Tag Archives: bipolar medication

Combating the side-effects of bipolar medication that affects your appearance

This post turned out to be a bit longer than I planned, so if you just want the advice, scroll down and read the italic bits. If you want to understand better, can relate or generally enjoy my self-deprecating humour, please continue. 

It seems that the side-effects of psychiatric medication is something that isn’t discussed enough by medical professionals. In my younger, more naive years I thought that if the doctor didn’t say anything about side-effects, it meant that there weren’t any. Until weird things started happening to my body and I eventually had to take to Google. What you learn very quickly is that everyone experiences side-effects differently, and something that I can’t possibly imagine is true, happens to you.

There are a few side-effects that are relatively common across most psychiatric meds: weight gain, serious fatigue, skin conditions, nausea, gastrointestinal issues to name a few. For some people, most if not all of these symptoms disappear after a while, but weight gain and fatigue usually lasts (especially with anti-psychotics). When I started Lithium almost exactly a year ago, my family couldn’t understand why my doctor hadn’t put me on it a long time ago. Neither could I really, until my doctor warned me about possible kidney failure, thyroid disease, blood tests, dehydration, balancing my salt intake and possible Lithium toxicity. She left out the ‘smaller, less important’ side-effects that I first thought was in my head until it became completely abnormal: hair loss and acne. Along with weight gain, these are the side-effects I want to talk about.

I guess that doctors don’t consider discussing the side-effects that affect your physical appearance as important since they don’t happen to everyone, and aren’t life threatening, but they definitely have a big impact on your already fragile and depressed self-confidence.

1. Weight gain

Of the three, this side-effect is the most common, and caused by most anti-psychotics (except Geodon), some anti-depressants, and most mood stabilisers (like Lithium) except for Lamotrigine. For more info about specific meds and weight gain, go check out Mayo clinic.

Get support

I can only tell you what worked and didn’t work for me. When I was first put on Seroquel (anti-psychotic), I picked up 8kg in a very short time. I didn’t even realise how much I’d picked up before it was too late. I tried going off Seroquel but I could feel myself slipping badly. Later I tried switching to Geodon, but it was extremely expensive and my dose was probably not high enough, so I had the most wonderful hypomanic episode followed by and epic crash that landed me in the hospital again with a new psychiatrist. I had to accept that Seroquel was here to stay. I joined a weigh-loss programme that conveniently had a branch at my offices. It took me a YEAR of mostly being hangry and wanting to cry when I walked past chocolates, but I lost 10kg. I did cheat over weekends, otherwise I would have died. So I was finally on my goal weight; not skinny, but not overweight. I should have continued with the programme but didn’t, and so picked up 5kg again. It was okay though, I had learned a lot and could monitor my eating better.

So my advice is, join some sort of weight support group where someone can help you plan meals, where people keep each other accountable, where you are forced to weigh yourself once a week, and where people keep each other motivated. You don’t have to tell your bipolar story to everyone, but at least tell the person leading the group what medication you are on and how it causes (in my case) sugar and carb cravings and makes you feel like you are ALWAYS hungry. And STICK with it once you’ve reached your goal weight to stay there. 

Consider a possible medical intervention

And NO, I am not talking about diet pills. That shit is bad for you. I am talking about the anti-depressant Wellbutrin. Wellbutrin is also sold as Zyban and helps people to quit smoking. It is also known for making people lose weight. Lithium causes weight gain too, but I started Wellbutrin at the same time and since then I have lost, and kept off, about 6kg in a relatively short time without consciously trying. It is only now that I have lost the weight and am back on my goal weight, that I am making an effort to keep it off. I’ve experienced it as pretty miraculous. Word of warning though, Wellburin doesn’t work for everyone. It either works or it doesn’t. It is also known to bring on (hypo)mania, which is why I am currently only on 150mg and not 300mg. It is also pretty expensive and not all health insurances cover it. Unfortunately there also isn’t a generic at the moment. So seriously discuss it with your doctor first, especially if your are taking a combination of other stuff. To me and others I know it’s been well worth it.

