November 24

Mental Health and Me, Part 1

Some 25% of Americans struggle with some variety of mental health issues.  Only a small handful are driven to pick up a gun and kill people. Yet the struggle remains, often misunderstood and stigmatized.  Too often, we struggle alone.

Here’s what I know about mental health: It’s better to have it than to not have it.  Ask me how I know.

Mental health and I have had an on-again, off-again relationship over the years.  As a child, I suffered from severe depression.  At 15, I thought of suicide and made practice cuts on my wrist.  I also snagged a quill pen from the art department and wrote a poem in blood.  Clearly, I was a well-balanced individual ready for adulthood.

Fortunately, I learned to manage my depression through medication.  Unfortunately, my meds were neither prescribed nor managed by a doctor.  I started with pot, speed, and LSD.  (The latter made things worse, but it was entertaining.)  I graduated to alcohol, then cocaine and heroin, supplemented with anything else I could get.  I figured I could live that way until I was about 20.  All my heroes were dead poets and dead musicians, and I didn’t mind the idea of joining them.

By 25, I’d exhausted my options and was afraid I wasn’t going to die.  Then I got sober, which is another story.

That’s where my struggles with mental health really began.  The initial exhilaration at getting off drugs faded.  Real life kicked in.  My depression returned with a vengeance.  Therapy didn’t seem to help.  I was 32 when a psychiatrist put me on Prozac.  The first week it didn’t do much.  Then came two weeks of ecstasy.  I realized that I hadn’t known how depressed I was because I had nothing to compare it to.  I’d never been not depressed.

Prozac seemed too good to be true.  And it was.  As my dose increased, I became more and more anxious.  One day I woke up paranoid, psychotic, and suicidal.  No one knew what to do with me.  The shrink wanted me to keep taking the Prozac.  My GP wanted me to take Valium.  My wife just wanted her husband back.

It took four months before someone decided I should be hospitalized.  During that time, I wore a winter parka in the summer, rarely went out without a teddy bear, and had a secret hand signal for my wife in case the anxiety of a social situation pushed me close to melt-down.  I don’t remember any of that; she told me about it years later.

I spent a month inpatient in a mental health facility.  But it took over a year for me to begin to really function again.  In the mean time, I lost my home, my marriage, and my business.

That’s how I learned that psych meds were not an option for me.  Instead, I had to manage my depression and anxiety by other means.  Meditation replaced medication.  Volunteer work gave me a sense of purpose I’d never had.

I continued to struggle from time to time, but that first experience of losing my mind to psychosis motivated me to try to live differently.

October 10

Let’s Start Talking

It’s time to start talking about the elephant in the living room.  I refer to our national mental health problem.  It’s not about mass shootings, though they are a symptom.  It’s not about the homeless, though they too are largely a symptom.  It’s about 1 in 4 Americans suffering from mental illness each year, and our inability to acknolwedge that there’s a problem.

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson is a great place to begin the conversation.  In this series of essays and blog posts, Lawson explores her own mental illness, as well as society’s reaction to mental illness.  The book is hilarious, and also enlightening.  I’m listening to the audiobook, narrated by the author, and it is extremely listenable.  It’s also available on Kindle, although this is one of the few books in which the performance makes it hard to imagine “merely” reading it.

From the description:

Furiously Happy is about “taking those moments when things are fine and making them amazing, because those moments are what make us who we are, and they’re the same moments we take into battle with us when our brains declare war on our very existence. It’s the difference between “surviving life” and “living life”. It’s the difference between “taking a shower” and “teaching your monkey butler how to shampoo your hair.” It’s the difference between being “sane” and being “furiously happy.”

There’s plenty of mention that most of those who live with mental illness “suffer in darkness.”  There’s the note that cancer sufferers get recognized when they survive, but those with severe depression often get ostracized when they survive.

And there’s plenty of profanity, but get over it.  This book is worth a little discomfort, whether at the subject matter or her colorful language.

August 12

Forget About Guns

I’m going to make a statement that will likely get me crucified by conservatives and liberals alike. Here goes: If you argue that the solution to gun violence is more guns or less guns, you are responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans.

That’s because focusing on the symptoms of a disease doesn’t cure the disease. And America has a disease. It’s called untreated mental illness.

