Navigating the Mind: What Medication Cannot Address

Lisa Samuels
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I stand between two walls.  On one side, my “everything happens for a reason, just let it be” mentality.  On the other side, my mental illness.  Perhaps both sides have many more surfaces that aren’t visible to those around me but frame my everyday life.  They form a multi-faceted octagon, if you will.  And all eight sides are made of glass, with nothing to grab onto, no handle to offer respite from the constant slip-sliding from face to face.  Some days, it feels like the glass breaks and I’m just falling into the center of my octagon, being crushed by my thoughts, my feelings, my exterior persona.  Other days, it feels like an explosion bursts me out from the bottom of that pit and I’m on top of the world, standing on the edge of my octagon with my hands on my hips and my head held high.  The glass is shoddily glued together, just waiting until the next time I fall through.

I tried everything to find my grip on that octagon: food to sustain me, marijuana to stabilize me, maladaptive daydreaming and alcohol to help me escape.  Yoga to calm me and aid me on my quest toward enlightenment, meditation to ground me.  Some of these worked, some didn’t.  Some are no longer a part of my life and some are.  Some come and go as if they have one foot out the door, but forgot their keys so they must return.  This is still my story.  This is my reality every day, yet I tend to minimize it so that I can try my best to fit into a society that doesn’t work for me.  Sometimes I don’t even think I realize how much I push it toward the back of my mind.  I am also an empath and I feel drained and tired.  I feel alone on this journey and I still feel like I don’t completely understand WTF is going on, not only inside of my own brain, but inside of everyone else’s as well.

It was about seven years ago that I felt like something was wrong.  Why was I always depressed?  When I was in a good mood, it never lasted.  My nights staying up until 5 a.m. creating business plans that never went anywhere, my self-transformations where I would lose 40 pounds in four months, my rapture, would give way to dark thoughts without explanation.  When I was depressed (which was most of the time), I wondered when it would end.  That was it: up and down, no middle ground, no escape from my octagon.  I was persistent in trying to understand my mind, I can tell you that much.  With constant journaling and researching, my foray into introspection— what I deem to be my spiritual journey — began.  But it is also where my mental health journey began when I finally decided to go see a doctor.

I have been through three psychiatrists now, and it wasn’t until the last one did I receive my official Bipolar II diagnosis.  The first one put me on antidepressants because neither of us realized that my hypomania wasn’t just the “real me” peeking through for a moment or two.  We didn’t realize that the antidepressants would turn me into a zombie, a shell with no personality and a flat affect.  And to know me is to know that my very essence is the exact opposite of that.

The second psychiatrist placed me on the “bipolar spectrum” and prescribed lithium.  I thought lithium was a godsend at first.  But when you spend so long feeling like shit, anything that makes you feel an iota better is like the Messiah returning.  After a while, though, I realized that I still didn’t feel great.  Yes, my symptoms were less severe, but I was still swinging all over the place.  Her solution was to keep prescribing lithium.  Each time I went to her office, she would ask the same questions, as if she were reading them off a list: “Are you sleeping OK?,” “Have you participated in any extreme behaviors like spending a lot of money?,” and things of that nature. I would leave with an increased dosage of medication and that would be that until the next visit.  Welp, that didn’t work.

My third doctor, and the one who I’m currently with, finally said that it sounds like I have Bipolar II.  I felt relieved because I thought it explained a lot.  He suggested trying a new cocktail that has really worked wonders for me.  He is a good man and a good doctor, always willing to hear my suggestions and discuss the various possible courses of action.  He has helped me lower my lithium dose and introduced me to lamotrigine, which has been a miracle drug in my case.

Psychiatry has been both a friend and a foe along my journey.   I realize that these doctors are not in my head.  They don’t understand.  Their only context for making these diagnoses is the symptoms listed on a piece of paper in front of them.  They are there to prescribe and that’s about it.  There is no explanation of what’s going on.  Maybe a quick diagnosis, and then the scribble of a pen and you’re on your way with a slip of paper for a medication that you’re not even sure will work.  There is no suggestion of what to read, where to learn, how to deal with your diagnosis.  It’s a one-and-done kind of visit.

In my experience with psychiatry, my treatment plan was totally up to me, which is a good thing in some respects. On the other hand, I wish there was a little more guidance.  I wish psychiatry was about more than just the meds.  For me, Bipolar II (or anything on the bipolar spectrum) is so complicated.  There are so many different aspects that pervade my personality, habits, the way I think, the way I perceive, feel, and more.  I will say, though, that I never thought I’d be able to find this kind of stability.  I never thought I’d be able to keep a routine, or exercise because I wanted to, not because of this crazy compulsion to go hard six days a week.  I never thought I’d quit marijuana after 15 years of very heavy use, or be sober from any mind-altering substances, really.  I have found a kind of calmness that I wouldn’t have found if it weren’t for medication.

Even though I don’t think I would have gotten very far without the meds, I still wonder about how psychiatry handles the other aspects of Bipolar II; it seems that aside from the mood swings, these aspects are largely ignored.  Sure, the meds keep me stable.  I do feel happier overall.  But the thoughts are often still the same.  One day I’m determined, the next, I’m questioning everything.  One day I’m out and about, the next I’m holed up in my apartment wishing the world would just understand: understand me, understand that the society we live in is fucked up, and that it’s all just an illusion.  I don’t get depressed or hypomanic anymore, though.  It’s just a different angle of the diagnosis that is rarely addressed by anybody in the medical field.

