Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Hypomania Dilemma

I love reading Willa Goodfellow's blog, Prozac Monologues. Willa (pictured here) is smart, insightful, and like all good writers she poses questions rather than serving up easy answers. Case in point:

Willa's wife Helen was invited to a function at the home of Sally Mason, president of the University of Iowa. Willa got to tag along. As she explains it:

Helen likes to show me off, because I am good at parties, can talk with anybody, good social skills. And I am cute.

So far, so good.

Anticipating wine at the function, she decided to skip her afternoon Valium. Besides, she wanted to be mentally sharp. Later into the function, the host engaged Helen and Willa in a conversation. They were standing in front of a bookcase populated with books by Iowa Writers Workshop authors. The workshop is the pride and joy of the university.

In Willa's words, "That is when the evil twin appeared." Pointing to a Pulitzer book, "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson, the evil twin let loose: "Boring. Boring, boring, boring."

Gracious host that she was, Dr Mason acknowledged it was a difficult book to read. Willa says she could have redeemed herself by offering that it was difficult for her, as well. After all, the book was about depressed small town Iowa clergy, and - guess what? - Willa had been one herself. All manner of fascinating conversation could have flowed.

But, no. Willa pointed to another book. As she reports: "This time I said, 'I hate this book ...'" Dr Mason moved on to other guests.

Willa observes that her psychiatrist would have a ready solution to her unwanted hypomania, namely to go on the meds she had been refusing. But there is a catch, as Willa relates:

Those meds would give me a flat affect, facial tics and forty pounds. Helen would have no reason to let me out of the house at all. I would no longer even be cute.

Willa cites a 2003 study by Pope and Scott that pointed to a clear discordance between psychiatrists and patients. The psychiatrists in the study thought that bipolars went off their meds because we "miss our highs." The patients who quit cited other reasons. In 2006, I heard Dr Scott talk about her study at the International Society of Bipolar Disorder conference in Edinburgh. When I included it as a PowerPoint slide in a grand rounds I gave two years later to clinicians at a hospital in Princeton, NJ I was greeted with stony cold frozen Kelvin grade silence.

It didn't help when the next thing out of my mouth was: "Get over it. When your patients complain to you about feeling like fat stupid zombie eunuchs on the meds you prescribe - and on the meds you overprescribe - they are not doing this to ruin your day."

In an ideal world, we could all be our smart, funny, insightful, and engaging selves without having to worry about causing a social embarrassment. Operating with a clear head is our most valuable asset, but there are risks, illness or no illness. I could opt for faux pas-free life, but at what cost? An existence devoid of laughter?

Psychiatrists tell us we need to stay on our meds, and for many of us that is very good advice. But that is the easy answer. Willa poses questions ...

No comments: