bipolar parent

The Gold Standards of Bipolar Medication, part I

Photo of medication by Cassandra Stout. © 2013 under a <a href="">Creative Commons License</a>.
© Cassandra Stout and The Bipolar Parent under a Creative Commons License.

Behold, the marvels of modern medicine, and the chemicals which have saved my life.  I make no bones about how privileged I am to be alive.  Finding this semi-stabilizing nightly cocktail took nearly five years of searching, countless visits to a slew of psychiatrists, and an amount of money I don’t even want to tally right now.  I’ve tried SeroquelAbilifyOlanzapine, Geodon, and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few others.  Most made me so sleepy I couldn’t lift my head.  One made me break out into hives.  Abilify worked perfectly–for about six months.

Not all pills work for everyone, and some people who search are unlucky enough to not find any.  Sometimes the side effects are just too awful to handle.  But there are two heavy-hitting, more-likely-to-work drugs which tend to come up first in a conversation regarding symptoms of bipolar disorder: lithium and valproic acid.

Lithium carbonate (Eskalith, Lithobid)

Lithium carbonate is largely considered the “gold standard” for controlling symptoms of mania. Unfortunately, despite prescribing it for the past seven decades, no one knows exactly how it works.  A 2010 study in the Journal of Lipid Research found that lithium both reduces inflammation in the brain and helps metabolize the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, which has anti-inflammatory properties.  These new findings are inspiring scientists to expand  their research and use the drug more effectively.

Unfortunately, the side effects are nasty.  They can include weight gain, hand tremors, acne, gastro-intestinal issues, excessive thirst, tics, and the likelihood of damage to your thyroid with long-term use.  Due to the dangers of lithium toxicity, you will need to be monitored carefully by a licensed professional.

But this drug made my life worth living again.  When Nolan was a baby, I was obsessed with breastfeeding him.  Since lithium passes through the breast milk, I stubbornly refused to take it.  Shortly after Nolan turned two, I realized that most of my waking hours were spent writing suicide letters and frantically plotting out care arrangements for him after my death.

I chose the pills.

The change was immediate.  It was like someone had opened all the windows of my brain and let the fresh air in.  My moods and feelings felt like they’d lost some of their intensity, and of course there were heavy side effects, but I no longer felt like a strung-out zombie.  Whatever murky film that kept me from connecting with my loved ones dissolved.  It truly is my miracle drug.

On the rare occasions when I miss even a fraction of a dose, I’m thrown back into my manic fugue and have to take at least a week to recover, depending on how many milligrams I missed.  Like Depakote, I’ll gladly take this drug for the rest of my life–even when it destroys my thyroid.

What do you take, if anything?  Stick around for the next post, where we’ll cover Depakote and Lamictal.

Not meant to take the place of a medical professional.