After years and years, the doctors finally got my cocktail of meds right to treat two diseases I have: Bipolar and PTSD. Then, lithium started doing damage to my kidneys, and it was back to the drawing board. There was no option: I had to get off this drug. 17 med changes and 4 months later, I’m feeling like a brand new (and less drugged) me.
I didn’t navigate through this gracefully, but, the most important factor as I went through new med combinations, was to embrace who I am. That is to say, all the work I have done on myself, helped me through it. It helped me to not get lost in the bio-chemical changes, because as I checked in with myself, I could identify most of the time, if it was me or if it was the medication speaking up in symptoms and side effects.
For instance, as the lithium incrementally was slowly decreased to nothing, I became more emotionally sensitive. I knew that my capacity to feel things strongly was part of my makeup. I knew that one way lithium affected me was that it decreased the vividness of my feelings. The higher intensity of feeling was something that I was going to learn how to manage more effectively in the future. It did not mean that I was going to have a manic episode, which I feared throughout all of this.
Know the disease
The best way to know when it’s you vs. when it’s a symptom—is to not only know yourself, but to know the disease. If you know that beating yourself up is a symptom of severe depression, then you can bask in the truth that it is the illness and not you. This knowledge will then give you have the freedom to not act or entertain the symptoms but to accept them as part of the disease and act in spite of them.
It is not always an easy thing to do, but with practice, you can determine who is you and what is the disease and act on who you are and not feed the disease.
Know Thy Drugs
Study the side effects of the new drugs you are getting on. That way, you’ll be able to recognize when it is you or when it is a possible side effect. This way, if something is not meshing with your system, you’ll be able to pinpoint it faster and switch to something else or a different dose, rather than suffer needlessly.
Know Thy Team
Develop a team of people and keep them near you. This is support of the best, most precious kind. Friends who you can let in on the fact that you are facing a major medical change and that there may be times you will check in and not even know what to say. Ask them to be there for you and honor their boundaries. Educate them about the symptoms of the disease and what your red flags are.
Stay in touch with your therapist, your psychiatrist, your psych nurse and anyone else you would like to be on your team.
When you don’t feel right—tell your docs. Don’t suffer in silence. Practice describing how you feel and the symptoms you are having with a friend before calling a doctor, if you think this will help you. You don’t have to show up perfect, just show up and express yourself. Your well-being depends on it.
Don’t put anyone’s opinion on a pedestal; because they will not always be right. That goes for your therapist too. And your shrink. But if trust is there—and that is the aim of any professional relationship—there will be a point when you have to “Let go and let God.” There is faith involved to rebalance brain chemistry, in trusting a new medical regimen. There is tremendous strength in moving into unknown and unchartered territory.
Surround yourself with love. Whether this is a good friend. A favorite author, musician. A trusted person, a loving family member, an awesome therapist, or even better—all of them. When you forget who you are, have them remind you. When we are in crisis we forget what we have accomplished . Ask them to remind you of that too. Checking in with yourself and with others moves you away from isolation which can feed any disease. It can get you centered.
Know Thy Magical Routines
Prepare: stock up on a healthy TV dinners (yes they do exist!) for those nights you might not feel like cooking. Keep directions to contact after hours crisis team handy and a list of people to call to get some support. Clean your house. Keep a written list of the steps you need to take to enter your daily routine, then consult it and do it. For example—make coffee, take a shower, eat breakfast, go to work, etc.
Routine and structure are magical. They keep a safe and important consistency and control in your life. Don’t allow that to unravel. If you fall off the structural horse, then get up, dust yourself off, and get back on track. And who says you have to wait until the next day? You can start your new day at any time. Go into work half way through your shift. Don’t worry about “what they will think.” Think about how you will feel.
“This Too Shall Pass.” Keep your eye on the prize. You WILL feel better. You ARE getting stronger. And don’t you forget: You ARE NOT alone.