Was I Misdiagnosed? Unipolar vs. Bipolar Depression

In late summer of last year, I increased my antidepressant, Emsam, from 9 to 12 mg. I was staying in a hotel at the time, and something odd began to happen. I started to hear music when the AC was running.

It is normal for people to hear tunes in the mechanical background noise of fans. It is not a psychotic illness – merely an odd perceptual idiosyncrasy. However, what I experienced was much more complex than any small, lilting buzz I’ve ever heard in a fan before.

The Musical Phenomenon and A Shift in My Mood

I was hearing soundtracks. Vocalists, instruments, the whole nine yards. I couldn’t decipher any lyrics, but there were distinct genres that ranged from pop to broadway to country. It sounded as if the music were coming from a different room, and for a while, I believed it was. But eventually, I began to get suspicious.

I walked around the hotel room, putting my ear to the walls, listening for a change in volume. I opened the door and poked my head into the hallway. I stood on the bed and listened to the ceiling. It was always the same volume. When the AC shut off, so did the song. A different song would start up after a few minutes of the AC running again. Sometimes, a sudden shift in my attention would cause the music to stop, even when the AC continued to run. It became clear to me that what I was hearing was not real, and it disturbed me.

A Mountain Escape

I was about to go to a new location – a trip with my mom to a small, mountain town for some wilderness relaxation. We planned to hike up to a lodge at 11,000 ft above sea level and stay for a few days. The hike up was arduous; it was the hardest hike I’ve ever completed, despite being shorter and with less elevation gain than other hikes I’ve done.

I remember that I wasn’t sleeping well, and my body just refused to cooperate as I forced myself up the trail. I had to stop frequently and lean on my pole, taking gasping breaths. At the lodge that night, I heard phantom hummingbirds zipping all around me as I lay in bed. In the morning, the sound was gone. I was unsettled, but I tried to put the experience out of my mind.

I was testy on that trip. My head was not in a good place, and my mind was filled with overwhelming irritation. I cried a lot. Neither my mom nor I were having a good time, so we left early and headed down the mountain to get a hotel room.

Upon reaching the hotel, a minuscule setback occurred, and it sent me over the edge. In a second, I went from chill to overwhelming, roiling anger. It was like calm seas to tsunami in the blink of an eye. I contained most of this energy, but some escaped in the form of expletives, fist clenching, and undignified, hurried marching on my way to our hotel room.

I am typically a very levelheaded, patient person. I strongly dislike being angry, and when I am, I make every effort not to show it. (Is that unhealthy? Yes.) In that moment at the hotel, I felt completely unhinged.

My dog had never seen me in such a state, so she hid under the table. The sight of her filled me with guilt and self-loathing. I immediately dissolved into dramatic, uncontrollable sobbing, which only frightened my dog even more. I was convinced that she would be afraid of me forever, a consequence for which I wholeheartedly believed I would never forgive myself.

Luckily, dogs are good creatures, and Stella came around once I had composed myself. Composure took a while to reach, but a hot shower helped.

Looking back, I feel like I was not myself from the very start of that trip. The rest of it passed fairly uneventfully, but I continued to hear sounds and music that were not real until a few days after returning home.

She forgave me quickly ❤

I’ve gone back and forth between 9 and 12 mg of Emsam since then, and the musical illusions occur sometimes when I take 12 mg. Sometimes it’s music, an incessant buzzing, or the murmuring sound of a group of people talking far away. Sometimes I can identify the background noise that accompanies it, and other times, it seems to happen on its own.

The Ketamine Incident

A couple weeks after returning from our mountain trip, I had a ketamine infusion that resulted in a bizarre, seemingly manic few days. I wrote a post shortly afterward that described my experience. I slept a couple hours each night but was compelled to keep moving. I worked on various projects for hours at a time, periodically bothered by the sight of small, insect-like dots scurrying across my visual field. I felt restless, productive, and somehow rather pressurized from the inside. I was also unsettled by dissociative spells in which I’d suddenly feel as though I were wearing my body, but it wasn’t really mine. Or, I’d walk by a mirror and be disturbed by my own face, which seemed unfamiliar.

When the strange symptoms ended, I plummeted back into depression.

I decreased my Emsam dose and my ketamine dose and had much more typical ketamine experiences, although I still found myself unbearably restless after infusions. The incident was strange, but since it didn’t happen again to the same degree, we carried on with treatment for a few more months.

Do I Have Bipolar Disorder?

I explained some of these experiences to a psychiatrist recently. I was being evaluated for ECT, although I’m not yet sure whether I want to do it.

The doctor interviewed me thoughtfully and asked a lot of questions about my symptoms. When we reached the end of the evaluation part of the appointment, he said that I might have been misdiagnosed with major depressive disorder, when really my depression is of the bipolar type.

