I found out today that May is Mental Health Awareness Month! This post is inspired in part by a conversation that I had with a fellow blogger. I felt like it is important to share my story and I’m hoping that it might bring comfort to someone else who feels alone.
This post is extremely lengthy and detailed. Please be advised it contains mentions of (but not details) experiences and symptoms relating to depression, self injury, hospitalization/treatment and bipolar disorder.
My first diagnosis was depression, in 2001. I saw my primary doctor, seeking help in dealing with my younger brother’s diagnosis of a brain stem glioma. I was prescribed Lexapro. I took it for a few weeks but returned back to the office complaining about side effects – the “out of body” feeling was too much for me to handle while teaching class. She changed me over to Paxil. Within a year or so I was also prescribed Trazadone to help with chronic insomnia. This dosage was increased over time until I was eventually prescribed Ambien.
I stayed on Paxil & Ambien until I got pregnant with my son in 2007. I had to come off my medications and surprisingly, managed pretty well without them. I went back on Paxil after his birth.
It should be noted that during this time, my marriage began to fall apart. My now ex-husband became mentally, emotionally and physically abusive. There were changes in the relationship structure that were unhealthy and not consensual. I began to feel very much like my life was wildly spiraling out of control. I did not know how to cope with all of that on top of being a stay at home parent to a very young child.
I began self injuring. I went to my husband and he dismissed my concerns. I felt “crazy” – I knew this wasn’t logical or normal behavior. I told him I needed help. His best suggestion was to make a doctor’s appointment. So I did – I spoke to a medical provider at the base hospital who didn’t understand the difference between self injury and suicidal intention. Oddly enough, my medications were not adjusted. I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve ever realized that. While the military was amazing to me at every other point in my healthcare experience, they failed miserably in this instance.
I came home to see my family in December of 2009. My mother could tell that something was terribly wrong and insisted that I see a doctor. I was connected to a treatment facility and set up for some testing prior to my first visit. That was an interesting morning. I completed the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, several IQ/general intelligence tests, and the Rorschach test.
A few days later I had my follow up visit and learned that I’d been diagnosed with recurrent Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. The personality assessment was spot on – above average intelligence, low self esteem, strives to please others, very worried about home life. When I met with my psychiatrist she felt that I would benefit from the addition of a mood stabilizer and wanted to try me on a newer antidepressant. So we started Pristiq and Abilify. We talked at length about my self-injury behaviors and began working on making a plan to help with my coping mechanisms.
My doctor was very concerned that my (temporary) home situation was not healthy for me, especially on top of the issues in my marriage. My mother is a functional alcoholic and as I’ve discussed previously, there is a family history of co-dependent relationship dynamics. At that point I was still unable to admit to the abuse in my marriage.
Within a week of starting the new medications I experienced my first manic episode. My major symptoms were that I was “jittery” (this is known as akathisia) – I paced around my home and was unable to stop my mind from racing. I describe it as “washing machine brain.” It’s like there’s a thought in my head that is stuck on spin cycle; it just repeats over and over again. It’s not necessarily something I personally think. It may be a snippet of conversation I overheard or a song lyric. My moods were erratic and I had dramatic mood swings. I felt like I was either annoyed or raging – like there was no in between area for anger in particular. As the mother of a young child, this really frightened me. I could deal with hurting myself, but what if I hurt him? I could never, ever live with myself.
I made an emergency appointment with my doctor. She decided to take me off the Abilify and start me on an older drug, Lithium. She also felt that I would benefit from a brief (7 days or so) inpatient stay at the hospital. The thought of being away from my son for that long was difficult at best, but I knew that if I did not take care of myself….I could not take care of him. I left her office and went home to pack a bag.
I was voluntarily admitted that afternoon. Intake was strange to me, but I understood all the reasons why I needed to be checked so thoroughly. My shoelaces and bra were confiscated (underwire). There was not a bed available on the mental health floor that night so I was placed on the next floor up.
I found out this was the floor where the addicts and alcoholics received treatment. I was roomed with a “frequent flier” who spoke very candidly about her drug and alcohol use. I was required to attend what was basically an AA/NA meeting that evening. It was incredibly awkward for me to introduce myself since I literally had no reason to be there. Also, I hate group therapy. But I go through it and was relieved when bedtime came. At the second check in I mustered enough courage to ask if I could have something to help me sleep and I was given an Ativan.
The next day I was moved to the correct floor and began treatment. I was there for a total of 12 days. My first roommate was a quiet girl who went home within a few days of my arrival. I was then roomed with a girl who began a relationship with another patient and became physically violent towards the staff when they intervened. When she was moved elsewhere I was placed with an older woman who was, to put it nicely, not all together.
There was a fair amount of group therapy, which I hate. I don’t like talking to strangers in general and talking about my problems is the last thing I want to do. I saw a psychiatrist every couple of days. I spent a fair amount of time writing in my room, or as I developed friendships, playing board games in the common area. I went outside several times a night with the smokers so that I could get out of the building for a few minutes.
Most of the people that I met were what I would consider seriously ill. There were more than one a few mostly incoherent but not violent. There were moments of humor for me – one young man would take your clothing out of the dryer if you weren’t quick enough to get it out. It was kind of awkward when I had to ask a nurse to get my jeans back from him! I met a young man who was a military medic and being treated for PTSD. He would occasionally ‘space out’ and have what I assume was a flashback of some kind. I became fairly close to a man around my age and we spent a lot of time talking. There was some flirtation there but he’d spoken honestly to me about his issues and I knew that was as far as our interactions would go. There was an older gentleman who was very kind and I could identify with some of his experiences in dealing with these kinds of mental health issues in a marriage. I spoke with him fairly regularly since he was also a non-smoker who went for smoke breaks.
Honestly, it was a pretty positive experience. Being there gave me plenty of time to think about what was going on in my life and how it affected me mentally, physically and emotionally. I was able to have a safe space to deal with those things without additional stress.
I spoke to my mother about every third day. I asked her not to bring my son to visit me. She came to see me when she could, and brought me new pencils since my borrowed one was becoming very dull.
I was released a few days after Christmas that year. I spent the next week or so at my mother’s before I returned to my husband in North Carolina. I continued treatment with a psychiatrist and was able to also have weekly therapy sessions.
Once, on a Saturday evening, I realized that my self inflicted injury required more treatment that I could manage at home. I went to a local urgent care clinic where I found yet again, people who did not understand self injury. I gave her my therapists number (as I had been advised to do) and after several conversations with both the nurse and the physician on staff I was finally released with medication to go home. That incident left me with the only visible, physical scar I have from that time. My therapist was a wonderful lady and I can credit much of my success to her support and help during a extremely difficult period of my life.
The combination of Pristiq and Lithium has kept me stable pretty much since then. I have a great doctor who encourages me to be aware and involved in the management of my disease. I was able to switch to the Lithobid (extended release) tablet to ease the constant nausea that a 3x day dose caused. I have not self injured in many years, although in times of stress I still struggle with the urges.
As a whole, my family was very supportive, even if they did not understand what I was going through. My boyfriend has been an amazing support for me and his father has been an excellent resource for both of us in terms of dealing with any questions/issues in between my quarterly psych appointments.
So that’s my story. I’m not perfect but I’m doing the best that I can. Sometimes I really hate that I have to take medications to be the best, functional person that I can be…but that’s the reality of my situation.
My experiences in the hospital taught me that I am fortunate to be able to manage my disease and its symptoms so that I can live a full life with the people and things that are most important to me.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for taking the time to read my story. If you’re struggling please do not be afraid to ask for help! There is no shame or stigma in taking care of yourself so that you can have the life that you want and deserve.