Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘psychotropic drugs’

Caution: Wide Mood Swings

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Mood swings are universal. Everybody has them at one time or another.

Bipolar disorder is not just mood swings. Not everyone has moods that can last for months or years at a time or moods that are so extreme that they interfere with one’s daily life. The depths of despair and the rocketing highs are not what most people experience – and they should be glad they don’t. Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness (SMI). It can be more or less severe, and it can be well or poorly controlled with medication and therapy, but the reality is that bipolar is a mood disorder, an illness, and a curse. 

Of course, the mood swings of bipolar disorder don’t always last for months or years. Sometimes you go spinning out of control every few weeks. This is called “rapid cycling.”

But even rapid cycling doesn’t describe the lightning-quick mood changes that can happen within a day or two. That’s called “ultra-rapid cycling,” and it’s like being whip-sawed by your brain. Those valleys and peaks come so closely together that you don’t even have time to catch your breath between them.

I think that the official criteria miss the mark on this. Many of them define rapid cycling as experiencing four mood swings within a year. Ultra-rapid cycling seems not to have a specific definition, but I and a lot of other people with bipolar disorder experience moods that swing not over the course of months, but over the course of weeks, or even days.

Ultra-rapid cycling blurs the lines into mixed episodes. Those are occasions when high and low moods occur at the same time. For many bipolar sufferers, this means simultaneous exaltation and despair, which is a terrible combination and a bitch to experience. For me, a person with bipolar type 2 whose hypomania expresses most of the time as anxiety, a mixed episode is a frightening blur of defeat and nervousness, a simultaneous feeling that the worst has already come and that it is about to descend to even lower levels. It’s like ricocheting off the insides of your own skull.

What to do at a time like this is a puzzle. Do I try the things that soothe me when anxiety strikes? Do I try self-care for depressed moods? Do the two strategies cancel each other out, leaving me swinging helplessly? Do I try to suppress both moods, knowing that the consequent numbness will make it all the more difficult for me to feel “normal” moods again? Once those walls are built, they are hard to tear down.

Ultra-rapid cycling and mixed episodes may be handy jargon to describe mood swings that don’t fit the common mode of bipolar disorder.  But they’re hell to live through. And since mood levelers, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety meds generally take a while to build up in the bloodstream enough to have an effect, there is little in the way of pharmaceutical help. An anti-anxiety pill may relieve the jitters and racing thoughts, but may also leave you more susceptible to the inevitable lows.

I don’t know if there’s much research going on regarding rapid cycling and mixed episodes. It seems like they’ve barely been named, much less defined or studied. And it’s true that there is a lot about plain old garden-variety bipolar disorder that remains to be understood and treated.

But for those of us who don’t fit the mold of months-long or years-long mood states, rapid cycling can be an uncomfortable way of life. When I was undiagnosed and unmedicated, I experienced those long, interminable lows. They did last months, years, until the depths of hell were all that I could see. The jags of ambition seldom visited me, but the creeping, lingering anxiety could easily take over. Now that I’m no longer subject to those excruciating extremes, I still am subject to the quick-change, rapid-fire series of moods. My mood levelers do work, in the sense that they reduce the peaks and valleys, but they never seem to put me on a totally even keel.

Perhaps that’s too much to expect. I’ll have to admit that I prefer a life of rapid- or ultra-rapid-cycling bipolar to the monotonous despair of long depressive cycles. At least now I have a firm conviction that the moods will end, or at least shift, to something more tolerable, and that that will happen sooner rather than later.

Given the choice between the lingering depths and the more rapid changes, I’ll take the one that doesn’t leave me in misery for years at a time.

 

The Worst Side Effect of Psychotropic Drugs

I’ll admit that I’ve had a lot of side effects from the various psych meds I’ve taken over the years, and some of them were bad enough to make me ask for something different. There’s been insomnia, sleeping too much, twitchiness, vivid nightmares, and others. But as far as I can see, there are only two side effects that would make me completely quit taking a prescribed medication, even before I could ask my doctor about it.

The first is Stevens-Johnson Syndrome. It’s what they mean when they say on TV commercials, “a fatal rash may occur” (I didn’t even know rashes could be fatal). Indeed, your skin starts to come off. I think it’s always a bad sign when your insides suddenly become your outsides, like in that Simpsons episode where everyone turned inside out. Among the medications that can cause SJS are anticonvulsants, antipsychotics, and other psychotropic drugs, at least two of which I take daily. When he prescribed them, my psychiatrist told me to stop taking the meds instantly if I got a rash around my mouth and nose, and go to the emergency room. It’s that serious.

