Category Archives: mental health

Symbiotic Salvation

As you may know, I’ve been feeding/caring for a random cat that’s shown up at our apartment. I can’t help myself, and to be fair, Chris can’t either.

While we’d seen him strolling around the neighborhood regularly, we first “met” him in January, when he marched up to us while leaving the house early one morning, chatty & looking for attention.

We named him Vic (Very Important Cat). And then we didn’t see him again until March, when he started appearing at our place on a regular basis, wearing a collar that was a bit too tight.  So we continued to feed & care for him, and he returned regularly, one day without the collar. He started spending so much time at our kitchen door, we bought a collar & attached a note, asking his “people” to call or text us if he was their cat. Within 12 hours, the breakaway collar was gone — and no calls, despite our best hope. Whether or not a human removed it, we’ll never know. He’s a great cat. Affectionate, chatty, handsome. Content to just be “around”. But he deserves better, as he’s clearly domesticated, but uncared for — at least in recent weeks, as evidenced by some wounds that could use a vet’s attention.

Caring for Vic has been a lifeline for me in some regards. Over the past few months, I’ve been falling down the rabbit hole of mental health issues. Again. It started with what I considered run of the mill anxiety & I found myself in familiar, unpleasant territory. I couldn’t focus on everyday tasks, regular duties & responsibilities were overwhelming, additional projects sent me into a full-blown panic. The harder I tried to rein it in, to maintain a level of “normal”, the worse it became.

When the physical symptoms of chronic neck pain & headaches arrived, with the new addition of auditory issues, I knew it was time to schedule an intake again at My Therapy Institute. It’s been about 4 years since I’ve been in treatment, and I’ve found myself here again, back in therapy & on medication. And a new diagnosis of Bipolar II. The diagnosis isn’t “new”, I just wouldn’t hear it last time. I had previously fought against it, saying it wasn’t me, it didn’t apply. But the reality now is that it does apply, and I’m okay with it.

Over the past few weeks, caring for this random cat has given me a little light while I navigate these waters again, armed with a compass & spyglass this time around. I’m taking care of him, taking care of me.  We both deserve better.

 

this time we go a little lower

My lifelong battles with depression & anxiety are well-chronicled on these pages. Just words.

Last week I fired up a limping laptop that I haven’t used in a number of years, looking for specific photos to move for future use. While scrolling through a untitled album that contained roughly 1000 photos, I found a series of self portraits taken when I was in my deepest, darkest places around 2006-2008. Before the hospital, before therapy, before medication. They knocked the breath from me. So often we don’t know how bad it is until much, much later.

My photo editing skills have dramatically improved over the years, and I must have deleted the original files, as I’d edit them much differently now. Maybe that’s okay. They speak for themselves, to specific point in my life. A place I don’t want to revisit, but always lives in the fringes.

073109 to 073115

I generally ignore Facebook’s automatic “memories” function, as it’s normally some status update that involves cats, coffee or something ridiculous about me personally.  Until today.

IMG_0071

Over coffee, I remarked to Chris “Hey, it was six years ago that I got out of the Behavioral Hospital”. Six years ago, feels like eons.

While I don’t think about it much at this juncture, I sometimes wonder about the people I encountered while inpatient. I’ve written about them, stayed in vague touch with two (greatly frowned upon for clear reasons, but common nonetheless).

One of the two didn’t make it. Two years ago, early one morning, while scrolling through my feeds, I was alarmed to discover fellow patient, Matt* (the Atlas Shrugged guy) had committed suicide. My stomach dropped into my shoes & I had the metallic taste of fear on my teeth.  Goddammit.

Not that Matt & I were close, not that we really kept in touch. But he was someone that I knew for a specific amount of time, in a specific amount of space**. And he didn’t make it. It broke my heart. It could have been me.

But it hasn’t been me, it’s not me today, and hopefully not tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the next week. And so on.  Six years out:  four years of regular, active therapy and two years of freewheelin’. I know my rough spots, have learned some important skills, faced some ugly truths, still keep on keeping on. Sometimes it’s a train wreck and difficult to not let the bad days multiply while I’m not paying attention. Because they will.  And they do.

There are many days where it feels like the only thing I can do is keep my head up. Usually it’s enough. I’ve gotta see where I’m going.

*Not his real name

**He used the phrase “Goat Prison” in reference to the hospital. It made me laugh, which is why I call this sub-category “Stories from Goat Prison”

 

 

 

 

Extraordinary Machine

One of the mantras that I keep on mental speed dial is the fact that I’m not alone in my brand of crazy. When Jenny Lawson posted this yesterday about how mental illness has affected her & what she’s learned to help others, I figured I’d toss in my two cents. Because loneliness & feeling like you’re the only one can really put the thumb screws to you.  And me.

