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The Side Effects of Side Effects

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Side effects definition: “Problems that occur when treatment goes beyond the desired effect. Or problems that occur in addition to the desired therapeutic effect.”

Um, sure. That’s the pretty way to put it.

I’m not making fun, but I have to chuckle when those commercials for medications come on TV and the list of side effects they read out at the end is longer than the commercial itself. The reason I laugh is because I know firsthand that it’s often true. Medication side effects are real, like really real! Anyone taking medication for any condition knows the battle of side effects vs. the desired effects all too well. When all you want is to be well, it’s amazing how long and how far you will push yourself to tolerate the side effects from any given treatment. It can be heartbreaking when the side effects become too much and you must give up any of the desired effect you may have been receiving. It’s so cruel that they can get in the way of your ultimate goal of simply being well.

I have resigned myself to the fact that medications along with their side effects will always be a part of my life as I continue to strive for a better one. However, I still sometimes feel the need to, well, bitch about what seems to be the side effects of the side effects.

Most of my meds are for bipolar disorder. These are some of the common side effects I have experienced:

1. Increased appetite

Yes! This would be great if I was 90 pounds to start out with, but I am not. And what can an increased appetite lead to? Weight gain! Trust me, being overweight does not help your state of mind when you’re trying your best to crawl out of a depressive episode. I battle with this one to this day. Not a helper at all on your quest for wellness.

2. Drowsiness

If this side effect hits you at the right time, more power to you. But for me, it was pretty unpredictable. I had one med that kicked in mid-morning despite trying to take it at different times. I once fell asleep, sitting up while I was waiting for an appointment. I woke myself up with a gasping snore as I fell off my chair and had drool running from my mouth. And no, I wasn’t the only one waiting for an appointment. Real classy.

3. Acne

I don’t care who you are, how old you are or what your story is, no one feels good about themselves with a face full of blemishes. I was well into my 30s when I developed severe acne. I have to admit that despite trying my best, it really upset me, especially because at the time my med cocktail was working so well in treating my symptoms. I can remember my dermatologist not understanding why I wouldn’t just quit my psych meds. It took a year and a half to get control of it. I feel for anyone who has ever dealt with acne at any point in their lives, especially if digging out of the hole of depression.

4. Constipation/Diarrhea

I’m not really sure if I need to go into a great deal of detail for you on this one. I can just tell you that I have been on both ends of the spectrum. I had so many issues at one point that I was oh so fortunate to have to get a couple of colonoscopies done. Let’s face it, the whole colonoscopy experience is extremely inconvenient at the very least. Humbling indeed.

5. Excessive Sweating

This one may be the worst. I only experience it on my face and head, but it is so obvious. Heat obviously brings it on but so does anxiety. It is embarrassing, and people often ask if I’m OK. It makes me feel disgusting and dirty. I find myself worrying about it all the time before I go to do an activity. It adds to existing anxiety issues.

6. Restless Legs

OK, for this one I have tried just about every trick in the book. Rub lotion on your legs, put a bar of soap between the sheets, take two Advil before you go to bed. I have yet to find the perfect trick. I usually just end up kicking the s#!t out of my covers until it wears off and I can finally fall asleep. However, I am careful with my kicking after one night I accidentally inadvertently launched my cat off the bed. Oops. See, even others experience side effects from the side effects.

7. Dry mouth

So dry mouth is also known as cotton mouth. When I was working, this whole dry mouth thing was really an issue. I had a job where I spoke with people all day. One busy day I had no time to fill up my water bottle, get some gum, nothing, and as I was talking to a customer my mouth was so dry that my lips curled under on my teeth. I had to excuse myself. And I was asked so many times if I was OK because of the number of trips I took to the washroom due to all of the water I drank. It wasn’t long before the rumors spread that I was pregnant.

8. Nausea/Vomiting

And finally, another one that doesn’t really need too much explaining. When you get it, it stops you in your tracks. Heaven forbid you’re driving or doing something like speaking in a meeting. This is a side effect I have experienced often. I don’t exactly have a great amount of built-in warning time, and I’ve had a few too many close calls. And if you are constantly being sick, odds are you’re not keeping your meds down and that obviously just defeats the whole purpose of taking them in the first place. If you’re working it can be horrible, and it’s difficult when you don’t want to explain to the whole world why you’re not feeling well. Again, the rumors fly.

I really don’t like to complain. I am thankful for the meds that have provided me with desired effects that help me get through my days. I just sometimes find it a little unfair and sometimes cruel that the medications made to help us move closer to wellness can cause such horrible roadblocks on that very journey.

Editor’s note: Please see a medical professional before starting or stopping a medication.

