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Is Accutane Worth the Payoff?

By Maxwell Hawla | 12/15/16 9:25pm | Updated 12/15/16 9:25pm
Jaclyn Merica / American Word Magazine

Trigger Warning: Depression and thoughts of suicide.

In May 2000, B.J. Stupak committed suicide during a prescribed cycle of Isotretinoin, more commonly known as Accutane. His father, Rep. Bart Stupak from Michigan, subsequently campaigned against the anti-acne drug. He publicized multiple cases of other Accutane-related suicides and criticized drug providers’ failure to adequately warn of its effects of depression.

Stupak’s advocacy worked to a degree. While studies vary with 1 to 11 percent of depression rates among those who take Accutane, providers today take that range of recipients much more seriously than when B.J. took it. Approval for Accutane treatment now involves patients signing an array of waivers and warning papers about its potential adverse effects. Once on it, they get blood-testing done every month.

When I signed all those warning forms, I figured I was somewhat of an exception to the percentage of those who would get depressed. I already had a history of depression and mental illness, and I naïvely thought this meant I already had what others receiving its treatment might endure. I did not consider it might make matters worse.

I could have been B.J. Stupak.

During treatment, effects on my skin were grueling. Every inch of my body itched without pause, and my dry skin flaked everywhere. In my unprofessional opinion, patients’ bouts of depression on the drug relate, in part, to this. It was a constant state of physical discomfort and pain which my doctors never warned about.

I can’t empirically speak to its direct pharmacological effects on the brain. However, I can speculate that when your lips crack and bleed and prevent you from smiling, your brain doesn’t release enough dopamine.

What was already severe mental anguish mutated into the incessant thought of killing myself. Knives’ blades beckoned my forearms when I washed the dishes. I grew tense every time I drove over a bridge, giving every effort to keep my hands from turning a hard 90 degrees. Everywhere I went, I needed an out by any means.

On top of this, I even blacked out one afternoon. While I can’t directly attribute it to the drug, it was the first and only time it happened to me. I had been sitting at my dining room table when, in what seemed like a fraction of a second later, I was standing halfway up my house stairs with the sky now dark outside. Headphones on and a plate with a burrito I apparently made in hand, I had no recollection of how I got to that point. It’s not just the temptation of suicide that Accutane may bring.

But it cured my acne. Completely. The swarms of acne I had fought for seven years to no avail finally disappeared in six months thanks to Accutane – the acne that was a systemic cause of my depression prior to taking the drug. I can’t fully dismiss it as I owe my healthy and now pain-free skin to its outcome.

When someone asks me about my experience with Accutane, and if I recommend it, I can’t give a straight answer. My time on it was overwhelmingly negative, but was to my incredible benefit in the long-run. I can’t just say to not do it, and I can’t outright sing its praise. I can only tell them to acknowledge its potential effects, know you’re not immune to them and to be prepared for what you might be getting yourself into.