Apparently, the anti-smoking drug Chantix and maybe some others can also cause SJS, which I guessed from the “fatal rash” warnings on the commercials and later confirmed. I idly wonder if the rate of Stevens-Johnson has increased now that more of these drugs are being used.

The other side effect that I truly fear is tardive dyskinesia. Tardive dyskinesia means involuntary, repeated muscle movements, which can affect the face (tics, twitches, grimaces) and other parts of the body (legs, arms, torso, and fingers). Think John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. These movements appear after taking medications such as antipsychotics. Worst of all, the movements may become permanent and a number of people are disabled because of them. There are now medications that treat tardive dyskinesia, but I still wouldn’t want to have it.

Yet, what is the most feared, the most despised side effect of psychotropic medications?

Weight gain.

I see countless comments in online support groups asking about weight gain on particular medications and posts that say such-and-such a drug caused weight gain. A number of people post that they will not take these medications, or will stop taking them, because they can cause weight gain.

Admittedly, weight gain is not often a good thing. It can certainly lead to other health problems. But my point is that many people are more concerned about their appearance than their mental health. 

I’ve struggled with my weight too over the years, and I have written about it (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-7o). But I’ve struggled more with my mental health, which could kill me just as surely as obesity.

There is vast stigma in our society surrounding fat people. That’s undeniable. Fat people are stereotyped as lazy, sloppy, unattractive, unhealthy, and more. Despite recent body-positivity messages and a few clothing commercials that now feature more plus-size women (I haven’t seen plus-size men), this stigma continues virtually unabated.

Of course, there is stigma around mental illness, too. Those with mental disorders are stereotyped as out of control, violent, dangerous, suicidal, and a burden on society. I can see that people are reluctant to add the two stigmas together.

But honestly, is weight gain so very bad compared with the chance to alleviate the misery and suffering that accompany serious mental illness (SMI)? Personally, I prefer to weigh more and not live my life in despair and hopelessness.

Some of the medications I’m on can cause weight gain. Some of them can cause Stevens-Johnson Syndrome or tardive dyskinesia. Fortunately, weight gain is the only side effect I’ve had, and I can live with that. Stevens-Johnson is potentially deadly and tardive dyskinesia is potentially permanent. There are things I can do about my weight if it really concerns me, or I can chalk it up to a side effect of being content, stable, and productive.

Frankly, of the possible side effects, I fear weight gain the least.

Do It for Yourself

The commercials advise you to do it for them. The family. The children. The laughing, smiling friends who have great social lives and adventurous spirits. You want to join them, don’t you? You have only to take these drugs to alleviate your depression, keep your bipolar disorder at bay, tamp down your manic highs.

Do it for the ones you love, and the ones who love you.

Well, that’s all well and wonderful, but what about you? Maybe you have a family that doesn’t understand mental illness. Maybe you don’t have a loving bunch of children and a husband or wife ready to embrace you if only you’d get cured and be able to do the laundry. Maybe you’re alone with your disorder and your own self.

Do you still have a reason to seek treatment and get relief from your disorder and your symptoms?

Of course you do! Whether or not you have that picture-book family waiting for you to shape up and smile, you are worthy of a better life, one free from the seemingly non-ending drag or jags of mental illness.

It’s just that our society says that one person’s not enough. We must live for others. We must thrive to spread pleasure to and with them. Only in a family, only when we fit in, only when we are properly medicated or counseled, are we whole.

I’m here to call B.S. on that. Many of us live our lives alone, without family who understand us and friends who support us. If you have those resources, great! No one is saying that you would be better off without them. But many of the mentally ill have to make do with no such support system, no back-up for when our brains go wonky, no squad to cheerlead when, at last, things go right.

And I say that’s okay. You are enough. You deserve to have mental health and stability whether or not you are part of a couple or have children. Your family may be estranged from you. You are still worthy of healing and stability. You deserve it because you, by yourself, are a human being who needs that.

Society calls us to sacrifice for our spouses, parents, and children. We are to think of ourselves last, give our all to the ones we love. They deserve our support, attention, and caring. Mothers especially are exhorted to give all for their offspring. But is our mental health truly something that we should sacrifice in the name of others?

Should we not go to counseling because our schedules are full with family activities? Should we not pay for our medication because there are other household bills? Should we not take those medications because they might affect our moods and thoughts?

