I’m grateful for medicine.
Without meds to help me regulate my moods (bipolar), I’m quite certain my life would be a series of disasters. But as all people dependent on medicine know, there is often a trade-off. There are side effects and there are dangers. There is no one more compliant with psychiatric medicine than I am, and that comes with a cost.
In the fall of 2017, I needed a med change–a regular occurrence in the treatment of Bipolar Affective Disorder. My doctor increased one drug and added a new one–something brand new on the market. It’s a drug you’ve seen in commercials a dozen times and I was hopeful that it would level me out–and it did. But as a person who was already struggling with anxiety, it began to get out of control soon after starting it. I never connected the two. The doctor then put me on an anxiety medicine to help with that.
To compound this difficult state, I developed a hernia that would need to be operated on ASAP. It was a very rare form of hernia which could result in a dire emergency, and the surgery to repair it would require a couple of weeks of recovery, which I didn’t feel I could spare. One of the big things that happened in the fall when I was a church choir director was the preparation for the Christmas cantata, and it would take every rehearsal to prepare it. Also, I was having terrible vision problems, chronic laryngitis from acid reflux, and involuntary movements with my neck, back, and feet. I could barely lead the hymns on Sunday morning. The wait, the risk, the pain, the vision, the ticks, and the anxiety were a perfect storm of misery.
In the midst of this, my brother-in-law asked me to usher at his wedding in December. I felt so honored to be a part of his wedding party, and so in spite of my difficulties, I agreed to play that role. I would be a long car ride from OKC to Cincinnati, and in my paranoid-level anxiety, I was convinced that the hernia would strangulate my liver during the journey, leaving me several hours to receive emergency surgery before it would kill my liver (which exactly what the doctor told me could happen if I waited for the surgery). But we journeyed on, and I “survived.”
It was a great time for family and friends, but for me, it was an extraordinarily difficult event that began with the pastor giving me and the other usher the marching orders for how to usher. It was a truly simple job. We were to stand at the entrance of the event center and offer to escort any woman, especially senior women, to their seats, which could be anywhere because my brother-in-law and finance had decided not to split the seating by bride and groom attendees. Then, at the given time, I would escort the mother of the groom, my mother-in-law, to her appointed seat, the other usher would escort the mother of the bride to her appointed seat, then I would escort the wife of the father of the bride, a good friend of mine to her seat. Then at the end, we would do the whole thing in reverse. It seems so simple now!
But in my state of intense anxiety, I could not grasp it and I was so worried I would mess it up. Every time I saw that minister I would ask him to go over it with me again. He was very patient with me, until the moment before the service when he had his own role to prepare for.
I flagged him down in the lobby minutes from the ceremony. He said that he only had a moment.
“Ok,” I said, “I know this may seem ridiculous, but can we go over this one more time?”
He sighed a deep sigh and checked his watch and said, “David, this is really very simple. It’s going to be ok.” Then he stepped me through it one last time.
The guests began to arrive. I was so anxious that I couldn’t bring myself to offer an escort to anybody, and neither did the other usher. We stood at the door and made gestures for people to enter. What if the women didn’t want to be escorted? What if it came off as sexist? Eventually, though, I got the nerve and began escorting. I only escorted a few, but that was a few more than the other guy, who was also feeling uncomfortable with the formality.
When it came time to escort my mother in law, she was so gracious. She could tell I was struggling. I escorted her down and returned for my father-in-law’s wife. She could tell I was struggling mightily. She poured kindness over me as we walked, patting my arm, and speaking in soothing tones.
Then came the end of the service. Who was supposed to go first? Me or the other usher?!!! I couldn’t remember. I did not want to screw it up! I did not want to offend my mother-in-law by getting the wrong order. As the postlude was playing, we all stood up. My mother-in-law was waiting for me, but I was panicking. Was it reverse order? Was it the same order but going out instead of coming in?!! I tried to wave down the pastor who was standing on the stage in front of me, but if he saw me, he was ignoring me. Perhaps he’d had enough of me. So I just went and it was all over.
Afterward, my mother-in-law assured me that everything went wonderfully and she was grateful for me. I was relieved.
I survived the wedding, then I survived the Christmas cantata, then I survived the surgery which was a great relief even though I’d never experienced that much pain. I felt embarrassed. I knew other people who had had hernia operations and were back on their feet with only a little discomfort. I still have occasional pain when I exert myself. The surgeon says that it may never fully go away, but that I had healed up very well.
But this was not the end of my journey. After I was back on my feet and Christmas had passed, my wife and I decided to see all of the Oscar-nominated films. One of them was The Greatest Showman. The day after we saw it, I said, “Ok, so we just have one last movie to see, The Greatest Showman.”
“Babe? We just saw it last night.”
Now, I tend to be a little forgetful, but as I searched my memory, I could not find the movie. In fact, I couldn’t find the entire evening. I began to panic, and my wife became very concerned. I began searching my memory for the past week. Had I conducted the Wednesday night choir rehearsal? She assured me that I had. I had no memory of it to the point that when Sunday came, I had no idea what we were singing or if they were prepared for it.
“Sweetie,” said my wife. “Something is wrong. You need to go to the doctor immediately.”
My doctor sent me to the lab for some blood work which showed that my blood was near toxic-level for lithium. He said that it wouldn’t normally cause a toxic response at that level, but it was clear that is was at least part of the problem. The other part was the new drug I had begun in the fall. He pulled me off of both and began to rebuild my drug plan entirely.
Over the course of the next few years, including this year, my anxiety ceased, my tardive dyskinesia (involuntary movements) ceased, my voice came back, my vision cleared up, my insomnia ceased, and I began to feel better than I’d felt in many years.
So why did this happen? Why was I so overmedicated? Well, when mental illness hurts your life and the lives around you, you become afraid that it could happen again. You aggressively fight to suppress the illness. But I’ve come to a place of peace with bipolar. It no longer scares me. Now that I’m appropriately medicated, my symptoms, although not gone, are manageable. Everything is fine. I still need an adjustment from time to time, but I believe this nightmare is over.
To some degree, this is an experience that all people with illnesses such as bipolar go through. Many stop taking drugs altogether, and I totally get that. Long-term use of anti-psychotics can lead to numerous difficulties, some quite dangerous. I believe in meds, but I no longer brow-beat friends who go off them…because I totally get it. It’s not an easy road. I’m just grateful to have options and to have a family who will walk down that road–that aisle?–with me.