I also think my Bipolar II and empath traits go hand in hand, and I do wish I could understand why there are so many layers to our feelings and how to help ourselves when we’re feeling overstimulated or overcome by the emotions of someone else.  These are all issues medications do not cover, and though these traits can be directed into creative outlets and other good and worthy causes, for me, more often than not, it’s difficult to be on this rollercoaster ride.

I’m still learning myself, and I’m still learning Bipolar II.  I still don’t know where I’m going or where I’ve been.  I’ve learned a lot, I’ve seen plenty, but for some reason, none of it fills this void that I have and that I’ll probably never be able to get rid of.  I’ve spent my whole life coming and going, never landing anywhere and, in all honesty, I still feel that way sometimes.  I tend to know a little about a lot.  Yoga and spirituality are still major parts of my life and they keep me sane.  But I even still feel separate from the people who belong to these worlds.  It seems that everywhere I turn, there is a sort of energetic brick wall that I cannot break through in order to relate.

I can tell you the things that nourish me: deep conversation, emotional and energetic connection, broad spirituality, solitude, nature, yoga, tarot, giving good advice, having my voice heard.

I can also tell you the things that deplete me: structure, social norms, hook-up culture, being around too many people at once, my persona.

But it seems that society only supports the things that deplete me.  How can I be myself when an entire culture is stacked against me?  How can I know myself when I feel like a failure for trying to make something out of nothing, trying to inspire real conversation and give people something to think about? Thus is my multifaceted mind, I suppose.

Well, at 34 years of age, I’m finally learning to let go of that which depletes me and pursue whatever I am trying to accomplish.  I’m learning to accept that I am a fish out of water, swimming from one project to the next, needing constant stimulation, needing my income to be derived from things that I truly believe in, even if I’m working on several things simultaneously.  I’m learning to accept that perhaps I’ll never fully fit in and that perhaps I wasn’t meant to.  I’m learning to believe that I was put here, exactly the way I am, for a reason.

I had to use the medication to give myself a fair shot.  I am not a huge fan of being on a ton of meds, but at the same time, I feel like if you need something to help you, or if you feel like you need to be helped, there’s no harm in giving it a try.  Just be aware that they can only do so much.  The rest of the journey requires some navigation and self-direction.  Whatever path you choose to take, it has to be right for you and you only, for only you can know and understand what’s going on inside that wonderful brain of yours.

 

 

 

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

9 COMMENTS

  1. “In my experience with psychiatry, my treatment plan was totally up to me,”

    Well least they gave you that. Was the “diagnosis” up to you also? I’m asking this pertinent question because the diagnosis is strictly a label and has nothing in common with “medicine”.
    I guess that is why you were told that the treatment plan is up to you.
    Although there are many that are not offered choices.

    Nevertheless, you found a change with the drugs they gave you. Ones you see as positive and as long as you don’t recommend psychiatry to unsuspecting folks, then all is well. Because I’m sure you’ve heard of and seen harm, so you could only ever say that it helped you. Not in fact that psychiatry is helpful.

  2. If your spiritual journey ever takes you past Buddhism maybe you should check out anatta.

    I’ve found letting go of concepts like the “real me” or ‘being myself’ has made me far more accepting of my emotional swings. It’s all just life. Grist for the mill. Dukkha, as the Buddha put it.

    Ditching the value judgements of my own emotions has meant I don’t get the existential despair and suicidality that came with the down swings anymore. Or the grandiosity of the ups.

    Of course letting go of the ‘self’ also means letting go of notions like “I am an empath”. But hey, who needs labels, right?

    And if you want to get an intellectual handle on anatta it’s probably better to skip Tibetan Buddhism and try Theravada or Zen. The Tibetans don’t really do anatta. Lamaism and all that.

    But intellectual grasping of anatta barely scratches the surface. It’s no more helpful than having an intellectual understanding of how to play the piano. Actually getting it takes practice, practice, practice; though very large doses of psychedelics can give you a peek at how it looks (not recommended for people prone to psychosis who aren’t accepting of that state).

    BTW, I don’t consider myself a Buddhist but I’ve found many of its ideas and practices quite helpful.

  3. When I read people’s stories like this, I think about the parts theory of the mind, which seems to explain so much, like bipolar. Why aren’t more people aware of it and more interested? It seems like people invent all kinds of explanations when the one that makes real sense is not noticed.

  4. As an empath, I had to learn all about energy fields and psychic boundaries in order to distinguish my energy from that of others. Chakra training helped me more than anything. When I learned who I was as energy, I learned how to embody my true nature freely. We’re all unique and different, which is how life is interesting and creative.

  5. This is a sweet letter. I call it a “letter” because it makes me think of a message in a bottle.

    Yet it is not clear that Lisa is really asking for help (or advice) here. To me it seems more like an invitation to understand her and to forgive her. She cannot bring herself to be radically anti-meds. They have helped her too much, it seems.

    But, read between the lines, we see here another condemnation of psychiatry and its effeteness. She couldn’t even find a doctor who would suggest something for her to read, or was willing to just sit down and get to know her a bit. How shameful! The first thing my therapist did was suggest I read a book (one of her favorites, I can only suppose).

    I travel somewhat widely around the web. I have met people who just want to sell me the latest cool audio gear, engineers who seemed consumed by the problem (not really, I hope) of reducing the current draw of their designs to increase battery life, UFO nuts, and remote viewers. They all have things they are searching for, goals for themselves, or their families or the planet. They would all be assisted by a better understanding of the fundamentals of life. And yet almost all of them don’t really believe such an understanding is possible. Some are quite sure it is not. Some accuse me of being something unspeakable just for suggesting this might be possible or desirable.

    Too bad.

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