Posts tagged bipolar disorder
Side effects may include: atheism
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I quit taking two of my psychotropic medications and suddenly, I believe in God again. [ NOTE: I did this under my doctor's care and according to his orders. I didn't quit my meds just because I wanted to. Don't do that! ]

So, yeah. Apparently one of the side-effects of mood stabilizers is atheism. At least, for me. Somehow, these drugs seem to shut down the God-receptors in my brain. Here’s how it happened:

Last month I developed a rash from Lamictal. It gave me a good scare because my doctor had warned me that sometimes Lamictal can cause a FATAL rash (Google “Lamictal rash” for fun pictures).

Anyway, so there I was with two rashes. One on each leg. And I was like: OMG WHAT IF THIS BECOMES FATAL? So, I went to the doctor and they took me off the medication immediately. And then wonderful things happened:

1. I didn’t die,

2. the rashes went away

3. and I began to feel my life again.

Mood stabilizers numb me out. I mean, sure. I don’t have mood swings. I don’t have mania. But I also can’t feel ANYTHING. Everything is just blahhhhhh.

In the past three weeks I’ve felt my life coming back to me. It’s like my emotions are coming back to life. And here’s the best part: I have faith again. Remember how just last month I was deep in the throes of a spiritual crisis? I mean, I was doubting EVERYTHING about my faith right down to whether the Resurrection was real. Also of note: I was on TWO mood stabilizers.

What if my doubts were the result of medication? What if the mood stabilizers also numbed out my spirituality?

That freaks me out. But it’s also kind of a relief because for awhile there I thought I was becoming an atheist. I was reading memoirs about people losing their faith. II was reading research about how lack of dopamine in the brain affects the ability to believe in God. I was getting all depressed because I felt alone in the universe and very, very small. So insignificant. I wondered if God even cared about me anymore.

I don’t know what to make of all this. I didn’t realize that my faith in God was so dependent upon brain chemistry. Does my faith require a certain combination of neurotransmitters in order to exist? At the very least it seems to require a certain combination of neurotransmitters in order for me to FEEL like my faith exists.

Is my faith so weak that it falls apart when my brain isn’t producing the right chemical balance? Or is my faith’s sensitivity an indicator of its great strength? I can’t decide which it is.

Regardless, this experience has shown me in unequivocal terms that I am a deeply spiritual person and that I rely on my spirituality to help me get through life. I need prayer. I need words from Scripture. I need the Sacraments. These things nourish and sustain me. They ease my anxiety. These things provide true and real comfort to me.

But in order for me to feel my faith, I can’t be numbed out completely on psychotropic medication. It’s a delicate balance, finding the sweet spot where the medication is helping me but not causing intolerable side effects. Becoming an atheist is, for me, an intolerable side effect!

This whole thing has made me question whether faith is something within our control. I used to believe that faith was something I was in charge of; something I could manipulate simply by doing x,y and z. Praying, reading Scripture, doing Bible Studies, going to church...I simply assumed that if I did all of these things then I would have a vibrant faith.

Little did I know that my faith was more about whether or not I was on mood stabilizers.

This makes me wonder if faith is something God gives to people rather than something people get as a result of working at it. It seems to me that faith is more of a gift, something God gave me rather than anything I did or didn’t do in order to have it.

Of course, there are “best practices” for creating an environment where faith can grow. It helps to have a faith community. It helps to be married to a believing spouse. It helps to know how to pray and read Scripture. It helps to know how to meditate. But ultimately, I’m beginning to believe that faith isn’t something we work for, faith is a gift. It’s something given to us.

Honestly, this makes a lot more sense to me. It also gives me greater compassion for those who simply can’t believe. I used to think that unbelievers were choosing their lack of faith. I sort of looked down at them, assuming that if they just prayed more, hung out with other people of faith and engaged in faith practices, then they would have faith. But I don’t believe that anymore. I mean, I lost my faith not because I got disillusioned with the church or because I wasn’t praying or going to church. I lost my faith by taking a few pills every morning. And I got it back by not taking those pills. So, yeah. It wasn’t like I chose it. It just happened.

