November 10, 2020

A Year on Mood-Stabilizing Medication

This is a challenging post to write. I’ve been planning it for 6 months, but haven’t been able to follow through until now. And while part of my procrastination is due to normal (two young kids, clients, etc.) and abnormal (global pandemic) life circumstances, there’s also a weight to it that’s tough to touch.

In March 2019, I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. I wrote a post about my battle with depression, in which I talked about my life-long struggle and the highs and lows I’ve experienced. I detailed my journey but failed to call it by name. A well-intentioned friend inquired why. The answer is simple and unapologetic. Because I wasn’t ready. It was a big enough step owning my struggles. Labeling them and, in turn, myself wasn’t something I was prepared to do.

The word bipolar is alarming. It’s loaded. It immediately evokes images of a buzz-haired Britney Spears wielding an umbrella and trying to smash a car window while rage overcomes her otherwise lifeless face. Bipolar scares people. Bipolar labels people. It’s sensationalized, weaponized and blanketed. Once you’re bipolar, you’re automatically deemed unfit, flawed and others fear you.

While bipolar I and II carry some of the same symptoms, they differ greatly. And it’s an important distinction. Bipolar II never reaches full mania. It’s considered hypomania, meaning just below. With II, there’s never a full-on manic episode. So no umbrella smashing or hallucinations, no danger to yourself or others. Instead, I experience heightened periods, as I described in my previous post. More energy, extra confidence, a natural high where I run in a hundred different directions. These are immediately followed by lows, which leave me wanting to stay in bed all day and hide from the world I once raced. Days or weeks later, I’m up again. Then down. And so continues the cycle. It’s a mood disorder that includes depressive periods. So I live with depression and mania. And while both were discussed in my post, they went without a name.

And that was my decision. Mine. It’s up to me if, when and how I share. A year ago, it was hard enough to talk about my depression. I wasn’t ready to add the weighted word bipolar. To be honest, I’m still not completely ready. I’m not sure I’ll ever be. Outing myself leaves me feeling exposed and vulnerable. But it’s that same shame, embarrassment and fear that keeps me from releasing it. The longer I hide from it, the harder it is to come to terms with it. So here I am. I have bipolar II.

And for the past year and a half, I’ve sought treatment for my disorder. As mentioned in my initial post, I began seeing a therapist when my symptoms were simply impossible to ignore any longer. I was sick. I needed help. And I’m so glad I finally got it. I’m so relieved I didn’t put it off another year. Or decade. I’m finally allowing myself to be healthy and no longer denying myself peace in exchange for “normalcy.”

My psychologist referred me to a psychiatrist and, together, they treated me. I was diagnosed and then prescribed medication (all the while continuing therapy). I was put on Lamictal (Lamotragine). It’s an anticonvulsant typically used to treat epilepsy. But it also serves as a mood stabilizer. My doctor chose it because it’s, apparently, a very clean drug and she’s witnessed it doing wonders for those with bipolar II.

I started on 25mg and every week, I gradually increased my dosage by another 25mg’s. If you increase it too quickly, and without supervision, you can have a severe allergic reaction. My doctor mentioned, that in very rare cases, it could even be deadly. She told me this and then sent me off on my 4oth birthday trip to Napa, the translucent orange bottle clutched tightly in my sweaty, anxious grip. While I was away, I started to notice a slight elevation in mood. But I was in wine country, without kids, so who’s to say it was the medication?

After Napa, I left Zach and my friends at SFO and continued on to Palm Springs, where I was to speak at the Alt Summit conference. The next morning, I woke in sunny southern California. It was my 40th birthday. I opened my gift to myself: two little white pills, which I chased with water as I had for the past several weeks. The day was filled with events, including my speaking gig, some meetings and a photoshoot. I was on top of the world. It’s hard to say whether it was my natural, hypomanic high brought on by travel and career opportunities or if it was aided by my medication. Either way, I was on fire.

