By Tammy Ozolins
When I was first receiving treatment for bipolar disorder, I would sit in the psychiatrist’s office and listen and nod, occasionally adding an “um” or a “yes” to the conversation. I figured that my psychiatrist had all the answers and that my input wasn’t necessary. After all, I didn’t have a medical degree.
Eventually, I saw a flaw in this logic — and I would come to learn that my involvement in my care was essential to my recovery.
Several sessions with the psychiatrist passed, and I said nothing, even when I felt that the medication wasn’t working, and I was plagued by unpleasant side effects (tremors, weight gain, nausea and trouble sleeping, to name a few). I reached a breaking point and eventually stopped taking the prescribed medication.
Often, I felt that my psychiatrist didn’t care about my needs or concerns. In our visits, I would talk for a few minutes and receive little to no response. Then I would be handed a prescription, and out the door I went. I felt like an order number at a deli counter; my number was called and dealt with — and that was it. I was invisible. This left me feeling angry and defeated; was I just a burden? Was I unworthy of care? If my psychiatrist didn’t invest in my recovery, why should I?
In contrast to my unsatisfying visits to the psychiatrist, I had a wonderful experience in talk therapy with a counselor named Eleanor. She reminded me of a grandmother; she made me feel comfortable, and I always felt like she cared. She laughed with me and gave me a hug when I needed one. We “clicked” immediately, and I always looked forward to seeing her.
In several sessions, I told Eleanor about my visits with the psychiatrist; in one conversation, I described how I felt undervalued and unheard in consultations and how I worried that the medication wasn’t working.
“Well,” she said to me, “Why do you put up with that?”
“What do you mean?” I responded. “The doctor is the expert.”
Eleanor disagreed. She told me that I should be the one in charge of my body, not my doctor — that I am the expert in my own needs.
I was shocked by this notion at first — and then scared. I was afraid that if I spoke up, I would lose my psychiatrist and access to medication. Despite this fear and uncertainty, I was relieved that someone was validating my feelings and telling me I was worthy of advocating for myself.
After my second hospitalization due to a manic episode, I truly began the process of recovery — and I realized that Eleanor was right. I knew I wasn’t on the right medication, and I was uncomfortable advocating for myself with my doctor. I needed to take control and make a change. I started by finding a new psychiatrist.
I have always found change to be scary. I was nervous about starting over and re-explaining my story. Beginning again felt intimidating and exhausting. In seeing a new doctor, I did have to start from the beginning. But the extra effort was worth it; I really liked the new doctor, and I felt comfortable opening up to him. As my recovery progressed, I began to see that my success depends on me being in charge of my medical treatment.
I find it helpful to think about my care plan like I do about shopping. When I go shopping for clothes, I will try on five or six pairs of jeans and several tops to find the right fit, sometimes spending hours in the dressing room. If I make that time and energy commitment to finding the right fit for clothes, why wouldn’t I do the same for my mental health?
Naturally, taking medication after medication (or even seeing doctor after doctor) can be frustrating, but it’s important to keep trying different options and advocating for myself until I find the right fit. There is no magic solution, but I owe it to myself to find the best possible treatment.
Moving forward, I am in control of my treatment plan. I speak up when I feel like the medication is not working or if I experience negative side effects. My psychiatrist listens to me and makes appropriate adjustments when necessary. When I felt that my recovery was far along enough to change my medication regimen from three to two pills a day, he agreed. I can speak openly, and I am never rushed out of the office. I truly feel heard and cared for.
Of course, I must stay vigilant to maintain my recovery. I take a mood stabilizer twice a day and see my psychiatrist every six months. I go to one-on-one counseling when needed, and I have developed several coping skills (including writing, reading, listening to music and talking to friends). I even help run a support group for NAMI.
Ultimately, I owe my recovery and success to taking charge of my treatment plan. Much like finding the perfectly-fitting pair of jeans that make me feel so good, developing the right treatment plan takes some effort — but that effort is well spent.
Tammy Ozolins works in the education field and lives in Richmond, Va. She believes that people living with mental health conditions can relate to her journey and help fight the stigma surrounding mental illness.
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