May is the month for Mental Health Awareness. I have lived with Bipolar Disorder Disease since college.
I strongly believe medical compliance and therapy are the two most important requirements for living a successful life with mental illness. A life of recovery. Good doctors and therapists, along with my faith and the support of my family are crucial. Being the best me I can be. I truly believe I would not be here without this combination.
I pulled my suitcase out of the closet. Earlier in the day, when I gave up my full bottle of tranquilizers, my psychiatrist said I needed to go to the hospital. Months earlier, I found the extra bottle while I was unpacking. I had held the bottle in my hand but it gave me a weird, creepy feeling like walking past a gun counter. I knew he was right. I had to trust him. I had not been hospitalized because of my mental illness in twenty-seven years. For all of those years, I had managed to stay upright with the help of family.
I always thought I would feel like a failure if I had to return. Despite the ups and downs, those years in between were full of joy raising a beautiful daughter. Decorating homes, hosting parties. Cooking chicken and dumplings for those in need. Raising pups. Starting a blog. Writing poetry. Volunteering. Cross-stitching beautiful linen samplers. A third set of ears when the going got tough. Traveling. Learning to knit and to play Mah Jongg. Hitting the keys again. Teaching a Sunday School class of older ladies. Painting my office. All the while, using medication and therapy to help me be the best me possible, living in recovery.
This was not packing for a holiday. I am known for my precise, neat packing which is exactly how I packed my suitcase. Three pairs of jeans, folded once to fit inside. A couple of tee shirts, a designer navy, white polka dotted, cotton shirt with three-quarter length sleeves, a green knit tee style gown, a Muumuu, socks, underwear. I packed my toothbrush, styling brush. No liquid. No makeup. No blow dryer. I slipped a picture of my daughter in my bag.
How did I get here? Blame it on the Christmas money burning a hole in my pocket in April. My big box store was out of stock. I drove thirty miles to another store. I was feeling good, maybe too good. But I was in control.
I walked over to check out my new CD/stereo system. A large screen television caught my attention. “If you give a Moose a muffin….” I could use a new television for the bedroom.
A young man and woman took me through the department. Accessories were piling up. One is good and more is better. She detailed my new purchases. Between confessing my illiterate electronic skills and entertaining this new group of friends, I was definitely getting a buzz. A little mania is never a good thing, only addictive.
I do remember offering to buy them supper and inviting them to my house for homemade chili. I didn’t blink spending hundreds of dollars. But later that night I started to worry. They had my phone number and my address. And why did she give me her personal cell number? And they knew I could drop a bundle without flinching. What if they came to my house and tried to scam me or worse, kidnap me? It could happen.
My first depression occurred in high school. By my junior year of college, I knew something was wrong. Some mornings I would wake up glued to my bed. Days of hopelessness, worry over classes. A day later I would feel happy, successful and positive. I was the one in the lampshade. Three schools in four years but I graduated. Ten years and no clue. Rollercoaster.
I married my husband just after graduation. I had never lived in an apartment, paid bills, cooked regularly. I was trusting and naïve. Two months later, I took a job in a doctor’s office. The patients loved him. I came to hate him. He was verbally abusive, emotionally manipulative and sexually harassing. No one talked about these things. I had just been married six months. In front of the whole office, he said “your husband isn’t man enough for you and someday you will find someone who is.”
After leaving the job, stress threw me into a depression which I medicated with food, gaining forty pounds in three months. This was just the start of decades of yo-yo dieting and tensions over my weight. The first two years of marriage were extremely difficult, setting up a pattern.
No kidnapping during the night. Now I was sitting in my own apartment. My world was teetering on extinction. Piercing quiet days spent sleeping on the sofa, jerking like a baby. Taking calls from friends and family, forcing my lying words into chit chat. No appetite for the instant potatoes, saltines, yogurt, protein shakes, Coca-Cola. Nothing stayed in my system.
Then the afternoon I fell. What I call flat on the floor with Jesus. But on this afternoon, I lost all hope. Jesus couldn’t help me now. But He was hovering. I was face down in the rug. No neighbors came running but I don’t know how they did not hear my guttural anguish at my world destroyed. I couldn’t move. Breathing dust in and out, smelling like butterscotch sweet and salty, lives walked, shoes and crumbs. I don’t know how long I stayed down. Finally, I sat up. My face was scratched and my eyes were swollen shut.
