Wednesday, August 27, 2014

One Pill, Two Pill, Red Pill, Blue Pill

I don’t write about medication much. Okay, ever. It’s a controversial topic (not that this has ever stopped me), that people in mental health, and in society in general, tend to feel strongly about. Oddly, despite the fact that I’m generally quite an opinionated person, my thoughts on this topic aren’t so steadfast, at least when it comes to the topic overall. I do, however, have a strong belief about my own treatment, and that includes medication. I also feel strongly that medication shouldn’t be a taboo and isn’t something to be ashamed of, and that’s why I decided to finally write about it.

First, a little background on my own treatment. I was diagnosed because of medication. The wrong medication. I had been given anti-depressants by my GP, and these were increased when I went to the ER several months later with what I thought were panic attacks. I stayed in the hospital for two days, with doctors insisting that I needed to increase my meds to help calm my depression, and me insisting that it wasn't depression and that I didn't need more meds because they actually made me feel worse. After two days the doctors felt proud of themselves that they'd "helped me with my depression" and sent me on my way, taking twice the amount of antidepressants than I'd come in with. I still insisted they were wrong. Turns out, I was right. What I was experiencing were actually undiagnosed hypomanic episodes. The severity of them - noticeable enough to send me to the ER - was due to my anti-depressants. See antidepressants, in the vaguest of terms, elevate your mood. In hypomanic episodes, your mood is already elevated. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to put two and two together - elevated moods plus a medication designed to elevate your mood equals excessively-elevated moods. The key word here is excessively. As in unhealthy. I started going back to my therapist, and it was she who finally figured out what was going on. She diagnosed me with rapid-cycling cyclothymia, slowly brought me down off of the antidepressants completely, and began the correct treatment.

Now a little about my meds. (For the record, they’re yellow and off-whitish, as opposed to red and blue, but that didn’t rhyme so well). They’re actually anti-seizure meds. So if you’d like to think of my condition in simple terms, think of it as frequent seizures with an internal manifestation instead of an external one.  They work by limiting sodium release, which is needed for certain nerve cells to fire. As sodium release is more tightly controlled, so is the nerve cell firing in the brain, and that helps control my cycling. This is obviously a lay person's description, not the official medical terms. My meds are used only to prevent or limit hypomanic episodes. They generally don’t do so enough to bring me into depressive ones, which is lucky. I can’t be on antidepressants because I cycle too quickly, so by the time they’d take effect, I could be hypomanic again, and I’ve just described how that goes.

I know that there are people out there who don’t believe in using meds for mental health, or anything, for that matter. There are people who think that all mental health conditions can be treated "naturally"- either by diet and exercise, positive thinking, or even just with therapy without meds. Perhaps that’s true for some people, and I truly am happy that they can do that. But I am not one of them. My meds have saved my life. Let me repeat that: my meds have saved my life. They’ve brought back the sense of “normalcy,” for lack of a better word. As in, I don’t feel like my life is one continuous panic attack with an occasional bout of “I can’t get out of bed, my life is useless” thrown in for good measure.

Oh, there are side effects. Not terrible, as far as side effects go. There’s the usual dizziness, disorientation, nausea, along with the possibility of hyponatremia (low sodium levels) and seizures. I occasionally can’t feel my tongue and lips or get tingling in my fingers for a bit after taking my meds. I get nightmares and bad/intense dreams much more often, and I wake up looking like I just went for a swim, which is always super sexy. There’s even the rather rare possibility of developing a life-threatening skin disease called Stevens-Johnson syndrome. But I don’t have the more common side effects found in some meds, like uncontrolled weight gain or horrible dry mouth or stomach issues (I have stomach issues anyways, but it’s unrelated to my meds). I don’t feel dull or emotionless or like I’ve lost my creativity and inspiration, like I’ve heard some people say about being on meds. I also was lucky in that I found a med that worked for me on the first try. That’s very unusual in mental health medication treatment, and I feel very fortunate, overall.

I’m not writing this to convince anyone to take the meds I’m on, or to take meds at all. It’s not a rally against the “nobody needs meds” people. But I know plenty of people who feel that meds would help, except they are not quite ready to take the plunge into medication. For many people, I think it feels like the point of no return. I think, in a way, starting medication makes you admit to yourself that you really do have this condition, and that’s a tough step to take. Even with a diagnosis, it's not all that difficult to think to yourself "if I try hard enough I can make this go away." But taking meds makes it more "real" somehow. People feel they should be able to battle their condition on their own, and that something’s wrong with them that they can’t. They think that perhaps if they get a different perspective, think more positively, eat differently….  

But if you had diabetes that required insulin or asthma that required an inhaler, would you feel ashamed? Would you try to just fix it on your own? Yes, perhaps there are things that you could do in your day to day life that would help you feel better. But at the end of the day, you may need some medication to help straighten out your blood sugar or your breathing. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some medical conditions, because of their nature, require treatment that may include medication. Mine is one of those. I’m not ashamed; I’m grateful. I’m grateful that there is a medication out there that can help, and that my therapist suggested it to me. Do I believe that we should all have a spare bottle of Xanax lying around for every time we feel the slightest bit nervous? Not at all. But I do believe that taking the prescribed medication, at the prescribed intervals, in the prescribed amount, can be incredibly beneficial for some people, including me.

I’m happy to talk about medications more privately if anyone would like. I can only offer my opinion and my experiences. I’m in no way a medical doctor, and can’t advise on specific medications or anything of the like. However, I am happy to listen and to share my stories, in hopes that they may somehow help others.


  1. I like this post...I have been diagnosed with cyclothymia but my GP won't medicate itanalogy and ...apparantly it's best to try therapy (currently on an 18 week waiting list) and relaxation techniques... I used the diabetes was told "that's a very old fashioned way of thinking". I requested a second opinion and was offered anti depressents. I explained I'd tried numerous SSRI's in the past and the only effect they have is that someone has to scrape me off the ceiling as they send me completely manic. Currently waiting on an appointment for a third opinion...I'd love to live in a world where we all had Xanax in the cupboard haha reality of it is mental health conditions require medicating just as much as physical conditions. If I had the determination to will myself better, I'd be better!

    Best wishes for the best of health :) x

    1. I'm sorry to hear that you are dealing with this condition, and that you have had trouble finding a treatment that you feel is effective. I think part of the reason that I'm on meds is that I am rapid cycling - ie can cycle numerous times a day, which can be actually rather scary, and also makes if feel almost impossible to focus. I do believe that you are right though, whether it's meds or therapy or a combination, we need to treat mental conditions just as we would physical conditions. I too would will myself better if it was possible! :-) Thank you again for your comment, and best of luck with your health.