Why I'm Climbing Back Aboard the Mood Stabilizer Train

There's a reason the flight attendants tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. It's because you can't do jack to help people if you're running out of air yourself.

Dec 30, 2011 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

So, it's no secret that I go to therapy

About a year ago, my therapist recommended some psychiatrists. I dutifully wrote down their names and numbers on a Post-it note... and then carried the Post-it note around with me. I never actually called the psychiatrists.

My husband has spent the past two years really struggling with depression and ADD. And while I'm not in any way, shape or form claiming that it's harder to live with a person going through that stuff than it is to be a person going through that stuff, I do have to acknowledge that it is hard. And I spent a lot of time trying to support his mental health instead of seeing to my own as aggressively as I should have.

There's a reason the flight attendants tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others -- it's because you can't do jack to help people if you're running out of air yourself.

The same is true of mental health to a certain degree; if you aren't in a good place yourself, it's hard to help someone else who's having a fight with the brain weasels.

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For the past couple of sessions, my therapist has been reminding me that, given the heightened stress I'm under for a number of reasons, it might be time to dig out my invitation to the mood stabilizer party.

Once upon a time, y'all, I was a teacher. Not only was I a teacher, in charge of shaping young minds, I was a teacher for kids who had been expelled from the regular school system.

I worked primarily with high schoolers in a mixed-grade, mixed-subject classroom. But one semester the school tried an experiment and I wound up teaching English to a group of sixth graders who had been pulled from the other classes for being disruptive.

Basically they took the "worst" kids of the kids who had been expelled, and put them in a concrete box all day. No changing classes -- the teachers rotated through the room.

It was tough for those kids, but I had a good experience with them (much better than the science teacher who came in before me -- he wound up quitting halfway through the semester, in part because they threw things at him).

We worked on a lot of basic English grammar skills and also how to look at stuff and interpret it. Critical thinking for the win!

Picture in your mind a room made of concrete block that has been painted a sort of institutional grey. Stick about 25 kids of various and diverse racial backgrounds in the room -- all of them from a similar socioeconomic class. Mostly, poor kids of color. And me, a fat white woman who never could dress the way the other teachers did.

My then-psychiatrist was trying me on a medication called Seroquel at the time. Seroquel is an atypical antipsychotic used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I wasn't sure what to think when words like "antipsychotic" started getting thrown around, but I was really in a state where I needed something. I try not to get too anxious about labels, particularly mental health ones.

I was having a pretty fierce bout with insomnia at the time. That's why my doctor went the Seroquel route -- it's got some sedative properties.

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Does it ever. One of the side effects is called somnolence. That's a fancy way to say it will make you tired as all hell every waking minute.

And "waking" becomes a hazy concept, because you can wind up in a near-sleep state even when you're, you know, sitting in a restaurant with your friends.

I was only on Seroquel for two weeks. I have very few memories from those two weeks. I hear that I had a lot of very bizarre half-formed conversations and that I passed out in the middle of several meals while in the middle of sentences. So.

The kicker, the final straw that got me to call my doctor and tell her that this drug was most assuredly not the drug for me, was when I fell asleep while teaching my middle schoolers.

A particular super fun fancy things that can happen with somnolence is this experience called a microsleep. That's when you fall asleep -- with no warning, mind you -- for a period of 30 seconds to a minute.

It's not something you can control. One minute I was explaining why I wanted my students to watch the short film (Pixar's "For the Birds") I was starting, and the next I was blinking at some very concerned faces.

We went on to have a very productive class, talking about meaning and how things are communicated in films with no traditional dialogue. But I was freaked entirely out.

You have to step down your dosage on Seroquel (which is why I was on it for two weeks instead of just a week and a half). And then I wound up on a med named Depakote.

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The fascinating thing about psychiatric meds is that, for most of them, there seems to be this knowledge of what they do, but not a real understanding of why they do it.

Depakote is an anti-seizure med used in the treatment of epilepsy. It also regulates manic episodes. FOR SOME REASON.

The most dangerous and most likely side effect of Depakote is that you are 10 times more likely to have a baby with a serious birth defect such as anencephaly. That's hardcore.

The other thing to be concerned about is jaundice -- I had to have a monthly liver test.

But because I didn't have any other side effects, I stuck with the Depakote. I took it in the morning, and it was like I could follow a thought from beginning to end.

I had been incredibly productive before -- I was even more productive after because I could finish things. It was a revolution.

It still wasn't perfect. I'd spend most of the day pretty near euphoric from relief because I wasn't rapid cycling. But then about 4:30, I'd find myself overpoweringly enraged by the smallest, stupidest crap ever and want to kill people with my car. That's not hyperbole.

I'd be driving and have vivid thoughts about how easy it would be to hit the car in front of me.

That's pretty scary. So I told my psychiatrist. She had me start talking my medicine twice a day. And life was good.

Life was good, until I changed jobs and lost my insurance. I managed to scrape together the funds for my ridiculously expensive meds for a little while... but eventually I had to stop taking them so I could continue to pay my electric bill. I've been off medication ever since.

That does not make me any less mentally ill, as much as I hate that phrase. It just means I propped myself up with routine and comfort zones and general control issues. My anxiety levels have shot through the roof over the past two years. It's basically sucked a lot.

But this is why it's so important for me to maintain therapy versus only going when I need it -- it's really really hard to find the momentum you need to search out a new therapist when you most need one.

Similarly, when you're most in need of medication is probably when you have the least mental capacity for actually dealing with the finding of a psychiatrist and trial and error that goes into finding a med that works.

I've spent a year reminding myself that, yes, I do actually need to get back on the medication merry-go-round. I am not ashamed of needing (or wanting) medication. I am not putting it off because I think medication is a crutch of some sort (people need crutches when their legs are broken; people need meds when their brain chemistry is self-harmingly out of whack).

And even so, it's taken me this long to reach out for my own oxygen mask. At least this time I won't have a classroom of students worried about me.