I was lucky; my first prescriptions for treating bipolar disorder was a mix of Depakote and Zyprexa (whose clinical name is actually Olanzapine, but is marketed in a variety of different ways). That didn’t work for me. I gained over 60 pounds in 60 days, and ended up ballooning from 110 pounds to 177 pounds with no sign of slowing down.
I was taken off the Zyprexa and put on Lithium. So my cocktail was 1250mg of Depakote, plus 900mg of Lithium daily. That worked pretty well for me. Over time I have been able to reduce that dosage down dramatically, but that was only possible due to (literally) years of actively, consciously, teaching myself how to handle my own emotions and swings.
Still, I know that I was lucky. I have corresponded with folks who have been looking for medications that will work for them for more than three years and have still not found anything suitable. They are still looking.
I would say, however, that how “religiously” one takes one’s medications could have a really big impact on how well they work. That is to say that if you don’t take them exactly as prescribed, you’re going to find it a lot harder to get a working cocktail. I’ve got no proof, though, just an impression from speaking with many people about it.
That said, I think it’s important not to put up with side effects that are too negatively impacting your quality of life. What constitutes too negative an impact on your quality of life is, of course, subjective. The basic idea, though, is that something that works for you is supposed to increase your quality of life. It’s like if you stub your toe. You’re not going to stub your other toe just to make you forget about the first one.
Another important point to make is that medications are in fact limited to increasing quality of life. In that sense, they are just as effective (and sometimes far less so) than various simple things you can do every day. Whatever makes you feel better is, for all intents and purposes, a medication or treatment for bipolar disorder. And that’s not even a far-fetched thought, considering bipolar disorder is something we have to live with and deal with every second of every waking moment of our entire lives. Writing, computing, and getting some fresh air can very often have just as profund an effect on me as taking a pill might. That’s actually been the key to being able to reduce my reliance on medications while not relapsing. Modern medical science has very little to do with cures and a lot to do with quality of life. Afterall, we still can’t cure viruses.
(Somewhat tangetially, antibiotics and other medicines you may be given do nothing more than help your immune system fight off the infection and symptoms of viruses. But once you are infected with a virus, you will have it for the rest of your life. And on a even further tangential topic, that’s precisely the point most people seem to miss when they scoff at safe sex practices.)