Q & A: How does one taper off bipolar medication?

Great question! I did this and I’m very glad I did. However, as I’m sure you’re aware, it’s a dangerous process. Be very careful. And, of course, I’m not a doctor. I’m a patient. I can only tell you what I did – your mileage may vary disclaimer disclaimer disclaimer.

My doctor might have been a great doctor, but he sucked at listening. His opinion was that if I wasn’t broken I wouldn’t be there. He wasn’t broken so I listen to him and say as little as possible aside from the occasional “Yes sir”. I tried to visit an ER once while under his care. They wouldn’t admit me because I was on the wrong drugs (from him) and legally they’d have to continue them while I was there. They wouldn’t do that.

Finally I had a long talk with myself. Mental health is incredibly important, but I was sacrificing too much of my physical health to accommodate the mental side of things, and it wasn’t working out great. I’d gained over 100 lbs for a start, and I didn’t see really great results mentally anyway.

The first thing I did was have a very long talk with my partner about why I thought this was a good idea, and why I thought not talking to my doctor about this was also a good idea. – he wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t think about it, he’d just say no then threaten me if I tried (this wasn’t speculation.  During one of my visits he specifically told me that going off my medication or disobeying him would result in him calling the police.  I’d either be arrested or taken to a psych ward.  He was quite serious – his practice had done it once already!)  Having lived with me for a good long while she was opposed to both. Finally I convinced her to back me in a 1 month experiment. Go off the drugs and just see.

I read about how to go off each one, and of course all were different. It ended up taking about 3 months for the initial detox, then going through another 3 months to just see what my body would do. The mood swings returned, but I got them more or less under control by taking fish oil capsules (my doctor’s idea, actually – he told me they naturally stabilize mood swings as well as increase the IQ). I also went on progesterone pills every day to level out the hormones.

It worked for me. The mood swings remain, and sometimes yes I lose control. But it’s not nearly as often or as violent as before. Meanwhile my creativity has slowly returned, my libido is recovering and I don’t feel “poisoned” all the time. If I could lose the weight brought on by the pills I’d be in a pretty great place!

Best of luck.


Bipolar and the creativity connection

There is a great deal of respect given to the medical profession.  I wish equal respect was given to the incalculable value of individual creative expression.  The “triage” reaction in the psychiatric community of “return the patient to a controlled state as quickly as possible, deal with the consequences of the drug’s side-effects later” comes at a considerable, perhaps unnecessary price.

twfWhile there are plenty of articles speculating on the connection between creativity and mental illness, the majority are at least 10, if not 20 (or more) years old.  There’s even a book – “Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament” by Kay Redfield Jamison that attempts to connect bipolar with great artists like Van Gogh and Beethoven.  However, the book was published in 1996.  It makes a good case, but it’s not conclusive.

celebrity-bipolar-intro-400The pop culture take on it tries to connect diagnosed celebrities such as Catherine Zeta-Jones, Linda Hamilton and Carrie Fisher with public symptoms exhibited by others, such as Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Kurt Cobain.  They may have a case, but the point is that the connection between madness and creativity is openly acknowledged.

The social assumption that a genius is crazy (or “touched by the Gods”, however you wish to put it) goes back to the dawn of written tradition.  There’s been a clinical theory that connects creativity and mental illness for decades.  But only in the last 3 years have there been large, comprehensive studies on the connection between bipolar disorder and the so-called “artistic temperament”.

In 2011 there was a study of 300,000 patients diagnosed with either schizophrenia, bipolar or Depression.  The results of the study found that there was an “overrepresentation” in creative fields for those diagnosed with either schizophrenia or bipolar, as well as their undiagnosed relatives.  Those who suffer from Depression did not, on the whole, feel compelled to go into the arts.

This is a good start.  Even better, in 2012 there was a study of one million patients by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.  Their conclusion?  “Creativity is closely entwined with mental illness”.  My favorite quote: “… the findings suggested disorders should be viewed in a new light and that certain traits might be beneficial or desirable.”

NOW we’re getting somewhere.

Pills2In my mind I’m about 15 years behind where I ought to be.  Before I was diagnosed I was writing like a fiend, and it was certainly good enough for publication.  But my mind was firing without direction, and I couldn’t focus long enough to go through the steps necessary to be published.  After my breakdown and subsequent incarceration, I was heavily medicated.  I used to call it “being placed in a creative coma”, but in truth it had more in common with a literal coma.  Unsure what to do with me, my doctor put me on twelve different medications. Lithium, Geodon, Depakote, Thorozine, Topamax, Paxil, I forget them all.  You name it, I took it, frequently combined.  I gained 150 pounds, my hair fell out and I sometimes forgot how to blink.  I could barely walk, much less write.

