Tag Archives: mental illness

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.

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.

 

Beyond the Locked Door

We twisted and turned our way through corridors, through lock after lock.  I carried my bag on my shoulder. The strap broke.  On the way to the Unit, Marianne, the admissions nurse, mentioned they were a little overcrowded. I knew I didn’t have a bed there, that I’d be up on the Geriatrics floor at bedtime. I was fine with that, nodding as we went through the last door, marked “Dual Diagnosis”. The clock in the hallway reported 7:30am.

It was mayhem.  The staff at the nurses station took my bag, as they’d have to go through it, removing anything they deemed harmful to myself or others.  The tv was  tuned to the weekend version of the Today Show, the volume cranked to carry over the 36 other bodies in the room.  36 people crammed into the Common Room.  General conversation, petty arguments & horseplay competed with the television.  The sounds, the people, overwhelmed me.

I sat on an uncomfortable plastic & vinyl chair near the nurses station, with my back to wall, as far enough away from these people as I could get.  In line for medication, waiting for smoke break, waiting to go to the cafeteria for breakfast, the other patients milled around, ignoring me. I started to cry again, my heels resting on the seat of the chair, my legs pulled in tight, head down on my knees.  I didn’t care how I looked, how I sounded.  This was no Fairmount, where I’d been in the past, with its country club setting & relative freedom. This was mental health prison: locked doors, cold recycled air, the institutional stink of cleaning supplies.

I sobbed for hours, shaking my head at the food they brought for me, swallowing whatever pills the staff gave me.  I remained on the chair.  As the morning turned into afternoon, I became more desperate.  They gave me more pills.  A young man of about 25 came over to me, wrapped in a blanket.  His clear blue eyes were clouded by sedatives.

“Do you want a blanket? Sometimes it makes you feel better”, he offered.

I shook my head, thanking him but no, I didn’t need a blanket.  I looked at the other few patients wrapped in blankets.  Some were drooling, some sleeping on the well worn & vaguely disgusting sectional sofas.  While a blanket might have been nice from a comfort position, I wasn’t about to get cooties either.

“Training Day” was on tv.   The gunfire shots & action sequences made me jump, made me pull myself into the smallest ball possible.  I wanted to disappear.  The noise level seemed to rise higher.  37 bodies playing cards, doing puzzles, eating snacks, walking in circles, yelling at the tv.

The charge nurse pulled me into one of the offices.  “Sit here.”  She left & returned with a cup of water & a pill.

“You need to calm down”.  I cried harder.

“Barbara, you really need to calm down”.  She set the cup & pill on the desk next to me.

“What is it?” I croaked.

“Klonopin. We need to calm you down. You’re upsetting the other patients.”

I’m upsetting the other patients? I’m in a mental hospital.  We’re all a little upset, except for those patients so medicated that they shuffled instead of walked.  I swallowed the pill, chased it with water, and sat there clutching my fist full of tissues.  I sat there trying to breathe normally until another patient came in to surreptitiously call her girlfriend.  Stumbling back into the common room, I took residence back on my chair.  Waiting.

Morning

I woke up when the nurse knocked on the door. I sat up in bed with a start, peering around the room to get my bearings.  I discovered a huge wad of tissues in the clutch of my right hand.  I was heavily drugged the night prior, and so tired after not sleeping for three days.  While I was reorienting myself with reality, the bathroom door opened.

I never knew her name, so let’s just call her Rose.  She was approximately 80 & tiny, resembling a gnome.  Her wispy hair stood in all directions & she had the most innocent & inviting of  smiles.  She stood in the doorway in her nightgown, her two hands together hiding something.

She grinned at me & I smiled back.  “Good morning”, I chirped.

Her eyes darted from side to side, but she still smiled.  “I saw the sign on the wall, and I don’t know what to do”, she said, thrusting her hands forward.

“Do about what?”  But I had a sneaking suspicion.

“The sign says not to put anything in the toilet, so I fished it out & wrapped it in paper towels. Is that okay?”

“Fished what out?” I was cringing, waiting.

“MY POO!” she exclaimed.

I bit my lip, my brain still trying to shake off the fuzziness of the previous days’ events.  “It’s totally fine”, I told Rose. “You can just throw it away. But what the sign means is that they don’t want you to throw anything ELSE in the toilet, like paper towels”.

“Ohhhhhhhh”, Rose giggled.

She threw out her business in the trash, and hobbled jauntily out the door & down the hall.

I just wondered what was going to come next.

365

a year ago i was sitting in a behavioral hospital, medicated to the gills.  while this isn’t something that i advertise in daily life, i’m not exactly ashamed of it either.

i’m no more mentally ill than you.

grief is a tricky little demon.  because i walked around those first few years buying into the dream of OA, i couldn’t see the big picture.  i didn’t grieve, because this was GREAT!  the best option, because The Kiddo “deserved someone better than me”. when the fog lifted in full a few years ago, it was an unfortunate bitch-slap.

i started howling.

not baying at the moon in the backyard, but internally.  hence the ulcers, the years of stomach problems in general, the gradual settling in of deep depression.  i still believed that the people in my life who love me didn’t want to hear how much emotional pain i was suffering., how i hurt.

i’ve learned somewhere along the way that some external howling isn’t such a  bad thing.  literally.  i’ve waded in some deep water, howling my fucking head off in my therapist’s office.  it has allowed me to get to the root of some issues, to say things that i’ve buried because i believed it would make me a lousy person if they came to light.  through the tears & the sobbing & the inevitable gnashing of teeth that come with my particular brand of howling, i’m finally getting somewhere.

adoption has become part & parcel to who i am.  finding a proper place for it has been the tricky part.  fortunately, there is & always been plenty of space for the Kiddo.