Once again this makes me ask the question about whether or not what I believe is real and true. But that question no longer bothers me. It’s real enough for me. That’s all that really matters. I have a mustard-seed faith and even if it can’t be proven scientifically, the truth is that it provides me with tangible benefits. It makes me a less anxious person. It makes me a more loving and compassionate person. It helps me live according to my values. It’s a faith that works even if it’s a faith I didn’t work for. It’s just there.

This past Easter was one of the happiest I could remember. I could FEEL my love for Jesus again. I felt such gratitude for His friendship; such gratitude for His love for me. And I was relieved to discover that Jesus hadn’t gone anywhere. My bout of atheism hadn’t changed anything for Him. He remained faithful. He remained loving. He continued to offer me the Eucharist. I find that so comforting. I find it so truly wonderful that God loves me with such unconditional love. And that that love is not dependent on whether I believe in it. That love just IS.

I am walking away from this experience having learned (once again) that God is so much bigger than I thought He was. And I am so so grateful for that. God is bigger than my imagination. God is bigger than big. Love is bigger than I imagined it. Love is not dependent on my ability to conceive it or categorize it or control it. It’s entirely OUT of my control and that is the most wonderful thing of all.

Side-effects of faith may include: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.


Life on Abilify: is it worth it?

Untreated, bipolar disorder is a burr of restlessness constantly bothering my brain. I feel like something is wrong even if everything is actually ok. I’m always convinced something terrible is just about to happen. I’m up and down all the time. Manic one day, depressed the next. There are mean voices in my head telling me I’m a horrible person, telling me I should just kill myself. Sometimes the voice shouts at me. Sometimes I see things that aren’t there—shadows of people following me. These things are always on the periphery of my vision. I can never really get a good look at them.

But if someone asks me to explain what’s wrong in my life, what I’m worried about, what I’m restless about, I have a hard time pinpointing anything. By all accounts, everything is pretty much ok. Nothing is terribly wrong. My kids are healthy, I have a roof over my head and food on the table. I get to create art and stay home to raise my kids. I should be happy. I should feel normal.

But when my bipolar is untreated, my brain won’t give up until it’s found something—anything—to be suspicious about. My brain can collect evidence of wrongness even when there’s no wrongness to be found. At various times in my life I’ve become unwaveringly convinced that I didn’t have enough pets (I had five), that my husband was cheating on me (he wasn’t), that the FBI was spying on me (they weren’t——I think), that I desperately needed an RV (I hate camping). Let’s just put it this way: my untreated bipolar brain likes to lie to me. And many, many times in my life I’ve believed those lies.

Initially, Abilify was a life-saver. No more psychosis, no more suspicions that the FBI was spying on me, no more paranoia. No more dramatic mood swings. No more mean voices in my head.

Everything just leveled out and got really quiet. My brain changed from a storm-tossed ocean to a glassy smooth lake. Worn out and exhausted from the months of mania and depression, I was content to just rest in this newfound quiet. I didn’t even mind that I was putting on weight at an alarming rate. I just wanted to eat and rest.

But eventually, I began to notice that not only was I on a glassy smooth lake, but there was no wind in my sails, either. Everything—everything— was flat.

Sure, I wasn’t irritable anymore. The usual things that annoyed me—a barking dog, grumpy customers at work, traffic noise, jerks on the highway, the kids being too loud—just didn’t bug me. I didn’t get angry, either. One time I tried to hang onto my anger but it was slipped through my fingers like sand. I couldn’t stay angry. I couldn’t feel it. The same thing went for joy. I no longer feel joy. I don’t feel happy about anything. I don’t have that creative spark I’ve always had. I used to be super ambitious and driven to create. But my motivation and drive to create have simply dwindled away.

Even my facial expressions are flat. My husband says he has a hard time reading my emotions now because they don’t show as much on my face. Sometimes I’ll catch him chuckling when he looks at me and when I ask why he’ll say: “You have that blank, innocent look on your face again.”

But here’s the thing: there are no emotions to read. I feel very little of anything. I don’t feel happy but I don’t feel sad, either. Everything just feels sort of numb.

