People are often surprised when I tell them that I no longer take any medications for my bipolar disorder. Sometimes this is because they’ve heard me advocate the importance of medications. Other times it’s because they don’t understand how I can be bipolar and still be okay without them.
The Obligatory Disclaimer
Before I explain why I no loner take medications, I need to make a few things crystal clear:
Medications saved my life. Without them, I literally might not be here today. They are an invaluable part of treatment for bipolar disorder and if you have been prescribed medications by your psychiatrist, you must take them. (I did.)
There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking medications prescribed by a mental health professional. In spite of what you may be hearing elsewhere, taking medications does not make you “less good” of a person in any way. Taking medications doesn’t make you weak, it actually strengthens you in many ways. They certainly strengthened me.
Regardless of personal feelings, you must involve your doctor in your decisions to change the dosage or kind of medication you are taking, or else you are just asking for trouble. It took me several tries to find a doctor with whom I could feel comfortable speaking freely with and who would respect my input in my treatment. This was a vital first step for me before starting to experiment with my medication’s dosage because there is no substitute for a professional’s advice.
During this entire process, I was seeing a licensed psychologist who I trusted implicitly. No matter what anyone else says, I strongly believe that having a therapist is the single most important support mechanism you can have. Friends and family are wonderfully helpful and nothing short of necessary, but a professional therapist can provide objectivity and insight that no one else can, and which bipolar disorder patients need. (At least, I did.)
Just in case it isn’t obvious yet, I am not a mental health professional and nothing I say should be interpreted as medical advice. I speak solely from personal experience, and I have no doubt that you are different from me. Everything I say is about me and only me.
My Simplistic Logic
Now that that’s out of the way, allow me to share my own reasoning. Like many other people with bipolar disorder, I was told that I would need to take medications for the rest of my life. In fact, I took them for about six years, from the ages of twelve to eighteen.
The short answer to the question “How come you’re no longer taking medications,” is because I no longer need them to function. I think that medications, like every other form of treatment, are a tool and nothing more. You can use them to modify your base mood and decrease the standard deviation of your mood swings and episodes.
For many people, like they were for me at one time, they are an absolutely critical tool and need to be used constantly, much like a stove-top range or refridgerator or pen and paper. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Lots of people I know don’t even want to think about going off their medications because it is such an important tool for keeping them stable and in a good state of mind.
For me, however, there were several reasons why I wanted very badly to no longer take medications. For instance, they had a load of side effects that I simply could not tolerate. These inclued but were not limited to:
Side Effects I Experienced
- Photosensitivity (pain in my eyes caused by light).
- Lethargy, apathy, and sleepiness.
- Frequent urination.
- Difficulty focusing and intense trouble comprehending written text.
- Weight gain.
Lack of Emotional Self-Awareness
The most prominent reason however, was the fact that they were simply too effective at quelling my emotional self. In other words, the medications doctors prescribed for me worked so well at quieting emotional uprisings that handling my emotional wants and needs, outbursts and swings, could have been completely relegated to the medications.
All I’d need to do is a pop a pill and I’d be an emotional zombie for the rest of the day. That’s not how I saw myself growing up. Remember, I was a young teenager at the time.
In order to grow up and increase my emotional intelligence, I knew I had to actually deal with feeling emotions on my own and not with a pill that abolished all of my feelings for me. So I started slowly reducing the dosage I was given. The net effect was that I could slowly turn up the amount of emotional “volume” I wanted to handle by myself and still let the medications mitigate a portion of it for me.
Getting to the point where I was completely free of medications was an extremely slow process. It took me four years of being stable on medications just to be able to safely cut my dosage in half. I expected the other half to be no easier, but thankfully, with all that I had learned during the first four years, it was.
All of those dosage experiments, of course, (except the last bit) were done in conjunction with supervision from my psychiatrists and while I was seeing a psychologist (a therapist). That was important: a psychiatrist can help you with your medications but only a psychologist, and only one that you really like, is qualified to help you deal without the medications. No friend, no family member, and no stranger with a kind heart can help you as much as a therapist, in my humble opinion. (Though it is important to seek out other forms of support too.)
Life Without Medications
Now that I am off medications, don’t think for a moment that my life has suddenly become easily manageable. If anything, it’s far harder; I have mood swings all the time, I am constantly fighting a battle against irritability and a lack of motivation, and I still experience majorly disturbing bipolar symptoms like racing thoughts, hypersexuality, and hypomania. Nevertheless, despite all of that, I have learned how to handle myself well enough so that I can still (at least for the most part) function in day-to-day life.
You won’t find me going on a spending spree during a manic episode. You won’t find me sitting in a corner of my apartment with a kitchen knife pressed into my wrists. You won’t find me blowing up at friends or family at the slightest provocation (though this one is really hard not to do).
You will find me taking deep breaths to combat a mood swing. You will find me working on personal hobbies during a hypomanic phase. And you will certainly find me biting my tongue when I get into pointless arguments.
The bottom line in all this is that, while the emotional impetus to do all sorts of things that would be harmful to me exist all the time, I no longer respond to them in the same way that I used to. This is nothing short of a minor miracle for me, since at one point in my life I was completely under the control of my mood’s whims. Changing that has not been easy, but it has been unbelievably rewarding.
Finally, it should also be noted that all of this is possible while still on medications, and much of it indeed happened like that for me. No form of treatment is exclusive of another, and most of the time different treatment regiments actually spill over and benefit one another. Everything I used (and still use) to help me, from medications to therapy to support from family and friends, contributed major benefits that I don’t think I could have gone without.
In the end, I’m still learning how to handle myself in more effective and efficient ways. It is a never-ending journey of self-reflection, challenges and successes (and failures), and just growing up. Even after all this I realize I have a long way to go. That’s life.