I called Mama. She has always been there. Calm. I could hardly put words together. I told my mother I didn’t want to live. All those years ago, when I had been born two months premature and laid in an isolette for a month, she drove to the hospital every day and sat in a chair, watching nurses take care of me. She couldn’t even hold me. On this afternoon she told me I did want to live. I had to promise her I wouldn’t do anything. Everything would be alright.
I promised to call my therapist. I saw Sheila weekly. When I called her on this horrible afternoon, she didn’t miss a beat. We had spent four years together and she knew what was happening in my life. Minute by minute, over the years she had gained my respect and minute by minute, I had given her the authority for our present hour. She talked. I would talk. Was I going to be okay for the night? Yes. We had a plan. I told her I had promised my mother. I got into bed and went to sleep.
One of the values of consistent therapy is the professional relationship between the therapist and the client, the trained versus the bewildered. A therapist is non-judgmental. One therapist told me to say anything I want, spit words on the floor and then he would sweep them out the door.
Living with a mental illness is a hard way to do life. This is not a river cruise on a beautiful summer evening. Life is checking what’s going on in the engine room, inhaling diesel fumes. Or going back up top and watching for snakes hanging from low limbed trees. Alligators pushing off from shore, diving below, waiting for you to fall off the boat. Everyone else is sitting thin and pretty, chatting with friends. Their lives are full and happy, with energy to run an efficient home, mother two or three babies, have a full or part-time job and read books, play bunko and tennis. How many times I pushed through the pain of depression to attend an occasion, hoping I was smiling enough, wanting to appear just like everyone else.
Despite years of successful living, even armed with valuable information, I was now going back into the hospital for the second time. Willingly committing myself for medical help, hoping I could push a reset button and gain back my health.
One of my best friends was beside me. The moon was full and so was the hospital. They took my suitcase as I entered the admissions area. “ What brings you here?” By this time, I was covering my arms and face with wet paper towels. Mental illness is a physical illness. While I felt relatively composed, my anxiety was giving me a headache, making me nauseous and light-headed. My meal of crackers and lemonade the night before and my one meal of this day, a Starbucks tall latte with one sugar, were not helping. I was told a dinner tray would be brought once I had a room.
I was frightened but every nurse and employee met me with kind eyes and reassuring words. Hours of data entry, vitals and bloodwork. “What brings you here?” When I stepped into the small, sterile medical room, I looked down and saw a penny, for me a little piece of comfort when I needed it. Two blue gloved nurses checked me out from top to bottom. Anticipating the unknown is usually worse than the reality. I actually felt safer afterwards.
Hours later, I fell asleep in a rolling cot between two other women. My shoestrings were removed, along with the underwire from my bra. I was given a paper sack with my possessions minus my soap, brush and cell phone. My dinner ended up being Goldfish snacks from the nurses’ station. Even with an extra blanket, I was miserably cold.
I called this medical excursion Spring Break. The required daily activities were group therapy, my psychiatrist visit, meds handout, mealtime, dayroom activity and bedtime with fifteen minute bed checks. One day, a nice, young woman with an extremely short term memory asked me if we were children. “What brings us here?”
I was moved to another room. My roommate, who was there on court order, said I was her nicest roommate of all. The bathroom door was a short-type curtain. There was no privacy with the consistent observations by people and cameras. In this setting, most people didn’t give their last name or talk much about family and home. Very little about what brought us there. We didn’t psychoanalyze each other. Days were spent in the day room coloring pictures, napping in chairs, drinking insidious coffee while the television blared MTV and the majority taking outside smoke breaks. My phone calls were not restricted. I never felt threatened or unsafe.
My main complaint was the cold. I wasn’t cold-natured. My second night, I was fed up. I woke up and walked down the hall to the water fountain near the nurses’ station. “Can we help you, Amy?” “Just water.” In addition to my nightshirt, I was now wearing three cotton tees and a Muumuu along with two pairs of jeans, sock and shoes, socks on my hands and my designer cotton blouse wrapped about my head. Other than that, I was perfectly normal. And I wasn’t cold.
When Spring Break ended, I took my paper bag to the desk to verify my original possessions. I was escorted through a set of double locked doors into a foyer to wait for my things. I was amazed at how much better I felt. I was ready to go forward. My mother was there to pick me up. I felt like a six year old again, so excited to see her standing there, waiting for me. A nurse came through the doors. I took my suitcase in hand and headed out into spring.
From Hi Low Happy Sad @2017 Amy Holt Taylor