We are all worth it. We all deserve mental health – the poor, the lonely, the abandoned, the difficult, the single, the friendless. We have value whether or not we are connected to the vision of society we see on our televisions and especially on commercials for psychotropic medications.

I say, do it for yourself. Seek treatment if you need it. You are enough, just the way you are. Don’t let social programming convince you that you are lesser, unworthy, just because you don’t fit into the roles that are deemed suitable for everyone.

If you need help with your mental health, seek solutions. Don’t worry that others have needs. Your need is just as valid. If you need help, go out and find it.

You are enough. Do it for yourself.

In Remission

My bipolar disorder is in remission. I know I’m not cured. There is currently no cure for bipolar. But I’ve reached a point where I’m stable enough that I don’t expect a crash or a buzz to descend on me at just any old time.

I still get moods, of course. They’re just not severe or long-lasting enough to be symptomatic. Yesterday, for example, I spent several hours wrestling with phone trees and people who wouldn’t switch me to a supervisor when all I was trying to do was straighten out a couple of bills that contained errors. Afterwards, I felt frustrated, cranky, and a bit sad. But those were normal emotions, based on what I had just gone through. After a nap I felt better, and dinner blew out the remaining cobwebs. Napping is definitely better than staying in bed the entire next day.

Of course, I didn’t achieve remission alone. It took years of doctor visits, therapy, and medications to reach this state. I am particularly grateful for mood levelers. For me, they actually do what they’re intended to do. They keep my moods within an acceptable range, or at least one that’s acceptable to me.

Too many people fear mood levelers, I think. Level moods sound boring – as though there are no variations, just a blank, straight line. That simply isn’t so. Mood levelers have pushed the spikes that used to go wild in either direction to a less extreme range. If you think of mood as an EEG, mood levelers prevent the lines from going off the charts, settling them to fluctuate within a middle range that most non-bipolar people have naturally.

I think the term “mood leveler” scares some people. They seem to think that such a drug would make them perfectly level, robotic, unchanging. They fear that any spark of personality or creativity would be lost.

That’s not the case. Instead, with level moods – and especially for depression-prone bipolars – a person has much more ability to explore his or her creative side.  I know that’s true for me. Now that my moods are stable and level, I’m able to get more writing done, but also to tell whether the work is good or needs serious revising before I post it.

My doctor recently increased the dosage of one of my medications, a mood leveler, because I was having trouble with hypomania that wouldn’t let me sleep. And it worked. I am now getting seven to eight hours of sleep each night and have enough energy to at least face the day, if not always to conquer it.

Don’t think mine has been a case of spontaneous remission. I’m not sure I believe that’s possible with bipolar disorder. It’s taken a lot of years and a lot of work to get to where I am today. For example, it took literally years for assorted doctors and me to find a combination of chemicals, a cocktail of psychotropics, that would work for me. And during all that time, it was as if I was not medicated at all. Only the right combo of drugs and dosages would unlock my brain and level my moods.

So, here I am, in remission – and I love it. My moods aren’t blunted, they’re leveled. I am not as fearful now that my extreme moods may return and wreak havoc on my life. Oh, I still have some symptoms and side effects that remind me I’m not cured. But now I know that remission is possible, with work, with luck, and with the right mood levelers.

The Biggest Gaslighter

The subject of gaslighting is big these days. Everyone from your ex to the president is called a gaslighter. But what is gaslighting, really, and who is the biggest gaslighter of them all?

I’ve written quite a bit about gaslighting and here are the basics: Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. The gaslighter denies the other person’s perception of reality. The gaslighter tries (and often succeeds) in making the other person feel that she or he is crazy. Gaslighting is very difficult to escape from. Healing from the effects of gaslighting can take a long time, even years.

By those standards, I maintain that bipolar disorder, or maybe mental illness in general, is the biggest gaslighter of all. Think about it.

Bipolar disorder is basically your own mind inflicting emotional abuse on itself. It denies your reality and substitutes its own. It makes you think you are “crazy.” It is very difficult to escape from. And healing from it can take years.

First, let’s consider bipolar disorder as emotional self-abuse. Bipolar disorder uses your own brain to make you miserable. It takes control of your emotions and often your behaviors, and uses them in a destructive manner. Emotional abuse inflicts a conditional called “learned helplessness” on a person. The abuser turns positive and loving just often enough to keep the victim hooked – to keep the victim believing that the abuse is really his or her own fault. Bipolar disorder can relent just enough to let you think you are over it or gives you enough euphoria to make you think that your life is just dandy. These are lies, of course.