It’s just a theory, but this would explain why antidepressants haven’t worked very well for me, or at least not for very long. The antidepressants actually seem to trigger these odd experiences.

A blue seven-day pill organizer filled with medication near a glass of water on a coaster

There have been other times when my mood suspiciously shifted, like the first time I took Wellbutrin. A day or two after starting it, I felt dramatically better. I was motivated, energetic, and utterly thrilled with how well it was working. Of course, then I developed a rash and had to stop taking it, at which point, I spiraled in the other direction.

The second time I tried Wellbutrin (the brand-name instead of generic), I wrote a post titled “Depression on Fast-Forward.” Wellbutrin didn’t make me happier that time, but it did make me anxious, jittery, and restless. I wrote about feeling “an almost constant low level of adrenaline” and feeling mismatched, like I wanted to sleep but was unable to. Was this just a side effect, or something more? Was taking lithium what made the second trial less happiness-inducing than the first?

The Antidepressant/Bipolar Controversy

These and the other incidents I can identify always happen in response to something, usually a medication change. The question of whether antidepressant-associated hypomania (AAH), also called treatment-emergent affective switch, or TEAS, indicates an underlying bipolar disorder is a controversial one.

Some people think that you can have unipolar depression and be reversibly pushed into hypomania by antidepressants, while others believe that switch indicates the existence of an underlying bipolar disorder or a shift from unipolar to bipolar illness. It has also been suggested that AAH should form the basis of a new diagnostic label, “bipolar III.”

I have experienced multiple incidents in the last few years that felt like a dramatic change, complete with insomnia, high productivity, perceptual disturbances, and euphoria or irritability. And yet, I find it difficult to verbally describe these events in a way that emphasizes the aspects I think are important. I habitually understate the severity of my symptoms, which doesn’t serve me when I really need help but can’t communicate accurately.

I’ve sought a few opinions from professionals on this matter, and I’m having trouble just reaching a consensus on whether my experiences count as AAH or were simply improvements in my depression with some side effects sprinkled in.

Even when I make a concerted effort to be more emphatic, the theory sometimes gets dismissed because the episodes I describe are too short by DSM standards to be mania, and I didn’t have racing thoughts, go out and spend all my money, take unreasonable risks, or have grandiose plans. These are all excellent points, so I’m really not sure what to think.

The DSM has strict criteria defining bipolar I and II, but that’s not the only way people conceptualize the condition. Some experts believe bipolarity exists on a spectrum, and that viewing antidepressant-associated hypomania as part of unipolar depression contributes to an overdiagnosis of MDD and an underdiagnosis of bipolar II.

On the other hand, some authors argue that bipolar disorder is overdiagnosed due to inflation of the diagnostic criteria, making the concept of bipolar disorder too vague.

Stopping My Antidepressant

Given the number of conflicting theories out there, it seems unlikely that I’ll get a solid answer about my own experiences at this point. One way to clarify the picture is to gradually get off my antidepressant and see what happens.

EMSAM-patch-packaging-with-label

I thought for sure I’d go back to the excessive sleeping I was doing before I started taking it, but so far, that hasn’t happened. I’ve been off Emsam for a couple of days, and the insomnia continues to plague me.

It’s troubling to look back at the last few years and imagine that there may have been a process occurring outside of my awareness. At the same time, I’m ever so slightly encouraged to have a different direction to go in. It could offer an explanation for some mysterious things and provide me with more effective treatments. Then again, maybe I have major depressive disorder, and I’m looking into a problem that doesn’t exist for me. Regardless of how it turns out diagnostically, I’m relieved to be connecting some dots.

Black tiles with white letters spelling therapy on a blank background

Why Anxiety About Therapy Isn’t a Bad Sign

Having anxiety about therapy doesn’t mean that therapy isn’t “for” you or that you can’t benefit from it. Instead, it might be a fear you can change by adjusting the way you approach your sessions.

We often focus on the role of the therapist and how well we connect with them when talking about how to feel comfortable opening up in therapy, but we don’t often examine our expectations of ourselves. Self-criticism and high expectations had me feeling anxious about therapy until I changed the way I thought about myself as a client.

When I decided to start going to therapy in college, I was apprehensive about having to do the classic back-and-forth discussion with my chosen therapist. In fact, I’m still not always keen on it. But the expectation that I held for myself – that I would sit down and spill my guts and cry and reach some kind of catharsis every week – did not pan out. The more accurate picture was (and sometimes still is) one of me sitting down, saying I’m okay, shrugging a lot, and forcing my therapist to sit in silence with me while I wrestle with my thoughts.

I thought for a long time that I was bad at therapy. I was very critical of myself for inadvertently shutting down. Sometimes, I still feel guilty because I perceive my excruciating quietness as a waste of my therapist’s time.