Exercise

I put it here because I feel I have to, not because I practise what I preach. Personally I am not a fan and apart from occasionally walking my dog a block or 2, I haven’t exercised in months. BUT it does help with weigh-loss and general health etc. There is loads of info out there if this is your thing. Just remember weight-loss is more diet than exercise and just because you exercise doesn’t mean you can eat what you want if you want to lose weight.

2. Acne 

I had problems with my skin all through my younger years, so I was pretty happy to grow up and have that stop, mostly. And then it just flared up like crazy! Especially along my jaw line where I never use to get spots before. I couldn’t understand it. I’d been on birth control to help me with moods and hormones for many years, but even on that my skin looked like crap. So I changed brands, and changed again. It was only after a few months that I looked at Lithium side-effects again, and there it was. Acne.

I didn’t want to go on antibiotics unnecessarily and there was NO WAY I was going on Accutane. Not that I can now that I have a mental illness diagnosis anyway, but that shit is BAD. Thinking about it, no medication side-effects has ever been as bad as that. So anyway, no matter how desperate you are, don’t use Accutane.

Once I moved back to my sleepy town, my mom suggested that I go for a chemical peel. She did it when she was in her 30s and swears that’s why she looks younger than all her friends who are younger than her, and it is much cheaper here than in the city. Problem was I really hate facials. The minute they put a warm cloth or steam machine over your face I  feel like I’m drowning. I was also scared that it was going to look like someone threw acid in my face. But desperate times… I wasn’t going out because even thick make-up couldn’t cover up how hideous I looked. Something had to be done.

Luckily the girl that now does my chemical peels is really sweet and professional and the whole process is not at all what I expected. They start you off with a very light peel and increase the intensity as your face gets more use to it. She also told me to switch to dermatologically recommended wash and cream with no perfumes or funny things as my skin is crazy dry. And it’s working! I’ve gone for 3 peals every 4 weeks and I look like myself again! I’ve always been vigilant about my skin routine, but now I’m SUPER vigilant and will continue to go for the treatments as long as I can afford it. The place I go to uses Placecol products, but I’m sure there are other good products out there too.

My doctor also lowered my Lithium dose a bit because my blood levels were too high, and that probably helped too.

3. Hair loss

I’m sure you could gather that the acne situation was really bad. And it was horrible. But the hair loss! Nothing could have prepared me for that.

I’ve had a beautiful, glossy, wavy mane of hair for the largest part of my life. I love my hair. It has been every colour and style under the sun (except blue and pink), but now that I qualify as an adult, I’ve kept it pretty long. I don’t have to style or use product or even blow dry my hair, and I barely comb or was it. I LOVE my hair.

Obviously long hair falls out a lot, so I’m use to that, but then I started noticing that the hairballs from my brush and the shower were getting larger and larger. I thought it was all in my head at first (no pun intended), but it got worse and worse. Making a ponytail I could actually feel a marked difference. It made no sense, this sudden hair loss problem. And then I went back to the Lithium booklet. It was the only thing that made sense and it pissed me off severely. The worse part is, there isn’t really anything you can do about it, except lower you Lithium dose and cross your fingers that it stops.

And luckily it did. Surprisingly, it also started growing back! The only stupid thing now is that I have these little Alfalfa hairs sticking up all over my head, and what my hairdresser recently referred to as ‘bum fluff’ (ridiculous little corkscrew curls) that are frizzing on either side of my forehead.

I haven’t been to hairdresser in almost a year, because I didn’t want to explain why it looks like a child got to my hair with a razor, but then I made friends with a friend of my brother’s who I didn’t mind telling the bipolar Lithium hair loss story to. Once you’ve gotten your hair to grow back, there isn’t much you can do about it, but she basically recommends:

  • Don’t touch your hair at all, because the baby hair is fine and by trying to get it flat or uncurled you just pull the hair out again.
  • After you’ve blow dried your hair, you can set it with cold air (didn’t last long for me).
  • Don’t straighten the baby hair (in my case my bum fluff) because the flat iron will also damage it and pull it out.

