This is a Good a Place to Start as Any I Suppose.

I attempted suicide at the age of 23.  One morning in June of 2007, I took an entire bottle of sleeping pills. At the time, it seemed like the only solution to my problem: I was making life hell for those around me. You see, my ideations and attempt (and those of others I’m sure) were not centered around “I can’t take this, I want the easy way out.” Suicidal thoughts are rarely so simply defined. I can only speak for myself, as everyone’s struggle with mental illness is different. No, my attempt was centered around the single, persevering thought “If I’m not around, everyone’s lives will be better off.”

For me, suicide was the perfect solution. My struggles with mental illness (though I did not know that’s what was wrong at the time) were taking their toll on all around me. I withdrew. I canceled plans. I had terrible money issues. I hardly bathed. I never cleaned my apartment. Through this all I was determined to project the image that I was fine. Febreeze was my best friend for laundry that hadn’t seen the washing machine in well over a month. I didn’t invite people over, not even my parents. If I had to socialize I did so outside of my home. But mostly, I stayed at home, grappling with my insomnia, constant self-harm, and pretending like someday everything would be okay.

I can’t pinpoint the moment I decided that suicide was the answer. For years I had thought of it. As a teenager I would tell myself I wouldn’t live past 21- I would make sure of it. At 21, I told myself I wouldn’t live past 30. But I’d never had a date picked out. I’d never made that leap from ideation to concrete plan. Looking back, the day I bought the pills seems so arbitrary.

I had just been out with a friend, and I stopped into the drug store to get something (probably Hawaiian Punch fruit snacks. I loved those things.) and I passed by the medication aisle. I bought them. In my head I thought “I keep thinking about it but I’m always too chicken shit. I’m a coward. I need to spare the people in my life. I need to do this.”

I kept the bottle on me for two weeks after that. I honestly don’t remember what made me pick the day. I don’t remember the exact date either. But I remember what the day before felt like. I was at peace.

You see, I made the decision that the next day I would finally do it. I don’t know what sent me off the edge, it was likely some combination of a severe depression and the severe anxiety that I always seemed to have. But the moment I made the decision, I was at peace. For me, the idea that I would finally end the pain I was inflicting on others was a balm. My illness wouldn’t let me see there were other options. My illness kept me silent. No one knew I was struggling, let alone thinking about killing myself. My illness told me “this is the only way to free the ones you love.”

But I couldn’t do it at my apartment. In the middle of summer, away from my parents- who were slated to go away in a few days (one of my therapists later helped me realize that this was some part of me that wanted help, steering the decision)- they wouldn’t find me until summer had taken its toll on my body. I couldn’t do that to them. Or the police and medical staff who would then have to deal with my horridly decomposing ass.

So, in the middle of a horrible thunderstorm I drove to their house under the guise of not wanting to be alone if the power went out. I would do it after they’d left for work the next morning.

I only remember feeling at peace after I took the pills the next morning. I’d finally done what I had to do, finally taken that final step to free everyone in my life from my mistakes, my constant screw ups and the horrible friend/daughter/cousin etc that I was. After I took them, I went onto my parents porch and had two cigarettes. There was an unexplainable feeling of calm. Of joy for those in my life. My letter even said (I think) that it was okay to hate me because that’s what I wanted- as they’d soon realize they were better off.

My mother woke me up some hours later by pounding on the door. I had forgotten to call out of work, and my boss (my best friend’s mother) called my mother when I just didn’t show- as this was very out of character for me. I don’t remember what she asked. I don’t remember what is said. All I can remember from the next half a day is asking for water in the ambulance (and being insanely embarrassed that someone I went to school with was one of the paramedics), a nurse continually asserting that “you tried to kill yourself”, and the taste and nausea that followed being made to drink activated charcoal. I also remember being remorseful, not because I had tried to kill myself- but because I didn’t succeed. Because now, on top of everything else my folks had to cancel their trip, and deal with the repercussions of yet another of my failures.

It wasn’t until I started the programs during my weeklong stay in the hospital that I began to realize it was my illness. That i had, like so many others, been overcome by mental illness that went untreated. It wasn’t until multiple therapy appointments that I realized suicide wasn’t the answer, and that people in my life didn’t hate me like My brain had been telling me. So I am now, a decade later, thankful that I was lucky. Thankful that I forgot to call out of work. Thankful that some part of me chose to be at my parents house, because if I were at my apartment I doubt I’d be here to write this. I am thankful that I was fortunate enough to have insurance that covered my week long hospital stay. I’m thankful for the mental health professionals who helped me on my long (and still ongoing road) to recovery and stability.

My road doesn’t end with my suicide attempt. It didn’t even start there, but in order to understand and gain empathy for those with mental illness I believe others must learn the true depths of the darkness of mental illness. In order to understand the subtleties, you must first understand the glaringly obvious.

