Bipolar disorder is highly treatable, and yet so many people don’t seek treatment. Or if they do seek help, they later stop taking their meds or stop attending their therapy sessions. Or both. And then their bipolar blows up. Their mania spikes. Their depression sinks even deeper.
Sticking to treatment is not easy. Medication has side effects. Therapy takes work. The illness itself can be stubborn, exhausting, confusing.
It can all feel so frustrating.
We wanted to know what led some individuals to stick to their initial treatment — and why they’ve stayed dedicated ever since. Of course, life is not linear, and the people we interviewed haven’t had linear journeys either. Because bipolar disorder is complex. Their stories will no doubt inspire you, and remind you that you are not alone, and you can get better — even if your journey’s been jagged, too, even if it doesn’t feel like that right now.
How I Started Treatment
Therese Borchard, a writer and senior editor at HealthCentral.com, initially sought treatment for what she thought was depression, because she wanted to be emotionally available to her son. Her first few doctors treated her for depression, which only exacerbated her bipolar symptoms. She was finally correctly diagnosed at Johns Hopkins after her husband insisted she try a teaching hospital.
Borchard continued with her treatment because she was “completely desperate and in so much pain. I never ever wanted to return to that place again so I followed doctor’s orders even when I didn’t want to.” For instance, she wasn’t happy about taking lithium and having regular blood tests. Her husband also was a huge support, and reminded her “what the consequences of stopping could be.”
Elaina J. Martin, author of There Comes a Light: A Memoir of Mental Illness, was diagnosed with bipolar I after a suicide attempt. She moved from California to Oklahoma City to live with her parents so she could focus on her treatment. Which she kept up with because she wanted “to get off that rollercoaster.”
When Tosha Maaks’s husband mentioned that sometimes it feels like she’s two different people when she’s happy, and when she’s “in a mood,” she realized she needed help. “When I was ‘in a mood,’ I could slam doors off hinges or break plates against the wall just to hear them break.”
Maaks, a mom of four teenage boys, and frequent contributor to Psych Central, never liked the person she was when she wasn’t well. “The depression and mania never felt good for me, and knowing that I could somehow live a better life in treatment was enough for me to want to have a better life.”
She also initially stuck with treatment because she didn’t want to lose her family. However, it was tough for her to remember to take her medication daily (she also has ADHD), which meant she often skipped it. “Many times, I would claim they were not effective, and it wasn’t that the meds were not effective as my compliance with the meds was not effective.”
Then Maaks started working with a new doctor, and her husband became her reminder system. “He can ask me, ‘Have you taken your meds today?’ and I can’t get mad because he has earned that right as my support system.”
Karla Dougherty, author of Less Than Crazy: Living Fully With Bipolar II, went to therapy at first for her depression and anxiety. It took 40 years for her to get the right diagnosis. When she finally got it, she was relieved to have a name for her illness. “… I could get help, and peace.”
Writer and speaker Gabe Howard had no clue he was sick. A woman he was casually dating took him to the ER because she sensed something was wrong, and when she asked him if he’d been having suicidal thoughts, he said yes. Howard was positive the doctor “would laugh us out of the building,” because he clearly wasn’t ill. After he was moved to the psych ward, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Howard kept up with treatment because he believed his diagnosis. When he started researching and reading stories written by people with bipolar disorder, he saw himself in many of them.
He also read about and saw what happened to people who’d quit their treatment — everything from foolish behavior (“They felt like they were amazing, but they were just saying nonsense confidently. It was bizarre and sad”) to divorce (“The marriages with children where the hardest”) to death. “The worst thing I ever saw was the suicide of someone who was in a group I moderated. I went to the funeral and it was just so sad. They had been refusing meds for months.”
“Even when I didn’t like the treatment, moving forward was still better than what I heard happened to people who decided to play doctor,” Howard said.
Why I Stay Dedicated Today
Borchard, author of Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes, remains dedicated to her treatment because it’s a life-saver. Three years ago, she tried to go off her medication. “[I]t was a disaster. I was almost hospitalized again. I was suicidal for several months and the pain was so acute…. Even when I don’t think the medications are all that effective, I remind myself that they are certainly doing something because without them I had trouble functioning.”
Martin, who pens Being Beautifully Bipolar, remains dedicated because she believes in what bipolar disorder is: a chronic illness. Dougherty does, too: “I don’t think about it. I just take my medication and treat it as any other chronic condition.”
Another thing that keeps Martin dedicated is the cemetery. “When I see [cemeteries], I realize how close I was to being in a hole somewhere, which leads me to remember how much it would hurt people that I love.”
It took Maaks over a decade “to stick to treatment in the correct way and fully the way I should have, even though I tried to claim I was doing all I could.” She didn’t start learning about bipolar disorder until four years ago. “When I really started to figure out what was going on with me, then I started to really have better success with my recovery.”
The number one thing that keeps Maaks so diligent about her treatment today is her loved ones: “I know that I have to take care of myself because the people in my life — my husband, my kids, my in-laws, and my friends—are in my life because they get to choose to be in my life.” She doesn’t want to wake up one day and her loved ones have made a different choice.
“It’s much easier to be motivated today because my life is so incredible,” said Howard, who co-hosts The Psych Central Show podcast and A Bipolar, A Schizophrenic, and A Podcast. “I have a wife, house, dog, friends, and a giant TV. I have a career I love. I don’t want to lose all of that. I saw what my life was like before treatment and I see what it is now. It would be crazy to stop my medication and risk going backward.”
What About Challenges?
One of the biggest challenges for Borchard in maintaining her treatment is her desire to be normal. “I want to ‘be like everyone else.’” “But when you think about it, there really is no normal. It’s a setting on the dryer. I don’t like having to check in with my doctor so regularly, but she has saved my life and keeps me on the right track. When I stopped seeing her, and thought I knew the answers, I landed in chaos.”
Borchard navigates the challenges one step at a time. On the really hard days, she takes it 15 minutes at a time. “Breaking down everything—whether it be work, or a bad day with depression—makes it manageable.”
For Dougherty sometimes it feels like her medication subdues her creativity, and sometimes she misses her hypomania. This is when she talks to her husband, friends and psychiatrist, who help her stay the course. She also reminds herself that in reality she’s accomplished more on her medications than without them.
At first, Howard missed the mania, too. “[B]ut then I realized being happy daily beat alternating between depressed, moderate, and excitable.”
He’s also wanted to quit his meds before because of side effects, such as sexual side effects, feeling flat, blurred vision, dizziness and chronic fatigue. “Thankfully, I was able to work all of these out and have as few symptoms as possible.”
Howard encouraged readers to “Keep moving forward, keep working with your doctors, and continue to have hope.”
Hope really is vital. “[T]he most important thing to getting better is to have hope,” Borchard said. “Never ever lose hope. As long as you have hope, your life will get better.”
Bipolar disorder is a big illness that takes time to resolve, Howard said. “So don’t beat yourself up if you are still fighting. Please don’t give up. It’s OK to lose a battle; please don’t lose the war.”