Someone also recommended that I use horse shampoo, but I haven’t found any yet, and I have also started using folic acid but not long enough to know if it makes any difference.

 

I hope that there is someone somewhere who has looked long and hard for some answers on how to just look like yourself again and who will find them here. If you have any other tips on psych med weight, acne and hair loss PLEASE share. The struggle is real people and I don’t want to have to choose between looking good and feeling good, because that’s just not fair!

*Please discuss any and all medication adjustments with your doctor. Don’t be stupid and make things worse for yourself. NEVER just stop your meds cold turkey on your own. You think taking meds have bad side-effects? You don’t want to go through withdrawal!

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Prescription medication vs herbal remedies

I’m almost a little scared to write about this, because it seems like these to very distinctive camps simply cannot agree. But in this post I don’t want to discuss which one is better than the other, or what I prefer. I just want to bring some facts to everyone’s attention, and hopefully give some insight. I’ll do my best to keep my personal opinion to myself.

Most people who prefer to uses herbal stuff are all-natural, free range, organic kind of people. The whole thing, as I understand it, is about not putting anything that the earth didn’t produce itself, into your body. I think. I respect that. The prescription drugs we take to keep our brains under control can have nasty side-effects and while they are good for your brain, they’re not always so good for your body. But is herbal remedies really that much better, just because it is only made from plants and things?

My major problem (and hopefully the last of my opinions) with herbal remedies is that it leaves waaaaay too much room to be swindled out of your money with nothing to show for it. A quick google search shows you that you can use anything from lavender to kava to a whole lot of unpronounceable herbs to ‘cure’ your depression. And these drugs are not tested by the FDA. Often, or dare I say most of the time, no studies were performed on these remedies, or the sample size was very tiny. So we can’t even know what the side-effects are most of the time, until we experience it. If you take a remedy with say hibiscus, your whole oral cavity can swell up and you wouldn’t have known that it would happen. At least when I took anti-convulsants, I knew of the possibility that a rash could develop.

The other major problem is that herbal remedies aren’t usually tested to find out how they interact with other herbal remedies, or western medicine. Maybe someone can help me with this one (honest question because I really don’t know): I’ve never used St. John’s Wart, mostly because the leaflets in my medicine boxes says it can cause a bad reaction. My question is if St. John’s Wart comes with the same warning label? How about its interaction with ibuprofen, paracetamol, codeine etc? Is it safe?

I understand why someone would want to use herbal remedies instead of medication for things like insomnia, anxiety, depression, energy etc. Heck, I used to use them for anxiety and insomnia. They aren’t addictive, for one. And maybe some of them actually work and are safer. I didn’t experience any side-effects from the ones I tried. But then again I didn’t experience any effects at all!

So here’s what I’m saying: Don’t dis western prescription medication. They have been tried and tested and refined. Sure, they can be bad for you, but there is at least some science behind them. You can talk to various specialists and while they won’t agree 100%, they will agree on the principles. And don’t start the ‘big pharma’ debate where I can hear you. If it wasn’t for medication I wouldn’t be typing here, I’d be dead by my own hand.

If you prefer herbal remedies, that is your prerogative, and if you have found something that has been proven safe AND effective, please let me know so I can check it out. But before you stick anything into your mouth, whether herbal or not, DO YOUR RESEARCH. And that’s not just checking the first site you can find on google. Find at least three corroborating  sources. TALK TO AN EXPERT, whether traditional alternative therapy practitioners, or western trained doctors, and make sure you find out about possible side-effects and interactions. MONITOR CHANGES TO YOUR BODY, just like you would with anything else you take. DON’T GRAB THE FIRST THING YOU SEE, because more expensive is not necessarily better. CHECK THAT THE MANUFACTURER IS CREDIBLE.

Don’t be a sheep and don’t be taken for a fool either. No matter what you choose to treat yourself with, be sure to check the facts and get your bang for your buck.

