My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Surviving the Laboratory Rat Syndrome

The meds discussed here are the meds I have taken – there is no recommended psyche drug here in this post or others as what is therapeutic for one is not therapeutic for all – hence “the laboratory rat syndrome.”

In the 1980’s Lithium and Tegretol for maintenance and Mellaril, Ativan and Haldol for acute break-downs were largely the only psychotropic drugs on the market.  Since the late eighties, this has largely changed with the break-through of any number of medications including Clozaril which I now take.  The issue now is the side effects of these newer drugs.  Their impact on managing the illness has increased 100-fold but the side effects have also increased.  Weight gain associated with new psychotropic drugs is a serious concern and may lead to the onset of Type II Diabetes for me as well as for others.

What has not changed over the years regarding medication is the process by which the correct medications are found and administered. I call this “the laboratory rat syndrome.”  Through no fault of prescribing medical doctors, prescribing the correct medications is often more of an art than a science.  Patients may react to meds in very different ways since brain chemistry for different people and different illnesses may cause people to respond very differently to the same psychotropic drugs.  It is not unusual to try a drug for three or four weeks to see if it works and then change the meds if it does not help sufficiently. 

This “laboratory rat syndrome” requires that the patient partner outright with his or her prescribing doctor.  Being clear and truthful about what drugs are working at what levels is a crucial part of managing bipolar illness or any related mood disorder.   Without this feedback from the patient, the doctor virtually is in a guessing game with the patient. If the patient can provide clear and honest feedback about what medication is working and what is not working, this allows the doctor to more easily do his or her job. 

In the last few years. I have turned a corner with my care providers including working with my therapist and my doctor on meds.  I attribute this success to a relatively new Spiritual goal of becoming transparent in my psychiatric care.  I try not to minimize how I feel and to disclose how a certain drug is working or not.  My communication is straight-forward and sincere with the end goal to find a medication mix that works and that keeps me and my family safe and that allows me in time to live freely and perhaps work a job that I envision.

Medical care in psychiatry also has come a long way since 1985.  Doctors in the behavioral health field seem more “normal” for lack of a better word than their earlier counterparts who seemed to be more fascinated by illness behaviors than interested in helping to cure or manage those behaviors.  Many earlier doctors of mine seemed to be more drawn to the abnormal behavior patterns in me as a patient than drawn to treating or reversing those behaviors.  For the most part in my perception of things, this preponderance for the bizarre no longer seems to be what draws behavioral doctors to their field.  I can vouch for both my current doctor and therapist that they are expert in providing top-notch medical treatment.  Their regard for my person and not their regard for my illness is what I appreciate most in each of them.   And it shows.  Just as meds have progressed in the last thirty plus years, so has psychiatric care as well as resources for family and friends of the diagnosed. 

What are your experiences with trying to find the meds that work for you? Have you also had to try out various meds before finding one / some that is /are therapeutic? Does the process require that you super-connect to your prescribing doctor?

My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Rock Bottom

That said, it is not unusual for medications to become ineffective or non-therapeutic after a certain point in time.  It is also true that as a patient I have had to participate in the “laboratory rat syndrome” and try different medications by trial and error and see what works and what doesn’t.  This ‘laboratory rat syndrome” is described later in the text. 

But what is most important to convey about this time period in my life is that I made a conscious decision to be transparent to my health team including my doctor, my therapist and my family. 

It was at this time that I hit rock bottom.  As they say in many recovery programs, you don’t really ever reach sobriety or true healing until after you hit rock bottom.  This period of three to four years after my daughter’s birth is my rock bottom.  I tried several doctors.  I tried several therapists.  I tried several new types of meds.  But none of these worked. At the root of what was going on in hindsight is that I was not being honest or truthful to myself and my support team.  I would schedule doctors’ visits every three to four months as compared to once a month so as to “prove” to myself I was healthy and not in need of help.  There were times when I felt the drugs weren’t working and I stopped taking them. 

This period of sheer and utter chaos in my life finally came to a close when I decided to put my health first.  After the lengthy hospital stay, I stopped working altogether and began weekly sessions with my new therapist and monthly sessions with my new doctor.  I communicated openly to my husband James, my mother and sister Jane about my health and how I was doing.  I became transparent in my place of worship and informed my clergy of my condition.  Basically, I decided at this critical juncture in my life that I was not going to lie to myself or to any other person close to me about how I feel.  Further, I determined that I am not going to hide my condition from myself or from my support team. 

Slowly and very very slowly, after this lengthy hospitalization and move to Clozaril or Clozapine, I began to gain more stability.  This I believe is equally due to the meds, my work with my doctor, my work with my therapist and my dedication to illness transparency in my place of worship and in my family and extended family.  I do not believe the end of the rock bottom period would have occurred without any one of these four developments: meds, doctor, therapist and transparency. 

Further, the end of the rock bottom period did not occur suddenly.  There was no silver bullet toward health.  But rather, this time of reparation was marked by gradual developments in learning to express my fears for safety, learning to address these thoughts of safety before they developed into full-blown paranoia, learning how to be a mother to my child which was preceded by my developing ability to be a parent to myself.  This journey was to take not just weeks or months but years of work. 

Initially, my therapist and I met weekly to work through issues of abandonment and replacement child concerns.  But what was a complete turnaround for me was when I began to talk openly to my therapist about how I perceive the world. It was at this time that I started talking more openly about how I am drawn toward coincidences, patterns and pattern-recognition.  We talked about my fears for safety for my family, my nation and my world.   These fears continued to haunt me throughout the process of climbing out of the hole at rock bottom, but somehow just knowing that another person understood what it meant to see the world in terms of patterns was a huge relief and an even more huge release.

For the first time in my life (literally) there was a person who understood my train of thought.  I no longer felt that my thought processes were singular and inexplicable and inaccessible.  By somehow working with my therapist and my doctor on the intricacies of how my mind worked and how my feelings had been somewhat left behind in the process, the fear that had consumed me for the first three to four years of my daughter’s life was released.  Not cured however but released.

By talking about the patterns that I saw, I no longer felt isolated in my existence.   Without the isolation, the fears of safety seemed to become more and more manageable.  In those years that followed rock bottom, my therapist and I were working on releasing the fear that had been mounting for me as a person not just from the point of birth of my daughter but from a point all the way back to college days at Ivy College where I first discovered my chemical imbalance.  We talked a lot about Professor Flannigan but mostly we talked about how I was intellectually a star student but not so much in touch with my emotions.  Someone more centered in his or her emotions would have been able to tell Professor Flannigan to “go to hell.”  From here, we spent several years looking at my propensity to approach life from my head rather than from my heart.      

In addition to this work with my therapist, I developed a huge amount of trust and respect for my doctor.  We talked about the fact that for the four years’ preceding my work with him, I had not found any sort of solace in my meds.  This doctor seemed to understand that prescribing me an anti-depressant as doctors had been doing since my postpartum period was a huge problem and something to avoid.  This doctor realized that anti-depressants that had been prescribed had been catapulting me into mania off and on for four years prior. 

Perhaps in writing this book or blog, I am encountering a new aspect of the rock bottom experience.  Perhaps the chapter of my life that includes potential abuse as a six-year-old is now sitting on the desk awaiting work.  Working through these details surely will help enable my security and my feelings of security and well-being both for myself but also for my daughter and for my family in general.