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Why I'm Living Unmedicated With Bipolar Disorder

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

So much of the conversation around bipolar disorder is often focused on the importance of medication — and with good reason. It seems like the ongoing struggle for people living with bipolar disorder is finding (and staying on) the right meds. I’ve read countless stories from many people, arguing mostly for the use of medication. What I haven’t seen before is an experiential account of being indefinitely unmedicated as someone with bipolar disorder.

So let me share with you my reasons for being unmedicated and why I don’t really recommend it.

I’ve lived with bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders for around 18 years now, although the bipolar was initially diagnosed as major depression. I was medicated for a year or so around the age of 18 and spent much of that time feeling as though I’d been robbed of my emotions. I also stopped feeling that desperate and pressing need to end my life.

After this, I was unmedicated until the age of 26, when I had, what I now understand to be, a mixed episode; but at the time was diagnosed as anxiety. I was prescribed an antidepressant, which kickstarted an even higher level of anxious mania and I found myself unable to sit still or function or grasp even one of the five thousand thoughts in my head. I paced around in circles in my backyard at 4 a.m., feeling as though I needed to climb out of my own skin. Needless to say, I did not stay on that medication. Instead, I remained unmedicated after this experience.

Three years later, I was rapid cycling and ended up having to take several weeks off from work. I’d be up, energized and overconfident in my abilities, but always two steps away from agitation and rage; then I would crash into suicidal depressions. I ended up working with a psychologist for the next few months who had me chart my moods and eventually gave me a new diagnosis of bipolar disorder type II, with some rapid cycling.

We talked about medication, but after extensive research, I decided it would have to be a last resort for me. This was partially due to the fear of side effects and weight gain, but more so, to the longterm affects of mood stabilizers and the fact that there are already multiple health issues in my family, including diabetes and heart issues. I also knew that managing the physical side effects would be extremely difficult, particularly while at work. Beyond that, I ended up with some liver issues, tied to a problematic gallbladder that I ended up having to have removed. I was very reluctant to put a drug into my body after this.

Instead, I embarked on a journey to do everything I possibly could to manage my moods. Working in my favor was the fact that I have a counseling degree and have learned many tools for self-management from several different therapies. Working against me was the fact that my moods are all-encompassing and my behavior during both highs and lows tends to be impulsive, unpredictable and generally problematic.

What I learned is that there are many things that can be done to help manage the symptoms of bipolar disorder: a strict sleep schedule; therapeutic tools like cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), mindfulness, meditation and prodome detection; a healthy diet; no caffeine; no alcohol; no drugs; exercise; journaling and maintaining as much of a stress-free environment as possible. All of these things have improved my life significantly.

They have not, however, stopped the highs and lows from occurring. And realistically, they aren’t going to. All of these tools are helpful, but they do not remove symptoms; they only slightly diminish some of them, while expanding awareness and developing new coping skills. This is what I think people need to know about living with bipolar disorder unmedicated. In my experience, the kind of stability that comes from the right medication just can’t be achieved without it. I’ve been doing this for years and it hasn’t gotten easier, I’ve just gotten better at managing it.

I still threw one thousand dollars into a charity auction for a celebrity’s pair of pants that are never going to fit me (two weeks before I left for an overseas trip that the money was actually for). I still get highly agitated at the drop of a hat during hypomania’s; and do things like initiate a car chase with a guy to scream obscenities at him for simply not letting me into his lane. I still stay in bed, un-showered, for days at a time during depressions, crying nonstop for hours. And I still feel like my chest is being crushed with the weight of pain during those days.

Living with this disorder isn’t an easy journey by any means, but it’s still one worth taking. What that journey looks like is different for every single one of us, and I’m starting to understand that that’s OK. Everyone’s unique experience with bipolar is valid. However you choose to manage it, have an understanding of what your choices will entail. And create a strong support network who will extend kindness, but also awareness, when your own fails. You’ve got this.

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Unsplash photo via Daniel Monteiro