All medicines come with side effects, some good, some bad. The corticosteroid, Hydrocortisone, is no exception. When I started taking Hydrocortisone, I remember reading about the physical side effects and thinking to myself “Well, this is a medicine that is literally saving my life, so I can deal with a few side effects.” However, neither one of my doctors or my pharmicist warned me about the psychological side effects of Hydrocortisone, so when those popped up, I was left feeling confused…and yes, I’ll say it, I ended up feeling “crazy.”
At first, I felt super happy. My anxiety had decreased, I felt less “sick,” I had more energy and felt somewhat normal again. I had a euphoria that felt almost as if I was “high on life.” What I didn’t realize is that Hydrocortisone actually does affect the areas of the brain that manages the regulation of serotonin and dopamine, the “feel-good” hormones.
Feeling happy is a great side effect to have. However, as time went on, other psychological side effects popped up that were not only startling but also very scary. And what scares me even more is the fact that not one doctor that I have seen, both in the hospital and out of the hospital, since being on corticosteroids, has told me that there are mental side effects of being on them. Not to completely pass blame to doctors, as I think a lot of it has to do with lack of knowledge.
The Subtle Mental Side Effects
Side effects can have a wide spectrum, so when you do experience having them, you may not think of them having anything to do with a medication that you weren’t told would cause any mental side effects in the first place. Subtle side effects that I had were anxiety, agitation, irritability, insomnia, lack of concentration, lack of focus….just to name a few. When I talked with my doctors about these symptoms, I was told to take a sleep aid, to take things for ADHD, I was put on two separate anxiety medicines, and even on an antipsychotic medication. I finally drew the line when my doctor wanted to add an antidepressant into the mix.
The Not So Subtle Mental Side Effects
When I was on oral Hydrocortisone, I was sick a lot. I spent a lot of time in the hospital and even though my body required high doses of steroids while I was in the hospital, the doctors didn’t warn me about the psychological side effects of being on high amounts…and more importantly, what can happen when you go from being on a high amount to all of a sudden going back to a normal dose, without tapering. When I was in the hospital, and on high amounts, I felt manic and didn’t sleep. Whenever I went home and went down to my normal dose, I felt lethargic and depressed…thinking it was just a normal emotional response from being in the hospital.
And then…one of the worst possible mental side effects appeared into my life overnight… corticosteroid-induced temporary psychosis…
Choo Choo….All Aboard The Crazy Train
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to wake up one day and be Superman or Superwoman for a day? How about for a few weeks? Imagine feeling the happiest feelings you’ve ever felt in your life and how nothing and no one could take that feeling away from you. Being on top of the world, not needing sleep, having zero fears, laughing all of the time, spending money like there were no limits on your bank account, feeling like you no longer “need” to take any medications, including your corticosteroids… Sounds great, right?
Although I have never experimented with drugs, I imagine that you could probably compare it to the feeling of being “high” 24/7. I felt like my brain was working at top speeds. Not only my brain though…everything I did was at top speeds. I worked a lot of extra hours, I was creative, and I felt like the Energizer Bunny. I had no idea where this “new me” came from, but I loved her! And at first, my family also loved her. My kids thought that I was hilarious and really fun to be around. They loved that I was spending a lot of money on them and had a Y.O.L.O outlook on life.
But after a while, my husband and family started getting worried about me. I did a lot of online shopping and would unintentionally order multiple items, thinking that I only ordered one, but when packages just kept arriving, I justified “needing” 20 new pillows, 2 different colored sets of pots and pans, 3 different pairs of sunglasses for my husband, and a lot of other things that I can’t even remember. I gave my daughter my debit card and told her to go on a shopping spree, bought my son a cell phone for Christmas in “October,” took my daughter to get a piercing just because she wanted one, and was about to just randomly get a new tattoo, until my husband called and the kids told him what I was about to do. That night, he “grounded” me from my debit card and my car keys.
I also abruptly stopped taking my anxiety medications, and got to the point of not taking my Hydrocortisone like I was supposed to either. I thought that my Adrenal Insufficiency was completely healed and that I did not need Hydrocortisone anymore, but I didn’t tell anyone. I kept having symptoms of being low in cortisol and when my husband asked when the last time I took my steroids, I couldn’t honestly remember. At one point, he had to threaten to give me an emergency injection because I refused to take my pills.
Once he realized that I was putting my life in danger by not taking my life-saving medications, he called my doctor. She basically told him not to worry, and explained to him that I was experiencing a corticosteroid-induced temporary psychosis from going from a high dose in the hospital to my normal dose, without tapering. At that point in my treatment, I had no idea what tapering was. My doctor had never mentioned it, the doctors in the hospital never mentioned it, and I was following their orders of going home and going back onto my normal dose. She did order an MRI of my brain to rule out a tumor, but told him that we just had to “ride it out.”
Please Fasten Your Seatbelts…The Plane Is About To Crash
Ok, so imagine having extreme mania (on top of the world, no fears, tons of energy) when you went to sleep one night….and waking up the next day feeling scared of your own shadow, lethargic and completely depressed. When the psychosis wore off, it wasn’t something that happened slowly and over time. It was literally like someone had gone into the electrical box in my brain and reset the breaker, but decided to leave the switch off for a while.