Shifting My Perspective on Myself in Therapy

The longer I’ve stuck with it, the more I can see that this perspective of myself as something like a student who is expected to achieve success is preventing me from recognizing the progress I’ve made. As a perfectionist, I’m prone to thinking that no amount of improvement is good enough, and if I’m not meeting my own expectations, I must be failing. Perhaps even more importantly, my anxiety about therapy gets in the way of me focusing on what I can get out of the process despite and because of my difficulty with certain topics.

Image by Stefan Schweihofer from Pixabay

I have been trying to shift my perspective on my role in therapy to be more like that of an explorer or some kind of self-ethnographer. I go to therapy, I do my best to talk, and I observe whatever happens. I’m there to be curious, and if talking about something is suddenly challenging, that in itself is interesting information.

Why Go to Therapy if It’s So Uncomfortable?

I learned early on in my experience with therapy that although talking about myself is deeply uncomfortable, it feels worthwhile. I have always been quiet and reserved, and I tell myself that it’s a preference. But, finding myself unable to answer personal questions in therapy taught me that I have less control over it than I wanted to believe.

To Challenge Myself

When pushed to discuss something I’m uncomfortable talking about, I simply clam up. It frustrates me because it does not feel like a voluntary reaction. Obviously, I go to therapy to talk about myself – why can’t I override my tendency to shut down? It’s like a drawbridge lifts in front of me, and I can no longer get my words across the gulf between myself and my therapist.

To Practice Being Vulnerable

Ultimately, therapy led me to the realization that while staying quiet is comfortable for me, it is also lonely. I don’t intend to change my natural tendency to be reserved, but I do hope that by practicing being open about difficult things, I can allow my reservation to be a choice, not a barrier.  

Photo by Shane on Unsplash

Everyone has secrets, and it’s perfectly okay to keep them private. But there are times when it’s good to share personal information, especially if it’s going to help you overcome a challenge in your life. Holding secrets out of an inability to put them down can be a deeply isolating experience.

Finding Ways Around My Anxiety About Therapy

I’ve gotten better at talking about myself in therapy, but it’s still hard. I still have sessions where I can’t seem to find the lever to lower the drawbridge and let the words out, and that’s okay. My therapist knows that I stay quiet not out of disinterest in the process but because it’s hard for me to engage in it.

On days when I don’t say much, I go home and write her an email with all of the words I couldn’t set free. It gives us somewhere to start the next time and lets me communicate in a way that’s easier for me. I still challenge myself to talk, but I know that I have a backup line of communication if I need it.

Whether I choose to discuss something or not is up to me, of course. My therapist is there to guide me, even push me a little, but ultimately, I decide what to talk about or not. If I want to set aside a more difficult subject in favor of discussing something easier but still meaningful, I can do that.

Considering the Therapeutic Relationship

I have found that for me, viewing a therapist’s role as that of a knowledgeable partner rather than an authority figure helps me stay intrinsically motivated and makes me more willing to push myself. We’re exploring my brain together, and I know that if I don’t accomplish something I set out to do, I won’t be “in trouble” with my therapist the way I would think I were if our relationship were less equal.

Photo by Jess Bailey Designs: https://www.pexels.com/photo/pen-and-notebook-1119792/

It’s a strange relationship to navigate — one that is inherently unequal in more than one way. You go to a therapist for help because they have knowledge and a perspective you don’t. You pay them, and you probably defer to their expertise. They are in a position to set expectations and try to interpret the implications of what you say or don’t say. It’s easy to start seeing your therapist as someone to impress, especially if, like me, you’re a chronic people-pleaser.

At the same time, clients have the option to stop going, the freedom to ask for adjustments in their treatment, and the potential to view themselves as indispensable experts on their own experiences. It can be motivating to think of therapy as something you get to take part in with your therapist rather than something you have to go to. Ultimately, I think the dynamic of a partnership makes me less likely to fear that my therapist might disapprove of or be disappointed in me for not achieving something or even for not talking enough.

I’m still trying to let go of my self-imposed pressure to be a wonderfully verbose client. I go to therapy to work on my depression and anxiety, and part of that involves being less critical of myself. I used to think I was a bad client because of my anxiety about therapy. Now, I think I struggle to talk about myself, and that’s part of why I’m in therapy.

A pink rose growing in a beige pot with another plant in the background

Saving the Roses and Losing the Trees

This might be my last Marshall fire-related post, at least for a while. The remnants of our house have been cleared away, and it seems like a natural opportunity to reflect. While painful, I hope that this step in the process can offer us some closure.

My other wildfire posts can be found here:

My House Burned Down in the Marshall Fire in Colorado

Letting Go of Items Found in the Ashes After the Marshall Fire

Thoughts on Depression, Trauma, and Change

Saying Goodbye to the House

Part of me struggled with the idea of the lot being cleared because, although it was all ash, rusty metal, and shards of glass, much of it was still there, just in a different form. When the crews demolished the foundation and cleared it all away, our belongings truly disappeared. The property as it was had become a sad monument in my mind, marking the events of December 30, 2021. Now there is almost no evidence on the property of our home ever having existed.

