My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘psychotropic drugs’

Self-Medicating: Bipolar and Booze

Self-medicating – using alcohol or drugs to dull the emotional pain of a mood disorder – is pretty common among people with bipolar and other mental disorders, particularly the undiagnosed.

It’s a dangerous thing to do. People with major depression are said to be twice as likely to develop a drinking problem if they self-medicate with alcohol a lot. Then there’s the possible interaction between alcohol or drugs with a person’s prescribed meds.

To be perfectly honest, there were times in my life when I self-medicated with wine, beer, or liquor. During one particularly dark time, when I had been prescribed benzos for a physical ailment, that was thrown into the mix. And, again with the honesty, I still sometimes have wine or beer with dinner, though I know I shouldn’t. I could say that I know how much I can drink without it affecting my reaction to my meds, but the fact is that I just shouldn’t.

Recently, however, a study was published in the journal Nature Communications which said that “getting drunk causes the same molecular changes in the brain as taking rapid antidepressants.” Here are the basics.

It was a study done on mice, which means it’s a long way yet from applying to human beings. The set-up was this: Mice were given alcohol, then placed in a container of water. Being passive and willing to drown was taken as an indication that the hapless creature was depressed. Sure enough, the mice that were given alcohol proved to be more active and energetic in trying to swim, which was taken as a sign of not being depressed.

The study did not end happily for any of the mice, however. Their brains were examined to determine how the alcohol achieved its antidepressant effects.  The scientists say that changes in the boozy mouse brains showed that alcohol has effects on neurotransmitters that were similar to the way antidepressants affect the brain. That’s a long way from saying that alcohol is good for the depressed, though.

The premise of the experiment sounds a little shaky to me. I mean, assuming the swimming mice to be less depressed than the drowning mice strikes me as just a wee bit anthropomorphic. Plus, the mice seem to have been situationally depressed (by being left to drown), rather than chronically, as in clinical depression. However, the brain study seems more interesting to me. After all, it compared the effects of alcohol directly with the effects that antidepressants have on neurotransmitters and said that the former “mimicked” the latter.

What’s the takeaway from all this? Well, first of all, it’s hardly blanket permission for the depressed to go out and indulge indiscriminately. Further experiments are needed, presumably ones that will work their way up the animal kingdom until they come to depressed humans, though one hopes that they are not thrown into water to sink or swim.

If those further studies go the same way as the mouse study, I rather imagine the result will be something like the medical advice that you can take a glass of red wine to stave off heart disease – not a blanket approval, but the use of a potentially hazardous thing to ward off a potentially worse thing. Of course, that will not apply to alcoholics or others who must avoid the substance altogether for any of a variety of reasons.

I also note that the study focused on the effects of alcohol in relation to depression only. The manic phase of bipolar disorder was not part of the study and drinking while manic is well known to be a really bad, though often occurring, thing. Of course the same can be said of drinking and depression.

For now, the best advice is simply not to drink if you are depressed or bipolar. Don’t use me as an example. I’m not sharing this to encourage anyone to indulge in potentially destructive, even lethal, behavior. As always, Your Mileage May Vary, especially when compared with that of drunken, depressed, or dead mice. But drinking is still far from a good idea for the bipolar.  And don’t mix it with benzos either.  Trust me on this. It’s a slippery slope.

 

The One Pill I’m Embarrassed About Taking

I know that there are lots of people – and not just the bipolar ones – who don’t like taking medication and especially don’t like needing to take them. It’s a reminder of their illness, I guess, or a dependence on a chemical answer when we’ve been told for so long, “Just say no to drugs” and indoctrinated by DARE. The only thing they leave out is that some drugs are good for you – the prescribed ones that allow you to live and function.

I don’t mind my psychotropic medications. In fact, in many ways I love them. They are the things that keep me relatively stable, on a mostly even keel, and make sure that none of my mood swings lasts more than a couple of days. I loathe pill shaming and consider it just one more kind of stigma that attaches to mental illness (and other chronic illnesses).

But there is one medication I take every day that gives me pause. It is my sleeping pill. My psychiatrist prescribes them and I take one every night, along with my other nighttime pills. In about 20 minutes to an hour, I’m asleep, and I stay asleep usually until 8:00 a.m. or so. It means I get about eight or nine hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.

