Take Your Crazy Beautiful Medicine

Hi Crazy Beautiful Reader,

Sometimes I think about how being treated for bipolar disorder is the reverse of being an addict in recovery. For me, the ‘high’ exists without recreational drugs. My brain chemistry makes me high (and low). The drugs keep me sober.

I’ve been taking a cocktail of mood stabilizers and antipsychotics for about two decades. Peak inside my medicine cabinet and you’d see Lithium, Wellbutrin, and Seroquel. (And OK sometimes Klonopin and Lunesta). These drugs work well for me, but this wasn’t always the case.

The first time I was hospitalized, in 1999, the doctors ordered me to take what they termed an “antipsychotic,” Zyprexa. And because it was framed that way I refused the drug. I screamed: “I am not psychotic” over and over again. And here’s the irony: I WASN’T psychotic at that point. I was getting manic, and then because I refused the meds, I lost my mind. When I finally took the Zyprexa, I started to climb out from under the madness and return to myself.

In the days and weeks that followed, I then experienced the terrible side effects of the Zyprexa. I went back to college and gained 30 pounds. I had a terrible bearded doctor at the time who looked at me and said “I actually like you 30 pounds heavier.” I developed a hand tremor. At some point, they added another drug called Risperdal and I could no longer focus my eyes to read.

When you work with psychiatrists you feel like a guinea pig because there’s simply no way to know what drug combinations are going to work. It took trial, error, and time, but eventually, I ended up on a cocktail that worked for me. Sure, I think about going off the drugs or taking less medication all the time. But they seem to be the only things keeping me ‘sober.’

What I’ve worked long to accept is that the choice is not “to medicate or to not medicate.” That’s often how people think about mental health, but with many diseases, including my form of bipolar disorder, there is no choice about meds. I need to douse the high of mania with drugs to stay alive. Just as many recovering addicts finally come to accept that using or drinking will kill them. I am certain that I would not be alive were it not for this medicine.

Even if the pharmaceutical industry is all sorts of evil, medicine is not evil. For me, medicine is like exercise, self-care, or sleep… Seroquel, Lithium, Wellbutrin. And we shouldn’t have to feel less pure because we take it. We should feel like we are trying to heal ourselves, like we are adults, like we are good people fighting this crazy beautiful fight.

I adore Maria Bamford who talks brilliantly about her bipolar disorder and mental illness. Here she is in Slate riffing on the absurdity of treating Western medicine like some kind of cop out:

I have a joke about how people don’t talk about mental illness the way they do other regular illnesses. …[For example] “I was dating this chick, and three months in, she tells me that she wears glasses, and she’s been wearing contact lenses all this time. She needs help seeing. I was like, listen, I’m not into all that Western medicine shit. If you want to see, then work at it. Figure out how not to be so myopic. You know?”

How do you feel about psychotropic medications and their side effects?

Please hit reply and tell me all about it!