On May 5, 2006, I realized that I was happy. I remember the date because May 5 is my birthday, and there is no greater birthday present than the feeling of true joy. Maybe cash? I digress…
Up until that point, I’d struggled to find a combination of medication that helped my bipolar disorder AND helped me sleep. Insomnia has been my worst enemy for as far back as I can remember, and a lack of sleep just makes mental illness worse. But as I stood in the sunshine under a cloudless sky on that unseasonably warm morning, watching my nephew’s Little League team struggle to get a hit (they were only 5), I realized that my medication was actually working. I also realized that I had never felt that good before, which is sort of sad, considering I was 27. That’s a lot of years of unhappiness.
My “wonder drug” is Seroquel. Though it took a while to pair it up with Lithium and eventually Effexor, I knew the Seroquel was helping almost immediately. Of course, it made me gain about 50 pounds.
Oh, and I went from being pre-diabetic to full-blown diabetic. And it wasn’t always easy staying awake…which is part of the reason I’m not self-employed.
I write for a large national law firm based in New York City. I’ve become somewhat of an expert on the FDA and drug manufacturers. Drugs are a Godsend, but there is a downside to everything. For example, many people don’t realize that a new drug doesn’t have to go through any studies or clinical trials to be approved by health officials. Using an expedited approval process known as 510(k), the FDA can approve a new drug as long as the manufacturer can prove that it is significantly similar to another product already on the market.
In other words, if the new drug has some awful flaw that could make your heart explode or your brain pop out of your eyes when you sneeze, you won’t know that until people start dying or filing lawsuits.
Basically, I write horror stories about drug makers who doctored data or withheld it from the public to make money, and about patients who died or suffered horrible health consequences because they took a defective drug. I’m not writing this to scare you. I simply want you to understand how important it is to be informed.
We go to our family doctors believing that our best interests are at the forefront of their minds. Usually, it is…but they want to make money as much as the drug companies do. I’ll give you an example. The insulin I take would cost upwards of $300 without insurance. With insurance (and yes I know I am blessed to have it), it costs $50. I found out this week that there is another kind of insulin on the market that works exactly the same way but is dirt cheap by comparison. It is actually CHEAPER to buy it without insurance, because it’s only $27.
Instead of being prescribed the cheaper product, I will have to ask for it by name the next time I go to the doctor, because they have too much to lose by just prescribing it to me on their own. I never would have known about it were it not for my job.
And there’s this: all legal & journalistic stuff aside, I was very sick before I starting taking these meds, but if I miss just one for any reason, I’m 10 times sicker. I am extremely diligent about taking my medication, but once in a great while I wind up missing one because I simply forgot to add it to my fistful of nightly drugs, or because I ran out and forgot that I was out of refills. One time I dropped half a bottle of Seroquel in the toilet by accident. Baby, once they hit the toilet, they’re gone. I don’t go fishing for them.
When I do miss a med, I feel like going to the ER and begging to be placed in a medically induced coma. The stomach cramps, the nausea, the brain zaps, the emotional train wreck, the aches and pains… I have asked myself on more than one occasion whether or not the pills are worth it. Some people worry about losing their jobs or not being able to put food on the table for their families, but my main worry is that someday I will not be able to get my meds for longer than one day.
Have you ever experienced a brain zap? I’m betting a lot of you have. Better yet, have you ever tried to describe it to someone else? It feels to me like someone put a plugged-in toaster in a bathtub full of water and every few seconds, he takes out my brain and dips it in the tub.
I try to picture my life without treatment. I’d either be a drug addict, living penniless in my parents’ basement, or suicide would have claimed me a long time ago. Still, sanity has a price tag. If not taking a pill for less than 24 hours can give you brain zaps, you have to wonder what these drugs are doing to your brain in the long term. Seroquel hasn’t been around long enough for us to know, and neither has Effexor.
If you need help, you need help. You go get it because you want to have a fulfilling and meaningful life. You want to contribute to the world and have your time here count for something. But take my advice, as one who writes about the very worst of mankind, do your homework. If it’s at all possible, research that drug your doctor just prescribed you before you pop it in your mouth. Will it interact with something else you’re taking? Can it worsen an underlying condition? Have thousands of people filed lawsuits over the harm this drug can do? Can I find another drug that works just as well but costs much less?
There is no shame in taking medication, but make sure you know what you’re taking, because these drugs carve new pathways in your brain, and it’s serious business. Your doctor might be a nice guy who goes to your church, but you’re not the only patient biding for his time, so go online and become a sleuth.
Stick up for yourself and ask questions. There is no shame in taking medication, and there is no shame in investigating beyond the papers that come stapled to your prescriptions. The doctor may be the one with all the fancy degrees, but it’s YOUR body he’s treating. A good doctor won’t mind you asking, and if doesn’t have the time to answer everything, he’ll point you in the right direction.
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