On the other hand, I think it will be a relief to move forward without the wreckage occupying space in my mind. It felt strange to go about my daily life while a violent reminder of something terrible existed nearby. It was always draining a small amount of my attention.

I have to resist the muscle memory of taking that exit on the highway, and it still feels weird to call my current residence “home,” even six months later. When I close my eyes in the shower, the smell of my shampoo transports me to my old bathroom, with the sun streaming in through the frosted glass window. Sometimes, when I’m somewhere between asleep and awake, I feel disoriented; I can’t picture the room I’m in. Not home. Not here. Where am I?

I visited the house on some Thursdays on my way back from therapy. Sometimes, I got out and stood on the front step, looking down at the piles of ash. Sometimes, I just sat in the car. Every time I went, I wondered if it was the last chance I had to say goodbye to it.

The Roses

On one such visit a while back, I saw some greenery sprouting out from the dry, brittle remnants of a rose bush. The above-ground vegetation was burned or singed, but the rose’s root system was still alive. It sent up brand-new stalks when spring beckoned.

burned rose stalks with new stalks growing next to a red brick wall
Rose #1

Actually, two of our four roses survived the fire. Seeing as how they were running out of time before the crews arrived to clear and level the property, we bought two large plant pots and got to work digging the roses up.

It was arduous; when soil burns, it can become somewhat hydrophobic, so although it had snowed and melted before we started, the soil was still incredibly hard. We brought water with us, but pouring it on the ground was only effective at wetting the top 1/8th of an inch of soil. It simply ran off, leaving the packed dust underneath it untouched.

Once we got down to the lower layers, the water helped more, but we still could only make progress by chipping away clumps of hard dirt and clay with our newly purchased gardening tools.

Rose #2

After about 20 minutes of digging, I came across a pill bug scurrying on its tiny legs across the disturbed earth. It struck me that I hadn’t seen any invertebrates before then. In our eight hours of digging across two days, we saw three or four worms, a couple more pill bugs, and one ant. The soil was barren.

In some ways, digging up the roses was familiar. We’d planted, pruned, weeded, and watered that garden bed countless times over the years. The sun was out, birds were calling to one another, and I knelt on the walkway as I worked, just like I did before.

Parts of it felt familiar, and feeling around for roots and gradually excavating them was mesmerizing. We lost track of time.

And yet, in the background, I was always aware of the space the house no longer occupied. It sat off to my right and tugged on my attention. There were no insects or spiders in the dirt, no kids running down the block, and no noises in the air. Without lawnmowers, dogs barking, and sprinklers chugging nearby, the neighborhood was eerily quiet.

We wanted to get as much of the root systems as possible, but we had to start cutting them somewhere. We also had to get rid of the top three to six inches of soil because it was contaminated with toxic ash. It pained us to sever so many roots and expose the fragile sprouts to the sun, but we figured the roses had nothing to lose. They would be destroyed if we didn’t save them.

The Trees

Unlike the roses, the trees were not saveable. There was an ash tree in our front yard that had new growth, but an arborist assessed it and delivered the sad news: it was too damaged to survive long term. The sap on the inside of a tree burns more effectively than the outer layers of wood. Essentially, trees can burn from the inside out. The outer layers of the trunk might have survived enough to grow new branches, but the tree’s ability to transport water was so reduced that it would not be able to sustain itself.

A mostly bare ash tree with small leaves growing from large branches

We arrived at the lot just as the crews were beginning to remove the trees. They started with the pine to the left of the driveway, then moved on to the ash tree in the front yard. They had cut it down at the base beforehand, so the backhoe operator got to work breaking the tree apart. We listened to the terrible sounds of dead wood being snapped under pressure, chunks of main branches flying into the air.

Slowly, the tree was reduced to where its main trunk split into three branches. The operator picked it up from the top to break it down again, and it dangled in the air for a moment. It was surreal – like I was watching a child use a toy backhoe to play with sticks on a playground. Except, it was such a familiar tree that seeing it lift off the ground and hang there did not sit right with me. The deconstruction of something so solid and unchanging was difficult to accept, even as I saw it happen.

When I was in middle school, I used to climb up to the best branch of that tree and read books, swinging my legs and listening to the rustle of the leaves in the breeze. I used to sit under it with my childhood dog, and later, with my current dog. I patted the bark and said goodbye to it when I went to college, and then I said hello when I moved back home.

This week, I stood on the other side of the street and watched my favorite tree get snapped into pieces by a backhoe and carted off in the back of a truck.

