"It worked. But you do pay a price every time you take these medications," she said. The lithium caused a tumor on her kidney and kidney disease. And she has developed a thyroid condition that she attributes to taking the medicine.
While families, medical professionals and advocates debate whether severely mentally ill persons should be compelled to take treatment, the recipients of those forced treatments said they often do harm.
Chan once spent three weeks in a treatment facility, where she received so much medication that her heart almost stopped, she said.
"I was drooling and dehydrated. They gave me an IV, and my heart came back," she recalled.
Chan is opposed to forced treatment and hospitalization when there is no danger to the person or others, she said. Being handcuffed and dragged away is traumatic for people.
"You are treated as a criminal. It doesn't really help," she said.
She said she accepted her illness from the beginning because she knew the symptoms, and she is "medication adherent" — a term she prefers over "compliant" because it infers that she has a choice.
Chan has the support of her family. She is self-aware of the triggers of her illness. But she has seen people decline into homelessness and shredded clothing, walking around talking to themselves, she said.
Treating that level of illness is a quandary, she said.
"I don't think there's a perfect answer for it. I can understand why parents want to get treatment for their loved one. They want to help," she said.
"It is, sadly to say, their choice. If you start committing people who are not a danger to themselves, that could be a problem. There are all of these gray areas. We're taking away personal liberties," she said.
"Lucy Grey" agreed. A county mental health worker involved in peer support, she is also a "consumer" — the term persons who are receiving treatment for mental illness use to describe themselves.
Grey has worked at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center's Barbara Arons Pavilion, an inpatient facility where people spend weeks or months in treatment while still suffering acute symptoms.
"There's lots of tears that I see. It's upsetting for everyone. The hardest piece is, how do you get people that ill who have been through the system again and again to get treatment?
"It sucks being on medication. You do have side effects. And people are more creative without medication. I write poetry, and I feel blunted. A lot of creative people feel that way. Taking medication affects them a lot," she said.
Grey has never been hospitalized for her bipolar illness. The first inklings that something was wrong started when she was 4 years old. She remembered having severe anxiety. When she began to menstruate at age 11, depression set in.
"The day it happened, the clouds rolled in, and they never left," she said.
Taking a "cocktail" of medications "angered me a little bit," she said.
But at 40, she is stable. She has gone through "a true recovery process," she said, which includes mindfulness therapy and peer counseling.
The stigma attached to mental illness remains a bigger challenge, she said.
"Stigma really affects everybody. Especially the older generation. They don't want to be associated with mental health problems. Clients say they don't want anybody to know. People will look down on them. There's a lot of fear."
Working as a peer counselor is the first time Grey has felt comfortable and accepted, she said.
"It helps me to be myself and stay recovered. I've had a lot of jobs. I felt like I was carrying around a big secret. But since I started working here, this big burden is off me. Before, I couldn't fully be myself.
"The truth is, after all of these years, you do feel it on this inside. We feel weak or bad about ourselves," she said.
But working among her peers has helped give her a voice.
"Now I give presentations, and I'm who I really am. I don't have to be afraid, and I get to help other people feel less afraid themselves."
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