January 13, 2012

My time in the pen

I've debated sharing this part of my story for obvious reasons.  Don't want to freak out my local friends.  (You know, the ones whose kids I teach in our homeschool co-op.)  Don't want to have to deal with the stigma.  Don't want this to be the first thing new acquaintances know about me.  Because while this experience is a part of me, it doesn't define me.  I've decided to share it now because life is too short for faking it.  People don't talk about this stuff, and that leaves people who struggle to do so in secret.  And these kinds of secrets can be deadly.

No, I didn't go to prison, y'all.  I'm talking about the nuthouse.  The loony bin.  The funny farm.  A mental hospital.  Yeah, I've been there.  And not just once.  I'm a 3-time offender.

To be fair, 2 of the 3 stays were only a few months apart.  Had I been properly diagnosed and treated the first time, a repeat hospitalization a few months later wouldn't have been necessary.  Even better, if I'd been properly diagnosed and treated during my very first hospitalization in the late '90s, I wouldn't have needed the other inpatient visits 4 years later.

Going inpatient was my decision.  I was depressed--suicidal and hopeless.  I felt like I was a burden to other people.  That I made their lives worse, not better.  My 15-year-old brother had taken his life in the early '90s, so I knew suicide wasn't just something that happened to other people.  I'd actually taken an overdose at age 16 (and spent the night puking while a friend held my hair).  When I got to that point a second time, I knew I needed help.

In addition to the recurrence of depression, I'd also developed paranoia and irrational thoughts.  Tree Guy and I had just moved to a new state after college, and we didn't have insurance or doctors in place yet.  My mother-in-law made an innocent comment that the people in our new town (her hometown) were weird, and I began to fear that they were straight out of Children of the Corn.  I stopped opening the curtains and blinds.  I began checking and rechecking to make sure everything was locked up safely.  I didn't want anyone to know we had pet parrots because I was sure they would try to break in and hurt them.  I stopped eating anything but bread.  I lost 20 pounds in a month. 

Living like that was hell.

Then I saw a Scooby Doo-esque "message from God" on the ceiling telling me to "BEWARE".  Poor Tree Guy didn't know what the hell was going on.  He called my mom and she told him to take me to a psychiatric ER.  I was admitted and diagnosed with major depressive disorder with psychotic features.  I stayed inpatient for 4 or 5 days, and I was heavily medicated.  I don't remember much from that stay, but I do recall that my new husband, Tree Guy, came every day and spent all of the visiting hours with me.

I was prescribed medication for anxiety and depression, and Tree Guy and I relocated again, just 2 months after our initial move.  Everything was sunnier and less threatening in our new apartment (in yet another state).  We lived on the second floor (safer than the first).  And no one had told me the people in this town were weird.

I had a few years of blessed stability. Tree Guy and I became parents.  I went off of my medications during pregnancy, and aside from some annoying OCD issues, I felt fine.  I was so happy to be a mom.  I knew the depression was over when I found myself whistling while grocery shopping.  Being a new mom was a balm.  THE bomb.  It was joyful and healing and fun. 

Then I got sick with Crohn's disease, was hospitalized with a bowel obstruction, and had part of my intestines removed.  During my surgery stay, the doctor took me off of all medicines unrelated to Crohn's disease.  I was on TPN (total parenteral nutrition).  I couldn't take pills by mouth.  I slipped into a depression again and became paranoid and anxious.  After discharge I was prescribed another anti-depressant, but it didn't work fully.  I felt suicidal again.  I was a mom now--I didn't want to give up on living.  But I was very impulsive, and depression + impulsivity = danger.

So I checked myself into a mental hospital for the second time.  I was placed on suicide watch.  I had to keep my door open and someone checked on me every 15 minutes.  I went to occupational therapy (which was actually really fun) and participated in group sessions.  This fancy hospital was very different from the first one I'd gone to.  This was more like a mental health spa.  I left 5 days later with a diagnosis of recurrent major depression and a prescription for a new anti-depressant.  But it wasn't enough.  Something was missing.         

Another health crisis and 4 months later, I was suicidal again.  I felt out of control.  I left Nature Boy with his dad, took a bunch of Ativan, and took off in our truck.  I planned to crash the truck into a cement wall.  But something stopped me.  I called Shrinky Dink and told her what I was planning.  She asked me to meet her at the psychiatric facility in town.  I was out of it for most of the intake session because of the pills I'd taken, but I remember making smart ass comments to the intake coordinator and laughing with Shrinky Dink.  Poor thing was 8 months pregnant at the time, but she was game.

My third and final stay lasted 4 days.  That's all it took for this doctor to realize that I wasn't just depressed; I was bipolar.  And because of that one episode of psychosis (the hallucination thing) and my continued paranoia, I was diagnosed with bipolar I (the more severe form).  This time the medicines I was prescribed were exactly the right mix.  The missing ingredient had been a mood stabilizer.  This was 2002, and I've been stable and on the same medications since then.  No major episodes.  No paralyzing paranoia (just the annoying kind).  No suicidality. 

Praise God.

The biggest reason I chose to share this is that mine is a success story.  I'm resilient and proactive and compliant with my treatment (something a lot of bipolars struggle with).  I'm proud of how functional I am now.  I feel no shame about needing to rely on medications to maintain stability.  I rely on them to stay in remission for Crohn's disease too.  It's no different.  Illness is illness, and health is health.

So yes, I have my crazy papers.  I earned them.  Heck, I think somebody should award me an honorary Doctorate of Badassness for what I've overcome.  There's hope with mental illness.  It takes support.  It takes a willingness to get help.  And just as important, a willingness to stick with your treatment program.  Which means, if you're feeling better on medication, it doesn't mean you don't need the medication anymore!  It means the medication is working

My bottom line nugget o' wisdom:  There's a life worth living on the other side of crazy.



  1. If you weren't due your Doctorate of BadAssness before, you certainly are after writing this post. Thank you for your honesty about the brutal truth of mental illness and the bright hope of mental health. You are one brave woman for sharing and I thank you.

    1. Thank you for your support. It's been so long that writing about it felt more like telling a story than recounting my past. The gift of illness is that you appreciate wellness so much more.

  2. Great post, Dani, and great insights. You write so well. I have a very similar story - hospitalized in '94, major depr. dis., meds, etc. etc. I heartily agree - we need to talk about it, not hide it. Mental illness can be hell, but it doesn't need to be so strange and scary.

  3. I sometimes wish that I could find a proper blend of medications, but I know after the disastrous effects they've had in the past, and my disastrous experiences with numerous therapists, that my hubby and I have decided that we just need to continue getting by the best we can with the tools we've already found. Thanks for sharing your story, I think its a good thing. I have a lot of similarities to your story (some of which you already know), but many other different issues wedged in there along side it. I do know that I hated feeling like I needed to hide who I was when I was teaching HSers! I have loved the emotional freedom that I have been able to give myself from leaving that job.

  4. AWESOME post, Dani! Thank you for writing it. You've encouraged educated and encouraged so many people here! You are the best example ever of mental health management. And thank you for mentioning the part about if you feel better the meds are working (so stay on them!). I think the stats on finding the right Rx combo is something like 7 Rx changes before the right combo is usually found. Frustrating! Like Byn said, a lot of people don't have good experiences with meds. Sunlight, Vitamin D, Thyroid, Omega 3's, Iron, B12...all play a role in mood so that's another angle people can take. Hmmmmm...you may have inspired me to blog for the first time in a month! Anyhoo, GREAT post! I'm proud to call you my BFF!