We left after that, trusting that the rest of the process would be even more disturbing to us. It’s necessary, and I’m relieved to finally be at this point, but it is distressing to see your already-obliterated home be torn apart even further.

Growth and Looking Ahead

Overall, I feel like I’m making progress, but I also feel like I’ve been changed by my experience, and no amount of moving on will restore the sense of safety I used to have.

I find myself organizing my important belongings so that they would be easy to grab in an emergency. I sometimes have nightmares in which something is on fire and I can’t find enough fire extinguishers to put it out or even hold it back.

There are some things I feel better traveling with than leaving at home because you never know what could happen while you’re away.

Some of my anxiety about fires feels useful to me, like it could help me respond more effectively in the future. At the same time, it seems to be in conflict with the sense of urgency I have about taking back control of my reactions to fire.

If the last few years have taught us anything, by late summer, Colorado will be so dry it will practically burst into flames of its own accord.

There will be more fires this year, and I don’t want to be thrown into a panic every time one crops up in the mountains or a few towns over. I don’t want it to impact my love of my home state or my desire to live here. I’d much rather adapt.

Rose #2
A body of water with four white pelicans on an overcast day

Insomnia and Seeing Spiders

I have not been sleeping well lately. TMS seems to have worsened my insomnia such that I’ve slept five hours a night, give or take an hour, for the last few weeks. It’s not so little that I was dramatically impacted right away, but the cumulative effects are becoming apparent.

For one thing, if I stray below 5 hours of sleep at this point, everything looks like spiders. Little clumps of dirt, loose threads on a napkin, you name it – if it’s small, dark, and in my vicinity, I think it’s a spider. It startles me, I flinch away from it, and then I feel stupid when I realize it’s just a particularly grainy spot on my wooden desk or some other innocuous thing.

Anything in my peripheral vision that seems at all unusual catches my attention. I was sitting at my desk on Friday, trying to work when I got this feeling that someone was standing in the hallway to my left. I looked – nothing there. It happened again, so I looked again – nothing there. I think I was seeing the hinge on my glasses against the empty hallway. The dark spot somehow got turned into a vaguely person-shaped image in my mind, and it unsettled me. Information coming in through my senses feels chaotic, and I find myself being jumpy and on edge.

Trazodone helps me fall asleep, but I continue to wake up after 4 or 5, sometimes 6, hours of sleep. Five hours is unpleasant, but the world looks mostly normal. Four is when things get wacky, and six seems to restore my sanity somewhat. I’ve definitely gone long periods of time on 6 hours a night before and been free of spiders and other illusions, so I guess five hours most nights with occasional dips below that is my limit.

I think it’s interesting that creepy crawly-related hallucinations/illusions/perceptual mixups are so common. Some of my ketamine infusions resulted in hallucinations of insects when I went home. (It is not supposed to do that.) One time, I was transfixed by some bug-inhabited cobwebs that weren’t real, and another time, I mysteriously hallucinated for three days. Small, black bugs scurried from one side of my visual field to the other and sometimes took up residence on tangible objects. I slept about two hours a night and found myself unreasonably motivated to complete tedious jobs like pruning our overgrown grapevines and reorganizing the hall closet.

That incident happened after I had been taking 12 mg of Emsam for a few weeks. My post-ketamine experiences started to become more and more bizarre and culminated in the three-day…whatever that was. I decreased the Emsam back to 9 mg, and my ketamine infusions went back to how they used to be.

Months later, I ran out of 9 mg patches and decided to use leftover 12 mg patches until I could get my prescription refilled. It was an informative experiment. I had horrible insomnia and felt similar to how I feel now. Inanimate objects started to sway back and forth in my peripheral vision, white noise sounded like music, and small, bug-like dots explored the world to my left and right until I looked at them directly. Then, they would disappear.

However, all of those incidents were different in that the insects were completely fabricated; my current spiders are actual things in the real world that my brain is transforming into momentary terrors. Thanks, brain.

I haven’t noticed any benefit from TMS yet, but we’re adding an off-label priming protocol to my regular treatments. Maybe I’ll just be a late responder. I’m trying not to feel discouraged, as I know it’s not a helpful state of mind. I’ve been feeling worse the last few days, which isn’t making it easier to be optimistic about TMS. I suppose I’ll just keep at it.

An outstretched hand holding an outline illustration of a brain against a grey background

What My Initial TMS Appointment Was Like

I recently started TMS for treatment-resistant depression. My first appointment was an interesting process. Regular visits are fairly straightforward, but there are a lot of steps to complete in a first TMS appointment that set you up for the rest of your treatment. Here’s how mine went.