A history of the Madhouse documentary

I watched this BBC documentary today called A history of the Madhouse. Be warned that it is not for the sensitive viewer and if you don’t know much about the history of asylums and the treatments they performed, you might be quite shocked and horrified. I was, even with my limited knowledge. Dorms with 32 beds, every inch of the place locked up, padded sound proof cells, abuse by nurses, early forms of ECTs with no anesthesia, insulin treatment, lobotomies. The poor crazies (and actually not so crazies) at the time really got it in the 30s to 50s especially. Some went in for one week of observation and only left 5 years, 20, 30 years later. Locked up and isolated from the world. Most of these people weren’t even mentally ill, just unwanted or problematic. Patients were not seen as people but as research projects. Many died from lobotomies and insulin treatment that sent them into comas to ‘reset’ their brains. We look back on these treatments and regard them as barbaric. Others, like a more refined form of ECT and Lithium, are still used today. Some of us owe our lives to the poor people who were subjected to these atrocities year after year.

I think of the private clinic that I frequented and cannot even imagine how it must have been to be locked up in an asylum. Margaret Thatcher can be thanked for them finally being closed in Britain. Problem was, the community care everyone was raving about didn’t really work since most of these poor people didn’t have a vocation or basic life skills. Many of them ended up on the streets or at the Salvation Army, which I suppose is better than the streets at least. Thatcher’s plan was to destigmatise mental illness, to have society view it as illness rather than madness. How she must be turning in her grave to see that these prejudices still exist world wide.

The documentary made me wonder, will some of the treatments that we are subjected to today also be viewed as barbaric 50, 70 years from now? Will people be appalled about how we’ve been medicating our lives away just to function within society’s norms? Or will what is done now be considered as ground breaking, pathing the the way for more specific and sophisticated treatment? I know that some research is being done at the Mayo Clinic about isolating genes and then determining your exact bipolar type so that treatment can be tailored for you needs. But how long is this going to take? Another 50 years? We can only hope that it’s sooner, since those of us with mental health issues are not having such a bloody good time of it.

There is hope, I suppose, one never knows. In the meantime I am extremely grateful to the people who had to subjected to life threatening and debilitating treatment like lab rats, so that I can sleep a bit sounder, or function a bit better.

The bipolar roller coaster

A friend of mine who also suffers from bipolar disorder recently got an absolutely gorgeous tattoo of a roller coaster on her back (of which I am extremely jealous). (She also writes a blog definitely worth reading and much more eloquent and witty than my own) I just realised again today what an appropriate symbol of bipolar disorder a roller coaster is. Just three days ago, and for two or three weeks before that, I was in a completely state of self destruction and hysteria, mixed up with some calm for blissful half hours here and there. I honestly didn’t know how I was going to make it out the other side. The walls around me were not caving in, I was actually pushing them out, and I didn’t know how to stop myself.

What had brought me there? Switching anti-psychotics? Family drama? Recovering from my grandfather’s death? Work pressure? Romantic disappointment?  Probably all of the above to some degree. Especially since it all happened more or less at the same time. And today, not three days after a long series of gut wrenching mini-meltdowns, barely picking myself up each time, I seem to have turned a corner. I had a beautiful calm day, hanging out with friends, going to the beach with the dogs and having pizza and wine. I’m chilled. It was a good day. I didn’t even have to take an Alzam (for anxiety).

So what brought about this turning point in the epic roller coaster that is my bipolar life? The higher doses of Geodon (anti-psychotic) and Epitec (mood stabiliser) kicking in? The calming effect that the Alzams have had on me over the last few days? Getting a good 12 hours of chemically induced sleep last night? Reevaluating my life and realising things were getting out of hand? Having people pray for me? Trying to channel my energy constructively instead of destructively (I even wrote a song!)? Probably all of the above to some degree.