I can watch violent movies now and not be bothered. But at the same time, beautiful music no longer moves me. I can see a beautiful sunset and think: Meh, no big deal. Before, this would inspire me to write poetry. Now, I just yawn.

That’s another thing. I yawn all the time. I can sleep and sleep and sleep. I’m always sleepy. Not tired, just sleepy. I feel as if I’m never fully awake. I can drink a gallon of coffee and not feel perked up in the slightest. I can drink coffee at 8pm and it won’t keep me up.

My sex drive has totally disappeared. I feel asexual. Like I could go for the rest of my life without sex and not miss it too much.

The one thing I do feel is the absence. I miss things. I remember what it used to feel like to feel intimate, to feel alive, to experience the joys and sorrows of life. I feel the absence of those things.

Everything is flat except my appetite. In two months I’ve gained 23 pounds and I’m still gaining.

I’ve had to buy bigger pants. Sometimes it seems like eating is the only joy I have left in life. Nothing else makes me happy.

But I’m worried about going off Abilify because what if the emotions come back too strongly? I’m worried that even a lower dosage of Abilify will bring back the roller-coaster emotions again. What if the mean voices come back? What if I start seeing shadows again? This is all just so hard.

I’m going to see a new psychiatrist this week. I’m hoping he’ll be able to help me.


That time Jesus said: "Blessed are the bipolar for theirs is the pharmacy of Heaven." #BipolarStories Part 1

I don’t have a cute little mental illness (if there is such a thing). I have Bipolar II with Mixed Features. Which is just a short way of saying, Significantly Impaired with a lot of different symptoms mixed in. Mood swings. Paranoia. Mania. Depression. Psychosis. Panic. You know, all the really fun stuff. All the stuff that makes my kids super excited about having their friends over.

It’s humbling to admit I have this illness. I would prefer to tell you that I’m actually a really super spiritual person; that my bouts of mania mean I’m a mystic. A saint like St. Thérèse of Lisieux: all emotional and capable of deep love for God. But then I’d be lying. I’m no saint. I’m just your average, garden-variety sinner with delusions of grandeur.

These posts are about untreated mental illness and also, my journey toward a proper diagnosis and medical intervention. It’s about highly effective, medically prescribed drugs which keep me from wanting to claw my skin off my face (fun visual, amen?) and it’s also about learning how to live as a normal, sane person—because when you’ve lived with illness for most of your life, being healthy feels really, really weird. It takes some getting used to.

These posts are also a love story. They're about my husband, Matt, a fine Scotsman who—despite being a mere human like everyone else—has miraculously loved and lived with someone as mentally ill as myself. Basically, he’s Braveheart without the warpaint. Welcome to our odd little love story.

The End of My Rope

The day I go mad dawns blazing hot. 

The heat makes everything worse—like the fact that government agents are spying on me. They're watching me through my computer and tracking my movements through my iPhone. I know this like I know the sky is blue. It's just an irrefutable fact.

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The thing is, I don’t know why they’re spying on me. I don't know what I've done wrong. All I know is that I AM NOT HERE FOR THIS. This is extra basic and not on fleek right now.

What do you do when the CIA is spying on you? Well, you throw an old sock over the built-in camera on your computer, shut off location services on your phone and keep the bedroom blinds tightly closed (in case of spying drones, duh). Take that, ye servants of Satan.

From what I am later told, this episode is brought on by too much Zoloft in my system. Apparently, the Zoloft triggered my underlying illness: bipolar. At the time, though, I don't know that I'm bipolar, only that I've been undergoing various treatments for four years for a variety of increasingly severe symptoms: mostly anxiety and depression.