How Mental Illness Has Affected Me: I’ve been like this as far back as I can remember, cycles of years, a roller coaster. There are labels: Major Depressive Disorder, Chronic Anxiety, PTSD. Therapy, meds, a hospitalization or three, therapy. It affects every area of my life, every relationship that I have. Working in retail, I sometimes fight regularly to keep my head up and get on with it. More often than not, one issue will outweigh the others, like my recent bouts of crippling anxiety.

What I’ve Learned: While the past few years have been relatively even keeled (compared to the mid to late 00s), I know that I become suicidal every year, like clockwork, from the end of January to the beginning of April. As a result, I know how & when to ask for help. I know that my body lies, that my issues manifest themselves in my limbs, my stomach, my neck, in chronic infections that don’t clear up despite the antibiotics.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned, and just in the past few months, is that I have to try. To make a conscious effort despite what the choir of assholes in my head tell me, to prove them wrong with my actions. The world will continue to rotate on it’s axis despite the crushing feeling in my chest. The more I invest in myself, the more I take care of myself, the better I feel. Some days I do better than others.

I have to keep hope, even if it’s just a nearly invisible silk thread. If I have a really lousy day, when my head is all fucked up & I can’t seem to keep it together for one more goddamn minute, I know there’s tomorrow. If I can keep that hope, hang onto that silk thread, I can make it.

And maybe tomorrow won’t be as bad.

You are not alone, I promise. (I’m writing this for me, too)

052215

As the summer revs it’s engine in my seaside locale, I’m fraught with anxiety. It’s been a struggle, these past few weeks, with chronic anxiety issues.  With work becoming steadily busier, a change in our household schedule, a change in dietary habits & other regular life stuff, I’ve been a little squirrely.

The other night, for instance, I went out to see some live music for the first time in years. I went after work, tentative plans to meet acquaintances. I ignored the stomach acid sloshing around as I headed down to the restaurant, talking myself into doing something social.

I took the first seat I could find, which was unfortunately in front of a mirror. After I ordered a coke, I caught my reflection across the bar: slightly disheveled, ruddy from elevated blood pressure.  A full-on panic attack loomed.

Despite my best intentions of trying to power through it by ordering food & focusing on my friends who had now started to play, it was too late. My squid arrived, beautifully plated & crispy perfection. But vaguely threatening. I felt like I was on fire.

When the bartender passed my way, I stuttered for the check. There was already $20 clutched damply in my hand.

I lasted about 20 minutes, total. It was embarrassing. I was embarrassing. I failed.  That’s how I felt that night, anyway.  I know I didn’t really fail. I made an effort over just having an intention. And that’s ok.

Routine is a big part of what keeps me on an even keel, and our lives are all about creating new routines at the moment. It’s disorienting & scary & frustrating. I spend time consciously controlling my breathing, getting through the day 30 seconds at a time.

Everything will even out eventually, I know. Three weeks, a month from now, we’ll be heading into the Full Summer Swing, where days run into each other, and this rough spot will be an anecdote over breakfast.

Ghosts of Hospitals Past

Every once in awhile, usually in the shower or while grooming cats, I find myself thinking about random people I’ve been in treatment with over the years.  In 20 years, I’ve been inpatient 3 times.  Once was for rehab, the other 2 for mental health, although I found myself on the dual diagnosis units for all my visits.  I wrote about that once.

During my last visit, a little over three years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a young woman named NaNa.  She was not a pleasure.  At about 22, with expensively colored hair & top of the line cosmetics, she played tough, bad ass.  She & her cronies sat in the back of every mandatory unit meeting or group function.  Sometimes laughing, bickering.  Sometimes causing such a disturbance she had to be forcibly removed by staff.

NaNa’s legal name was Pauline or Melissa or Michele.  At least that’s what it said in the bracket outside of her room, which was next to mine.  I kept my distance from her at every opportunity.  There was something about her that frightened me, even when she’d been sedated to the point of wearing the same pair of hospital scrub pants for three consecutive days.

She had a tic.  She clapped.  In the middle of an AA meeting, she’d sit towards the back of the room, cause a ruckus, and clap twice.  The clapping was a precursor of being removed – she’d get so angry afterwards, even though the rest of us mostly ignored her, maybe out of a similar level of discomfort.

