To finish my own story, the bottom line for me was that lithium didn't work and neither did any of the other 25 drugs I ended up taking. Eventually Zoloft "pooped out," and I had to survive horrific depressions with medications that made me feel physically worse, and emotionally erratic.
I changed psychiatrists four times within a decade. A big mucky-muck psychiatrist, who is also a professor of psychiatry at a major university, wouldn't take me as a patient (because I'm not a psychiatrist, a famous person, or a celebrity, which was his clientele) but he did consult on my case because I had become a bipolar II medication-resistant rapid cycler, which is considered the most difficult cohort within the bipolar community. And even he kept on saying, "Everything your psychiatrists are doing is right."
But, it wasn't right for me. It only would have been right if I had been a guinea pig in a lab. What infuriated me then--and now--was when I was at my lowest ebb and had absolutely no hope left, the only suggestions my psychiatrist made were, "You can do ECT, or you can be hospitalized, and you should certainly start therapy with me."
I nixed the last idea because I knew it wouldn't make me feel better to pay him double his current fee so that I could tell him (in therapy) how angry I was with him for prescribing drugs that made me feel worse. Besides, I'd already been in therapy with someone else who never diagnosed this illness or clinical depression despite classic symptoms.
I knew that ECT might "cure" the depression I was in, but it wouldn't help the next one on the horizon. And, for me, hospitalization was not an option. I'm not opposed to it on principle, but it wouldn't have made me feel better.
I did say to one of my psychiatrists, "If I'm depressed now, why would you think I'd find it uplifting to go to a mental hospital where people represent a spectrum of illnesses that scare me? At least at home, I'm with people who love me."What I can say is this: For 25 years, I was depressed a total of 85 days a year. And for much of that time, the depressions (which remained undiagnosed) weren't bad enough to stop me from working every day, and living a "normal" life. However, I knew I was feeling down compared to how I felt the rest of the year, and the depressions had become more severe.
The first year I began taking medication, I was sick for 365 days, and so it went for six years, which means 2,190 days. Then I started taking Adderall, a stimulant (a controversial choice for someone who is bipolar), which is the only medication that can relieve my depressions. But I didn't realize how erratic it made my behavior, or how much it intensified the highs and lows until 2003, ten years after I started the medication merry go-round.
When I think of the depth and breadth of side effects (not on Adderall, but on all the other medications), I am amazed and grateful I survived. On Lithium, I had such terrible headaches I could barely stand the physical pain. When they finally began to dissipate, I started seeing floaters (in my eyes) and worried I was going blind. On Depakote, I felt like I had a low-grade fever all the time. On Wellbutrin (they used to prescribe it at much higher dosages than they currently do), I lost a third of my hair, and when it finally came back it was curly and gray. It took three years to grow a new head of hair, which was straight and brown again.
On other drugs, I experienced cognitive memory loss where I didn't just forget words, but entire paragraphs. I had hand tremors that were so terrible, I figured the only job I could qualify for was conducting an orchestra. I had diarrhea and constipation for so long that I figured I'd never have regular bowel movements again. It seemed like I spent years vomiting multiple times a day--and in truth I did. And I gained weight, which I'm just now beginning to lose because I've begun a regular exercise program.
I could go on and on, but I won't. I've written about it in my eBook, Bipolar Depression Unplugged: A Survivor Speaks Out. For me, all of this represents a past I'd like to forget. When P.J. who was recently diagnosed, wrote a comment asking what to do so that she doesn't have to experience what some of the rest of us have, other than giving her resources, I truly didn't know what to say.
The truth is that I still take Adderall when a depression hits. And I still take Ativan at night to sleep when I'm taking the Adderall in the morning. At one point I was taking 80 milligrams, which is a very high dosage, and it still wasn't working. Now, I take 10 milligrams, and it's usually effective; at most I take 20 milligrams. Adderall doesn't make me "happy," but it enables me to get out of bed. My strength is that I won't give up--although I would be less than honest unless I admit there have been times when surviving has been a huge struggle.
None of the alternative remedies work for me either, and I've taken tons of it. I've also seen a doctor of Acupuncture (13 sessions), a doctor of naturopathy (12 sessions), and a holistic psychiatrist, among others.
For those of you who are recently diagnosed, you'll find that every person you talk with will have a different take on this. I wish there was an easy answer, but I'm not sure there is. What I do know is this, and I can only speak for myself.
I believe that whether or not bipolar disorder is biochemical in nature (and to me that's not been proven beyond a doubt), whatever treatments you pursue will only work if you resolve the underlying issues that made you ill, and if you figure out a way to deal with the stress in your life.
No matter what others say, I don't believe this illness happens in a vacuum. In my case, I don't handle stress well, and never have, although I'm working on it. I used to have difficulties dealing with life transitions, and I'm working on that. It took me a long time to find my life's work, and until I did, I changed careers a lot, and that made me unhappy.
Despite years of therapy in which my therapist tried to turn me into someone who views life in shades of gray, I still don't. But, I finally realized I'm not a "gray" person, and it's okay. I've got very strong morals and values, and they are sometimes at odds with the popular culture. And that's okay too.
What I've been doing for years--mostly on my own, but now with the help of people who read this blog and share their experiences--is working hard to figure out:
- who I am and how to once again feel proud of my accomplishments (as I define them);
- what stresses me out, and how to stop allowing it to do so;
- what deeply matters to me, and how to write about it so that I feel I am making a difference;
- how to deal with disappointment so that I don't view it as a setback, but rather as an event to redirect my path (I want to credit Bernie Siegel's book 101 Exercises for the Soul for the words to explain my goal);
- how to change my neural pathways so that I don't repeat life patterns that used to paralyze me,
- and how to move beyond the label of "bipolarity" so that the symptoms and behavior I exhibit are only a part of who I am rather than my defining characteristics.
I disagree. I believe bipolarity is neither better nor worse than cancer, diabetes, or high blood pressure--all of which can be "cured." My mission is to "cure myself" so that I can help others achieve wellness. And, for me, that's truly an important life mission.
P.S. I've changed the Comments section so that I no longer accept anonymous comments. If you have trouble leaving a comment, I'll find that out tomorrow, and try to fix it. If you spend a lot of time writing your comment and worry about losing it, then write it in WORD, and copy it to comments.