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How to Keep Going When Mental Illness Treatment Doesn't Work

August 15, 2011 Natasha Tracy

What do you do when medication, therapy and other treatment of mental illness doesn't work? Why keep trying bipolar treatment? More at Breaking Bipolar blog.

Everyone who has been bipolar, or mentally ill in general, for longer than about a day-and-a-half has experienced failed treatments. We've all had medications that didn't work. Therapy that didn't help. Lifestyle changes that did nothing. And so on, and so forth. In fact, most of us experience months of treatment failure before we find treatment that works for our mental illness.

But after years of failure and trying everything you can think of and still being sick, how does one keep going? How do you keep going when mental illness treatment doesn't work?

Do You Regret Trying a Treatment?

People have asked me if I regret trying some of the treatments I have had, like VNS or ECT as they were painful and didn't work.

I can understand why people would think I'd regret it, but I don't. Because you can never tell if a treatment is going to work before you try it. Every treatment is a question mark and the only way to know whether you'll get better or not is to try. I don't regret trying. Because even failure is information to use moving forward.

I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.

- Thomas A. Edison

Treatment Doesn't Work

I have experienced far more treatment failures than I have successes. I'm what you call treatment-resistant, also known as a doctor's nightmare. A doctor gives me pills, I get every side effect. I do therapy and I know what the therapist is going to say before they say it. I make other changes in my life to little or no effect.

Nothing works.

And when I say nothing, I mean 40+ medications and practically an infinite number of combinations. Intolerable side effects. Pain. Uselessness.

Seriously. Nothing.

Why Bother?

A friend of mine sometimes gets depressed. And he told me, he forces himself to go outside and do things anyway. When I asked him why, he said he knew staying inside wasn't going to make him feel better, but outside there was at least a tiny chance something would happen to make him less depressed.

Ah. Brilliant.

Continuing treatment is extremely simple: If I try something new, there is a chance I will get better; if everything stays the same, there is no chance.

Treatment, Even That You've Already Tried, Can Work

Today is not yesterday and today sure isn't three years ago. You're not the same. Your illness is not the same. You may not have seen a good response three years ago, but you might today. Or tomorrow. Or a month from now.

And the truth is there are always more treatments. Therapy, medication, ECT, VNS, rTMS, DBS and on, and on, and on. And any one of them can work. Really.

Because even a tiny chance of getting better is infinitely superior to no chance at all.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2011, August 15). How to Keep Going When Mental Illness Treatment Doesn't Work, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, July 23 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/breakingbipolar/2011/08/how-to-keep-going-when-mental-illness-treatment-doesnt-work



Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleTwitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Kiera Gardner
says:
December, 9 2017 at 4:13 pm
Thank you for sharing this. I have been in the "nothing works" journey for 26 years. I was able ttyl maintain some semblance of hope until about 2 months ago at which time even my hope failed. Since then I have felt something weird, a type of apathy that scares me. I've always have chronic suicidal ideation, but it's become such a casual thought process now. Without hope I feel more apt to self destruct than ever before. Your message made me feel less lonely. It was a breathe of fresh air and for that, I thank you.
Valerie Marx
says:
April, 17 2017 at 12:18 pm
I'm also mental Resistant tried many meds feel good for a couple weeks then I'm flat on my back, nothing is helping, I'm Lonley for one house bound and couch bound for 3 yrs now, everyday I ask why, why can't I clean my house, cook food, leave the house? Been seeing a therapist or psychiatrist caseworkers your name for years nothings helped! I think if I had a friend slash care taker come with positive attitude may help I don't know but your employment definitely controls my depression, what do I do next ???

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Natasha Tracy
says:
April, 17 2017 at 7:28 pm
Hi Valerie,

I'm not sure what your last sentence means. Can you explain?