That’s the other thing that bipolar disorder does – tells you lies. Bipolar depression tells you that you are worthless, hopeless, and pathetic; that nothing you do is right; and that nothing you can do can change that. It’s a big suckhole for all your emotions, but especially good feelings. And those are lies. You are not worthless. You do many things well. You can escape depression’s clutches. Depression – your brain – tries to substitute an alternate reality for your own.

Bipolar mania lies too. It tells you that you are delighted and delightful, able to accomplish anything and indulge in any behavior without consequence. It lifts you up to a realm of unreality. Again, this is your brain telling you lies, ones that can adversely affect your health, your relationships, your finances, and more. And these lies you want to believe, because they are so seductive and at first feel so good.

These lies are denials of reality. No person is as worthless as depression makes them feel. No one is as invincible as mania says you are. Taking these lies seriously can cause profound damage.

And make no mistake, bipolar disorder makes you think you’re crazy, or at least ask yourself if you are. The out-of-control emotions, the out-of-control behavior, the mood swings, the despair, the euphoria feel crazy. You know your emotions aren’t under your own control and you don’t know what to do about it.

But just as there is healing from gaslighting, there is healing from bipolar disorder. The first thing to do in either case is to remove yourself from the situation. For gaslighting, that can mean breaking up with a partner or even moving away. Breaking up with bipolar disorder is even harder. It likely means starting medication and therapy.

With gaslighting, there can be a tendency to go back, to think that it really wasn’t all that bad. And there were undoubtedly things that drew you to the gaslighter in the first place, plus the intermittent reinforcement of loving apologies that make you deny your own perceptions of reality. And with bipolar disorder, the work of healing is so difficult that you may want to stop doing it – skip your therapist appointments, stop taking your meds, retreat to your emotional cycles, which at least are familiar.

But both gaslighting and bipolar disorder don’t have to steal your entire life. You can get away from the gaslighter. You can find healing from bipolar disorder. At the very least, you can improve your life and not have to ask yourself all the time: Is this real? Am I crazy? Getting treatment for bipolar disorder can break the hold it has on your life, disrupt the cycles that have you feeling perpetually out of balance.

But there’s the big difference between bipolar and gaslighting. You have to run away from gaslighting; you can’t change it. You can’t run away from bipolar disorder.  You have to face it and do the work to find remission and healing.

Self-Medicating: Bipolar and Booze

Self-medicating – using alcohol or drugs to dull the emotional pain of a mood disorder – is pretty common among people with bipolar and other mental disorders, particularly the undiagnosed.

It’s a dangerous thing to do. People with major depression are said to be twice as likely to develop a drinking problem if they self-medicate with alcohol a lot. Then there’s the possible interaction between alcohol or drugs with a person’s prescribed meds.

To be perfectly honest, there were times in my life when I self-medicated with wine, beer, or liquor. During one particularly dark time, when I had been prescribed benzos for a physical ailment, that was thrown into the mix. And, again with the honesty, I still sometimes have wine or beer with dinner, though I know I shouldn’t. I could say that I know how much I can drink without it affecting my reaction to my meds, but the fact is that I just shouldn’t.

Recently, however, a study was published in the journal Nature Communications which said that “getting drunk causes the same molecular changes in the brain as taking rapid antidepressants.” Here are the basics.

It was a study done on mice, which means it’s a long way yet from applying to human beings. The set-up was this: Mice were given alcohol, then placed in a container of water. Being passive and willing to drown was taken as an indication that the hapless creature was depressed. Sure enough, the mice that were given alcohol proved to be more active and energetic in trying to swim, which was taken as a sign of not being depressed.

The study did not end happily for any of the mice, however. Their brains were examined to determine how the alcohol achieved its antidepressant effects.  The scientists say that changes in the boozy mouse brains showed that alcohol has effects on neurotransmitters that were similar to the way antidepressants affect the brain. That’s a long way from saying that alcohol is good for the depressed, though.

The premise of the experiment sounds a little shaky to me. I mean, assuming the swimming mice to be less depressed than the drowning mice strikes me as just a wee bit anthropomorphic. Plus, the mice seem to have been situationally depressed (by being left to drown), rather than chronically, as in clinical depression. However, the brain study seems more interesting to me. After all, it compared the effects of alcohol directly with the effects that antidepressants have on neurotransmitters and said that the former “mimicked” the latter.

