Life After Lithium

By: Lorentz Preysz, NAMI Dane County Member

I have been on psychiatric medications for over forty years and for all the good they do, most of them have significant side effects. For example, I took lithium for my bipolar illness for about twenty-five years. I had a pretty good run on this medication and generally did rather well. There were a few “breakthrough” manic episodes, though. Also, I found that taking tegretol and lithium together eliminated my depressive episodes.

After time, my parathyroid’s developed tumors and I had to have surgery to correct some problems I was having with them. Gradually my kidneys started to fail due to lithium toxicity, as well. In April of 2010, I had a kidney transplant. This corrected the problem I was having with toxicity, but I had to stop taking lithium.

Since then, I have been seeking a replacement for lithium. I have tried zyprexa, risperdal, seroquel and invega (all atypical antipsychotics) coupled with depakote (a mood stabilizer). None of these outperformed my experience with lithium. I found that I developed type II diabetes on the atypical antipsychotics. There were many other side-effects with all of these medications but one in common was weight gain, which can be a significant side-effect since obesity comes with many serious health problems.

My experiences taught me the importance of making sure you talk with your doctor about the side-effects of a medication before starting one, that way you have all the options and know the potential long-term consequences for chronic treatment by using many of these psychiatric medications. However, this is not to say that medications do not play a role in getting well or staying well.

That being said, I think it is worth having a conversation with your doctor about prescribing the lowest effective dose of medicines to stay well and out of the hospital. Sometimes, it becomes necessary to manage an acute bipolar mania or depression on a more potent dose, but with time it can be lowered as the person becomes better. The goal is to work with your doctor(s) to make sure there is collaboration on your treatment plan but if you find that your doctor is not helping you in the way that you hoped, you can find a new doctor that shares your goals.

I’ve also found that social connections are very important for a good recovery. Many with mental illnesses feel isolated. Getting in touch with friends that understand your illness and who support you is one thing that has helped me. As hard as it can be, I made new friends joining NAMI, exercise groups and going out to coffee shops. The effort was well worth it and this, with the strategic use of medicines, can greatly improve your outcome in your struggle with mental illness.