I Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and into the Closet
Unfortunately at age 40, I learned first hand that there are an unfortunate few for whom mental health does not solely mean the pursuit of life balance. There are those of us who now have gone full circle and are back to viewing mental health as the absence of mental illness. So, in light of mental health week, I choose to share a story that I have not yet put to paper.
About 10 years ago, I was keenly aware of a family member who was struggling with undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. I established a close relationship with him. I worked to facilitate professional help for him. Unfortunately, he reached a point where he shut me out. He then took his own life. I honestly, and with sadness, admit that I was not the least bit surprised.
Following his death, as I felt somewhat removed from this tragedy, I was in a position to take on tasks that were time-consuming and/or unpleasant. I had a completely different perspective than everyone at this time. I was optimistic. I was energized and I rarely slept. I was very effective at completing all tasks and I felt I was the one best suited to do this and that no one would be able to meet these demands except me. I spoke very quickly and I became agitated when people couldn't keep up. I became impulsive, speaking out of turn. My thoughts raced to the point of being unbearable. Sleep became impossible. Anxiety began to paralyze me. My thought processes were no longer rational, with feelings that became those of profound knowledge and power. I was aware that something was wrong, though I denied this for a number of days.
When I was finally honest with those close to me, I was admitted to the psychiatric floor of a large hospital. It was a young social worker who questioned the general view that I was over-stressed, sleep deprived and just needed some rest. He saw the signs of mania. I was observed and assessed by those who truly understood what was once called "Manic Depression" with symptoms characterizing a Bipolar Disorder. After a number of days, it became obvious to all, and finally to me as well, that my mind was not going to quiet down. I was not sleeping. I wrote incessantly to try to slow my thoughts. Finally I accepted this and agreed reluctantly to begin treatment. This started as a cocktail of mood stabilizers which would be adjusted over the following 4 weeks in hospital.
I would like to write more about the days I spent on the psychiatric ward and the people I met. What I can say briefly, is that I learned so much during my time spent with those whom we often mock. I went in there feeling like I was "not like any of these really crazy people". Then I watched as they improved. They began to regain rational thought and I stopped seeing their illness. I learned from them about the potential for recovery, as I was beginning to doubt my own.
I wish this hospital experience was the end of the story, but unfortunately, what goes up, often comes down and profound depression hit 4 weeks later. I dropped very low and I was back in the hospital for another 3 weeks.That was my last hospitalization to date, but I did not recognize myself at all throughout the following year. I was lost in a roller coaster of anxiety, panic and depression. I did not contemplate suicide, yet this is not uncommon in a Bipolar disorder. I certainly felt I truly understood how people came see this as a suitable option.
In contrast, there were those who did not feel comfortable and dropped out of sight. A few were cruel. Some people understood, others tried to understand and there were some who just did not get it at all. There are still those who do not get it. For this reason, my story, for the past 10 years has been shared on a "need to know" basis. When my experience might help someone, I am very open. I hope I have helped some people accept their struggles and to seek appropriate help. It is with great despair, however, that I admit I may not share this on my blog. I feel hypocritical, but I have learned firsthand, through lapses in judgement, to be guarded to a certain degree with my experiences. Despite how far we have come, there is and may always be a degree of stigma associated with serious mental illness.
With follow up over the past 10 years, I have learned to give up control to the physician who knows and understands the intricacies of keeping me on track. I no longer resist. I do not seek to reduce my medications. I have tried and I have learned the consequences of poorly managed Bipolar Disorder. When asked how long I would be taking medication, my psychiatrist replied "I expect for the rest of your productive life". Since I do not plan to become "unproductive" at any point, I will be compliant with my medications for the rest of my life.
I firmly believe in the brain as an organ and perhaps the most
complex organ. It can falter. My struggles are the result of a genetic predisposition and significant triggers. I respect the genetic component as I have watched my children. I have seen red flags. I have tried to lead by example as far as coping strategies, counselling and as a last resort, medication. My children function beautifully. I think that my personal experience has prepared me to recognize and advocate for my children. I think my experience may have saved my son.
Now I am at a point that I have to stop writing. Even recounting this story has my mind moving. I will go to sleep and recharge my brain. I will avoid my triggers and maintain my boundaries. I will exercise regularly and I will eat right. I will find help in talking with my village and seek counselling when I become overwhelmed. I will pursue mental health in all ways possible but most importantly, for me, I will accept my vulnerability and I will be compliant with treatment. In this way, I will continue to be neither limited nor defined by mental illness.