I literally would sleep for 20 plus hours a day, only really waking up to take my medications and sometimes eat food. When I was awake, I was full of anxiety and depression. I not only was terrified of talking to people, going places, but I was convinced that I was dying.
Thankfully, I was never suicidal, although I have read about people becoming suicidal, as another mental side effect. Because we are so wired to listen to doctors, the advice of just “riding it out” was what my husband did.
It wasn’t until recently, when I was researching the psychological side effects of corticosteroid use, that I discovered that there are recommended treatment options to safely bring a person out of the corticosteroid-induced temporary psychosis.
Does The Story End There?
I wish I could say that was the last time I experienced any kind of mental side effects from the steroids. Unfortunately, I have had my share of them…. Having Adrenal Insufficiency is a very difficult disease to manage for most people. Just when you “think” you know everything there is to know, something will pop up, leaving you questioning everything you know about it. Like I said, I recently was researching the psychological side effects of corticosteroid use. I definitely “knew” that there was a connection, but honestly only thought about the temporary psychosis part being an issue.
After that episode of temporary psychosis, I still had side effects…I just didn’t link them to the steroids.
Over the past few years, I have continued to have issues with the “subtle side effects” and totally brushed them off. I have had a LOT of things go medically very wrong with this disease, and have been paralyzed twice with the inability to speak, and have also “died” and had to have a major emergency surgery to keep me alive. This brought on severe PTSD, but even with therapy, I still had those “subtle side effects.” This past summer, when I switched from oral Hydrocortisone to the pump, I finally felt amazing. Things had started feeling “normal” again. My “subtle side effects” had been diminishing.
But right before I had started on the pump, I developed an infection in the hospital, which did not go away. My doctor “guessed” at the kind of infection I had but never took a culture of it, and I followed the recommended protocol of increasing my steroids with a triple dose while I was on antibiotics. The infection persisted, so I was on several bouts of antibiotics. The high amounts of steroids lead to another case of corticosteroid-induced temporary psychosis. Although it was not nearly as extreme as the first time, and it took longer to appear, and didn’t last as long, it still made a major impact on me emotionally. Since the severity was less, it was harder for my loved ones to recognize and be sure that it was actually “psychosis” that I was dealing with. Although I kept denying that I was in “psychosis,” I still was unable to think “clearly” and I ended up making the decision to go from a high amount of steroids down to my normal dosage overnight.
This made me “crash” right away. The “crash” symptoms were the same as before, but since I had done a drastic decrease in my steroids, and I still had the infection, all of a sudden, I had extreme physical symptoms that I was dealing with at the same time. I was then hospitalized for two weeks, had very rare, unexplainable physical side effects from my infection and ended up coming home with multiple holes in my body and a home health care nurse coming to my home to help me recover…all while still dealing with the “crash” emotional issues. PTSD came back full swing, I had severe depression and anxiety, I completely withdrew from social media and from any social interactions with people. I was totally housebound once again and just the thought of getting into a vehicle brought me to a full on panic attack and endless tears.
How could I have allowed this to happen to me again? I was so distraught that I didn’t even have the strength to seek out help from the people that helped me so much in the past. When I was in the hospital, I luckily did have a doctor who seemed very knowledgeable and told me that this happened because I had not tapered. We had a long discussion about the emotional side effects it caused for me and what to do in the future. It still took months for me to come to terms with things. I wanted so badly just to return to a normal dose and not be dependent on a higher dose. However, I knew that with the trauma that my body had been through, I had to be patient and taper down very slowly.
Knowledge Is Power
Since I got home from the hospital and got to the point where I was not crying at the drop of a hat, I was able to monitor my emotions better and take control. Although I did not realize it at the time, the “subtle emotional side effects” became my focal point of things I wanted to conquer and take control over. I reached out to a trusted friend, who helped me come up with a good dosing schedule, I did a lot of self-reflection of what I wanted in life, I read a lot of self-help books, watched a lot of funny movies, and just focused on being happy and present. I evaluated every single thing that was going into my body, whether it was medications, supplements, food, etc. If it didn’t “feel” right, I cut it out of my life. Anything negative that I was holding onto was the first thing to go.
I was then able to completely get off of all prescription medications, including my anxiety medications, except for the steroids. I added in extra supplements and antioxidants that helped promote healing. I no longer need a sleep aid in order to sleep at night. I’ve done a lot of research about the emotional side effects of steroid use, so I’m very careful now with changing my dosage amounts, even when my body is requiring more coverage.
And now that I do know how they specifically affect me, I’ve been able to share my knowledge with my husband and my family so that they can help me to identify any red flags, if they happen to come up in the future. Every single hour can be different for someone with Adrenal Insufficiency who is on steroids and needs to be able to “live” their lives. I am now at a point in my life where unless something pretty major comes up, it’s almost as if I don’t even have the disease. I’m personally conscientiously aware that it is still very real and very much a huge part of my life.
However, for the first time in years, my husband and my kids are able to breathe again. They no longer see me as being “sick.” We enjoy life as much as possible together and once in a while, when I catch a virus or something, they ask me if I’m making sure to updose, not only for the physical aspects of it, but also because they know what it does to me mentally and emotionally.
And this, my friends, is my “new” normal.