Just Diagnosed - What Now?

Ask the Expert Patient Health Guide
  • Shannon writes:

    “I feel so frustrated today. No one seems to want to answer my question; is this bipolar, or is the family history of bipolar giving me this diagnosis. It is prevalent in my family, but it's been very hard for me to accept that I have it.

    “I've been bipolar (no, diagnosed with bipolar) for three weeks today. I've already had my medications changed around three times by three different doctors. The healthcare system, no the HMO's, are so **** frustrating!

    “So I wanted to post this to get some feed back from people about two things. Firstly, your experiences with being switched around from medicine to medicine like a guinea pig. Secondly, experiences with Seroquel ...”

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    I can very relate to your frustration, Shannon. You raise a very important issue that goes way beyond the specific questions you asked. Namely, you face the fear and uncertainty (and frustration) many of us go through when first diagnosed.

    On top of it, chances are you are coming off a really bad episode (which is how most of us come to the attention of the psychiatric profession) and you’re still reeling from the fall-out.

    I know. I’ve been there. I have vivid memories of what it was like, perhaps too vivid for my own good.

    Okay, Shannon, the good news:

    Now that you have been diagnosed, your whole life is perhaps starting to make sense. You have an answer - a reason - for all those times when things went terribly wrong. Now that you’ve smoked out the beast, you no longer need to be yanked back and forth like a puppet on strings. You are about to take charge of your life.

    More good news: Bipolar may be a terrible illness, but with proper treatment and smart lifestyle choices it need not define your life. You may have to accept some limitations in certain aspects of your life, but be hopeful about your prospects.

    Nevertheless, you probably need to grieve. Most of us have experienced terrible hardships and humiliations and loss as a result of our illness. It’s going to take a little while to get over the hurt, but this is natural.

    At some point - whenever the time is right for you - you need to let go of the past. Your life starts now, and you have a bright future to look forward to. So your first step is to reach some kind of acceptance with your illness, some kind of accord. Once that happens, healing and recovery can start.

    In the meantime, you have major stuff to work through right now. As you have already discovered, it’s going to take time before you and your psychiatrist hit on the right med or meds for you. You are already frustrated and more frustration is probably in store. So a little bit about meds:

    It usually takes some time for them to get working, at least a few weeks. In the meantime, you are likely to feel the side effects right off. So, in the early going, your meds are likely to make you feel worse before they make you feel better. Unless the side effects are severe, it is suggested you give the meds a chance to work. Often the side effects are transient and will go away.

  • One piece of advice. Don’t just quit on your medication or medications. If the med isn’t working right, let your psychiatrist know. It sounds like you are already doing this.

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    As you start to feel better, you will need to work with your psychiatrist on a long-term meds strategy. In the meantime, you will pick up your own coping skills. I strongly recommend a support group, where you can talk to fellow patients face to face.

    Keep in mind, debilitating side effects should not have to be the price you pay for bringing your symptoms under control. This includes major weight gain, feeling jittery, feeling sluggish, no sex drive, and anything that causes major physical discomfort. Psychiatrists are often tone-deaf to patients’ complaints about this, so please be encouraged to read yours the Riot Act in this regard. If your psychiatrist still doesn’t listen, then find one who does.

    Another piece of advice: Your psychiatrist is only as good as what you tell him or her. So, show up for appointments prepared, with questions in writing.

    Also, watch out for stresses, watch your sleep, your diet, get exercise, build a support network, and look to your strengths.

    You made an excellent first step in checking out this website. Learning everything you can is crucial - both from the experts and fellow patients. That way we don’t have to be helpless bystanders. Also, check out my own website at mcmanweb.com.

    I’ll wrap this up now, Shannon. I trust I’ve answered your question about the frustration of being a guinea pig. As to your other question about whether it’s bipolar or family history - probably both. Bipolar runs in families. The expert consensus is that the illness is genetically transmitted, and that stress triggers the illness.

    I’m not an MD, so we’ll skip the Seroquel question. I’ll sign off by officially welcoming you to the bipolar club. We’re all in this together, and we’re all here to help. Please know you are not alone, and by all means stay in touch ...

Published On: April 09, 2008