At morning “goals group”, we gave our moods on a 1-10 scale, our goals for the day (family meeting, seeing about discharge/halfway house/jail/etc, not puking up one’s guts) and whether or not we could “contract for safety” (i.e. not gonna harm yourself or others, right? RIGHT?)  When it was NaNa’s turn, she sighed dramatically & mumbled something about being nice to everyone today.  Apparently, her therapist/social worker/shrink gave her the challenge of complimenting each patient TO said patient.  Everybody.  Every single last one of us.

She got to me in the afternoon, outside on smoke break.  I sat at one of the metal table-bench combos that were affixed to the concrete in our enclosed courtyard.  I had been writing & smoking furiously and when she approached me, I was annoyed.

“Hi.”

“Hey NaNa.”

“Can I have a smoke?”

I pulled one from the pack & handed it to her.  I learned years ago to never just hand a pack over.  I held out my cigarette so she could light hers from mine, saving her the walk back to the tech/lighter nazi at the door.

“What’s the deal with your hair?” she inquired.  I had dreadlocks at the time, long & snaking down my back.  Most of the time, I wore them up.  It was summer & and they were hot, and quite the conversation starter when you’re locked up with 30 other people.

“Well, I’ve always thought they were beautiful, so I thought I’d grow them”, I explained.

“Huh.” she muttered.

She spun on the bench away from me, her “8 shades of butterscotch” hair cutting through the space.  She stood up, crushed her barely smoked cigarette & yawned.

“You’d look better without them” she advised as she stomped away.

And then I realized that was my compliment from NaNa.  I laughed and resumed my time allotted smoking & writing session.

I always wondered what happened to her.  The day I was discharged, she went to court, only to be sent back because she “acted out”.  The last time I saw her, she was pouting in borrowed clothes, knees up at her chest.  Her hair & makeup were amazing, but you could tell The Crazy bubbling at the surface.  She’s probably in the system somewhere.  Correctional, psychiatric.  Either/or.

When you’re on a unit or in a hospital, you learn more intimate details about people in three days than you may know about a friend you’ve had for twenty years.  These people have stuck in my head for various reasons.  Like the young artist at first hospital who huffed paint.  Or the two women I shared a room with during my second “stay”.  Women with husbands, kids, careers. I was only 19, their lives & challenges were unfamiliar.

Maybe I felt sorry for NaNa, despite how she frightened me.  Maybe I wanted to hug her.  Maybe I was so fucking glad I wasn’t her.

Dr. Bat’s Last Word

re·sil·ience

   [ri-zil-yuhns, -zil-ee-uhns]  Show IPA
noun

1. the power or ability to return to the original form, position,etc., after being bent, compressed, or stretched; elasticity.
2. ability to recover readily from illness, depression,adversity, or the like; buoyancy.
Apparently this is a quality I lack, according to my now ex-psychiatrist.  Let me explain.
When I cancelled my therapy appointment on Tuesday to spend it with my husband’s family as my brother in law died, my therapist called me to check in.  I gave her the quick & dirty, then she cracked a joke “So I see you have an appointment with Dr. Bat tomorrow. Getting in on her last day, huh?”
What.The.Fuck.Chuck.
I did not know that my psychiatrist was leaving MyTherapyInstitute.  A bombshell.  Yes, I have had my arguments, disagreements & butting of heads with Dr. Bat, but in the past six months, I had to learn to trust her. So I was fairly pissed off at not being notified of her impending departure.
On Wednesday I showed up for my appointment with my jaw set & a crappy attitude.  Part petulant teenager, part seething adult.  She noted my sarcasm immediately and was dismayed that I had not received the letter that was sent out notifying her patients.  I grunted at her in acknowledgement.
We went through my meds & decided, just for kicks, to give one last spin on the Medication Roulette wheel.  Wheeeeee! While I gave a rousing “HELL NO” to the Ritalin regime she offered, I did concede to switching out one anti-depressant for another. So it’s still four meds, just a brand new flavor.
While she wrote my scripts, I eyed the clock, noticing I had about 7 minutes left.
“So in ten minutes you’re no longer my shrink”, I stated.
“That’s right”
“So tell me, straight out, how I can get better?” I asked.  Like I thought she’d been holding out on me these past three years.
She leaned back in her chair & looked me in the eye.  After apologizing slightly for not feeling like she was truly able to help me, she laid the word out.
“Resilience, Barbara”
And then she continued, “I have a patient, a woman with MS who is wheelchair bound, who comes through my door smiling every time…”
She prattled on, but I had already tuned her out.  I failed at being a good, functioning nutjob.  Isn’t that funny?
At one point during the session, she confessed to not really knowing me, or knowing enough about me to truly help me.  But I only saw her for 20 minutes at a clip, a few times a year.  She only asked about my medications, a few general life questions, and if I had any suicidal thoughts.  Like clockwork.  It’s my therapists job to “know” me, and my psychiatrist’s job to chemically “right” me.  At least that’s how it works at MyTherapyInstitute.
I’m not resilient? I’m alive.  I’m breathing.  I have a job.  I pay my bills.  I am in a healthy, stable relationship.  I have hobbies and friends.  I’m nice to small animals & most children.
I’m not resilient? I’ve lived though rape, choosing adoption for my only child, divorce, miscarriages, deaths of loved ones.
I’m not resilient? I’ve owned a small business (or two), read voraciously & make weird magnets and things.
She handed me my scripts and I stood up.  I walked over to her, shook her hand, and wished her luck on her future endeavors.  At reception, I was given an appointment for the next month, with the doctor’s space left blank.
I never really saw eye to eye with her anyway.

