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Do I Have to Take Meds Forever?

I can't give you the answer you want, because the real answer is "Probably. You will most likely require psychotropic medication for the rest of your life." (I'll get to that "most likely” in a bit.) 

Personally, I don't see what's so bad about taking meds. Is it our upbringing, with the incessant "Drugs are bad" messages from parents, teachers, and media? Is it stubbornness about having to do anything for the rest of your life? Do you find pills hard to swallow? Does taking pills every day make you feel old? 

The reason doesn't matter. The truth is that the medications help. They stabilize your moods, pull you out of depression, put a cap on mania, and generally make life easier to live for you and those around you. It may take a while for you and your psychiatrist to find the right "cocktail," or combination, of medications that work for you. But once you have found the right formula, why would you not take it? The choice, for many of us with bipolar disorder, is between meds and misery. 

Some people are turned off by the side effects, and that's valid. Some side effects can be long-lasting or even fatal. Those are very rare, and your prescriber should watch out for them until you settle in to your drug routine. Most side effects are much less serious – dry mouth, nausea, dizziness – the same sorts you could get from any medication, and they are quick to go away. So, would you really prefer misery to dry mouth? 

Perhaps the most dreaded side effect is weight gain. And it's true. Some psychotropic medications – though not all – are notorious for causing weight gain of some degree.

In a way, it's a case of battling stigmas. There is certainly stigma that comes with having a mental disorder, though many people and organizations are raising awareness and trying to lessen it.

There is also a significant stigma, particularly in American society, against being fat. It's true that some overweight people experience serious medical conditions related to their weight. But more of the stigma comes from the stereotype of fat people as greedy, lazy, sloppy, ugly, undesirable, or disgusting. Think of all the fat jokes you hear on TV. Think of all the fat jokes that your friends and relatives tell. Think of all the little "digs," slights, indignities, veiled insults, and blows to the ego that fat people face every day.

Sometimes it seems that mental illness would be better than that. At least people can't tell that you have bipolar disorder just by looking at you. They may, though, depending on the severity of your illness, think there is something "off" about you. I have had friendships shattered when the symptoms of my bipolar disorder got in the way. And there are plenty of jokes about “crazies,” “loonies,” and “the insane,” that you have to listen to and may try to laugh at so you won't be recognized.

But, honestly, it can be hard to remember just how miserable you were before your medications started working. Not taking them will throw you back into that same state of misery. (I wrote about this in my blog post "I Chose Fat Over Misery.")

Why else should you keep taking your medications? Quitting your meds can also be dangerous. If not tapered off gradually, some of them, particularly anti-anxiety medications and sleeping pills, can cause severe withdrawal symptoms. It's dangerous to make the decision for yourself instead of letting a medical professional guide you through it.

I make taking my meds part of my morning and evening routines, just like taking my blood pressure medication or my cholesterol-lowering drug. I routinely take vitamins, calcium supplements, and fiber every day. To me, taking my psychotropics is no different. They improve my mental health, and even my physical health, by making it easier for me to take care of myself.

However, there is one reason that I said that people with bipolar disorder may not have to take medications for the rest of their lives: science. Transcranial magnetic stimulation and other high-tech techniques do not fully promise, but at least suggest, that there may someday be treatments for mental disorders that may not involve traditional medication.

Until that day, though, I'm not throwing my psychotropic life-savers away.

Read more of Janet's posts here.

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