That medicine? Clean flowing water, in the context of going to water–a Cherokee technique/tool to help maintain duyukta. Getting out of balance makes us sick in mind, body, and spirit. Psychiatric medications, in particular, will just give you numbness (of mind, body, and soul), which seems to pass for “balance” these days.

Mr. Byrd also has a particularly good point about the meds being pushed as the only answer to our problems in life, especially mental distress. When I was diagnosed with early-onset Type 2 diabetes (courtesy of psych meds), the GP vigorously objected to my stated preference for managing it through lifestyle changes–which is working fairly well right now, BTW–and pushed both Glucophage (metformin) and statins at me. I just would not take the statins, but persisted in trying the Glucophage for months beyond what I should have done. The results? Dizziness, nausea, explosive diarrhea, fatigue, depression, and multiple B vitamin deficiencies (including flat-out beriberi). Metformin is well known for causing these deficiencies–as will the diabetes itself–yet the doctor dismissed symptoms. I had to diagnose and treat these imbalances myself. Getting the vitamin levels back up greatly improved my blood sugar control, which only makes sense. When my mom asked about managing her diabetes without medication, she was told straight up that it’s impossible, with a strong implication that those who think otherwise are deluding themselves. This was the response to treating an ailment which is perceived as straightforwardly physical, and which is not automatically assumed to effect the sufferer’s capacity for making rational decisions.

Of course, if you say that you’d prefer to deal with your “mental illness” without medication–or even that a particular one is making you sick, IME–it is taken as evidence of your illness, and proof positive that what you really need is more medication. Any further problems you develop while taking these medications, short of an obvious broken leg, will be taken as a sign of your illness, and proof positive that you need more of the same meds, and probably some additional ones. (The broken leg may well be interpreted as evidence of a desire to harm yourself/attention-seeking behavior, rather than as a result of motor problems caused by the medication.) Even in the case of fairly straightforward depression, one’s judgment is assumed to be impaired. Yes, I do speak from experience here.

To clarify: I’m not advocating avoiding all medications. Anything that’s making you actively sick and/or numb is best avoided, under common sense. I am also not blaming or looking down on anybody who is doing the best they can to survive in this world. I spent a lot of years in that position, myself, and taking a lot of medications to try to do it. I still have a hard time believing that neuroleptics, in particular, are a good option for anybody. They may be the best option you can see, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually good.

When I was given neuroleptics–Zyprexa, Seroquel, Risperdal, and Geodon over a period of a few years–it was because the psychiatrist had no idea what else to do to offer me some relief. I was anxious, agitated, and on enough of a mood roller coaster that, in the beginning, I welcomed the illusion of peace. I was still living in a highly emotionally abusive situation and being actively blamed for being unhappy and getting angry about it, nobody knew I was on the autistic spectrum, I did not know my sensory issues were real (much less how to manage them)*, I didn’t even know that it was possible to regulate my emotional responses, I had extra agitation/akathisia from antidepressants, and I was under a great deal of pressure to make myself “easier” to be around. As judged by the people who were abusing me. In short, there had been no constructive change whatsoever to the circumstances directly causing me distress–but I no longer cared as much. Much like this author, I did not even notice how dulled my emotional and cognitive responses were until I started coming out from under the medication thanks to intolerable physical side effects, and realized that I hadn’t really cared about anything for a long time. Even I considered this to be improvement at first. That’s not improvement, it’s impairment. And, like the movement disorders caused by brain damage, the cognitive and emotional dulling might not go away (PDF).

That’ll really Abilify a person.

Neuroleptics are the worst offenders–and are being prescribed for more conditions all the time, and to younger patients–but SSRIs and especially anticonvulsants will also cause numbness. It’s not just an unfortunate side effect, that’s how the drugs make emotional turmoil easier to deal with. So will a mallet to the head, with fewer potential side effects.

To try to wrap this up, be very wary indeed of anyone who is trying to sell you “Balance in a Bottle”. Not only is this shortcut not going to get you where you want to go, it may actively prevent you from finding the genuine article. It may also leave you more disabled than you were to begin with. To be blunt: an expensive illusion of control over your life and emotions is nothing like the real thing, and the people trying to sell you this do not have your best interests in mind.

* Some of my sensory overload responses were also interpreted as psychotic symptoms; I didn’t know any better explanation for them, myself, at the time. Especially when I got overwhelmed by electronic/electrical noises most adults can’t even hear, and when I shut or melted down to the point that I couldn’t speak coherently and nobody else could tell what was wrong. Stimming, in general, was interpreted in the same light–so I avoided using a major coping strategy for years, and got scared every time it broke through. Still, this was not the main reason antipsychotics were prescribed.

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