I arrived at the clinic at my appointment time and went into a room containing a large machine with a digital readout connected to a tube with a peculiar-looking black attachment at the end. The room looks rather like what you’d expect if a therapist with a special interest in neurology suddenly switched fields and became a dentist. There’s a painting with uplifting words and two matching prints of the human brain on the walls, a mechanical reclining chair complete with a little paper bib over the pillow, and a desk with a computer and monitor. The walls are a relaxing shade of dark teal, and there’s a TV mounted at eye-level across from the chair.

TMS Mapping

The psychiatrist and two technicians were present, and they began by explaining what would happen. The first portion of the appointment would be dedicated to “mapping.” First, they would place a white cap on my head and take lots of measurements that would be used to mark the location of a couple parts of my brain. Then, I was to sit with my right forearm resting on a pillow on my lap while they held the magnetic coil (the black attachment at the end of the tube) up to the left side of my head and delivered pulses of varying intensity into my motor cortex.

Cortex sensorimoteur1.jpg: Pancratderivative work: Iamozy, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The purpose of this part of the process is to determine the lowest intensity that causes the patient’s thumb to twitch involuntarily. That intensity is known as the motor threshold. Mapping allows providers to tailor the patient’s treatment to specific parameters – the exact spot where the coil should be placed and the intensity of magnetic pulses that is most effective for that person.

What Does the Mapping Process Feel Like?

I found this part of my initial TMS appointment to be fascinating and a bit intimidating. As someone who hates being the center of attention, having three (very nice) people hovering over me, touching the cap, and stretching a tape measure over and around my head was uncomfortable. You only do it once, though, so that cap is now used for all of my treatments.

Determining my motor threshold was the fascinating part. I sat with my elbow bent and my forearm on my lap, oriented with my palm slightly up so that my thumb was visible and unhindered. The team placed sticky electrodes on and around my thumb and connected them to a machine next to me. I was asked to relax my arm as much as possible. The coil was held in contact with the cap. It produced a clicking sound and a small tap on the side of my head when pulses were administered. As they worked, the psychiatrist and technicians watched my thumb for movement and checked the readout on the machine for spikes in electrical activity.

Although it was bizarre to feel my hand moving without my conscious direction, nothing about the process was painful. It’s like when you develop a temporary eyelid twitch; it’s maybe a little disconcerting, but that’s about it. Subsequent pulses became less intense and had mixed results. A slightly different spot on my head would cause all of my fingers or even my wrist to move. Eventually, we landed on my motor threshold, and the electrodes were removed from my thumb.

The First TMS Treatment

At this point, I think I put earplugs in, but I might have done that earlier. Once I was tilted back in the chair, the pillow was adjusted, and someone held the sides of it up by my face. The air in the pillow was then vacuumed out, leaving a stiff, shell-like nest for my head to rest in. It feels a bit weird, but it helps keep your head still.

The coil was then attached to a mount connected to the chair. The mount is a mobile arm that allows the coil to be positioned on the patient’s head. Positioning the coil is a delicate business, so the techs did a lot of adjusting, locking it into place, and walking in front of me to look intently at my head from different angles before walking back and adjusting it some more.

There is a paucity of royalty-free TMS images online, and this is one of the only ones that show anything resembling the position of the coil. This image cracks me up. Is it the inexplicable lack of a shirt? Is it the arms held out to the sides? The coil descending from the heavens on a pole? I don’t know, but I love it.

(MistyHora at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons)

What is “Intensity” in TMS Treatment?

We started at an intensity below that of my motor threshold. Intensity is measured in terms of relative percentages. When mapping, intensity is expressed as a percentage of the total output the particular brand of TMS machine you’re using is capable of producing. The motor threshold exists at some level of intensity, which means that it is also expressed as a percentage. For instance, mine is 32% of the TMS machine’s total power.

As the appointments progress, the intensity of the treatments increases. The easiest way to think of this part is to consider the treatment intensity as a percentage of the motor threshold. So, my motor threshold of 32 is the new 100%, and each treatment is set to an intensity that’s described in relation to my motor threshold. We started at 60% of my motor threshold (19 or so on the machine) and bumped it up a few times during that treatment, reaching about 70% by the time it was over.

What Does TMS Feel Like?

I knew that there would be a series of sounds and accompanying taps on my head, followed by a period of a few seconds of nothing, then more taps, and that would repeat. My insurance will cover the “10 Hz” protocol (10 Hz refers to the frequency of magnetic pulses), which follows a 75-repetition pattern of four seconds of pulses (known as trains) and 11 seconds between trains. A frequency of 10 Hz means that there are 10 pulses per second (and 40 pulses per train). 40 pulses times 75 repetitions equals 3,000 pulses per treatment. Each treatment under this protocol lasts 18 minutes and 26 seconds.

Initially, the “taps” didn’t feel much like taps at all. It was like drops of cold water were falling from a great height into a small hole in my head. The sensation would spread out from the center, although it remained restricted to a very small area. When each train ended, so did the sensations.

