Side Effects and the Writer with Bipolar Disorder
By Emily Glossner Johnson
I take a number of medications for my bipolar disorder. At this point in time, the medications and their dosages are working very well for me. There are inevitable side effects however, and learning to deal with them and work with or around them—especially as a writer—are some of the things a person in my situation needs to do.
One of my bipolar medications, Abilify, can cause a side effect called akathisia. Akathisia is a feeling of inner restlessness and an inability to sit still or remain motionless. I had been having slight feelings of akathisia caused by this medication. My doctor and I decided to try lowering my dosage, but this caused other problems—negative thinking, mild depression, and nightmares—so I decided that the slight akathisia I was feeling was better than the side effects from the lower dosage of the medication. Medications and their side effects are so often a balancing act!
You would think that something like akathisia would be good for a writer, that it would mean boundless energy and being constantly in motion, getting work done. But this is not the case. It’s a highly unpleasant feeling, even when it’s as mild as what I experience.
Hypomania (a lesser form of mania) and mania are the same way. During episodes of hypomania or mania, you feel as though you’re tremendously productive, creative, wondrous, and when manic, a genius. It seems as though you’re getting so much done. Well, maybe you are, but the quality might not be what you think it is when you’re in that state. I’ve written while either hypomanic or manic, and when I look back on some of that writing, I find that it ranges from mediocre to downright bad—incoherent, disorganized, lacking in real creativity. Unfortunately, however, sometimes what I produce in these states is good, and herein lies the danger of bipolar disorder and a reason that some people go off their medications. They want to grab those good moments and fly with them. Any kind of artist with bipolar disorder may want to have that high and the art that it can produce.
But I won’t go off my medication for the possibility of a few good pages. It’s not worth it and as I said earlier, it’s dangerous. As for akathisia, while I may feel an inability to sit still, I have trouble working because of this inability to sit still. Fortunately, I have methods and skills to work with and around this. I strive to get back to the ability to relax, be still, and accomplish what needs to be accomplished… whether it be a story, a chapter, or a blog post.
Emily Glossner Johnson writes monthly blog articles about mental illness and the challenges and triumphs it brings to the writing life. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1995, Emily is familiar with the pitfalls and high points of being a writer with a mental illness. Emily aims to encourage others through whatever challenges they may face when writing—whether it be a mental illness, a physical disability, or some other obstacle. Emily wishes to communicate to others that they are not alone. Even for writers who don’t have a disability, Emily hopes that her articles will inspire, educate, and enlighten.