I do need that sleep. I’m not one of those people who can function on four or five hours of sleep, the way tech geniuses and high-powered execs claim they can. If I don’t get my eight hours – and sometimes even if I do – I take naps during the day. Not just naps: mega-naps. My brain and body sneer at 20-minute catnaps. If I’m going to sleep, they say, it must be an hour at a minimum. Two is even better.

It’s not like I want to go back to the days before the sleeping pills, either. I do still remember the long nights of fear and sorrow, the fits of crying, the panicky sensation of not being able to breathe. The endless mental replay of every stupid thing I’ve ever done. The anticipation of the disasters the next day would bring. The hopelessness and the helplessness and the loneliness. The feeling that I was the only being awake, maybe in the world. If a single little pill can save me from all that, I should be glad to take it.

Why, then, does it bother me?

Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t feel necessary in the way my psychotropics do. They are prescribed for my bipolar condition and somehow make the difference in how my neurotransmitters operate. The sleeping pill feels like a different category of drugs.

Or perhaps it is because sleeping pills are often a drug of abuse and even suicide. My psychiatrist trusts me with them, though, and has for years. Plus, my anti-anxiety med is also often abused and I feel no guilt about taking that.

Maybe it’s because a sleeping pill feels in some way like a luxury. I don’t think it does anything specific for my bipolar disorder – except that sleepless nights are certainly associated with depression and my middle-of-the-night anxiety as well.

I hate to think it, but maybe the pill-shamers have gotten to me. I take such a cocktail of assorted psychotropics that it’s perhaps natural I should ask myself every now and then if I’m overmedicated (my doctor doesn’t seem to think so) and whether I could do without any of the drugs. The sleeping pill is the only one that might be in that category.

But no. I don’t want to go back to the nights of distress, despair, and devastation. I don’t want to wake my husband up as I gasp for breath and need him to stroke my hair until I fall asleep. And I surely don’t want to go through those bad feelings all alone in the night while he works the third shift.

All in all, I think the sleeping pill is a good thing for me and that I shouldn’t try to give it up. I just wish I didn’t feel so ambivalent about it.

 

 

No Resolutions – Just Memories and Hopes

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. But since January is named after Janus, the two-faced god that can look both ways, I do look to the past and the future just to see what I can see.

Last year was a very mixed bag. It brought the heights of joy and the depths of depression, along with a little hypomania and dysthymia thrown in just because my brain does that.

The big negative this year was my husband’s heart attack in August and all the medical and financial repercussions that entailed. He’s back at work now, though he’s having difficulty managing the mental and physical stresses of it, so much so that he hasn’t made it to cardiac rehab in over a week. Rehab is not just a good thing physically; Dan said it made him feel energized, productive, and cheerful. I know, I know, exercise could do the same for me.

Still, there have been good things. My book, named after this blog, has now been published. This is a huge event in my life that lifted me temporarily out of depression and into (possibly) hypomania. And I have retired, meaning only that I will start collecting Social Security next year. It will not alter my blogging, writing, or other pursuits, since what I make from them won’t be over the “allowed-to-make-in-addition” line.

As for next year, I expect to see more of the same (minus, I hope, the heart attack). There will still be problems paying the bills, including the massive hospital one, but at least I will have a steady, fixed income. It will help me with my anxiety over potential financial collapse and my unreasonable fear of losing the house.

I’m also planning to get away for another long weekend at a bed-and-breakfast on a working farm. The last time we did it, it proved enormously soothing and relaxing. Another such mini-vacation would be ideal. We certainly won’t be able to take a full vacation, so I won’t even hope for that.

The other good news is that my second book, Bipolar Us, will be published. It may not be attended with the same level of hypomania that the first one was, but at the very least there will be real joy. Also in the coming year, I plan to finish my mystery novel and place it with an agent.

As far as my bipolar disorder, in the coming year, I will still have it. I expect that my meds will change not at all, or minimally since I’ve been relatively stable for so long. But I know it won’t go away just because I’ve crossed “publishing a book” off my bucket list. That’s not the way it works.

If this sounds like my 2019 will be more of the same, well, that’s because that is truly what I expect. Of course, my expectations will have no influence on the outcome. The year will be what it will be, as rife with unexpected events as this one was. My main hopes are that my husband’s health and my writing both improve.

I’ll try to remember the lessons learned from this year – that we are both strong and good things can happen to us. And I’ll try to plan for some positive accomplishments in 2019 and hope they’re within our reach. I won’t call them resolutions, though. Resolutions are so easily broken and I don’t like to think that my plans and hopes are.

