A bad experience with medication can leave lasting trauma and close us off to truly helpful and positive use later, writes Ashley Waite.
I have not always had a healthy relationship with medication.
As a child, I was over-medicated, resulting in an unpleasant, emotionally flat feeling lasting from early primary school to uni. As soon as I had agency over my medical decisions, I stopped the medications altogether. They were harmful. I needed it to stop.
I will now gladly tell you how important an antidepressant can be, and how stimulants can be an amazing tool for improving quality of life (for some people, they’re literally life-saving), but it took a good decade of me failing to manage my life, struggling to maintain work, uni (despite knowing the material), and ultimately having panic attacks before I went back to a psychiatrist to try again.
A bad experience with medication can leave lasting trauma and close us off to truly helpful and positive use later. With how immensely beneficial my medication is to me now, I’m deeply saddened that I struggled so much, for so long, because I viewed medication as harmful. No one wants to be medicated badly, and medication that’s stripping you of your quality of life will lead to avoidance.
So, why has psychotropic medication been positive for me as an adult, but traumatic for me as a child?
I don’t think my parents were aware of how negatively the medication affected me, or how I felt about it. Their active and unrelenting engagement with my schools to change what I was offered, and how I was taught, also did infinitely more good than the medication ever did.
Ultimately though, the school system was not set up for a child like me; a child struggling to cope with emotional and sensory overload and a lack of ability to stay focussed.
I remember one teacher whose demeanour was physically and verbally aggressive (yelling, pushing, grabbing in a way that was painful …). As an adult, I would set some very clear boundaries with a man who behaved this way. As a child, I didn’t have the knowledge or implicit authority to do this. As a child, I became overwhelmed and frightened. I needed him to be further away from me and I threw a chair.
His behaviour wasn’t questioned, however, my teachers (and later my doctors) were very concerned with my behaviour. I was just being “oppositional” and “didn’t respect authority” (of course I didn’t respect authority; authority didn’t respect my basic needs). Medications were recommended. My behaviour was less of a problem if I simply didn’t feel enough to react to things.
The underlying causes remained unaddressed, as soon I was no longer inconveniencing others.
The medication had a price. I didn’t develop coping mechanisms or learn to self-manage in a way that worked for me. Learning to recognise or process emotions in a healthy way is difficult to do when your emotions are dulled. My ability to self-motivate was medicated away.
As a child, I was surrounded by people who would pick up the life tasks, push me to do things when they needed to be done, and help me to fix situations when they got beyond me. Later, at university, then in workplaces, I wasn’t prepared, and I didn’t cope well.
I know my experiences aren’t unique in this.
I don’t think I could have developed the life skills I needed without the medication I took later to help me focus, to manage my anxiety and not panic, and to get out of the depression I’d been stuck in for so long I didn’t remember what it felt like to not have depression.
The key difference was a psychiatrist who worked with me to improve my quality of life, rather than focussing on external outcomes for others.
I have a visceral reaction to hearing Autistic and ADHD children in particular described as having “behaviours of concern”, and medication being framed as a solution. It’s an approach that risks setting us up to fail as soon as there isn’t someone else around to diligently make sure we’re doing the right things, and it can leave us with a negative perception of medication as a whole, making us distrust the very tools that may later save our lives.
Ashley Waite is an Autistic and ADHD self-advocate with a background in local politics and computer science.