21 Pills: Mental Health Awareness Month
Updated: May 6
-21 Pills- by Robison Wells
The first two pills that I take in the morning are the ones that keep me awake. Modafinil, 200mg 2x. Because of the medicine that I take at night, I have trouble staying awake in the morning. I remember when we used to work in the office in Lehi, I would nod off around 8:30am and Julio or Tyson would notice and shake me awake. It was embarrassing. It was unprofessional. But it was uncontrollable. So I went on Modafinil.
The next pills that I take every morning are my only two pills not for my mental illness: Metformin 500mg. This is my one victory pill. I used to be pre-diabetic, but a combination of medicine and diet has got me off of that train (and thank goodness because that was a big COVID comorbidity.).
Then comes the big batch. We’ll start with the first symptom, anxiety. Buspar, 10mg, 3x. I didn’t used to think I was mentally ill. My wife had depression and ADHD, and we saw a little ADHD in my kids, but I was the lucky one. I had dodged that bullet. Until I was 32, and I started getting panic attacks. They would happen late at night. I’d think I was having a heart attack, hands shaking, pulse pounding, tears flowing. I got trapped in a Home Depot once—too paralyzed to go up to the front of the store, I sat down on a shelf in the back row next to a stack of insulation and just shuddered and sobbed for an hour. Me, a grown man, with three kids and a graduate degree. Sobbing in a Home Depot. So Buspar 10mg, 3x.
Depression hit next. My psychiatrist told me that our genes aren’t like blueprints, but more like a series of possibilities. He called them switches. I may have the gene for panic disorder (I do) and it may very well have never been flipped and I would have never experienced a symptom, until an environmental factor (in my case a layoff at a really bad time) sent me down a spiral. Depression came on its tail, so Buproprion 150mg 3x. it doesn’t cure everything, but it takes the edge off.
Then the heavy hitters. First, the Xanax. Buspar just wasn’t cutting it with the anxiety, which was raging. It was crippling. I went through many, many different anti-anxiety pills, at many different dosages. I once was taking so much Klonopin that a friend called me the Klonopinata: if you hit me hard enough with a stick, medicine falls out. But now we have a truce: Xanax 2mg, 3x. It’s a heavy dose, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wasn’t dependent on it. But it keeps me stable. On a bad day I might take twice as much.
Then comes the bad one: lithium. I don’t even like to talk about lithium except to say that it’s a wonder of the medical world, and despite the fact that it is a powerful drug, it is good at what it does. It is the only drug that has been clinically proven to decrease suicidal ideation. In me it stopped it altogether. I’ve been taking it for three years, and I’m grateful for it every single time I take a pill. Lithium 300mg, 1x.
That’s the morning. How many pills are we up to now? I’ve lost count.
In the evening it’s the same routine. 3 more Buspar. One more lithium. One more Metformin. And Escitalopram, another anti-depressant, because one just wasn’t good enough. Escitalopram 20mg, 3x.
Then comes the biggest of them all. The one that treats the scariest of symptoms, but which is also the drug that saved my life. Saphris 10mg 2x at bedtime. It’s an anti-psychotic.
The thing is, I have schizophrenia. Yes, I know. The scary one. It was undiagnosed for years, wrongly treated as bad OCD. It wasn’t until I was telling my wife how there were people following me while I was driving home from work, or how there was a man on the mountain behind our home with binoculars watching me that she decided enough was enough and I needed to see a new doctor. Mentally healthy people aren’t suspicious of the moon. Mentally healthy people don’t hear voices.
So I saw a new doctor and he pulled out the DSM-V (The clinical dictionary of all mental disorders) and read through the diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia. I had to have two off the five: 1) hallucinations—check! 2) delusions—check! 3) disordered behaviors—check! (This is a weird one with a symptom I don’t like to talk about.) 4) Disorganized speech—no! 5) Catatonia—no!. Still, I only needed two, and I had three, so there it was: I had schizophrenia.
What my doctor said that day has always stuck with me: he said “this sounds scary, but you are exactly the same person you were when you walked into my office as you are now. Only now we can start treating you.”
Treatments came and went and nothing went according to plan. Until…In February 2019 my doctor put me on a newly-released and somewhat experimental drug called Saphris. It was a stupidly expensive drug: $1285 a month without insurance (which we didn’t have back then) but we paid it anyway because it worked. I can honestly say that in the two years and three months since I have been on Saphris, I have not had a single hallucination or delusion. I have a new lease on life. I’m normal old me.
Now there may be some people who say that I’m over-medicated and that I should try alternative therapies and not fill my body with chemicals, and to them I can simply say: I’m healthy for the first time in ten years. I’m not going to mess with this.
And why am I telling you all of this stuff to begin with? You didn’t come to the this blog for Rob’s medical history. I’m telling you this to say that You. Are. Not. Broken. More importantly, if you are suffering from any mental illness, it is not your fault, and you are not to blame. I AM NOT ASHAMED OF BEING MENTALLY ILL.
Mental illness is hell. But it’s real. I’m not anymore ashamed to tell people that I have schizophrenia than I am to tell them I have pneumonia or a broken foot or COVID-19. Sometimes you get sick, and it’s not your fault. You’re no less of a human being. Society likes to shower mental illness with stigma because, to quote Beauty and the Beast “We don’t like what we don’t understand and it scares us.”
There is hope. It took me 8 years of pure nightmare to get to a point where I’m back to full strength and able to work and raise a family and contribute to my community. But here I am, writing work, and living a good life.
This is Mental Health Awareness Month. If I did my math right, that was twenty one pills. And I’ll take 21 more the day after that.
If you’re suffering from mental health issues, you can reach out to any of the organizations listed below. You can also reach out to me, because it’s always nice to talk to someone who has been going through this.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) 800-662-4357
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255
Mental Health America: https://mhanational.org/
Ask me about my hallucinations one day. They were fun.
There is hope. You can make it.