Suzana Herculano-Houzel

About being able to take medicine

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Nobody likes the idea of needing medication for the rest of their life, let alone “for the head”. I once received an email from a young man who suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder and had accepted a medication from his psychiatrist that proved to be effective. The reason for the email, however, was that he was angry to discover that he would have to take the medication every day for the rest of his life in order to stay well. Outraged, he decided to stop taking the medication because he didn’t want to be “stuck with it for the rest of his life”. He asked me: is that it? If so, isn’t that bad?

My answer to him was Yes, that’s right, some conditions have no cure, only treatment for the rest of your life. And no, that’s not bad. It’s a question of point of view – and I offered him mine.

In fact, I think it’s a blessing that there even is a treatment for life. I know this from personal experience. I have a chronic heart condition that requires daily medication for the rest of my life: a beta-blocker, which saves me from sudden attacks of tachycardia and visits to the emergency room with my heart beating in my throat 180 times a minute. Given my condition, I think it’s wonderful that a daily pill allows me to live peacefully and even forget that I have an arrhythmia. In the same way, I am grateful to the scientists who developed the latest generation antipsychotic that a dear friend will take for the rest of her life, thus being free of the bouts of paranoid delirium that almost ruined her life a few years ago. She can live a normal, rich, full life and be a healthy person like any other – as long as she takes her medicine every day. 

Of course, it’s undesirable to depend on something outside the body for well-being. But this is nothing new, nor does it only apply to medicines. Anyone who tastes the benefits of soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste will never want to live without them. It’s a good addiction, which makes life better and whose benefits far outweigh the inconvenience of running out of soap at home (the pharmacy around the corner solves the problem with a phone call), as well as the risk of side effects such as skin irritations from excessive or inappropriate use.

The boy wrote back. He had changed his mind and was going to take the medicine again. I was happy for him. If it had been 50 years ago, I might have died of a heart attack by the time I was 30, and he would have been doomed to a tormented life. But today there is a choice – and it’s in our power.

Originally published in Folha de São Paulo on January, 2007.

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