Ever since the national mental health system was dismantled under Ronald Reagan, our country has increasingly suffered from undiagnosed and untreated mental illness.

It’s not just crazy gunmen. They’re the ones that make the news. But we live in a country where schizophrenics intentionally get arrested because jail is the only facility that will care for them, where PTSD sufferers live on the street because, even though they can’t work, they aren’t “sick enough” for admission to an institution, where bipolars who need six weeks of hospitalization to balance their meds get kicked out in 5 – 7 days because their insurance won’t pay for more, where mental health hotlines go unanswered, where GPs administer psych meds because psychiatrists are unavailable or too expensive, and where the suicide rate is more than double the homicide rate.

The recent wave of mass shootings is a clear sign of how sick we are.  Yet it’s only the visible tip of an unseen iceberg.  Mentally ill people don’t look different from anyone else.  We can’t see them.  We don’t count them.  At least, not until they’ve committed harm to another person.  And there are literally millions of them.  No one knows exactly how many, because too often we don’t diagnose them anymore.  But we can see from the suicide statistics that we are not a healthy nation.  Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in this country, and the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds.  Veterans are reported to make up 20% of the suicides each year.  And the overall suicide rate is rising.

If you need more evidence, check the stats for antidepressant prescriptions.  CDC reports that 11% of Americans take them!  NAMI reports that one in four adults – 25% – experiences a mental illness in a given year. That’s an astounding figure!

Yet we spend our time arguing about guns.

Our mental health system is a travesty.  When Reagan dismantled the national system, the states were supposed to pick up the slack.  They didn’t.  They had neither the funding nor the inclination.

Now we have the third-highest suicide rate in the industrialized world.  We have homeless dying on the street because there’s no help for them.  We have people dying from poorly prescribed medication.  And, of course, we have people dying from murder by a growing handful mentally unbalanced people.

That doesn’t take into account the suffering of those who are untreated or poorly treated.  It doesn’t address the cost of using first responders to treat mental health emergencies, or the cost of medical ERs attempting to treat mental health crises from patients who can’t pay because without proper treatment they are unemployable.

What bothers me most is the suffering of those left untreated.  Mental illness isn’t fun.  Being unable to function isn’t fun.  Being unemployed because your brain doesn’t work right isn’t fun.  (Ask me how I know this.)

What bothers everyone else seems to be fear of getting shot.  So let’s face the truth: mentally balanced people don’t shoot each other, or attack each other with knives or hammers or hatchets or any other weapon.

While gun opponents and proponents argue, Americans are getting killed.  So please: shut up and let’s talk about mental health.

March 14

Vacation – Not Exactly What I Wanted

It’s been a long nine months, so long that I forgot my blog’s username and password, and returned to find 287 spam comments waiting for approval.  But it’s good to be back.

My vacation started, well,  with a vacation.  I took my family to New Hampshire to visit my family of origin.  And I got bronchitis.  (Ain’t nobody got time for that!)

After weeks of it not getting better, my doctor put me on Singulair.  But Singulair interacts with a triglyceride medication I was taking.  I didn’t know that.  Neither did my doctor or pharmacist.  The interaction is listed on the FDA website, but apparently not in any of the databases used by health care professionals.  Within two weeks, I had sunk into a suicidal depression and had to be hospitalized.

The hospital prescribed Zoloft, an anti-depressant.  I let them know I’d had a bad reaction to antidepressants once before, many years ago.  The shrink insisted that this one was different.

It wasn’t that different.  Soon, I was having a full-blown psychotic reaction to the Zoloft.  Eventually, I went back to a different hospital.  There, they gave me other medications that had me not only psychotic, but also aggressive.  Psych meds and I do not get along.

From there, I was able to spend 30 days medication-free in a rehab in Culver City, CA.  My brain finally started to heal.  I am forever grateful for that opportunity, because I think psychiatrists would have either killed me, or left me in a straight jacket in a dark room for the rest of my life.  For whatever reason, they don’t have an answer for me.

I am prone to depression, and I’ve learned that I have to manage it with lifestyle changes.  To be honest, I hadn’t been doing that.  So perhaps the medication interaction only accelerated changes that I would have had to make anyway.  In any case, it’s been a rough road, and I’m glad to be back.