Four years ago, due to a marital crisis (since resolved), I fell into a deep depression — not sleeping, not eating, crying all the time. I knew enough to get myself to a psychopharmacologist, a psychiatrist who specializes in prescribing psychotropic medication, although a good one wasn't that easy to find.
In response to my telling the first one I saw — after she'd asked for my history — that in college I'd fallen in love with a heroin addict, she asked, very earnestly, "And how many years were you using?" "Never," I replied, deciding on the spot that I didn't like her because she hadn't really heard what I said. I had said I loved the man, not the drug.
After interviewing a few more, I found one I liked. She seemed to "get" me, and during our first session, she began planning my regimen-to-be of meds. However, most of the meds we tried either didn't accomplish the job or gave me side effects like being so parched I had trouble speaking. About one medication she prescribed, she had warned me that a very, very small percentage of people taking it developed a potentially dangerous rash and immediately had to stop taking it. Lucky me — I was one of that "very, very small percentage."
After many tries and failures, we settled on a "cocktail" of meds that helped lift my depression. Everywhere I went, I met other folks on psychotropic meds, some of whom, like me, had been through the mill, and others who had adjusted easily to the drugs, and were now taking a daily cocktail, as I was.
Adding to our delay in coming up with a cocktail for me is that there's an entire class of antidepressants called SSRIs, such as Prozac and Zoloft, which I can't take. Years ago, when my older sister died, I fell into a depression and went for help. I was immediately prescribed Zoloft, which quickly lifted my depression, but also propelled me into bona-fide mania. For a month, I barely slept or ate, and excitedly barraged the people around me with rants and long self-righteous speeches. I remember going into a shop in the West Village that sold African items like bowls, pillows, rugs, and scarves. The store was empty, and I went up to the young woman at the counter and started lecturing her about the importance of the work of Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born political radical and humanist who wrote about post-Colonialism and post-Marxism, and whose work I was hardly an expert on. The woman looked at me bewildered as I ranted on and on, enjoying myself tremendously.
Eventually, at my husband's urging (I was having too good a time to think about going off the meds on my own), I went back to the psychopharmacologist who had prescribed Zoloft to me. I described my symptoms to him. Instantly, he had an answer: "You're bipolar. That's the bottom line on anyone who responds to Zoloft like that." He rattled off the names of famous people who were bipolar (all of whose names began with the letter "V," for some reason): Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, and Vivian Leigh. "You'll need to go on Lithium right away." He'd already written the prescription.
I was stunned, as I'd never struck anyone — including myself — in my circles as bipolar. I'd only had this one depressive incident (at least only one that was labeled as such), and I'd definitely never had a manic episode before.
Still, I went home and dutifully took the Lithium and hated it. It induced tremors in my hands, a sense of dullness, and a lack of energy or creativity. I went to a second doctor who, hearing about my manic reaction to Zoloft, also labeled me as bipolar. "Get off the Lithium," he said, "and start Tegretol." I can't remember the side effects it caused, but they were major. My therapist at the time agreed with me that I wasn't bipolar and had been misdiagnosed, even though she was the person who'd recommended Psychopharmacologist No. 1 to me in the first place.
Finally, I went to a third psychopharmacologist who took me off Tegretol and said, "Trust me, you're not bipolar – you're simply outside the box!" I went off the drug and didn't experience any further depression, feeling grateful that I'd managed to find a "rebel" psychopharmacologist.
Although that was a while back, I still react strongly to most medication, as my second foray into psychotropics, four years ago, proved. Once we'd found some meds that worked, my psychopharmacologist wanted me to remain on them, believing that I have a lifelong vulnerability to depression. A couple of years ago, I tried to go off one, a mood stabilizer, but immediately fell back into a depression, and resumed taking the drug, thinking she'd been proven correct.
More recently, however, I decided, based upon a few articles I'd read, that the drug in question was elevating my cholesterol (it wasn't, as I ultimately discovered; my cholesterol is fine). But before I knew it was fine, I told my psychopharmacologist that I wanted to try to go off it again. "Let me know at once if you become irritable or have any changes in mood," she warned me. I promised her I would, and so far, so good.
Overall, I've been a very compliant patient these last few years, gamely trying everything I've been prescribed. And now my marriage is in very good shape (we sought counseling and fought hard to grow as a couple); my 12-year-old daughter is happily engaged with school and friends, etc; and, I feel creative, energetic and well loved.
For some people, being on meds their entire lives is necessary. I may turn out to be one of those people, but I don't know that yet. Soon, I plan to try to go off the final medication I'm now on (another mood stabilizer), to see whether I can stand on my own without it. So, what will my "new normal" be? To thrive and flourish in life with or without meds? I don't yet know, but I'm eager to find out.