- Natasha Tracy
DepressedAllMyLife
says:
October, 23 2016 at 10:09 am
I am a 63 yr old female, and can only remember one at in my life I wasn't depressed - the day my daughter was born. Other than that, my life has been continual, severe, unrelenting depression, despite a gazillion different medicinal treatments, therapies, hospitalizations, and even ECT. I have come to the conclusion that, for many of us "treatment-resistant" folks, it is preferable to accept that this is the way it is, instead of tossing our life savings down a black hole.
Barry Wilson
says:
March, 23 2017 at 1:59 pm
While the article was published 5 years ago I have to say that at that time the author based on how I am able to feel and function, is doing great. She was able to actually write down an article about this subject and her relations to it. Then she was able to put it online. And get some intelligent responses plus mine. From where I am. That is the picture of good mental health. But I imagine that there is a person who is unable to write a comment although they would like to. All the best
Eve
says:
March, 23 2016 at 3:38 am
I am at the end of my rope. The last medication gave me horrible side effects - a first for me, and something I don't need to happen again. I'm on a new med now and we resume the ECTs after I'm back from holidays with my SO.I haven't been this depressed in a very long time, and am seriously thinking about readmitting myself instead of going away, but that would let my partner down one more time. A lifetime of depression with the occasional bout of hypomania (not often enough to my liking, although the crash is not really worth it) is enough. I've had enough. Sometimes I think a rest home is the only way to go. Trying to live a life this way is brutal. Painful. And even more depressing when a new med poops out. We're probably going to move to bilateral ECTs now, given the limited effectiveness of the unilateral ones. There goes my memory and who knows what else. I know my psychiatrist would fix me if she could - she's been an unending source of support and compassion, for which I am truly grateful. But how much more can one person take? I know there's no magic fix, and I have tried so much over the years. But it's all disintegrating again and I can't keep pretending that things are all right. I'm tired, I cry all the time, and we're cranking the dosage of the newest med up as fast as is reasonable. I've come to consider my depression as me, not just an ailment because it IS who I am. It's unrelenting, it's interminable. I'm utterly fed up. I appreciate reading all these comments because it's awfully nice to see little rays of hope shining in the murk. Don't let me bring you down. It's probably just me. It's always just me. I'm so done. I can't find it in me to be hopeful any longer. Sorry for the downer post, but thanks for letting me share.
menotyou
says:
October, 1 2014 at 1:59 pm
I've never read such utter crap in my life as I have on this page.
Hilarious was the part about the friend that can tell them self to go outside LMAO.
That's not mental illness thats plain old boredom.
Try not to post things as such and act like you know anything about what its like to suffer and not be able to EVER feel good for over 30 years.
Nancy McLernon
says:
April, 30 2014 at 10:18 am
P.S. There is nothing painful about the treatment.There MAY be some short term memory loss but my memory was hampered by sever depression prior to E.c.T. there is no damage to neuro transmitter's. They grow back. They are reenergized after week's and month's of depression and lack of activity and stimulation. A doctor wrote his story about his receiving E.C.T. The Electric Man. haven't read it yet .too busy. :) That is a great thing! Peace and commitment to a life worth living.. Bless you,friends.
Nancy McLernon
says:
April, 30 2014 at 10:10 am
I had experienced severe depression from the time i was assaulted, my dear friend died,my mother died and my husband nd I moved away from my close relatives. I went from depression,to isolating to wanting to hide till I felt better.Quit my job,impulsively instead of taking a medical leave. Began month's of medication that did not work returning to a medication that once worked and then did not..I felt I was in a cave... I believed that I would never get better... I took sleeping pill's hoping to sleep till I was better. I could not reason and felt other's would be better off without me if I could not function again or joke and tease. After three hospitalization's, I went into a great residential treatment center and therapeutic farm and horticulture setting.I had to get out of bed... I did receive E.C.T. and at that point of my existence, I did not care about what the future held for me if i had E.C.T. I wanted a life worth living again. Thankfully,it worked!! I had no strength to object or even question. I gave my trust over to the E.C.T. Team at an excellent University Hospital and I have no doubt it saved my will to live. It was frightening,however the support and educating i received from the team was so comforting .
glenn
says:
December, 27 2012 at 2:41 pm
ive tried every therapy and medication too im seeing my gp tomorrow but its getting e down too.
a new medication is lined up but it didnt work last time and i am snookered and confused as to how i will get better. i have anxiety and ocd but head tension mainly
Mike H.
says:
September, 21 2011 at 5:24 am
~N, I totally relate to your friend who forces himself to go outside. With me however, I take my trusty weed puller. It is a task that I can completely focus on and I can turn around and see some immediate results. Of course here in the Great Pacific Northwest, we have no shortage of weeds! But, if I am in a particularly difficult state of mind over a long period of time, I've told all of my neighbors not to be surprised at seeing me on my hands and knees in their front yards cutting a swath of dandelion destruction. They don't seem to mind.
MMC
says:
September, 20 2011 at 8:48 am
My oversimplified understanding is that many time diagnosis is determined by what you actually respond to--so if you're bipolar you should respond to mood stabilizers but stay away from anti-depressants. So if someone is not responding to meds sometimes it is easier to change diagnosis than to wait for the next drug that is being put on the market. Especially if you are woman or person of color for which the classic symptoms might present differently.
ExcuseMoi
says:
September, 9 2011 at 3:57 pm
I've been dealing (unsuccessfully) with depression and bipolar for many years. After surviving suicide attempts and finally getting a job with insurance and seeing a psychiatrist on a regular basis, just when I saw a light at the end of the tunnel, my psychiatrist hit me with the "you'll never be whole" thing. Gee. Thanks. Just what a depressed person needed to hear. Then my Aspergers son tried to kill his little brother--twice. Anyway, there is help out there, and I am proof of it. Yes, my current doctor just spent an hour trying to reason with me that I am psychotic, but not enough to commit me (already been down that road), and my eldest son hasn't killed anybody yet. Yes, there are many downs like having to quit my job, and devoting many hours to counseling, and everybody involved is taking medications, but it's worth it. I refuse to accept that I have a masters degree and can't find a workplace to "fit it". I remain optomistic that with continuted treatment, I won't off myself, my eldest won't kill off the family, and eventually we will all attain some type of success in our personal lives.
James
says:
August, 17 2011 at 9:11 am
I've tried and had several medication failures. Some ended in hallucinations, while others triggered a severe mania. The worst failures I've found are the ones where instead of side effects, it just stops working. As depressing as those failures can be, I've always tried to remain realistic. Every time I've tried a new drug, I learn more about myself; what I'm willing to tolerate, what sort of symptoms I tend to get, any life style changes that have improved my stability regardless of the drug. I see each medication as a chance to learn a little more about myself, and that stays with me even after a failure.
madam bipolar
says:
August, 16 2011 at 5:41 pm
Hi Natasha,
Thank you for telling your story. It certainly can be a long path towards getting the right medication and sometimes it can be a very lonely journey.
My lifesaver was lamictal. I hope you find yours soon.
MB xx
Natasha Tracy
says:
August, 16 2011 at 8:46 am
BipolarBlogg and Natalie,