Every few minutes, someone would ask me if they could turn the intensity up a notch. As the intensity went up, the pulses felt more like tapping. I found it uncomfortable but not painful at that level.

A woodpecker makes for a good analogy when describing how it feels. At lower intensities, it’s like a small bird — maybe a downy woodpecker — that’s persistently curious about the acoustic properties of your skull. The higher intensities I’ve reached in subsequent appointments have replaced the little woodpecker with a much larger one, like a northern flicker.

Speaking as someone who has been licked on the forehead by a flicker and had one land on the top of their head (I worked at a wildlife rehab center), I can say that, like a TMS machine, they make a lot of noise and have incredible persistence. Thankfully, unlike flickers, TMS machines do not scream, and you can stop them whenever you want.

The machine is pretty loud — both the beeps it emits and the clicking pulses — but the earplugs help muffle the sound. The coil is heavy, and I was very aware of it resting on the side of my head. It did help me remember to stay still, though. Talking was a bit challenging, as I’m used to relying on nodding and shaking my head to supplement my conversational skills. I felt rather stunted without it, but we muddled through.

After that, my first TMS appointment was over. I had been a little apprehensive about it, but it turned out just fine. In fact, it was reassuring to know what it felt like and what I could expect going forward. Sometimes, the best way to handle uncertainty is just to jump in and get started.

a black and white illustration of a woman standing in front of a window in a dark room at night

Shifting My Depression Treatment from Ketamine to TMS

Unfortunately, ketamine is not helping me much anymore. The infusion before last gave me a small boost, and I remember feeling good for about five days following my appointment. Some of the other benefits I get from ketamine, including improved appetite, fewer thoughts about self-harm and suicide, and more energy, still seemed to extend for a week or so post-infusion. On the whole, though, I wasn’t feeling encouraged.

My most recent ketamine infusion came just a few days before I started transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) treatments. I have almost no memory of that infusion. The day after the infusion did seem better, and I had the sense that things around me seemed a bit brighter or more colorful. I hate to say it, but aside from that mild improvement on that particular day, I don’t think the infusion did much of anything for me.

So, I’ve decided to stop getting ketamine infusions for the foreseeable future. It’s unclear why they stopped helping me, so I’m not opposed to keeping the option of restarting them in my back pocket. Right now, though, I don’t think that continuing them is providing much, if any, benefit to me.

Lithium and My Poor Kidneys

I’m disappointed that I’ve come to this conclusion about ketamine, but I’m also in a slightly delicate spot, and something needs to change.

Image by chenspec on Pixabay

I increased my lithium dose in March because my mental health was deteriorating. Lithium is probably the medication that I have the most conflicted relationship with. Taking such a high dose is effective at reducing my suicidal thoughts, but it’s not ideal for my poor kidneys. And when my kidneys can’t keep up, my lithium levels begin to inch toward toxic.

My lithium level as of a few weeks ago was slightly above the upper limit of “therapeutic.” It’s back in range now because I’ve been working on doing that human thing where you drink water, but I’d still rather not take this dose of lithium for very long.

Deciding to Try TMS

It’s the combination of ketamine’s waning efficacy and lithium’s waxing toxicity that led me to TMS. I’m not in a good place, and I need a different solution. TMS is mostly covered by my insurance, there’s a clinic I like close to where I live, and the downsides of trying it are very few.

Initially, I considered continuing ketamine while doing TMS, as one could receive both treatments concurrently. I’ve opted to do TMS alone because ketamine is not offering me relief and no longer seems worth the expense. However, it’s possible that ketamine is helping me more than I realize, and stopping infusions might worsen my depression. I’ll just have to see how it goes.

I also considered ECT because of how severe my depression was before I increased my lithium dose, but I think it makes sense to try TMS first.

I’ve done a few TMS treatments so far, and they were strange and interesting experiences, but I think I’ll save my descriptions for another post.

Setting Ketamine Infusions Aside

It makes me rather sad to think that this part of my life is over. I’ll miss the wonderful people at my ketamine clinic, and I’ll miss writing about my experiences there. I’m glad I documented my ketamine dreams, which I will remember with equal measures bemusement and fascination.

I’m also upset that I’ve “failed” yet another treatment. It’s a discouraging development that leads me down well-worn paths of self-criticism and frustration.

That said, I’m incredibly grateful for the improvements I gained from ketamine. There was a while there where it was really turning my life around. I started volunteering, I was happier, I felt excited about life, and then the pandemic hit, and a series of stressors undid all the positive progress I’d made. (My therapist would remind me that not all of my progress was lost. That’s just my brain lying to me again.)

Although I won’t be getting infusions, I would love to keep up with the research and continue sharing information about ketamine. I would especially like to see what data exists on the long-term efficacy of ketamine and whether my experience of it is represented in the literature. A quick search shows tons of studies published in 2021 and 2022, so there’s certainly new information out there. My brain power is lacking, though, so I’ll have to save that for another time as well.

