When I entered the Wellness Expo, my feet dragged. My sixth sense hinted my talk wasn’t right for the people gathered. A couple practiced yoga on the green grass. Each member of a trio swung a large swath of white fabric with a ball at its end – oversized slingshots without targets. Signs offered psychic readings. Not the crowd for my version of wellness, which includes medication and a controversial procedure called ECT (electroconvulsive therapy).
For the most part, I was wrong. I rattled off my Struck by Living Top Six, my personal list for wellness. I never offer my list as a solution for someone else, but merely an inspiration for others to create their own formula for staying well. I opened for questions. One woman asked how she could personally help her depressed spouse. I’ve heard that question in almost every one of the 75 talks I’ve given, no matter what the audience. Others followed. Then the skeptic barked his question from the back of the room:
“Dr. X says that you can solve all problems with depression by food intake and taking natural supplements.”
The corny dog and funnel cake I’d just eaten at the Texas State Fair tightened in my stomach. I agreed with this man, to a point. Unfortunately, because of people like this man, medical intuitive Carolyn Myss and a long list of other spiritual healers who insisted that if I were spiritually whole I would not need medication, I went off medication in 2005. In 2007, I relapsed into suicidal ideation. I did ECT and recovered. Now I take my little dose of Wellbutrin every morning without hesitation.
Right before I went under the anesthesia for ECT in 2007, the anesthesiologist asked me why I was back in the psych ward after a six-year reprieve. “I went off medication in 2005,” I began. He shook his head. He began the cliché for which we all know the answer: “If I had a nickel for every time….”
Why is this? Why do people go off medication for mental illness even when the side effects of medication are minimal to nonexistent? Why do some people, like the man in the back row, feel compelled to advise someone to drop psychiatric medication for the wonder of natural supplements? What is natural anyway? I’ve never seen fish oil tablets grow on trees.
Don’t get me wrong, I take fish oil and a high dosage of Vitamin D. I exercise and firmly believe these things allow me to maintain my health and possibly reduce the amount of medication I need. However, I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone pressuring a diabetic to drop insulin in favor of a “natural” supplement. The difference lies in the perception of mental illness as a deadly disease. If the man in the back row understood that more than 33,000 U.S. citizens take their lives on an annual basis, he might not be so generous with his lightly-researched advice.
The man was insistent. He presented his arguments with religious fervor. He’s not the first person to try to “save” me from medication. But here’s the rub: ECT saved my life, but if at all possible I want to avoid the procedure in the future. Due to first-hand experience, I happen to know my body better than he does. All the supplements in the world can’t change that.
I walked out of the conference to see a man seated with his bare feet in a yellow bucket filled with water. A woman with wild hair seated across from him held his hands, stared into his eyes and whispered with intensity. The tarot cards turned with my exit. The irony struck. In an environment so open to the supernatural, why is it so hard to accept a man-made pill might help a life?
Editor’s note: guest blogger Julie Hersh is president of the board of directors of the Dallas Children’s Theater and an active supporter of the Suicide and Crisis Center, CONTACT, Mental Health America, Empower African Children and other non-profits. Julie’s Struck By Living blog is featured on the Psychology Today website. She is also the author of Struck By Living: From Depression to Hope.