If there is anything I wish those reading could take from this, it would be two things. Suicide is not selfish. Grief and confusion is normal if you lose (or almost lose) a loved one to suicide. But it is not selfish. For many the dark voice of mental illness convinces us that this is the way to make life better, that the struggle is too much, that everyone would be better off without us. The second is this, don’t listen to that dark voice. That voice is a liar. The road to recovery is hard, so very fucking hard- but you are a warrior who can do it.

I’m sure there are a number of folks who are wondering why I would choose to write about this- to put this out in the open for all to see. It’s simple, I’ve discovered that raising awareness on mental health has helped me deal with my own struggles. For me, treating this like any other illness and being open about it has been a healing experience. It’s so important that we don’t treat mental illness as a secret shame, and I believe that the only way to help end the stigma is to share our stories.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I have access to healthcare and insurance. I have a good support system. This isn’t the case for a lot of people. I am currently doing well and thriving, and I want to make use of this good time in my life by sharing my story. Perhaps it touches someone, perhaps no one reads it- but it’s there. It’s there for those who can’t speak their story right now to let them know that, if nothing else, they are not alone.

So yes. Everyone and their mother probably has a mental health blog but guess what- I believe it’s a good thing. The more we share, the more we stop seeing this as a secret shame and start seeing it for what it is- an illness just like diabetes is an illness. We don’t choose it. We don’t want it. But we have it. It’s time to ditch the shame.

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It’s Really Not Like They Show on TV…Tales of the Psychiatric Unit – Part 1

(…Although we did have a nurse we referred to as Nurse Ratched, but that was because she turned on golf that one time.)

I was only in the hospital for a week, but I’ll be honest that it felt like a lot longer.  In some ways that was good, in others not so much.  The first night I was admitted, it was just after lights out.  I had been in the emergency room for most of the day, and by the time I got into the ward, I was so tired.  I slept. Straight through until they woke me up at the crack of dawn to take my vitals (I would soon come to know this was a daily occurrence).  I had never been a morning person, and coffee was my only way to ensure that I could function.  I asked about coffee and they told me I could have some with breakfast – which would be soon.  Thank the high holy heavens!

It was decaf.  It was all decaf.

That sobering reality check aside, the first day wasn’t so terrible.  Everyone in the ward was welcoming.  The staff were kind and empathetic.  My fellow patients saw that I was struggling and were just so….kind.

Some had been there only a few days, others a lot longer – but what we all had in common was this: we had all reached our breaking point.  (I won’t give their actual names – as I have not seen any of these folks in ten years, and thus don’t have permission to. So disclaimer, all names have been changed.) We weren’t alone. Everyone in that ward knew what it was like to feel the darkness envelop them.

The first person to talk to me was Beatrice.  She had been in the ward for a couple of weeks, after being in ICU for a lot longer.  She told me that she had been in the hospital before, told me her story (it’s not mine to share so I won’t) – and then proceeded to show me the ropes.  I clung to her that first day.  I sat next to her in group, at mealtime, and during the copious amounts of free time we had in between those.  I don’t remember all that we talked about, but she helped me feel less terrible.  She helped me be okay with the fact that I was in the hospital for as long as they deemed necessary.  She was the exact person I needed to be there in those first hours.

It was easy to forget about the outside world.  The television was tuned to innocuous channels, mostly sitcoms and sometimes news if no one objected (and the one horrible time when Nurse Ratched put on golf.  I thought there was going to be mutiny).  We played ping pong.  Oh holy god the amount of ping pong we played.  I got very good – and aside from playing cards with Beatrice and Duke, it was my favorite pass time.  The outside world melted away and there we existed, in the bubble of a place trying to get us well enough to face the outside world.

My medication was monitored. I was given an initial diagnosis (see “Misdiagnosis” for the full saga ).  There was a name to what I had, and a way to get better.  It was a bubble of safety, of stability.  It wasn’t designed to prepare us for the outside world, at least not completely.  It was designed to stabilize those in a psychiatric emergency.  To me though, it was more than just the access to care – I was around others like me.  I was surrounded by people who were temporarily broken and lost, and we were trying to find the way back to the light together.

This is one of the reasons I stress “You are not alone.” so much.  There is nothing more terrifying than having a mental illness and feeling as though there is no one else out there who understands.  Sometimes all it takes to keep me afloat is the knowledge that I’m not the only one.

My stay in the unit was my first taste of that; and my first taste at how kind people could be.  No one in the unit (staff or patient) treated anyone like they were diseased, or “crazy”.  And that, more than anything – was the greatest first step.

 

 

Misdiagnosis

When I was first in the hospital after my suicide attempt, my GP at the time put me on medicine for depression. I honestly don’t remember which, because I was only on it for a week.