What’s the takeaway from all this? Well, first of all, it’s hardly blanket permission for the depressed to go out and indulge indiscriminately. Further experiments are needed, presumably ones that will work their way up the animal kingdom until they come to depressed humans, though one hopes that they are not thrown into water to sink or swim.

If those further studies go the same way as the mouse study, I rather imagine the result will be something like the medical advice that you can take a glass of red wine to stave off heart disease – not a blanket approval, but the use of a potentially hazardous thing to ward off a potentially worse thing. Of course, that will not apply to alcoholics or others who must avoid the substance altogether for any of a variety of reasons.

I also note that the study focused on the effects of alcohol in relation to depression only. The manic phase of bipolar disorder was not part of the study and drinking while manic is well known to be a really bad, though often occurring, thing. Of course the same can be said of drinking and depression.

For now, the best advice is simply not to drink if you are depressed or bipolar. Don’t use me as an example. I’m not sharing this to encourage anyone to indulge in potentially destructive, even lethal, behavior. As always, Your Mileage May Vary, especially when compared with that of drunken, depressed, or dead mice. But drinking is still far from a good idea for the bipolar.  And don’t mix it with benzos either.  Trust me on this. It’s a slippery slope.

 

The One Pill I’m Embarrassed About Taking

I know that there are lots of people – and not just the bipolar ones – who don’t like taking medication and especially don’t like needing to take them. It’s a reminder of their illness, I guess, or a dependence on a chemical answer when we’ve been told for so long, “Just say no to drugs” and indoctrinated by DARE. The only thing they leave out is that some drugs are good for you – the prescribed ones that allow you to live and function.

I don’t mind my psychotropic medications. In fact, in many ways I love them. They are the things that keep me relatively stable, on a mostly even keel, and make sure that none of my mood swings lasts more than a couple of days. I loathe pill shaming and consider it just one more kind of stigma that attaches to mental illness (and other chronic illnesses).

But there is one medication I take every day that gives me pause. It is my sleeping pill. My psychiatrist prescribes them and I take one every night, along with my other nighttime pills. In about 20 minutes to an hour, I’m asleep, and I stay asleep usually until 8:00 a.m. or so. It means I get about eight or nine hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.

I do need that sleep. I’m not one of those people who can function on four or five hours of sleep, the way tech geniuses and high-powered execs claim they can. If I don’t get my eight hours – and sometimes even if I do – I take naps during the day. Not just naps: mega-naps. My brain and body sneer at 20-minute catnaps. If I’m going to sleep, they say, it must be an hour at a minimum. Two is even better.

It’s not like I want to go back to the days before the sleeping pills, either. I do still remember the long nights of fear and sorrow, the fits of crying, the panicky sensation of not being able to breathe. The endless mental replay of every stupid thing I’ve ever done. The anticipation of the disasters the next day would bring. The hopelessness and the helplessness and the loneliness. The feeling that I was the only being awake, maybe in the world. If a single little pill can save me from all that, I should be glad to take it.

Why, then, does it bother me?

Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t feel necessary in the way my psychotropics do. They are prescribed for my bipolar condition and somehow make the difference in how my neurotransmitters operate. The sleeping pill feels like a different category of drugs.

Or perhaps it is because sleeping pills are often a drug of abuse and even suicide. My psychiatrist trusts me with them, though, and has for years. Plus, my anti-anxiety med is also often abused and I feel no guilt about taking that.

Maybe it’s because a sleeping pill feels in some way like a luxury. I don’t think it does anything specific for my bipolar disorder – except that sleepless nights are certainly associated with depression and my middle-of-the-night anxiety as well.

I hate to think it, but maybe the pill-shamers have gotten to me. I take such a cocktail of assorted psychotropics that it’s perhaps natural I should ask myself every now and then if I’m overmedicated (my doctor doesn’t seem to think so) and whether I could do without any of the drugs. The sleeping pill is the only one that might be in that category.

But no. I don’t want to go back to the nights of distress, despair, and devastation. I don’t want to wake my husband up as I gasp for breath and need him to stroke my hair until I fall asleep. And I surely don’t want to go through those bad feelings all alone in the night while he works the third shift.

All in all, I think the sleeping pill is a good thing for me and that I shouldn’t try to give it up. I just wish I didn’t feel so ambivalent about it.

 

 

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