By midday, I am gnawing on my nails and scribbling in my journal. I’m trying to make a list of things I know to be true. It goes something like this:

  1. I know it is Friday.
  2. I know The State is spying on me.
  3. I know I haven’t done anything wrong. (Have I?)
  4. I know I’m a mom who works part-time as a server in a Greek restaurant—OH WAIT! OMG, that’s it. The State suspects I haven’t properly reported my cash tips. 
  5. Dear IRS, mea maxima culpa. I get it. I know. I’m a horrible person. I’m sorry. I have five kids. They need things like food (not that I cook) but they need things. Like Netflix. And tacos.
  6. I know I’ve been having nightmares—especially that recurring one where I’m arrested and placed in solitary confinement for some crime I don’t remember committing. And nobody will tell me.
  7. I know my family thinks I’m going crazy. Well, THEY are the crazy ones. THEY are the unwell ones. Not me. Nope. And anyway, aren’t we all kind of mentally ill? Aren’t we all a bit touched in the head?
  8. I know that I grew up in a cult. Such a beautiful childhood. So healthy. So happy. Har-har.
  9. I know that I might need help. But I don’t know if I can get it because stupid health insurance companies are stupid about behavioral health. They keep it all hidden and hard to access. They like to give you things you don’t need: like high deductibles. Insurance companies are like Aunt LaBelle who used to hide her cigarettes in the cookie jar and when you went to her house she was like: “Me? Smoke? Never. Here, have an antihistimine”—because you were wheezing asthmatically from all the cigarette smoke that permeated every corner of her house. The point is, insurance companies keep high deductibles in cookie jars.
  10. I know that eight is my favorite number. Eight years old was my favorite age. It was the last time I remember being happy. That was the year I climbed the tallest pine tree in my yard and was able to see the Matterhorn mountain ride several miles away at Disneyland. And that made me impossibly happy. I had only been to Disneyland once and it was addicting. I was like Edmund in The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe tasting Turkish Delight for the first time. Yep, I would totally hand over my family to the White Witch for just one more taste of Mickey Mouse. I could eat that Mouse all day. Ew. But alas, I wasn’t in Disneyland, I was in a cult. Thanks for that tiny glimpse of happiness, age eight. Thanks for showing me what was possible and then yanking it away. I won’t see happiness again for another gajillion years. Cue sobs.


Somehow I have enough presence of mind to ask my neighbor to drive me to the hospital...

The young, fresh-faced volunteer at the ER intake desk looks up at me and says: “Just sign here.”

    “I can’t,” I say.

    He looks baffled. “You can’t sign?”

    I lean forward and whisper, “I’m not ok, ok? I’m not ok, ok? I’m not ok—”

    He sees my shaking hands and a light seems to go off in his head—

Suddenly I am being hustled to a chair, papers are given to my neighbor and I’m told just to wait for a moment. I don’t know what is happening. I just sit when they tell me to sit. I just stand when they tell me to stand. Why is that young lady staring at me? Why are the lights so bright? Why are the sounds so loud?

    “Can you hold me down in my seat?” I say to my neighbor. “I feel like I might float away if I’m not pinned down.”

    She presses a reassuring arm on my shoulder.

    Someone is calling my name.


    I look up to see someone all dressed up in a nurse’s uniform holding a clipboard. NICE COSTUME, FELLAS. I know who you are! You can’t trick me!

    “Elizabeth, they just want to check you in,” says my neighbor.

“I just want to die,” I say.

Her eyes grow wide.

She helps me up and I hobble over to the intake desk again. Apparently, the gig is up. I’m caught. Oh, well. Solitary confinement here I come. Beam me up, Scotty.

I don’t remember much of what happens next except that I am asked a lot of questions, taken to a room with a bed and told to undress, told to swallow a pill, poked with needles and, several hours later, sent home with a prescription for Zyprexa and strict orders to call my psychiatrist the following Monday.

When I ask the psychiatric nurse to let me stay, she says: “I’d rather send you home because I think being around other really mentally ill people will make you worse.”

Apparently, I’m not going to prison, after all. Apparently, I have to keep on living. UGH.

Ever since my best friend died by suicide, I can’t seem to get a grip on this new, horrible reality without her.

Katherine is the reason why I used to laugh and now she’s the reason why I cry.     

I really thought I had a handle on this stupid grief thing. Instead, things got worse (witness: the spying drones, witness the CIA tracking my iPhone).

    I thought I was getting better.

    I thought I was moving on.

    You know, MOVING ON. That’s the thing people say to grieving people. They say: “You’ll always cherish the special memories but now it’s time to move on.”

