There are a lot of tools people with bipolar disorder use as a part of their treatment plan. Medication is one of the main tools used, along with therapy and self-education. We asked our volunteers about their experience with medication, they share what they have learned in this article.
Finding the Right Medication
Finding the right medication or combination of meds can be a journey. The journey begins with making the decision to try medication. Then it can be a long process of finding what works.
Bipolar disorder varies greatly from person to person, and so does the right medication. What works for one person may not work for another. This makes it hard to find what works best for each individual.
Your doctor decides what medication to prescribe based on the symptoms you report to them. They start with what has the highest success rate for other people with similar symptoms, and then make adjustments from there. It’s very important to be open and detailed with your doctor so they can make the most informed decision. You should tell them about any side effects you experience, and whether or not you think the meds are working and why. Be patient as it can take up to 8 weeks for some medications to start working. Together you and your doctor will adjust the dosage of the medication, switch to a different one, or add in new medications to your cocktail. You will continue to tweak this with your doctor until you find the right balance.
How long does it take?
Our volunteer responses ranged from 2-10 years and 3-30 different med combinations before finding the right one.
“We tried a couple medications but they didn't work. Then we tried a third medication and it was like a miracle.” – Mary Alice Do
“It took me approximately 10 years to find the right combination. I have tried 30 individual medications, combinations of each of them, including different doses.” – Marina Julius
Changes with Time
Even after you’ve found the right cocktail, it could change in the future. Some people adjust their medication throughout the year based on the seasons. Sometimes your body gets used to the medication, which is called tolerance. This could mean increasing the dosage or switching to a different medication. Sometimes a side effect becomes more of an issue, so the medication might be switched for that reason.
“I have had a few cocktails that 'worked' at various points in my twenties, but my body changes response every few years it seems. I've been stable on his combination for a little over a year now.” – Whitney Parrish
“My medications had to be changed and adjusted over the years. Also the doses of the medications and the timing of medications were both critical. The best thing to remember is to stay on the prescribed medications and do not change anything without talking to your doctor first.” - Nany Karg
Most medications, mental health or otherwise, have a risk of side effects. Side effects can vary in how tolerable they are. Almost every single volunteer said that they did experience side effects either with their current medication or in the past. These are some examples of the most common side effects:
- Weight gain (and sometimes loss)
- Trouble sleeping
- Feeling foggy or dull (particularly when adjusting to a medication)
- Dry mouth and increased thirst
Is it Worth It?
So, is it worth it? The answer for most of our volunteers is yes. All but one of our volunteers who responded said their medication was worth the side effects. Jessi Lepine said that while she still has side effects, “anything is better than being sick.” Shannon Yazurlo similarly said, “Yes, completely. Without a doubt 100%.”
Many of our volunteers said it was worth dealing with side effects because they can be easily managed. There are different methods available to reduce side effects, such as herbal teas for insomnia or Tylenol for headaches. The simplicity of drinking a gallon of water a day due to dry mouth and increased thirst. Diet and exercise also help to manage many side effects.
Talk to your doctor about any side effects that you experience, especially if they are becoming a problem. Your doctor might adjust the dose or consider trying a different medication if the side effect is not tolerable.
Medication is Only Part of The Puzzle, Where Are the Rest of The Pieces?
Medication by itself is usually not enough to fully manage bipolar disorder. Over half of our volunteers said that therapy was a huge factor for their recovery. Many volunteers also recommended going to support groups.
There are also lifestyle changes you can make. Nutrition and exercise are helpful for managing bipolar disorder as well as side effects from medication. There are other self-management techniques (link to article) that can help, such as finding a hobby or using a mood disorder app on your phone. Sleep is another critical factor, studies have shown a link between bipolar disorder and circadian rhythms.
Try not to be discouraged if the first medication you try doesn’t work. It can take years to find the right combination. Having a support system and other treatment methods in place helps you to manage while you are going through the process of finding what works. Remember to be open with your doctor about your symptoms and any side effects, and eventually you will find the best treatment solution for your needs.
To read more about medication, visit the medication section of our blog.
This article was written by our Advice and Support Community, a group of about 50 volunteers who contribute their advice based on their experience living with or caring for someone with bipolar disorder.
International Bipolar Foundation is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read or received from the International Bipolar Foundation.