Image via Thinkstock.

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5 Things My Bipolar Disorder Diagnosis Is Not

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I’ve lived with bipolar disorder for more than half of my life. I often wonder how early the first signs of the illness appeared. Looking back, it brings tears to my eyes to admit that I believe it was probably quite early. Slowly but surely, the illness made more and more of an appearance in my life. Back then, before being “formally” introduced to it by receiving my diagnosis, I obviously didn’t know its name, but I certainly came to recognize its face. In 2005, when I finally did receive my diagnosis, my first reaction was relief. I finally had a name for the face. However, receiving the diagnosis and the never ending treatments to follow didn’t lessen its presence in my life like I had originally hoped. As much as I hate to admit it, after my diagnosis, I have often felt consumed by my illness. At times, it can feel as if it is in some way behind everything or in a way is everything, both good and bad.

So after some thinking, there are some separations I want to point out to others, and also to myself, to remind us all what the diagnosis of bipolar is not.

1. An excuse for my behavior.

I’ve been high, and OMG, I’ve been low. My manic episodes included little sleep, drinking like a fish, spending money like I had it to burn, sleeping around, dropping out of school in my last semester. My depressive episodes were the extreme opposite. In bed for days, unable to even take care of myself, often landing in the hospital in pieces. However, receiving my diagnosis did not provide an “excuse” for all of that behavior. I am still responsible for what I do or have done. I now simply have an explanation as to maybe what is behind that behavior. It has been suggested to me before that I could or should use my diagnosis as an excuse, and I believe that is wrong and simply feeds into the stigma of the illness.

2. A license to speak down to me.

I have run into this in a few places. I have sadly experienced this on mental health wards in hospitals by actual nursing staff. It’s difficult enough to be dealt with this way period, but when it’s by someone who is in charge of your care when you are in a particular vulnerable state, it is truly disappointing. Fortunately, I believe this is usually a case of a few bad apples in a bunch.

Another location I have personally found this is at my local pharmacy. They are obviously aware of my condition due to my many medications and information, yet some of the staff talk to me as if they’re eating their face. I find this especially when I’m advocating for myself or trying to correct an error on their part.

Bottom line, I’m a person deserving of respect. My diagnosis should in no way affect the way you speak to me.

3. Permission to judge me.

Although I haven’t chosen to share my diagnosis with everyone in my life, the truth is, I live in a small town, and I’ve been ill for a long time. Word gets around, and sometimes it gets back to you. Unfortunately, when word gets around, it’s often like a game of telephone and the story gets skewed. And yes, maybe I judge myself. I’m 37 and single. I’m on disability and have had to move back in with my parents in their basement. And I live with my two cats. I have been called “The Crazy Cat Lady,” and I have even half-jokingly referred to myself as that as well. But that’s a judgment, and it hurts. A diagnosis of bipolar disorder is not an umbrella to simply judge an acquaintance as “crazy.” Be careful, that word can hurt.

4. A reason to write me off.

I was diagnosed at a time when my friends were taking big steps in their lives and moving on. In a sense, I kind of got left behind. I feel as if I’m sometimes forgotten. In fact, I sometimes forget myself.

Right when I was diagnosed, many of my friends were buying homes, getting engaged. When I was hospitalized the first couple of times, they were getting married and having kids. Careers were moving forward, more babies were being born and I was relapsing. Despite where my road took me, I still have hopes, wishes and dreams. Your past doesn’t have to predict your future, right? I’m not done, I haven’t quit. I’m not going to give up.

5. All of who I am.

Although I admitted before that at times I have felt that my diagnosis has consumed me, I really am so much more than just that. We have heard it before, but I try to remember the saying — I have bipolar, I am not bipolar.

Image via Thinkstock Images

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To the Man Who Loves Me Through the Good and Bad Days With Bipolar Disorder

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Although this is a letter to my husband, I wish all men and women with a spouse struggling with bipolar disorder could read this. I know it is hard. I’ve seen it in my husband’s eyes when the days get worse, when the fights erupt and my illness rages. I can see him wonder if it will ever end.

But, I want to promise you, it does get better. With medication, doctors and support you will get better, maybe not cured, but better. You can live again. You can be stable and happy. It is a process that can take a very long time, but it does get better if you stick with it and if you stick with your partner. The reward of being with the real person you love in the end, to me, is worth all the hard times. Please, don’t give up.

Dear Steven,

We started off young in our love, with giggles and flushed cheeks. I lived to be in your presence. My bipolar diagnosis from a few years back wasn’t under control yet, and I often stayed in a hypomanic high.