Big Box Mental Health

photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

According to an article published on the blogsite She Knows, “a Boston-based company that manages mental health care for 40 million people, has opened a small clinic in a Walmart location in Carrollton, Texas, and has plans to expand the program in other retail locations throughout the country.”

And I don’t know whether to vomit or applaud.

Walmart’s ubiquity is one point in its favor. They’re everywhere. And for some people, whether they love or despise Walmart, it’s the only choice they have for groceries, household goods, or much of anything else. Those areas are also likely to be underserved by the mental health system, such as it is.

And sparse as the options offered by the Walmart walk-in clinics is – treatment for anxiety, depression, grief, relationship issues, and stress management – it’s more than a lot of people have access to now. The trial site is said to be staffed with one licensed clinical social worker, has a sliding fee scale for those with no insurance, and will soon be approved for Medicaid reimbursement (it is hoped). There will even be remote Skype therapy services if necessary.

All that is good, as far as it goes. But does it go far enough? Will people be able to get more than a pat on the head and a pep talk as they do their weekly or monthly shopping? How will the walk-in clinic handle referrals for people with serious mental illness or a need for psychotropic medication, something that clinical social workers can’t provide? How many people can get help from a single professional? How good is internet therapy? And what percentage of Walmart shoppers have access to the internet?

The walk-in clinics are touted as reducing stigma around mental health issues. After all, the thought is, getting your mental health services at Walmart will become as natural as getting a haircut or an eye exam there. Well, maybe. On the other hand, how many people are willing to have their friends and neighbors see them publically, sitting in the waiting room or ducking surreptitiously through the door? It seems to me it might perpetuate stigma, rather than lessening it.

Besides, Walmart is hardly a bastion of high-quality goods and services. Will the mental health services be second-rate as well? It could be that even second-rate care is better than no care at all. But it’s surely not enough to deal with issues that require long-term therapy with actual treatment plans; scheduled repeat visits; building a relationship with a particular therapist; access to medications; and all the other aspects of more effective treatment, especially considering complicated disorders like bipolar, OCD, or anorexia.

I fully admit that I hate Walmart – the way they have driven out local Mom and Pop stores, for example, and the way they treat their employees. But I have many choices of where to shop near where I live, and access to both therapists and psychiatrists, and insurance that covers my appointments and medications. If I weren’t looking through the lens of privilege, I might see things a lot differently.

So for now, I guess my attitude is to wait and see. One test location does not a Walmart Psych Empire make. Perhaps it will succeed; perhaps not. Perhaps it will become the Great Clips of the psychotherapy world.

But while I’m waiting, I’m hot holding my breath.

 

Low-Jacked Pills and High-Tech Mental Health

I’m a known geek and ordinarily a fan of technology – though not technology for its own sake. It has to do something useful and needed.

Imagine my surprise to learn that tech companies are now doing what so many of our public institutions aren’t, and devising possible solutions to assorted mental health problems. Stat reported (in their Business section) that now:

with an influx of funding, companies are revamping pills with digital sensors, designing virtual reality worlds to treat addiction and other conditions, and building chatbots for interactive therapy.

But are these techno-wonders likely to be any help? Let’s take the innovations in reverse order, shall we?

Chatbots. We already have remote counselors, which may be a godsend for people with no access to mental health clinics (although they charge a fee, which may be prohibitive for some). I’ve never investigated this service, so maybe some of you who have can tell me how they work and how well.

Remote counselors rely on already existing technology, however, and are therefore not of interest to tech innovators (or potential funders). Chatbots are something else. They are, essentially, computers that respond to human input with output that is supposed to simulate human responses.

To my knowledge, no computer has ever passed the “Turing Test,” which means that a person has no idea whether they’re chatting with a real person or a computer. A psych computer is likely to respond with generic responses such as, “Why do you feel angry with your sister?” “What do you mean when you say anxiety?” “Explain how depression affects you,” and “Tell me more about your mother.” The supposed AI is in no way trained in psychology or any therapeutic techniques.

One company that received funding for “telepsychiatry” (called Regroup Therapy and Woebot Labs) brands their idea as “Your charming robot friend who is ready to listen, 24/7.” Admittedly, many persons with mental health issues need someone who’ll listen, but that’s far from all they need.