My Human Emotions are Illogical

One of the biggest hurdles I battle with my particular brand of Crazy is feeling invalidated with a dash of slight paranoia.  As in, if I’m legitimately upset/angry/frustrated/sad, it’s not perceived by others as such.  Frustration is not something I handle well on the best day.  Even in grammar school, there were always caveats on my report card next to “Handles Emotions Appropriately”.

When I’m upset/angry/frustrated/sad, I cry.  It’s a knee jerk reaction.  The more I try to control it, the deeper the sobbing.  If I try to communicate why I’m crying (upset/angry/frustrated/sad), I feel this is what people are thinking:

– Damn, is Barb on new meds? Hope they kick in soon.

– Damn, did Barb go OFF her meds?

– Damn, Barb is a mess.  You’d think all those meds & therapy would make her better.

– So Barb’s upset. AGAIN. Big fucking deal.

– Let’s poke Barb with sharp sticks to see if she’ll cry some more.

– Damn, get a fucking grip, Barb.

Projection much?

I’m always wondering if I’m being taken seriously when I’m in a major depressive period.  Is it ME? Is it THEM? Is it the CRAZY? Is it just normal life stuff that normal people handle without incident?  I’m constantly checking & rechecking my emotions to see if I’m “well within my rights” to be upset/angry/frustrated/sad.  It’s exhausting & somewhat confusing.  I’m always reading people “wrong”, hence the paranoia.

There are times when I think it is a miracle that I’m still here (and living to write about it).  I try to keep my focus on “better” times, knowing they’ve surely got to swing back in my direction, that it can’t rain all the time.  In the meantime, however, I’ll be giving you the side eye when we talk.  Even if you don’t notice it.

It’s not you. It’s me.

Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fryer

A few weeks ago, The Bloggess posted a call to action about mental illness, about “coming out”. It has taken me some time to get it together enough to put fingers to keyboard.

I’m mentally ill.

Not a shocker for most of you that know me.

I’ve been in & out of therapy for 2/3 of my life, did a stint in rehab, staked my corner in behavioral hospitals for varying durations.  Been on meds, off meds, on meds, off meds.  When untreated, my illness takes physical form.  Over the years I’ve created quite a bond with my gastroenterologist, probably putting his oldest kid through private school.

At 19, I was diagnosed with severe anxiety, depression & PTSD: the result of a violent childhood assault. I took the meds, I did the therapy, I felt better.  What happens when someone like me “feels better”? I stop taking medication.  Incidentally, it’s quite a daunting task to wrap your head around the fact that you may have to take medication for the rest of your life when you’re 21.

In 1998, I gave birth to the most beautiful boy.  Because I believed that he deserved a mother “better” than me, I chose adoption.  (note: this decision had very little to do with anxiety or depression) Many of you know that I had a blog for about 5 years about adoption, how it affects me in all aspects of my life.  There is no “getting over” it.  The more time that has passed, the more guilt & loss I’ve experienced.

Given my predisposition to depression & acute anxiety, grieving the loss of my son & the two miscarriages that followed in 2008-9 were pivotal moments for the Great Mental Health Crisis of July 2009.  It didn’t happen all at once – it took years.  My friends & family watched me slowly spiral downwards…for years. At the end, before my 3rd trip to the ER in the span of 6 days & an eventual voluntary committal at a hospital up the road, I hadn’t slept or eaten in days.

Major depressive disorder.  Acute anxiety.  PTSD (the diagnosis so nice, I’ve gotten it twice!).

And yet I’m still here.  I take my meds, see my therapist.  I pay my bills, own a small business as well as work a full time job.  I can do things like…going to the store for groceries, meeting friends for drinks, going to a Phillies game.  All things I couldn’t think about doing for years.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m far from “cured”.  Just a few weeks ago, driving to function that was really important to me, I simply froze.  I had friends waiting in the restaurant & I worked myself into such a panicky lather that I couldn’t get out of the car. I drove home sobbing, frustrated.