    I wish people would stop saying that.

Because the thing is, after losing Katherine, I didn’t get better. I got worse. I moved deeper into grief, deeper into a dark hole that spilled itself like black ink all over my mind. Losing Katherine triggered all the underlying symptoms of Bipolar II and it came roaring to life like a beast released from its cage.

Katherine, ever since you died:

I can't figure out what to do with all these things I need to tell you.

I can't seem to remember who I am or why I’m here.

I keep calling your cell phone just to hear your voice.

I can't concentrate.

I forget everything.

I imagine your voice in my dreams.

I wish I would have done more to help you.

I tell you everyday how much I love you, how much I miss you, how much I hope you're OK.

Katherine, why did you have to go?


Zyprexa zombie

Zyprexa is not my friend. I learn this after the ER doctors prescribe Zyprexa and it wallops me upside the head and knocks me out for sixteen hours straight. When I wake up, I don’t wake up. I mean, technically. I’m awake. But my eyelids won’t open. My eyelids are all: We hate you right now so we are going on strike. Your eyelids will be closed until further notice. Signed, The Management.

This is perplexing. Also, highly inconvenient. Maybe I should just prop open my eyelids with Q-tips. That’ll work. That won’t be weird at all. My kids won’t mind if I drop them off at school with Q-tips taped to my eyeballs.

This could be a new look for me. Zyprexa Zombie Mom. Somebody get me a TV show, stat. AMC, I have a new show for you: The Walking Q-Tip Head. You’re welcome.

Where were we? Oh, yes. Zyprexa Zombie. Let’s discuss how fun it is to show up at your kids’ school in 3 day old pajamas and matted hair. Let’s discuss how many awesome invitations you’ll get to playdates and Moms' Nights Out. Exactly zero.

This is the first thing you need to know about severe mental illness: it is lonely.

    You don’t get invited to things.

    And if you do, the host regrets it.

I mean, there was a time when you got invited to things. But on the day of the party, you were burrowed under your covers convinced the CIA was spying on you through your computer so you didn’t show up for the party. In fact, you completely forgot about it. Throwing the CIA off your tracks was more important. But three days later—in a blind panic—you suddenly remembered: THE PARTY.

You frantically text your friend: Hi, Kate. I’m so so so so so so so so so so sorry I missed the Moms Night Out. I was sick in bed with bipolar 2. It’s a severe mental illness. Have you heard of it? It used to be called manic depression. I can send you some articles if you’d like to read up about it!

    And then you wonder why you never hear from Kate again.

Here’s the second big lesson of mental illness: I am not my feelings.

    Oh, boy. I’m in trouble now.

 Mental illness has taught me that my feelings are not the be-all, end-all of the entire world. The Earth does not spin on its axis because of my feelings. The sun does not rise because I felt like it should. Everything goes on with or without my feelings which is why I need to learn to how to detach.

Detach is a terrible word and I hate it very much. But that’s mostly because I am way too attached to my feelings. I am way too attached to my way of seeing the world. Did you know that the medieval definition of attached was NAILED TO? Yeah. That’s me, alright. I am nailed to my feelings. I can’t go anywhere or do anything because I am nailed to how my feelings feel about where I go or what I do. I am the handmaiden of my feelings. I serve my feelings with gladness and thanksgiving because my feelings are….uh-oh. My feelings are beginning to sound a lot like God.

    Ay, there’s the rub, Hamlet.

 I feel so many things and they feel so very real and yet, those feelings are not me. I am the one having the feelings but I am not the feelings themselves. This is good news because it means I can detach from your feelings. I have the power to change my feelings. Except when I don’t. Except when my neurotransmitters have gone horribly awry and my brain is lacking dopamine and then I'm like: AAAUGH.

 But the point is, once my neurotransmitters are stabilized, it’s actually possible to get a handle on my feelings. This is not to say I don’t feel your feelings. It’s just to say that I don’t let your feelings boss you around. My feelings are not the boss of me. I am the boss of me and if my feelings are getting too out of control, I have every right to put my hands on my hips and say: “GET THEE BEHIND ME, SATAN!”