Virtual reality for addiction (and other conditions). Startup Limbix wants to sell its programs to therapists and clinics. According to Stat,

Among the company’s VR programs is an exposure therapy for patients with phobias or trauma associated with driving. While patients strap on the headset, clinicians can work with them to introduce different conditions (a clear or rainy day) or different road situations (a bridge or a tunnel or blind left turns).

This sounds promising, though the cost of VR headsets and the programming for various conditions again might be prohibitive for your average community or campus or rural mental health clinic. I’m not clear on how it would work for addiction, unless combined with aversion therapy, which is generally brutal.

Pills with digital sensors. Aren’t psychotropic medications already too expensive, especially for people who have no insurance? Now we need technological pills that must make a profit for both drug and tech companies?

And what a pill they’re talking about. Basically, it’s a pill that rats you out if you don’t take it, or rather alerts your doctor when you do take it. Presumably, your doctor has enough staff to monitor whether clients take the pills and record it if they don’t. Then what? A robocall telling you to take your meds? A visit from a social worker?

Admittedly, such low-jacked pills might have a place in situations where schizophrenics are court-ordered to take their medication, but again there is the problem of what to do about non-compliance.

Another company plans to sell “a cardiac drug meant to be popped like a mint to people anxious about public speaking and first dates.” Would people need prescriptions for those, or will they be dispensed like Tic-Tacs? Even anti-anxiety drugs aren’t meant to be “popped like a mint.” And a cardiac drug? I can’t see any possible downside there.

If only the ingenuity and investment that goes into these products were instead available to fund and repair the shaky mental health system instead. What we need are more psychiatrists and therapists, more hospital beds for psych patients, less expensive drugs, better insurance, more education for the public about mental illness, and an end to stigma.

But those would require systemic reform and political backing, not just some new-fangled gadget. And good luck getting investors for those.

Reference

https://www.statnews.com/2018/07/20/tech-developers-tackle-mental-health/

The Compliant Patient

My mother was not a compliant patient. She would have side effects from medication and just stop taking them: The meds gave her sores in her mouth or nauseated her.  And that’s valid. We’ve all had medications that we couldn’t tolerate because of the side effects. But Mom stopped taking them without telling her doctor. Once she went to the emergency room, where they had a list of the meds she was supposedly still on and I had to tell intake, “No, she stopped taking that one. And that one too, I think.” (She was not mentally ill, but that’s where I’m going with this.)

There is only one psychotropic medication I know of (though there may be others by now that I haven’t heard about), where the potential side effects are so horrible – potentially lethal – that patients are advised to stop taking them immediately and get medical help right away.  The side effect is called Stevens-Johnson Syndrome and it is a potentially fatal rash.  I wrote about it a few years ago, (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-1g)

Other than that one instance, psychotropic medications should never be discontinued unless you have consulted your physician. You never know what withdrawal symptoms lie in wait for you, but they’re bound to be unpleasant, even if they don’t cause you to relapse, which could easily happen. Withdrawal from any drug is not fun; it’s to be avoided.

Nonetheless, I read posts in support groups all the time which say that people have decided by themselves to stop taking a medication, or even all their medications on their own. I have friends who have taken their treatment into their own hands this way.

There are several reasons they sometimes give for giving up medications. One is that the meds aren’t working. What they really mean is that the meds aren’t working yet. Many psychotropics don’t show positive effects until they have built up in your bloodstream, which can easily take four to six weeks. Expecting results in a day or two is unreasonable.

Others stop taking their meds because they “feel better” and think they no longer need the pills. This is just ridiculous. The meds are the reason that you feel better. Your psychiatric condition does not just go away, like the flu, when you feel better. Your disorder may soon come roaring back (or creeping back). And the thing is, when you restart a medication, it sometimes no longer works as effectively. Then you have to start all over with a new prescription and have another four to six weeks of symptoms while you wait to find out if it works or doesn’t.

Still other people simply don’t like taking medications.  This I don’t understand.  People take meds for flu and infections and such conditions and never seem to resent them. Maybe it’s the idea that you could well be – will likely be – on psychotropics for the rest of your life. But lots of people have meds they need for life – insulin, cholesterol meds, anti-inflammatories, asthma meds, thyroid meds, and others. People don’t quit taking those just because they don’t like to take pills or injections.