Photo by Brad Christian on Unsplash (@y_barron)

I still believe that it’s important to raise awareness of ketamine treatment for depression and reduce the stigma associated with it. It may not be working for me right now, but it’s still a valuable option that people with treatment-resistant depression should be aware of.

So, I’ll leave the door open for further posts in The Ketamine Chronicles. I still want the series to be a resource for people who are considering IV ketamine infusions and find first-person accounts helpful or reassuring. I hope I’ve accomplished that to some degree in this phase of the series. If you’ve been reading for a while or just started, thank you for clicking and scrolling and reading about my bizarre, profound, and nonsensical ketamine dreams.

How I Track Mental Health Symptoms

My therapist has been encouraging me to track my depression and various contributing factors for years. I’ve tried several apps, journals, and charts, but I always drop the practice after a little while. Eventually, I identified why those tools never worked for me and used that information to make my own system.

Why Motivational Journals and Apps Don’t Work for Me

I understand why a system with lots of elements appeals to some people, but I tend to find them discouraging – the opposite of their intended effect.

My Depression vs. Positivity

Whenever I tried an inspirational/motivational journal, I quickly lost interest. I’d open it up to mark down that I felt like a person-shaped vat of cold, unsalted mashed potatoes. The list of weekly goals I hadn’t met would be staring up at me. Some inspirational quotes would arrive in my brain through the filter of my depression, limp and meaningless. Over time, I began to avoid them, knowing that the initial excitement of setting up a shiny new tracking system would sour.

Apps Aren’t It, Either

Apps have the advantage of offering daily reminders, but if the app is structured like the previously discussed journals, a cheery notification that it’s time to check in only distances me further. I really wanted apps to work for me, and I’ve been consistent with them for two or three weeks at a time, but I always abandon them eventually. They’re too complex, they ask me too many questions, or they document more than what I want to track.

Mood Scales and My Problem with Numbers

Number-based tracking scales usually include too much choice for me and don’t allow for flexible indecisiveness. A 1-to-5 scale just paralyzes me. What if I say “3,” but I’m really a “2?” That would be catastrophic, obviously.

Perfectionism

Maybe it’s a vestige of perfectionistic test anxiety, like I have to choose the “right” answer and be consistent in my interpretation of the scale or else anyone who looks at my data will get an inaccurate sense of my mental health. So instead, I just stop using them. When there’s no data to look at, I didn’t do it wrong!

So in the end, I decided to go with what my therapist suggested in the first place (I must be exasperating when it comes to tracking), and just made my own system to track my mental health.

My Method for Tracking Mental Health Symptoms

I wanted something straightforward, easy to use, and without the frills of a motivational journal. I got a completely blank, unruled journal and a set of stencils. I found these stencils online by searching something like “bullet journal stencils.”

The Mood Tracker

Each hexagon represents a day, which I’ve drawn a line through to depict AM on the top and PM on the bottom. I chose three colors to be “good,” “blah,” and “bad.” This way, I only need to pick a color and fill in the shape. If I can’t decide on a color, I can mix two of them together or shade the shape according to how the day progressed.

I also write small notes every now and then for medication changes, ketamine appointments, and other factors. I like that the bare minimum for this system feels doable for me but isn’t so scant that it’s uninformative.

The Medication Tracker

The medication tracker is similar to the mood tracker in that each section represents a day of a month. The inner row is morning and the outer circle is night. I picked a color for “Yes, I took my meds” and a color for “No, I didn’t take them.” It does help me to see how frequently I’ve missed doses, partly because the perfectionist in me hates to see too much orange.

I keep the journal and the colored pencils in my nightstand so they’re easy to get to and I don’t have the excuse of already being in bed when I remember to track.

How It’s Going

I’ve been consistent with this method for a little over two months, which is probably the longest stretch I’ve ever gone with tracking mental health symptoms. I can’t say that anything groundbreaking has come of it yet, but it is interesting to confirm some of my expectations.

I’ve tried and abandoned so many methods that I don’t think I showed my therapist my journal until I had been using it for a month. I didn’t want it to be yet another dud in a long line of tracking tools. So, I kept it to myself for a little while and am only just starting to assess its usefulness.

Just like with any mental health-tracking method, there are gaps in the data that become evident over time. I’ve been adding symbols to my mood tracker for things like self harm and my period. It’s becoming more complex, but I think the fact that I decide when to add those symbols rather than having a dedicated section for them works well for me.

That said, I’m considering adding a way to track more factors, such as appetite, sleep, and exercise. I don’t want to make it too complex, but I might have the habit established enough to expand my system without abandoning it.

There are tons of ways to track mental health symptoms and factors, and you can find many of them detailed online. What way works best for you?