I was sixteen and going on seventeen and I had never gone crazy before. I think the most startling aspect of it is how utterly unable to acknowledge it I was. Even after.
As many teenagers seem obsessed with doing, I had spent the last several years inventing new and exciting ways to disappoint my parents, who were at the tail end of a rather nasty divorce. Finding no comfort at home and having recently been kicked out of my northeastern boarding school, I went about the bureaucratic alien landscape of my new public education in Florida fuming and searching for drugs. They’re never all that tough to find, and when the other members of the social circle I had wheedled my way into told me they could get their hands on acid, I was stoked. We did it that night, and I played guitar and laughed at an empty road and then… kicked passing cars? My friends had no idea why either, and fled as I did when one of the cars’ owners showed up to teach me a lesson. The other cars just called the cops, and I was hauled in. When my parents asked what happened, I stammered, afraid to tell the truth, and probably not knowing very well what the truth was. What did happen? I wrote it off, and there were a multitude of available excuses to do so. Bad acid, bad conditions, Dallas was all a dream, whatever.
I continued screwing around with my establishedly unfortunate brain chemistry and went totally off my rocker one weekend while my father was away. I sustained a nasty wrist injury at a party, and, two days later, walked to my mom’s house in pajamas with an infected wrist, making no sense with my words. Along the way I kneeled on anthills in front of churches, made cars swerve with impromptu adventures into traffic, and found symbolism in shattered roadside beer bottles or bus stop insurance ads. My mom called an ambulance, and, unable to offer a cogent explanation for my wound, I was Baker Acted, or committed against my consent by law. I was given a small, industrially scented bed and thin sheets in a local crisis center. I’m not sure if I slept, though sleep had been out of the question for three days prior, and morning came. Trays and boxed two-percent milk. A nurse who treated my wrist saw me wince and told me, “Better man up, nobody likes pussy men”, while she pulled adhesive bandages off of a two-inch gash/burn. We were herded around from small, unkempt room to small, unkempt room, and I felt trapped and frightened. Nobody told me I was there for any particular reason, nobody smiled, and nobody talked to me except to issue commands.
Then I saw the doctor. She told me I had bipolar and that I was going to need to take medication (drumroll please) for the rest of my life. I was prescribed risperidone and took it, thinking this was all some kind of test. I fell asleep, and when I woke up, I was no more organized cognitively than I had been, but I was sludgy and felt filled with an unnatural lassitude. I still wanted out, and when my father visited, I relayed this. A battle of wills with the doctor ensued, and with my father’s support, I was allowed to be discharged. The difficulty of this was alarming. Despite knowing my father’s preference and the pain and confusion of being there, the doctor threw vague excuses at me such as “But, Andrew, you’re bipolar”, the same way one would remind a Toucan of the order of birds it belonged to (and thusly, the cage it belonged in).
My father took me to Wyoming to wander around Yellowstone National Park, and while I was still a bit off, things eventually returned to normal, despite (amazingly, I’m sure some would posit) my daily flushing of the medication I had been urged to continue taking. My father’s love and support coupled with his non-judgmental attitude towards my predicament felt instrumental in my return to sanity. I went about my school year once summer ended. I still wasn’t entirely sure what happened, but I didn’t let it interfere with my existence.
Two years later, things had been pretty calm on the whacko front. I was working for my father’s financial literacy organization as a writer/marketer, and living at a friend’s apartment. I did drugs pretty regularly, and was a bit of a mess all around, but I liked working and began to understand the results and rewards of doing well in life. My chemical ingestion got the better of me over time, and I went off to a music festival in Tennessee with some friends after having spent the previous two nights gathering little sleep. It was a familiar feeling, but I was enjoying myself way too much to come close to noticing. At the festival, I took more LSD than I’d ever taken, and the authorities found me where my friends had not, hours after the grounds had been abandoned by the festival goers on the last day, wandering around, picking up refuse and muttering to myself. They gently put me in the back of a squad car and less gently restrained me and charged me with public intoxication, as I learned they do for the many youths who meet similar criteria post-festival. My dad came and picked me up, and when I got home to Tampa, I was hospitalized again.
This happened a few times over the next few months. Various drugs were prescribed, and I refused to take them. They didn’t feel right, or they slowed my physiology down while doing nothing to calm the maelstrom in my head. Some, like haloperidol, made my spine feel like one of those fan-driven neon arm-wavey fellows you see outside of sleazed up used-car lots.
Giving in and taking these heavy sedatives all seemed wrong, but I finally acquiesced when I had spent three weeks in a psych ward. It felt like defeat, heinous compromise, but it was my only way out. This kind of coercion is, I understand, rather common. My father sent me to a program in Atlanta, and I checked myself out the very next day when the night staff shook the doors and, when I complained, asked me if the “voices” were bothering me and should they call the doctor. Yikes. All around me, the specter of poor treatment and neglect hung in the air, with medication the only true constant. With desperation, my father sent me once again to a program, this time in Massachusetts. Medication was recommended, even pushed a bit, albeit less than usual, but when it was discovered that I hadn’t been taking my dosages, it was handled elegantly, even joked about. One of my counselors symbolically chucked them into the woods. We went and got them moments later in case I ever actually felt like I needed them. Equilibrium returned, and I found I didn’t them at all. To this day.
At this point, I was well aware that my mind had a mind of it’s own. The import of remaining sane motivated me to keep the psychedelics at bay, and I felt like I had something to prove in staying so. I had been told by many that it was impossible to do so without medication, that I had a lifelong illness, that what I was experiencing had only one answer. Whether or not they were right, what they proffered didn’t seem to do the trick. Eating better, taking fish oil, and getting a nice bit of exercise in seemed to assist me in balance more than any drug ever did. I began to do stand-up comedy, and whatever doubts I had about my ability to soldier on evaporated in the glare of satisfaction that presented itself whenever I performed. I owe a lot to the people who did not fear me when I was crazy. I owe a lot to compassion itself, as do we all.
A staff member whom I regularly discussed the mental health industry with recommended I get a job working at a therapeutic community, and I was initially hesitant. I wanted a future, but I was still lazy and hating myself for spending three months feeling insane and burning bridges. When I interviewed for a position, however, I fell in love with the place, and with the idea of providing the same jovial non-judgment that helped me weather the mental health system. After departing from there, I moved to North Carolina to do the same thing. I love my work, and I love being on the other side of it and knowing that, at least if a patient meets me, they don’t have to worry about feeling corralled, feeling like a broken object of prejudice or spite.
It’s been over two years since I was last crazy. That’s all I ever really call it. Crazy. The labels all seem to me to obfuscate, water down, or pigeonhole the truth— that there is a chaos present in our thinking that can sometimes make human co-existence a bit rough— at the moment. With community and a sense of acceptance, I found myself coming out of that state rapidly and assimilating back into the fold. With luck, I’ll stay there, but I like to think we can make our own luck.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.