February 9, 2016

GUEST ROOM | When CAPS Gave Me Medication I Didn’t Need

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Editor’s Note: This story is being published anonymously for the safety and protection of the author and those involved. 

I didn’t plan to spend finals week in the mental ward of Cayuga Medical Center.

Was it traumatic? That would be an understatement.

Was it worth it? Yes.

How was it worth it? I found out I was misdiagnosed with a mental illness I did not have and was given sedatives and mood stabilizers from Cornell’s Counseling and Psychological Services that I didn’t need.

I came to Cornell from a university that had a traumatic experience with gun violence many years ago. As a result, there were many taboos and stipulations at my former university on talking about mental illness. At my previous university, people didn’t necessarily want to help you out of love, but out of fear that you would take their life — a recurring theme in debates on gun violence. I remember once having an administrator insist on holding my hand, as if I were a child, to go to the counseling office. I am not here to speak about gun violence, but rather my experience with mental health at Cornell and to shed light into how the field of mental health needs an overhaul.

Similar to Cornell, the ebb and flow of students having emotional and mental turmoil considerably outpaced the supply of counselors and psychiatrists at my previous university. Appointments were hardly guaranteed, the wait list was long and unless there was something seriously wrong, you had to wait. After snagging a few spots with a counselor, I was told I might have a bipolar disorder, depression, some personality disorder traits or just senior year angst and that I should see a specialist. Time went by, I stopped going and soon after, I came to Cornell.

In contrast to my former university where one would have to lobby for medication, Cornell gave me medication my first visit. I didn’t need to send medical records from my old university — all I said was “a counselor once told me ‘I might be bipolar.’”  In a day, I was given Seroquel and lithium, a psychiatrist and a therapy group.

For those of you not familiar with the various flavors of mood stabilizers, anti-psychotics or antidepressants, like any medication, they can have side effects. However, it’s hard to tell if they are effective or not because they are affecting your brain. You can tell after taking medication for acne if your face clears up, for your throat if the mucus starts to drain, but with mental illness medication — it is a waiting game. Often I heard things like “you have to reach the right level before they work — be patient” or “the side effects wear off.”

I started to slip in classes, I couldn’t remember, I couldn’t concentrate and, in essence, I developed a learning disorder. Why were my scores so low compared to others? My insecurities started to build — I was told I needed this medication, but the ramifications on my academics were horrendous.

My cohort was worried. My best friend told me “I had no more feelings,” for she observed when I would struggle to have any expression besides a straight line. I was going through the motions like a vegetable, but CAPS told me that it was necessary, because I had a mental illness.

When I discussed my reluctance to take these medications after how they were affecting my personal life, I was asked, “Do you think men will like you when you’re not on these?” I felt helpless, trapped and accepted I was weak. I was projected the reality of a mental illness.  I was getting more “help” than my previous university so I tried to be grateful.

In my therapy group I felt like a stranger. I was never hospitalized, I never had tried a list of medications and I never experienced psychosis. Although I enjoyed the safe space of sharing my insecurities in graduate school, I was encouraged by my peers to accept “bipolar is different for everyone.” My reality could be different from theirs, but we were all “bipolar” in solidarity.

“Anyone with a mental illness feels helpless at times.”

“You have to be patient with the meds.”

“Try harder to change your lifestyle, don’t drink, don’t stay up too late, make sure to take your meds, eat better, etc.”

No one thought I was misdiagnosed or needed to be tested. I was bipolar, and that was that. I believed CAPS, for they were professionals, and I take credit for that being partially my mistake. However, I find there must be some malpractice going on, not only for me, when students are shoved pills they don’t need.

So what happened? I stopped taking the medication and soon after found myself in the Behavioral Unit. I felt sad, discouraged my grades were so poor and that I couldn’t concentrate. My exams were soon and I told a friend. I called CAPS asking them about what to do. My friend called CAPS and told them I was a danger to myself — again, I was trapped. Soon I was dropped off at Cayuga Medical Center where I would spend the next few days trapped and disconnected from humanity besides a small window of three hours of visitation. Thank god for my friends.

At the unit, we were told to eat at certain times. We had to ask to get a puzzle from the cupboard. There were no locks on the doors and every 15 minutes someone checked up on you to make sure you were still around. Everything is round and soft and the windows are plexi glass. People listened while you used the restroom sometimes. There, I met middle-aged men struggling with addiction. I met just turned 18 year old children from broken homes. I met fellow Cornellians trapped in abusive relationships seeking a safe haven. I met one Cornellian from China who had no idea why she was there.

I cried a lot, I prayed a lot and I ended up coloring a lot.

While there I missed my final exams. But also while I was there I found out I actually had no mental illness. I shouldn’t have been given any medication at all. In essence, if you hear about people taking anti-depressants who don’t need them and get more depressed on them — that was me.

Mental illness has a stigma where people wish to overmedicate rather than undermedicate. I know my story is not unique to CAPS. I do not wish to discourage anyone from using their services, but please get a second opinion — they are understaffed and (I hypothesize due to historical and legal issues) pressured to medicate.  I now have an unnecessary hospital bill to pay, exams to take and explanations to give for my grades.

I ask my friends to generously be patient with me as I swing back into this semester from last and to relearn who I am — for they met a false medicated version. This semester is going well only because at the mental ward they realized I did not need to be medicated. If I had continued going to CAPS, I don’t know where I would be now.

Comments may be sent to associate-editor@cornellsun.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.