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.