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When Bipolar Disorder Medication Made Me ‘Lose the Ability to Think’

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Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.

When I was 19 years old, my brain lost control. Signs of bipolar disorder had already begun to surface, and the hardest times were always when the seasons were changing — late fall and early spring. The spring semester of my junior year in college was particularly rough. I was always crying. In my room, on the bus, walking around campus: not really downright sobbing, but more like I had sprung a leak and I couldn’t figure out how to turn off the faucet. I wasn’t crying about anything in particular, and the only thing that really triggered it was whenever I was alone. Depression had set in.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

I was seeing a psychiatrist at the university, but she only had time for me once a month, for 15 minutes. Needless to say, she was not giving me the help I needed. My roommate at the time saw how much I was struggling. She worked part-time at a doctor’s office, so she asked around for the names of the best psychiatrists in Boulder, Colo. She called each of them until she found one that had a last-minute opening, and she made an appointment for me.

I was not excited about having to drop everything, go home, get my car and drive to this new psychiatrist, but after much grumbling I finally obliged. I still cannot thank her enough for getting me to go to that appointment. In the end, it likely saved my life.

Dr. G. was nothing like the psychiatrist at the university. He only made hour-long appointments, and he made room for multiple appointments with me that first week. He quickly got me on a combination of multiple medications that made me emotionally stable. I started feeling the effects after a couple of days, and within a couple of weeks, I was completely stabilized. No more tears. No more feeling like the world was caving in on me. I was safe.

Although I was stable, medications for bipolar disorder are not without setbacks. I lost the ability to think. I would start speaking and not remember what I was saying halfway through. I would try to read a textbook for class and couldn’t make it through a single sentence. Nothing was going into my brain anymore. I couldn’t learn. I couldn’t tell people what I was feeling, or thinking, because I couldn’t hold on to a thought long enough to share it. My grades started to plummet, and I started to fear the worst: that this was the new normal for me. I couldn’t live without these meds, but what kind of life would I have by staying on them?

I started to question everything in my life. Would I be able to graduate? Would I be able to hold down a job? How was I ever going to support myself? This went on for months. Although many tried to comfort me, I felt isolated in my struggle. My mom would tell me I was going to be OK, but she couldn’t calm my fears. I didn’t know anyone who had gone through this and I didn’t know who to turn to. So, I turned to God. When I really struggled, I would drive up the mountain on the edge of town, park my car at one of the pull-offs and cry out to God. I remember going up there one night during an early spring snow shower, to tell him my fears and my dreams as best I could. I sat there, trying to read the Bible I always kept under the driver’s seat, and God directed me to scriptures that helped calm my anxious heart. I got out of my car and just stood in the silence of the falling snow, and that soothed me. I knew I wasn’t in this alone.

The weeks slowly passed. By the end of the semester, my brain slowly started to work again. Speaking, writing and listening became more clear. Reading was slow but successful. I fought hard to finish the semester, but the damage had already been done. In the end, I had to take an incomplete in each of the courses to avoid ruining my GPA. With a note from my psychiatrist, I was able to do this without penalty.

Summer came and I took advantage of that time to heal and learn how to live with my brain on meds. I spent many days at the park near our apartment in Boulder, journaling and reading my Bible. I read “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” when it was released — the first book I read on meds. It took a long time, but I made it through. It gave me courage that perhaps this storm was going to pass as my mom had said all along. I mentally prepared for the fall semester, knowing I would now have to work harder than ever before to get the same results.

The classes I was taking were not easy; genetics, plant physiology, physics — it was a full semester. I did what I had planned — I worked harder than I ever had before. I read and reread the textbooks, I wrote and rewrote my notes, and in the end, I had a higher GPA that semester than I ever did before meds.

It took years for my brain to adjust to being on meds, but I have never had to go through that experience of losing the ability to think again. It’s been 16 years and I am still on medication for my disorder, albeit different ones. I’ve worked with doctors to switch medications until finding ones with side effects that are the most manageable — more on that in my next post. None of them are free of side effects, and none of the side effects are ones I would wish on anyone, but I would never trade them for the instability of my disorder. To me, the choice is an obvious one.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Originally published: January 8, 2020
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