Being with you made the bad days seem good, and the good days seem euphoric. But, on the ugly days, I could hide the depression away by telling you I was busy. Back then, I didn’t realize how much I was actually struggling. I don’t think you did either.

It is strange now, as I become healthier, how I can look back on the years before and see how far gone I actually was. I can see how my mania and depression made me at my worst. And yet, you loved me just as I was.

Once we were married, things got rocky, as they always do when you mix two totally different lives (even more so with my illness). Yet, you loved me. Over the next three years, my bipolar disorder became more manageable, and I learned how to cope with a mixture of psychiatric help, cognitive therapy, family support and medications.

You loved me through it. You loved me on the good days, and you loved me relentlessly on the bad ones. You kept me in check when the mania overpowered me, and you lifted me up when the depression threatened to drown me. You helped me get closer to a place of mental healing.

But, with healing, there is never a constant upward slope. Sometimes, you fall back a few steps, and sometimes those steps are huge. I was doing so well, living a balanced life. Everything was in check, sleeping, eating, exercising, laughing, loving and managing the illness. Yet, I cracked. My world caved in.

The nightmares happened and the sleepless nights. You became the culprit, the enemy. I tried so hard to distance myself so I wouldn’t hurt you, but I hurt you anyways. Then, the next diagnosis came.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

My rape and abuse in college had finally come to the surface, as I healed in my bipolar disorder. I couldn’t run from it any more. My mind no longer suppressed it. I grew anxious to be touched and scared to be hugged. I cringed at being kissed, and I fled from the idea of sleeping in the same bed. It wasn’t you, it was him, and all he did to me. And yet, you loved me. You loved me endlessly.

On the days when I couldn’t take it, when I yelled, shouted and sobbed, you held me strong until the pain went away. On the days when I couldn’t be touched, you gave me space and let me talk. While my new medication kicked in, diminishing the nightmares, you didn’t budge an inch.

You loved me, every part of me, the raging, the desperate, the hopeless, and ultimately you saw me for who I really was. You saw the woman harbored deep inside of my illnesses. You waited patiently until the real me came back to you again, until I was myself. You continue to love me through it all.

I am your wife. I am your friend. I love you more than life itself. I’d give anything to be with you, and even when I try to push you away, just know this is when I need you the most.

You are my constant, my anchor. On some days, you are the only reason I continue fighting. So, to the man who has loved me through it, through everything I have unintentionally put you through, I owe you everything. You are my hero.

And I love you with all my heart.

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What Got Me Out of the Deepest Valleys of Bipolar Disorder

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Let me start by saying medication has been vital in my recovery, wellness and maintenance. The arsenal of counseling and psychiatric services has also played a huge role. Without these things, my life would still be in complete and total shambles.

However, I’ve come to realize the magnitude of the treatment that helped me the most with bipolar type 1 disorder. It sounds cliche, and maybe it is, but this is what pulled me through and out of some of the deepest valleys of my life.

The best treatment I ever received was love.

The sentiment of love gets tossed around a lot as we know, and has become cliche.

But the love I experienced wasn’t an ephemeral love. It was a compassionate love that didn’t have conditions. I didn’t have to perform a certain way in order to receive it. I have felt loved by several people, but most notably over the years by the unwavering support system I have in my parents.

In times when mental illness gripped me the hardest and I felt like the world turned its back on me, and when the white noise was deafening, they claimed me. And even more so they were proud of me.

They put the condemning weight of my burdens on themselves and then some. They laughed and sobbed with me. They celebrated my small accomplishments. They held me with a death grip when I felt helpless. They encouraged me. They stood up for me. They loved me when I didn’t have love for myself.

I was more important to them than the appearance of our family. They didn’t run from the diagnosis, but instead educated themselves and are now educating others. They put their own schedules on hold to be near me and to bring their little girl back. They emulated the agape love that God has for me. They were never ashamed to call me their daughter.

I love you Mom and Dad. Thank you for sharing in both my sorrow and healing. I could never fully articulate how grateful I am that your reservoir of grace never runs dry for me.

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I Won't Let Bipolar Disorder Claim My Life

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I’ve tried to kill myself more times than I can count – more times than I care to remember. And with each attempt, a part of me did die.

In one instance, I almost did die. I was hooked to a heart monitor for ages, and through the drug-induced fog, I could see the fear in the doctor’s eyes as he drew arterial blood, his movements urgent, frustration creasing his brow, telling me my blood pH was dropping dangerously. I remember the nurse seemed disgusted with me. She treated me with shame. Until she realized no visitors were coming to see me. That no one was coming to collect me. Then she knew. That was a long time ago.