I think the real reason people don’t like to take their psychiatric meds is that they’re psychiatric meds. There is still massive stigma around the subject of mental illness. Taking medication for a mental illness means admitting you have one, which some people are reluctant to do.

Or they may be giving in to “pill-shaming.” There are plenty of people, perhaps in your own family – and certainly across the Internet – who will tell you that all you need is self-love or affirmations or sunshine or exercise or vitamins or meditation or willpower to banish your mental illness. Funny how they never tell people that sunshine will cure their broken leg or that exercise will cure their breast cancer.

I hesitate to say that I love my psychotropics, but in a way I do. They have brought me out of states of mind that were harmful to me. They have made it possible for me to function and create and communicate. They probably have saved my life.

Occasionally I let my psychiatrist know that I may need a change in dosage or that one of meds is no longer working. I’ve even reviewed with him whether there are any meds I could quit taking (there aren’t at the moment). But I keep taking them faithfully, every day, morning and night.

I need the psychotropics. So I am a compliant patient.

Drug Therapy: The Short Form

From what I’ve read in Facebook support groups – and noticed from my own experience – the effects of antidepressants don’t always last as long as we might want.

My first psychotropic medication was, as nearly as I can remember, imipramine (Tofranil). At the time I was only diagnosed with unipolar depression, so it seemed like a good choice. Imipramine is what is called a “tricyclic” antidepressant because of its chemical structure. Many people complained of the side effects.

Tricyclics were about all the medical community had to offer until 1987, when Prozac hit the market, followed by its cousins Zoloft and Paxil. All of these were classified as SSRI drugs, ones that selectively acted on the neurochemical serotonin in the brain, rather than a wide variety of brain chemicals as the tricyclics had.

Since then we have listened to Prozac, talked back to Prozac, and been referred to as a Prozac Nation. Prozac has been hailed as a miracle drug, damned as a gateway to violence or suicide, and prescribed in phenomenal amounts.

And Prozac has helped me. After about six weeks on it, when the drug started to kick in, I was on a sailing trip. One of the crew said I was the passenger most at peace with myself that he knew. It was a revelation to me and a new way of thinking of myself.

Prozac changed my life – possibly saved it. And then, not so much. I moved on to other medications.

“Major Study Finds Antidepressants Work, But May Have Limitations,” by Brigit Katz, published on The Smithsonian.com, validates my perception.

Her article states, “A meta-analysis [or study of studies] of existing trials suggests that the drugs are mostly effective on a short-term basis for patients suffering from acute depression.” Katz’s article also cites articles in the New York Times and The Lancet that report similar findings.

The Lancet study “analyzed 522 double-blind studies that included 116,477 patients and 21 commonly prescribed antidepressants. The results of the study showed that all 21 of the antidepressants were more effective than placebos in reducing depressive symptoms during the first eight weeks of treatment.”

“The new analysis suggests, however, that the efficacy of the drugs may be limited,” Katz reports. “For one thing, the benefits applied in the short term, and only to patients who are suffering from acute major depression.” [emphasis added]

The Smithsonian.com article and the studies conclude that “while the new study suggests that antidepressants are more effective than a placebo, at least in some cases, media reports claiming [as an article in Newsweek did] that the research shows ‘antidepressants do work, and many more people should take them’ are not entirely accurate.”

(This hearkens back to a pet peeve of mine: that headline writers (who are almost never the authors of the articles) do a poor job of summarizing articles in favor of more definitive or appealing descriptions of the text. https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Br)

At any rate, the meta-analysis bears out my experience. Although I was bipolar 2, my disorder first manifested as major depression. I got relief from Prozac, results that later diminished. Since my proper diagnosis I have found more relief from a combination of an SSRI, an anticonvulsant medication often used for bipolar disorder, and an atypical antipsychotic also useful for bipolar as well as schizophrenia. Even though I do not have seizures or schizophrenia, these medications work for me and have not worn off for several years now.

So, what’s the takeaway from all this? I think it is that, if your medication for bipolar or depression seems to be “wearing off,” your perception may indeed be valid. But that’s no reason to give up on psychotropics altogether. People and their disorders differ in ways we just don’t know. You can ask your doctor to try a different medication or combination of medications that may work better for you.

The benefits of medication for psychiatric disorders do not simply go away just because the effect of one does.

Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/major-study-finds-antidepressants-work-may-have-limitations-180968452/#vjLKOqe2JdKEWOe3.99

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: