Wednesday, April 15, 2009

My experience with Lithium - Alternatives for lithium

A friend sent me an email. Her daughter is on lithium, among other drugs, and her schizoaffective disorder is under control. She did mention that lithium causes her daughter to pee a lot, a result of drinking lots of water. Lithium makes most of us very thirsty! She also wondered about alternatives for lithium which are listed at the bottom of this post.

Please remember that I'm not a doctor so everything I say should be thoroughly researched.

I was put on lithium in 1984, at the age of 38, after having my first manic/psychotic break. I took it faithfully for 16 years. I remember a time when I worked at the Intelligencer/Record newspaper in Horsham, PA, as a copyeditor/freelance writer, and the lithium began turning on me. I had diarrhea numerous times a day. My psychiatrist wanted to take me off it, but I refused. At that time, there were NO alternatives. I was terrified of returning to the chaotic state I'd been in when I was forcibly - and correctly - hospitalized and removed from the life I so loved, including raising my two children.

Today there are many alternatives to lithium, which was first used to treat gout in the 1800s.

Eventually lithium and I entered into an uneasy truce. I had dozens upon dozens of side effects that make me cringe when remembering them. I saw many different specialists - skin doctors, pain doctors, neurologists, endocrine specialists - none of whom said that these bodily effects were a result of the lithium. I believe they were DEAD WRONG!

To be fair, I also took antipsychotics - along with side effect pills - for when I became manic/psychotic, which was several times a year. I was classified as a rapid cycler. Today lithium has been found ineffective for rapid cyclers. Back then there wasn't enough data to know this.

Especially troubling were 'zapping feelings' like bee stings that struck me night and day without warning. These were so severe I contemplated killing myself every single day while these effects persisted. I've written about this elsewhere, on How I Averted Suicide, under QuikBooks on our New Directions' website.

Most people I know DO NOT SUFFER the extreme physical agony I did while on lithium. Thank God! However, there are two unavoidable symptoms from lithium, one minor, the other major. Oftentimes, the lithium knocks out our Thyroid function so we must go on thyroid medication for the rest of our lives. Fortunately there are no side effects for this.

The other more serious concern is the way lithium affects our kidneys. My kidney doctor told me Lithium affects the tiny blood vessels in the neck of the kidney, apparently occluding them. Sorry I can't get more technical than this. He had me get an ultrasound of my kidneys a month ago and said they didn't look all that bad though I'm technically in Stage 3 or 5 of Renal Failure. It has begun to affect my blood pressure, which currently is out of control. I see the doctor tomorrow for a medication adjustment.

When you're young, lithium is fine. But when you age, the results show up on your lab tests. It's imperative to be tested twice a year for your creatinine level. My friend "Peter" who is about 67 and was diagnosed as a young adult, had been on Lithium longer than me. Five years ago he had a successful kidney transplant. I know many other people in their mid-fifties or sixties who can no longer tolerate the drug.

Your brain gets used to the lithium. When I went off due to kidney damage, I had to learn how to think all over again. I was still on Klonopin for anxiety, even tho I was never anxious, and my doctor put me on Lamictal, which unbeknownst to me was revving me into hypomania and suicidality, but I stayed in 'survivor mode' calling up friends to help steady me. This is how I developed my Stop-Suicide Plan which we implement in our support group.

Life always presents challenges. So my challenge after going off the lithium was learning how to THINK AGAIN. I remember I would buy children's toys at flea markets to help train my brain to think. I bought the first toy I ever got Sarah, a little rolling ball that would roll back and forth. I also bought a Busy Box, with four doors, each one opening via a different mechanism. I would sit on the floor for moments at a time training my mind to think again.

As you can tell, I somehow survived all this. Who helped me? No one. I had to figure it all out for myself. Should there be training programs for all aspects of bipolar disorder and depression? Of course there should be. I proposed this to two local counties, Bucks and Montgomery. I would develop training programs that would save the County money, and keep people out of hospitals and on their meds. You can guess what the counties responded: Silence.

I advise all psychiatric patients and their families to be aware of all the meds out there to treat our conditions. First, you learn THE CATEGORIES of medication, then the varieties within those categories. Not that difficult. We have:

- Mood stabilizers such as lithium, Depakote, Tegretol, Trileptal (a derivative of Tegretol)

- Atypical antipsychotics that are USED as mood stabilizers such as Geodon, Risperdal, Abilify, Seroquel and the side-effect-laden Zyprexa. (Oh look, they all have side effects, who are they kidding, but Zyprexa, in my opinion, is the worst, linked w/overeating and diabetes.)

- Antidepressants - numerous categories of these such as:

....SSRIs (Prozac, Lexapro)
....Dopamine and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (Wellbutrin)
....Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (Effexor)

....and the older antidepressants:

....MAO inhibitors (Parnate, Nardil, Seleginine)
....Tricyclics (Elavil, Sinequan)

- Antianxiety meds like Klonopin, Ativan, Serax. These are benzodiazepines and work better than any other antianxiety meds.

All of these meds can be researched online, and I suggest you do! The best way to learn about meds is to talk to people who take them such as your friendly neighborhood support group, New Directions, who else?