I still remember the bars on the small window in the psychiatric hospital I was relegated to. I remember the polished steel screwed to the wall of the bathroom. No glass. Glass breaks.

I’ve tried to kill myself more times than I can count – and in no way, shape or form, did I ever want to die. I’ve never wanted to die. I’ve only ever wanted to be cured. To be rid of this illness, this hijacking of my brain, this disease called bipolar disorder. Some days I just couldn’t take it anymore. It was like stepping into a fire, over and over and
over.

After the last hospitalization, I remember how destroyed I felt. How I felt like a part of me was stripped away. And I remember, through my tears, confessing to my husband that I was terrified I’d die long before him. That I’d leave him a widower for decades. I closed my eyes and saw him wandering through the hallways of our home, photographs of our wedding day long ago coated in dust. I saw him alone.

And the real fear set in, far more terrifying than that heart monitor, more terrifying than the doctor’s urgency. More terrifying than the bars on my window or the girl in the next room screaming in the middle of the night. More agonizing than the constant cycle of emotions. More painful than my own pain. Seeing him alone.

I saw him at my funeral. I saw how broken he’d be. How hard it would be for him to move on. How at night, alone in our bed, he’d cry for me, the wife he left behind in the graveyard.

I still live with that fear. But it is that fear of seeing the smile gone from his face that keeps me fighting. Because I know he fights with me. All my loved ones fight with me because life without me would be too unbearable, too difficult, too lonely for them. I know what I mean to the people who love me.

So, whenever I feel like it’s all too much, it’s all too painful, when my energy is sapped from me, I tell them how I feel. I tell my husband I’m not doing well. I tell my best friend I need to reach out. And I let them love me. It doesn’t always make me happy again, but it brings me back from the brink.

I know I won’t back down. I know I won’t let this illness claim my life. I know I will keep fighting. And I know I have to keep fighting for them.

Because I’m a fighter.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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To My Professors, From Your Student With Bipolar Disorder

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I’m a student. I have been for the better half of my life, and I love it. Well, I love most of it. Being a student allows me freedom to explore, to learn, to test my abilities and challenge the self-imposed limits of my life. It’s an incredible thing really.

I love attending your classes, leaning forward in my seat, pen in hand, soaking in the words that you, my professors, spill forth. All that learning, all that knowledge, I feel like a sponge. Yet, I grow afraid, timid and tentative. I walk on the edge between debilitating depression on my left and devastating mania on my right. In the middle is my passion, my love of learning and my longing to achieve something in my life of real substance. In the middle is the healthy part of myself.

You see, as much as I love learning, that love can be the exact same thing that will trigger either side of me, which I fight daily to keep at bay. I am a student. I am your student. And I have bipolar disorder.

My days as a student have a distinctive cycle. I have grown adept at recognizing the change of events, the slight shift in mood and the ever increasing speed of my thoughts. With school starting in just over a week, I am hesitant to dive in, which I know is what is required of me when I take your classes. You have an expectation of me, and you should have an expectation of me.

Please know if I dive too far, I will end up out in the ocean, drowning. Some days, I hope I can reach out to you to tell you I am dedicated, I am intelligent and I am a student you want to bet on. I will try my hardest in your class. I promise.

Yet, I may not always be in class. I may not always do well on my exams. I may not be the face you will recognize, but this doesn’t mean I am not a good student. It just means some days I simply can’t step foot out of my front door without crumpling with panic. Some days, I will have lost even the motivation to take another breath. On some exam days, I may be so riddled with self-doubt I can’t stop shaking, I will be sick to my stomach and the tears will be streaming down my face as my mind goes blank. I will want to run and give up on it all.

Some other days, I will be going so fast, speaking to you so rapidly, filled with so much excitement and my words all in a jumble. You just might think I am the most hyper student you’ve ever met. I probably am, today. Tomorrow… I really don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

Please know I will be inconsistent. I can’t help it. My inconsistencies have no reflection on you as a lecturer, professor or mentor. It has nothing to do with the class, the schedule or the content. It has everything to do with fighting my own balancing act between dangerous depression and maniacal chaos.

What I want you to know most about me is I am not alone. I am one of thousands of students who attend your classes, year after year, who are too afraid, too ashamed, feel too guilty or too lost to approach you. I am one of the students whose seat you see vacant, perhaps for weeks. I am one of the students who is sitting at home, trying to keep her life together, while you are spilling forth the knowledge she is yearning to learn.

Please know I am still your student. But also know when you do see me in your class, leaning forward in my chair, pen in hand, that out of all the struggles in my life, all the hospitalizations, the medications and therapy sessions, I have chosen to spend my time with you.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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