Thanks for the positive feedback. Glad I could help with perspective; it's a challenge for anyone.

- Natasha
Natasha Tracy
says:
August, 16 2011 at 8:45 am
Hi Alistair,

Great comment.

"It is frustrating at times but patients need to know that if care providers had a magic solution they would not hide it."

Yeah. I've felt like they were "hiding it" before. Not because I really thought they were but because I couldn't get better and I was desperate and I knew that other people got better. It _seems_ like they're hiding it, but of course, they're doing the best they can. (Which I tell people all the time and yet people find it hard to believe.)

- Natasha
Alistair McHarg
says:
August, 16 2011 at 7:11 am
So often we approach treatment with unrealistic expectations, especially when we are new to the game. Frequently we are coming from very painful and scary places - we look to treatment for salvation. We forget that treatment is more art than science, and that a cure is not a binary thing, like throwing a switch. The patients that do best are the ones that think of treatment as a process which requires a lot of trial of error, fine-tuning, and even experimenting. It is frustrating at times but patients need to know that if care providers had a magic solution they would not hide it. -- Those who crave certainty should remember that, while no treatment is infallible, what IS certain is that if they continue to do nothing, they will certainly continue to suffer.
Natalie Jeanne Champagne
says:
August, 16 2011 at 7:02 am
Hi, Natasha:

Great post. I just want to say that I have been following you for a while on HealthyPlace.com and on your website. I appreciate your honesty on the topic and am glad to be part of the blogging team. Thank you for, as they say, keeping it real.

Natalie

@ http://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/recoveringfrommentalillness/
BipolarBlogger
says:
August, 16 2011 at 6:45 am
Hi Natasha,

I started on a new treatment programme for my bipolar this spring with high hopes and a really positive recommendation from my psychiatrist. It didn't work. I got to a stage where I was feeling upset with myself for not responding as expected to the meds, which I know is crazy, but that's how it was. I'm changing meds now and have been on the new one a couple of weeks. I know I am going to be really disappointed if this one doesn't work either, but reading your post has helped me get a bit of a sense of perspective back, thanks!
Natasha Tracy
says:
August, 16 2011 at 6:05 am
Hi Robin,

This is really, really common. When treatment doesn't work it feels like your fault - but it isn't your fault. Mental illness can be very difficult to treat and you just haven't found what you need yet.

It's natural to blame yourself, but please know, that's just the disease talking. It's not you.

I recommend discussing this in therapy because a therapist is always there to back you up and fight the nasty things your disease tells you.

- Natasha
robin
says:
August, 16 2011 at 6:01 am
I have been struggling with the idea of being treatment resistant for a while now. I go back and forth between thinking i have an illness and its stubborn OR maybe, I don't and this is how I am- healthy but feeling shitty and this is how everyone feels and i just am weak?

I wonder about this- a lot. I wonder if its my job, not an illness, if its my relationship and not an illness, I even wonder if maybe i am just dehydrated!!!

Today, Im in treatment, but still feeling shitty and depressed and anxious. I wrestle everyday with it and someways- i feel like its not worth the effort.
mef123
says:
August, 16 2011 at 2:54 am
I'm also treatment resistant and it's been over 3 years since I felt good. But I won't give up. I really like what you said gives me hope.

Michele
Natasha Tracy
says:
August, 15 2011 at 6:11 pm
Darren,

I generally consider it an accurate assessment of the glass, but that's me.

- Natasha
Darren Joyce
says:
August, 15 2011 at 5:27 pm
Now that's looking at the glass half-full, isn't it?

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