So was my back. As I was changing clothes for the photos, I felt itchy. I assumed it was from the tag I didn’t take off. (I was planning on returning it. Don’t judge me, Karen.) After an hour and multiple changes, I was still irritated. I then attributed my discomfort to the desert heat and clothes that didn’t let me breathe. Soon, I was distracted. That evening, I had a few birthday cocktails and passed out early. The next morning, I hopped in the shower ahead of my all-day seminars. As the warm water rushed over me, I felt the sting. I jumped out and looked in the mirror. An angry rash was climbing up my back. I immediately thought of the deadly reaction my doctor warned me about. Panicked, I phoned her, assuming she would settle my fears. Instead, she told me to go straight to the ER.

I called Zach on the way, followed by two of my best friends. They could barely understand me, I was sobbing so hard. This was it. I finally accepted medication and now it was killing me. This is what I was afraid of. Actually, no. Not even my nightmares were this dramatic. I was scared of weight gain and a drugged out demeanor, not death.

In the emergency room of Bob Hope Hospital, in Palm Springs, California, two handsome residents assured me it was not a lethal, platelet rash like those developed from Lamictal, but rather a common irritation that was likely caused by the hotel towels or VRBO hot tub. After a few hours, I was released with a prescription for a steroid cream and a new appreciation for my life.

As much as it rattled me, I was still so relieved to finally be on my journey to improved mental health. Once I returned home, I was back to my routine. One day, after dropping Lilly off at school, I was driving down the same road I’ve traveled for three years now. Suddenly, it looked different. The trees were fuller, the sky bluer, the day brighter. Everything was sharper, clearer. This time, I knew it wasn’t a natural high. For the first time in almost thirty years, I was seeing life as it should be.

I continued to up my prescription until I reached 250mg’s. It’s where I remain today. And my mood has significantly improved.

To be clear, I’m actually not a moody person. At least, not what we all consider to be moody. Zach holds that title in our house. Lilly and Oliver aren’t far behind. Sure, I have my moments, especially as a mother and even more so as a sudden and reluctant homeschool teacher. But otherwise, I’m pretty even-keeled. I’m not a grumpy, pessimistic person. I don’t get hangry. I’m not swinging on a moment-to-moment basis. My swings are over longer periods of time and they’re almost always self-inflicted. Most would never even know I’m suffering.

The medication has helped balance everything out. I was so afraid it would dull my personality and render me passionless. But I’m still the same fiery me, just less pressured. I don’t drive myself to the brink. I give myself grace. I know when to call it quits. I also don’t sink so low. I don’t pay the consequences for a week-long bender. Not only because I no longer go on them, but if I do get a little too high, I have something to cushion the fall.

I’m still sensitive. I still let the world’s problems become my own. I still get sad. But I’m not as tired, defeated, overwhelmed or critical of myself. I’m kinder, softer and gentler. That kindness manifests in every thing I do and every way I think. From how much and how hard I work, to what I think about my body. It translates to others too. I say no more freely. I don’t care as much what people think of me. I no longer have FOMO. I don’t compare myself anymore. When entertaining, I do less and enjoy more. Much of that may be attributed to age. But I know better.

The day-to-day tasks are more manageable too. Going to the grocery store or unloading the dishwasher does not feel as insurmountable as it once did. I have less of a short fuse. Cooking dinner for my kids is no longer overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, I still dread it. I disdain being a short order cook. I hate begging and negotiating with them to eat the five foods they like. But it doesn’t completely defeat me. I’m more patient with my family and myself. I still snap, of course. I’m human and they’ve been sent here to torture me. But it was getting scary. Forget fly, I would blast off the handle, in angry flames, torching the whole house down. Then, I would feel terrible, scooping them up and showering them with so much love, in attempts to overcompensate for my rage. It was a pattern that scared me straight into therapy.

And I’m proud to say that, eighteen months later, I’m far from that woman. I haven’t been her in quite awhile. For a good year or so, I’ve felt more like myself than I have in a long time. And thank God I got myself situated before Covid. I can’t imagine the amount of despair I would’ve felt without medication during one of the most challenging seasons of our lives.. That’s not to say it’s been easy. I’ve struggled along with everyone else and will continue to. But it’s not to the levels and depths I would’ve previously weathered.

It’s a work in progress. As am I. To progression and health. May they continue.

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