May 19, 2022

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The Meanings of Medication | Psychology Today

Katie Willard Virant

Source: Katie Willard Virant

If you live with chronic illness, chances are that you take medication(s) to manage your disease. Are there times when you don’t remember to take your medication? Instances when you’re too busy to refill your prescription? Times when you increase and decrease dosage without notifying your doctor? If so, you’re not alone. These behaviors can feel perplexing: “How can I be so scatter-brained as to forget my medicine?” “I feel like a child keeping secrets when I tinker with my dosage.” “Why do I drive by my pharmacy every evening but feel too overwhelmed to stop and pick up my refill?” If we can be curious about these actions and look for the emotions underlying them, we can understand in a deeper way the meanings of medication.

Medication is a reminder of illness.

For many, medication is a tangible symbol of their illness itself. The pill (or injection or infusion) represents the reality of the illness. To take the medication is to acknowledge that we live with illness. Taking medication may bring up memories of our illness trajectory, fears about what our future with illness holds, and feelings of loss and anger. When we forget to take our medication, we may be expressing an internal wish to forget about our illness.

What might we wish to forget?

We might wish to forget that our illness makes us dependent on medication. Many people express an anger that their bodies are “deficient” and can’t fight illness “naturally.” Our culture’s glorification of independence almost certainly contributes to this belief.

We might wish to forget that we are different from peers who don’t require medication, especially when we are young and there is a perception that medication is something for elderly people.

We might wish to forget that our illness is not going away. In a culture that values a quick fix, taking medication for the rest of our lives can be a reminder that there is no cure for us—only “living with.”

We might wish to forget that we ultimately are responsible for our own care. The demands of this care can feel burdensome, and there may be a wish that a caretaker figure would relieve us of these demands.

Conversely, we might wish to forget that medical care can make us feel passive. We may chafe under doctors telling us what to do and how to do it.

Working with the meanings of medication can improve health.

So what now? The first step is acknowledging that forgetting to take our medication likely holds meaning. When you notice you’ve forgotten, stop and make space for feelings about medication that have gone underground. You can use the list above and also tap into your own personal reasons for why medication is something you might prefer to forget about.

Once you discover the meanings medication holds for you, give yourself time to truly feel the emotions that arise. You may feel angry, sad, fatigued, exasperated, or defeated. Allow these feelings. Notice how they present in your body and what thoughts come up as you feel them. It may seem odd to move toward rather than run from these painful feelings, but all emotions are part of your experience and deserve to be known and understood.

Share your feelings with a trusted friend and/or write them down for yourself. Put into words what taking medication brings up for you. You may surprise yourself with emotions you didn’t know you had. Telling a friend also makes room for support and validation. It’s not easy to take ongoing medication for a chronic illness. Hearing this from a friend can be helpful.

Think about your relationship with your prescribing medical professionals. Do you know how your medication works? Do you know why your prescriber recommends this particular drug at this particular dose? If you don’t, then perhaps it’s time for a conversation. Empowering yourself with knowledge about your medical treatment is important in developing self-efficacy. Similarly, if side effects are troubling you, make sure your prescriber knows about the side effects and is brainstorming with you to mitigate them.

Accept that painful emotions about your illness and treatment are not something to be dismissed; rather, they are to be lived with and tended to. When you take medication, there will be times that it reminds you of being ill. Accept those feelings that arise from this reminder as understandable. Comfort yourself when they come up by validating them. Seek comfort from family and friends.

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Medication is a lightning rod for feelings. By slowing down to understand our feelings rather than attempting to run from them by forgetting our medication, we treat ourselves—bodies and minds—with the care we deserve.