Why I Don’t Take Medications for My Bipolar Disorder

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.

Specific Reasons

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.

7 replies on “Why I Don’t Take Medications for My Bipolar Disorder”

  1. I’m curious. What would you do if you find a serious relapse occurs? There are theories that bipolar disorder is an organic brain disease that can, with the help of medication and behaviour modification, go into remission, but that can certain recur. Would you still deny medication?

  2. Would I still deny medication in the face of a serious relapse? Absolutely not! Never, in fact, would I completely shut the door to medication. And just recently I considered the possibility that I might need to go back on them due to the emotional turmoil my recent break up has caused me.

    I haven’t needed them yet, but I admit I might in the future. I don’t have anything against medications, I just don’t like them. They are one of many tools that I use to help facilitate functionality, and I would not hesitate to use them if I needed to.

  3. Ultimately, it is YOUR CHOICE. We have seen, though, that sometime, the “YOUR” part (in “YOUR CHOICE”) may be flawed, pardon the expression, by less than adequate judgement, especially when it is plagued with serious mood swing, up or down. There were many instances of very unfortunate events, notwithstading suicidal, of bipolar sufferrers who were utterly convinced that what they were feeling/doing is OK. This is when you can and should rely on others.
    It is a heavy load, and you are, so far, carrying it with stride. reading this made me hopeful and worried simoultaneously. Not that this would change anything. You are lucky to have own that brain of yours. I hope you take good care of it always. I love you.

  4. Bipolar Disorder has shaped my family. My maternal grandfather, my mother , my uncle all have it. Can you function without medications? Yes, I have seen it in both my uncle and my grandfather. Would they benefit from proper medication? I would agree for my grandfather it would have been helpful. He was horribly abusive to my mother and her siblings. My uncle seems to get along well without it. He seems to be reasonably happy and he has two happy little girls. On another note, I have seen the harm of medications. I should clarify, the wrong medications. They are only helpful if you have the correct ones. I grew up with my mother suffering with her illness because her medications were constantly given incorrectly by her
    doctor(s). Her hands shake uncontrollably now at times as a long-term side-effect. It wasn’t until 2000 when she tried to commit suicide again that her doctors finally realized she was only ‘just’ functional. So they had to do something. Now I finally have a mother that I can have a conversation with and not a guilt trip. So I am thankful for every moment because she did not succeed in her last attempt and that the proper medications have given me the mother I only had glimpses of growing up.

    I think medications are necessary more in some people than others. If you can live without them Meitar then it is something you should do. With all things life is about management. If you learn from your experiences then you are on the right track… which you are of course!

    It is easy to go down into Hell; night and day, the gates of dark Death stand wide; but to climb back again, to retrace ones steps to the upper air ~ there’s the rub, the task.
    ~Virgil, Aeneid

  5. This is exactly what I feel like! I’m so glad I found your blog entry. I’ve been diagnosed five yrs ago, been in constant therapy for 3yrs, have been hospitalized when I was 20 and had extreme difficulties with medication. One of the worst side effects I had was a constant blurred view. I never had to wear glasses and luckily my psychiatrist prescribed me other meds, but it often occured again. Above that I’m a Lithium patient and Lithium is still a risky thing due to toxicity. I’m off medication for a year now, but I’ve always got sth in stock in case of…
    I completely agree with you when it comes to therapy. My episodes have changed. Whenever I had a phase I was never really aware of it. I just went with the tide (or the abyss) and only because other people/psychiatrist/therapist told me I realized how far away my own perception has already drifted. That’s probably the cruelest realization.
    By now I can identify triggers much better and though it’s still far from “alright” I somehow still manage without medication.
    Something that really helps me is being a vegetarian. I figure it has sth to do with all the hormones and antibiotics and all that crap. I never cared for that when I was on medictaion. But I really feel it does help to keep an amount of balance.

    Thank you again for sharing this.
    I wish you all the best. :)

  6. After 20 years of taking prozac and lithium under the care of a psychiatrist, I took myself off the meds. There was no way my shrink was going to let that happen, so I did it myself. I agree, it is extremely dangerous, but I’ve been living on the edge for decades now, so what’s the difference?

    It has been about 6 months. I have also quit smoking and drinking over the past 3 months. I had retired but that was not good for me so I have taken a job across the country and will travel there by car and start a new job 8/12. I will then have health insurance and the means to see a doctor.

    I’ve been told I’m a strong woman, and now, I believe it. I never would have thought I could survive the stress of the past several months. However, I’ve gotten better. Much better. I’ve learned to cope in ways that were ALWAYS unavailable to me for some reason. I blame alcohol for a great deal of the difficulty, but I was sober for 17 years in my 30’s and I was still unable to cope adequately–until I got on meds.

    I will find a psychologist when I get to my new destination. I need help. I know that. I’m managing now with lots of sleep, self-taught cognitive behavioral therapy, healthy eating, meditation, exercise and some good friends who know me well and care about me. I look forward to getting help from someone who knows bipolar, anger management and cognitive behavioral therapy.

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