That’s what makes it so tough, isn’t it? Trying to isolate the variables is useless. There is no real knowing what causes what and what different things will trigger or what will bring you back from the edge. When I went off Seroquel and onto Geodon I was extremely hypomanic for about a week. I went away with friends and they kept saying that they’d never seen me that happy. It was true, I was having the weekend of my life. The weekend after that, I had a family weekend and stayed up until dawn two nights in a row. But what goes up most come down (except for Jesus, as my Sunday school teacher friend pointed out), or sideways, or upside down, or through a tunnel, or to some extreme state, if your roller coaster is a bipolar one.

I’ve always known that I just have to ride it out. It becomes the difference between yourself and suicide, the knowledge that it will pass eventually. What I’ve learned this time is that I CAN ride it out, with the right medication, rest, and support from people who understand and/or who care about me. People who just let me be a pretty fucked up version of myself without judging me. I don’t think it will ever be easy. It’s an illness after all, and a pretty terrible one, lets be real. It’s not suppose to be easy. But what I realise when I go through this ever so often is that I am stronger than I even know. I could probably rule a small country by myself. Be it by the grace of God or sheer willpower, I am a ninja, and every time I come back and kick life’s ass, I can confidently give it the finger and say ‘there, you lost again sucker!’ That doesn’t mean that it won’t take some time for me to nurse my wounds and recover emotionally from this ride to the depths of darkness and back. My soul, and my pride, is a bit bruised. After all, I hate roller coasters.

 

When a handful of pills a day doesn’t keep the bipolar at bay

This is a repost from almost ago. I haven’t been very bloggy this year. I got bored I think. Or lazy rather. I respost this because the more things change, the more they stay the same. I’m not experiencing anger right now, but excruciating emotional pain. And I feel so sad for myself that despite everything I am back here again, just like every year this time. Because bipolar cycles. That’s what it does. I feel like I’ll never win. And even though I have a wonderful support system, deep down I am truly alone (sorry friends reading here. You mean well and I love you for it. But it is true)

~~~

One of the many fun things about having bipolar disorder is that sometimes, no matter how diligently you take your meds, work out, eat healthy etc, you still go some shade of crazy. And I’ve had many things recently to go crazy about.

At the moment I’ve reached an anger. An anger about the fact that I take 10 prescription pills a day, which equates to 280 pills a month, spend loads of money to take the ones that don’t turn me into an overweight zombie, and am still cycling all over the place. I’ve reached a point where I wonder if it is even worth taking all these pills that make me dizzy and sleepy and mess with my digestive system and make my eyes go funny. There are those who say that if I wasn’t taking my meds, things would probably be much worse for me, and yes, that is most certainly a possibility, but there’s no way of knowing is there. I’m never stable for more than two months at a time anyway. The only reason I haven’t stopped taking my meds is because, if things go pear shaped, I have to start all over again, starting on low doses and working my way up and through side effects. I just can’t take it anymore.

I’m not suicidal, I’m not depressed, but worse than that I am in this hypomanic limbo where I am stable enough to somehow manage my daily life, but not stable enough to not fall apart every night when I get home from work. I feel a constant need to lash out. And no, kick boxing won’t do the trick. Exercising sometimes makes me worse, because I get more worked up from more adrenaline. I can’t listen to music either. I can’t focus enough to read and I certainly shouldn’t be drinking. I can’t live on Alzams because I’ll definitely get addicted. So far changing medication, again, seems to have little effect. Life keeps throwing shit at me, as life does with everyone. So what am I suppose to do? Bitch into cyberspace? Not many other options it seems.

I feel like the medication is messing with my reactions. I don’t even know how I would react off medication. Since I was diagnosed two years ago I haven’t gone off them. My whole life has become about getting the chemical cocktail in my head right. What kind of life is that? I want to be able to freak out and feel like everyone else. And even though I think all these things, deep down in my little heart I can hear myself, and everyone around me, preaching to me “it’s an illness, like diabetes”, “you can’t go without medication”, “things would be worse if you weren’t on medication”, “just ride it out”, “don’t lose perspective”, “things will look up again”, “stop focusing on the negative”, “don’t be such a martyr (that’s my own voice)”.

My response to all these little nuggets of wisdom?

Skrew it, thank you very much.