It took me 10 years to recover enough to be able to think, and a good deal of that recovery was to get rid of the drugs.  I went through a series of doctors, begging to find a less invasive cocktail.  One of them said, to my face, “if you’re alive long enough to complain about the side-effects, you’re a success”.   That… wasn’t constructive.

It was my OB/GYN who finally cracked the code.  She’s the one who figured out the best way to get my symptoms under control while allowing my mind to function.  I won’t offer the specific details here for two reasons.  1. I’m not a doctor and offering anything that might be considered medical advice in a blog is a bad idea.  2. We’re all different.  Even though it worked well for me, it might not do a thing for you.  Sorry about that.

Once the worst of the drugs started to clear my system, a miracle happened.  I started writing again.  My “voice” came back.  Slowly at first, but with growing confidence as the months went by, I regained my former creativity.  Bipolar is incurable, as are all the other illnesses I’ve been diagnosed with.  I’m still on drugs and always will be.  But at the very least I can think again, long enough to pound out a few paragraphs here and there.

That we’re drugging ourselves into oblivion is a given.  We’re starting that trend earlier every generation.  We’re now diagnosing children as young as age two with bipolar.  No doubt I had it since birth.  And yes, had I been diagnosed much earlier my life may have been easier.  But two years old?  Judge Judy notes, with some exasperation, that people aren’t “cooked” until age 18, if then.  Giving a child such invasive drugs during (or before) their formative years fills me with an essential horror.

In the article “Soaring Numbers of Children on Powerful Adult Psychiatric Drugs“, Dr. Peter Breggin notes:

“In a comparison between the years 1993-1998 and 2005-2009, prescriptions of antipsychotic drugs for per 100 children (0-13 years old) rose from 0.24 to 1.83. That’s more than a sevenfold increase. Given that most of prescriptions are for the older children in this age range, the rate would be substantially higher among preteens and 13-year-olds. For adolescents (14-20 years old) the increase was nearly fivefold.”

According to the Karolinska Institute, “… disorders should be viewed in a new light and that certain traits might be beneficial or desirable.”

Drugging patients into oblivion is good business for Big Pharma.  But what are we sacrificing in the process?  How many Van Goghs and Beethovens have been drowned in a sea of Ritalin?  I do understand the need for psychiatric care.  In fact, it saved my life.  But there must be a balance between our “pop-a-pill” social mentality and a creative individual on a destructive mood swing.

This is cool

Every Sunday since the summer of 2000 I’ve been defeated by my pill box. I’ve got one of those big clear rectangular monsters that has 7 largish compartments, 1 for each day of the week. When I got my first one it had a lock on it. Because I’d regularly fling it across the room and then I’d try to kill it.

Those first pills really called the question – when is the cure worse than the disease? My body was turned inside out by those things. Except for my experience with Typhoid, I didn’t know what sick was, or how far a body could be pushed, until I started taking those damn things. My metabolism shut down, I packed on 150 pounds, my hair fell out, my skin became one unberable itch, my internal thermostat went nuts, everything hurt, the migraines never stopped and if I was more than 4 steps away from a bathroom you could count on dry cleaning and carpet shampoo. Best of all, none of the pills helped with any of my symptoms, and as you can tell they actually made things much, much, MUCH worse.

And yet, every Sunday, I was expected to do the “adult” thing and refill my pill case with next week’s dose of toxins. It drove me even crazier than I actually was. That’s when I started cutting, for example. I had no way out at all – I felt like some trapped animal chewing its paws. This went on for years – utter defeat every Sunday, hopeless resignation each night the rest of the week.

And then, one day, I decided I’d had enough. The cocktail wasn’t working, but my mind cleared just enough to say… “um, this isn’t working.” I started taking my diagnosis and my treatment into my own hands. It was slow going at first – I still felt the need to work with the establishment on this. Which immediately reminded I was crazy and had not been to pill school. I’m gonna shoot that guy, I swear. Anyway, I finally abandoned all pretext and struck out entirely on my own.

It’s been 9 years. Tonight is Sunday night. I just filled my pill case – for the first time in 9 years, with vitamins. Fish oil. Hair pills. Allergy meds. A bit of kelp. I like kelp. There’s not one single toxin in the entire mix. Not. ONE.

I want to run naked down the street, Homer Simpson style. I want to shout this triumph from the rooftops! I could cry, I’m so happy. So relieved. I lived long enough to see that box full of things that won’t hurt me. Beaten by the box no longer!!!

Good gods, life is good.