I have people in my life that love me, people that I love.  Sometimes it’s really a struggle to keep it together.  I’m fortunate to have an amazing spouse & incredible friends who support me when the skies turn dark.

I’m not ashamed or embarrassed.  Some of this is genetic, some is residual fallout from traumatic experiences.  But it’s part of who I am.  I can only strive to move forward.

If you’ve gotten this far, I strongly encourage you to please go view Michael Kimber’s video.  He’s much more succinct that I can ever hope to be.

hold my space in line

we spent a good part of our day in line, waiting.  before each meal you had to sign out and line up.  line up in the cafeteria to leave, line up for vitals, line up for meds.  out of habit and routine, we’d even line up for smoke break.  every time we left the immediate unit, we signed out and formed a loose single file.  herded from area to another.

when the doors unlock,  we twist our way down a corridor, passing the hospital pharmacy and some offices. we arrive at the cafeteria.  i follow the people in front of me, as we lineup against the floor to ceiling windows.  windows that look “outside”, over the parking area and highway that runs parallel to the hospital.  the seating area for patients is three rows of 6 tables, 6 chairs to a table.  the closest row to the door contains the adolescents.  there are about 20 to 25 kids present. they move from table to table in their row, laughing, blowing off some energy while they cram cookies into their mouths. washing them down with soda.

on our way to the windows, we pass a wall’s length of vending machines: ice cream, cappuccino, salty snacks, candy, bottled soda, juice.  i am amazed at the selection, and even more so that they are reasonably priced.  but what catches me funny: it is strictly forbidden to remove any items from the cafeteria.  if i buy a bag of Frito’s, i have to eat them immediately.  items are periodically swiped, however.  because i have cargo pants, i am the Tea Mule, bringing back bags of Lipton for Karl, the navy guy.  Karl is only calmed when he has tea as he’s kicking heroin.

in line, about dead in the middle, i wonder how the social situation of “cafeteria dining” will play out.  we slowly move forward, passing through a doorless entry into the food area.  there is a hand sanitizer dispenser on the right, which is almost always empty.  damp trays are stacked up on the left.  you grab your silverware and move to the food line.  typically cafeteria-like, you slide your way down the line, starting with cookies, fruit, yogurt, cake, brownies and cereal into salads, into cold cut sandwiches made to order and then to the hot meal.  Miss Bernice would be there in the mornings, and sometimes for lunch.  her silver hairnet resembling a hazy halo.  several institutional chafing dishes held meatloaf, bacon, rock hard pancakes, hot turkey, sad pizza, ziti, roast pork, waffles, the vague “greens”, rotating throughout the days & meals.  the coffee dispensers, the soda fountain, the juice machine.  unsure of the quality of the food, i grab “safe things” – yogurt, an apple, what Miss Bernice calls “roast chicken”, rice and a styrofoam cup of soda.

now comes the tricky part of where to sit.  having only been there for one full day, and my first time to the cafeteria, i’m unsure of the social landscape.  but i roll my eyes and think “jesus christ, it not like its freakin’ high school”.  i pick the fourth table in our “row”, where one woman is seated.

“mind if i sit?” i ask as i set my tray down.

the overly made up, brassy-haired woman looks at me, “oh, these seats are all taken”

i chuckle, “jesus god, the IS like high school”,  and wind my way over to the third table, where three or four fellow patients are just sitting down. we make small talk, chattering about nothing in particular. I realize that i’ve eaten everything.  quickly.  like a starving man.  it occurs to me that i haven’t really eaten more than a bagel or some crackers in about 4 or 5 days.  i return to the line for another yogurt.  as i breeze through the now-short line, with most us seated and eating, the Adult Unit lined up at the cafeteria door, preparing to get in the Food Line.

maybe 20 to 25 people.  all ages, races, genders.  they are lifeless.  the Adults shuffle in, stand in line quietly, take their seats peacefully, eat morosely, stare into space vacantly.   i realize how happy and relieved i am with the drunks & junkies, because they have personality, spunk.  sure there is drama, but at least it was life.  these poor broken people appear devoid of energy, depleted of spark.

after about 1/2 hr, we line up again to exit and return to the unit for vitals, meds, smoke break, afternoon group.  i start to feel pretty normal, maybe little of myself is returning.  in the post-lunch med line that i meet Matt, who is clutching his copy of Atlas Shrugged, standing calmly.  i am surprised that they allow us to read “outside” material.  last time i was in treatment, they confiscated all “outside” material, to be returned to you upon discharge, so that you could focus on your recovery. i giggle internally at the choice of reading material.