Mental Health and Me – Part 2
I learned to manage my depression without the use of medication. Meditation, therapy, twelve step meetings, and volunteer work helped keep me balanced. I put my life back together, remarried, moved from Los Angeles to rural Utah, and began making cheese. There were periods of depression, and I tried low doses of a few antidepressants, but found that they rarely helped and often made things worse. I also learned that psychiatrists don’t listen well, and they don’t understand drug addicts. One told me that I just needed to be addicted to Valium and my depression problems would be over. Another decided I had ADD and wanted to treat me with Ritalin, a drug I had abused extensively before I got sober.
In general, I managed to get my depressive periods without taking the medications that made it worse.
Last year, a series of events unfolded that changed all that. After my son was born in May, my wife struggled for several weeks with postpartum psychosis. It was a traumatic few weeks in which I wasn’t sure at times if I would be raising my child as a single parent in his fifties. As she recovered, the aftermath left me prone to depression. Then I got bronchitis. A seemingly-benign medication to help clear my lungs interacted badly with my triglyceride medication– a reaction for which there was a warning on the drug information sheet and the FDA website, but which was not in the pharmacist database. Within weeks, I became suicidal. I called for help, and was told to go to the ER. There, they found me a bed at a mental hospital in Provo. It was a very good hospital, I have to say. But my experience that psychiatrists don’t listen well was once again confirmed. They put me on an anti-depressant. I told them of my experience on Prozac twenty years earlier, and they assured me that this one was different.
It wasn’t. Within two weeks of returning home, I began to lose my mind. First, I lost my ability to feel emotions. I couldn’t feel sadness or joy, or even love for my family. I faked it for a couple of days, but it was quickly apparent to my wife that something had changed. Then my reasoning began to falter. What seemed obvious to me made no sense to anyone else. Finally, I began hallucinating.
It is unsafe to stop a therapeutic dose of antidepressants abruptly. You’re supposed to taper off. But my condition was so severe that my doctors recommended I stop immediately, that the risk of the progressing psychosis outweighed the risk of stopping the medication cold turkey.
What followed was a month of absolute hell. I realized most of the time that I couldn’t rely on my perceptions, nor could I rely on my reasoning to make even basic decisions. I could converse about things I knew about, like hobbies, but couldn’t make new thoughts happen. I couldn’t follow complex sentences in conversation. I told my wife she wasn’t allowed to use sentences that required commas. My head hurt most of the time. And it wasn’t getting better.
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I was suicidal, but not the variety where I wanted to put a gun in my mouth. Instead, I decided to take all the emergency cash and three changes of clothes and head for North Las Vegas to get loaded. I didn’t know anyone there, but I was sure I could find the people who had the drugs I wanted. It would have been a one-way trip. I figured I’d be dead in a week.
That’s when God intervened. First, my wife realized what I was about to do and called 9-1-1. Then two sheriffs deputies showed up and treated me as the potential suicide that I was. Seriously, can you imagine LAPD taking seriously a hysterical woman who called in and said her husband was on his way to get loaded? Thank God for the Iron County Sheriff!
They took me to the hospital, and I got sent to the mental health unit in St. George. There, they diagnosed me as bipolar and gave me new meds. In three days, I became so agitated and angry that I almost got in a fist fight with one of the male nurses. My shrink said I was improving.
Up to that point, I’d been planning to jump through all their hoops, and then continue with my plan to use drugs until I died. But on the third day, I realized that if I didn’t get out of there, I was going to end up in a dark room in a straight jacket for the rest of my miserable life.
I called my wife and begged her to find somewhere for me to go. She found only one facility west of the Mississippi that was willing to take me without administering medication. It was in Culver City, CA. Two days later, I was on a plane to a thirty-day inpatient program, where they helped me get my shattered mind back together.
When I got out, it took me a while to readjust to “real life.” But I did. It’s now a year later, and with the help if intensive therapy and weekly DBT (Dialectal Behavioral Therapy) I have returned to a reasonably normal life.
I thank God for the events that saved me from the conventional mental health system and its effects. It may work for some people, but it nearly killed me. I am acutely aware of how broken our system is. Medication is not the answer to all mental illness, and perhaps not even most mental illness. My DBT facilitator’s slogan is, “Skills, not pills.” And for that I am forever grateful.
I am mentally ill. I struggle with depression and anxiety. I have been hospitalized twice for psychosis. Yet I am able to live a fairly normal life. I am not a danger to myself or others.
I also rarely talk about my struggles. My bio-family only hears about the crises, not the daily struggles. My friends don’t hear much more. I remember trying to explain my depression to a friend, who replied that he just couldn’t understand. “I have bad days,” he said, “but I don’t understand having bad months or bad years!”
This seems to be the way most people with mental illness live. We don’t talk about it. It’s taboo. It scares people. And the more we don’t talk about it, the more isolated and misunderstood we feel. When a mentally-ill person shoots up a school, some folks lump all mental illness together and we become potential criminals.
It’s time to break the silence. When one in four Americans suffers from some form of mental illness in any given year, that’s too many people to have it misunderstood.
I hope you don’t find my confession in bad taste, but if you do, maybe that’s the point.