When I was discharged from the psychiatric unit, I was enrolled in what they refer to as a “partial hospitalization program”.  Essentially it was like psychiatric high school. I went every day from about 7:30 to 3 (after a couple weeks, I was only there until 1pm-insurance sagas etc. for another time).

We had group therapy for a large chunk of the day, and meetings with a psychiatrist, lunch, and a one on one with a therapist.

It was at my first meeting with the psychiatrist that I was given a diagnosis I never expected: bipolar II. 

I had concentration issues, mood swings, depression, and insomnia. I used shopping as a coping mechanism to excess at times- which got lumped into “impulse control”.

In hindsight, at the time I was not good at advocating for myself or explaining what was going on in my head. Over the years I have learned how to do both.

So, in my naive understanding of myself I accepted what the psychiatrist said- what did I know? They were the professional. And it’s not the psychiatrist’s fault either. I know now I didn’t give her much reason to doubt that’s what I was.

So they took me off the anti-depressant and put me on lamictal, and gave me ambien to sleep at night. 

I don’t think I talked to anyone outside of my parents and my godmother about my diagnosis. I was ashamed. How could I not be? Here I was with a diagnosis of Bipolar, something I barely understood- how was anyone else going to understand.

The lamictal didn’t work. It did something, but it didn’t actually fix what was wrong with me. Instead it made me completely numb to everything. Lamictal is a mood stabilizer, also used in the treatment of epilepsy. So while I wasn’t having any mood swings- I wasn’t having much of any other emotion either.

After I left the partial hospitalization program, I had a new psychiatrist that I tried to talk to about my concerns with my diagnosis- and the medication. His response was to add abilify. And while I know it works for so many- it made me horribly sick. I’m not talking the typical initial nausea and stomach issues I usually get when starting a new medication, I couldn’t even think about food without getting ill. It went on for a week. I tried to discuss this with the doctor and he told me to keep taking it for another week or two. I refused. And we went on with my treatment as normal.

This was the first moment I truly advocated for myself as a patient and it opened my eyes. I knew myself, I knew my body. I knew what was working, and what wasn’t. 

It took many years and many different psychiatrists to finally get an accurate diagnosis. After I learned to advocate for myself, and explain my symptoms better (thanks to a wonderful therapist who agreed when I told her I didn’t think I was Bipolar)- the ghost of that initial diagnosis haunted me.

I wanted to be honest, but the moment I said I had been diagnosed with bipolar it felt like they stopped listening. Despite explaining my symptoms in far more detail, most stuck with that diagnosis. 

One even gave me a few worksheets to circle answers on instead of talking to me. One was for depression, one for anxiety, one for ADD, the other for Bipolar. Wanting to be honest, I answered one question “yes” on the Bipolar worksheet- one. And it was the same as one of the questions on the ADD worksheet. Know what she said to me at the end of the visit? “Well I think you might be a little bit bipolar.” That was my first clue this was not someone I wanted to continue to see. I only ended up seeing her three times.

My wife suggested I stop telling new doctors about the past diagnosis. My anxiety flared up at the thought of being “dishonest”. But eventually I came to understand that it wasn’t. It was starting with a clean slate. I could explain what I was feeling better now, and my wife also helped me see and believe that I could stop seeing a psychiatrist if I didn’t feel comfortable with them- that I could simply get up and walk out. It took some convincing but I finally came around to what she was saying.

I just found a doctor I’m completely happy with. She listens, she engages. She’s been working with me since day one on my symptoms, managing my medications. For my part, I’m a much better self-advocate these days. But my current psychiatrist is a match made in heaven. For the first time in a while, I feel like ALL of my symptoms are being addressed. I just started a different medication (Lexapro) after the first she put me on (Zoloft) gave me some pretty gnarly gastrointestinal issues. And this new one has been wonderful. 

And the bonus is that I was able to be honest with her about my past diagnosis (after I initially just described my symptoms- I did follow my wife’s advice in part) and explained why I believed they diagnosed me as such. She didn’t stop listening. She let me go on, and didn’t try to ride the coat tails of the previous diagnosis. 

It’s still an adjustment and monitoring game. It always will be. But I’ve finally found a doctor willing to play that game in full with me. She’s amazing, and I am so thankful to have found her.

Lesson: advocate for yourself. Even if it’s something as simple as “no this medication is making me sick.” I learned this the hard way (though I’ve heard some horror stories that make mine look like a Julie Andrews flick). A good support system is everything though, if weren’t for people in my life insisting they didn’t believe the initial diagnosis either I doubt I would have started to push back against it as much as I did. 

And of course, to my wonderful wife who has been with me every step of the way on the most recent leg of this journey. (More on that at another time too.)

For those wondering: I have depression, GAD (general anxiety disorder), ADD, and a panic disorder which is tied into the GAD. (I also suspect some issues with compulsions, also tied into the anxiety disorder).