Medicating Mental Illness For A Lifetime

Thursday, August 18 2011 Natalie Jeanne Champagne

When I walk into my psychiatrist’s office, I often feel like I am wearing a shirt stating: people with a serious mental illness will require medication for the rest of their lives. It is a tough pill to swallow−pardon the pun−but something I think about often. I have been taking psychiatric drugs since I was twelve years old. Twenty-six now, I have taken the same bipolar medications for a few years (finding the right ones was a huge struggle), and my lab work consistently comes back clear. The Lithium is not shutting down my kidneys, the Lamictal is working as it should, Prozac and Concerta wake me up each morning, and Seroquel allows me to sleep at night. All is well. My body is not falling apart: the medication keeps my mind alert. It makes recovery possible .
handful-of-drugs
Sometimes though, I imagine the handfuls of pills I take three times a day sliding down my throat and into my stomach, flat lining the highs and lows. I cannot help but wonder what these pills might do to my body in the future.

Stability Compromised by Side Effects of Medication for Mental Illness

No medication is risk free. Many medications for mental illness make you tired, listless, and depressed (this is, of course, ironic). Some make you manic, flying higher than you should, and others do nothing at all. Your psychiatrist will often tell you: “This medication usually takes a few weeks to a month to work”. Or longer: it's a waiting game.

It can take years to find the right psychiatric medication and once you do you might have to live with the side effects, some of which will go away, others can follow you throughout life. For example, my hands constantly shake from the Lithium (my handwriting leaves much to be desired and I am eternally grateful keyboards were invented!), and I am tired more than I should be. I have learned that you have to accept the illness in order to feel comfortable taking medication to treat it.

Recovering from a chronic mental illness like bipolar disorder carries baggage: bottles of pills, refills, and the need to remember what you must take and at what time of the day. It is, quite honestly, a huge amount of work.

Does the Benefit of Taking Medication for Mental Illness Outweigh the Risk?

It’s a controversial topic and based entirely on the individual. I have heard and met people who took medication for mental illness for many years and decided to wean off of it. I have also met people, myself included, who understand that their illness is chronic and stay on their medication. Now that I am stable, though winter is still extremely difficult for me, the idea of going off them frightens me. What would happen? Who would I become? What if I were perfectly fine? These thoughts, perfectly normal, mean that we are human. It is a compromise: medication can help you become well, it can help you recover, and it can cause side effects that make life difficult.

Does the benefit outweigh the risk?

Author: Natalie Jeanne Champagne

View all posts by Natalie Jeanne Champagne.

Medicating Mental Illness For A Lifetime

mef123
says:
August, 18 2011 at 5:15 am

I think the benefit outweighs the risk even though it's been over 3 years since I have been stable. But at one point the meds did work and life was wonderful again. I was happy (not too happy), but they stopped working and now I am trying to find the right combo. But I often wonder what would happen if I went off of them and it scares me, but I do wonder if I would be fine.

Michele

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Natalie Jeanne Champagne
says:
August, 18 2011 at 6:58 am

Hi, Michele:

I agree that, on my end at least, the benefit outweighs the risk. Recovery in regards to serious mental illness is not definitive: I still cycle throughout the seasons and sometimes my medication needs to be tweaked. When the medication works recovery is possible but it's hard to push the thought aside that maybe you could be stable without them. It scares me as well. I guess that's just part of living with and recovering from mental illness.

Sincerely,
Natalie

Dora
says:
August, 18 2011 at 6:13 am

Thank you for this article. I've often wondered myself what the effect has been taking antidepressants for the last 25 years. How has my brain changed, my body changed because of them?

About 10 years ago, I tried quitting. The side effects were unbearable, but I managed to stop altogether for about six months. Then my depression returned with a vengence. I'm 63 now. I don't see myself quitting again. I much prefer the stability and ability to live a better quality life. I wish you the best.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Natalie Jeanne Champagne
says:
August, 18 2011 at 7:00 am

Hi, Dora:
I think it's only human nature that we question what we put into our body, but if the medication can make life easier, and it certainly does, then I would much prefer taking it.

Thanks for your comment,
Natalie

jak2429
says:
August, 22 2011 at 8:19 pm

your article is an inspiration to me. for once i feel not alone with my bipolar disorder. my opinion is it is good to keep trying different medications to help with our situations. i was on citalopram and abilify for a year and soon went off my insurance because i couldnt afford it anymore and ever since then my highs and lows have been to the extreme. being a mother and a wife puts a major struggle on my family when i have my episodes which change every couple hours for me so its like a flip of a coin that i dont know if its going to be a good day or bad one, sometimes every hour i cringe on how fast i cycle through my moods, and i realize its hard to do it on your own. its not always easy to control the switches and sometimes i can never tell until its too late. the one thing i regret is getting off my medication because now it feels like my mind is slipping away sometimes. i would recommend if anyone has the privilage to have medication to help them, please dont quit on them and find the right one for you because if not it does get worse over time if not controlled with some kind of support or help.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Natalie Jeanne Champagne
says:
August, 23 2011 at 7:21 am

Hi Jak,

I was also on Abilify and even here in Canada, where insurance is much better, it was close to $100.00 a bottle. It seems so wrong that when people need medications, they cannot afford them. There are cheaper alternatives like lithium etc but I am sure you have tried them all. I went through rapid-cycling for many years and can only imagine how hard it is with a family. You are an inspiration to many. I have always wondered whether being bipolar and having a child was made harder by the illness? If you can provide any insight let me know. I am 26 years old and think of having a child often but I cannot help but wonder. Plus, you have inspired me to write an article on the topic. Thank you. I sincerely hope you can find some coverage for medication. It is terribly unfair you cannot.

Take care
Sincerely,
NJC

Ellie
says:
August, 25 2011 at 10:46 am

I have been on Cloziral for about 14 years now but I want off it. Every month I live with the fear that this will be the month where my white blood cells have died. I'm also on a coctail of other meds one of which is to protect my stomuch because I have to take so many and have for about 18 years. I would love to be clear of all the meds but I'm scared stiff of a major relapse. Luckily my psychatrist is willing to let me try and come off the Cloz but it will take 4 years dropping by 25mg every 6 months.
The meds are very good, when you find the right ones but why should we have to stay on them for life?
Reading the earlier comments I'm so glad I live in a country where I don't have to worry about insurance to cover the cost of the meds.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Natalie Jeanne Champagne
says:
August, 25 2011 at 2:43 pm

Hi, Ellie:
The best way to go off psychiatric medications is verrrrrrrrrrrrry slowly so your psychiatrist is dead on with taking so long to lower it. It may seem like a long time, four years is, but this way you won't have to suffer an awful relapse if symptoms come back. I live in Canada so much of it is covered but some of the other stuff I take like Concerta is not covered so over $100.00 a bottle.
Thanks for the reply,
Natalie

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