This is the first of a series of excerpts from Cracked Open, a book whose unintentional beginning came after I became addicted to Ativan in 2010. After a year of following my doctor’s orders for daily use to treat insomnia, my body began to fall apart. My story is much like the stories I’ve read on MIA.
I was a new mother. I was not sleeping. My doctor was confident in his prescribing, confident even when doubling and tripling my dose and waving off my complaints of increased insomnia, anxiety, vertigo and malaise that had me convinced I was sliding into the realm of crazy.
Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic led me to MIA. Both became a headlamp and a community as I made my way out of the hell realm of iatrogenic illness. I found refuge here and in writing about my experience. Only in writing did I feel I could give voice to injustice. Only in writing did I feel hope.
This book had the original title Dear Little Fish, but I’ve been encouraged to make the title more obvious. “Cracked open” is how I felt. It’s how I still feel and why I keep writing. The book covers a span of about five years. This excerpt starts at detoxing off of my daily 6mg of Ativan. I had two infants, and a husband who was shut inside a box of terror.
Before I open the book to the world, I want your feedback. You are my community. This story is mine but my hope is that it will illuminate the story that is ours – the one that isn’t being told loudly enough. The one of iatrogenic illness and its prevalence.
Many thanks to all of you. What luck that I found you.
* * * * *
Her howl rose up through the house and I shot off the bed, arms flailing against the dark. In the hall, I ferreted for the walls. At the railing, I stumbled and slid down the stairs. It was so black in her room. I didn’t remember it being so black.
Wasn’t there a nightlight? I thought. The one with little fishes that glow green and blue against the wall? The one with fingers of color?
I skipped a step in the dark and lurched forward.
Where is she? The wailing one?
My fingers connected with the railing of her Espresso colored crib, the one I’d picked off of Amazon when she was nearly a year old. I leaned in, stirring for her body. I knew her little form so well – the soft loaf of belly, the delicate length of her fingers – like a piano player I’d said when she was born, a jazz player, the feel of smoke and shadows. I slid my hands under her back and she relaxed into me, quieting at my touch. And then, out of nowhere, a strike of heat and then a rushing, like being on a subway platform with a train approaching and the walls rumbling with the oncoming air.
My hands slipped from under her back. My legs gave. A drifting plunge to the carpet. On the floor, my mouth crushed into beige and chocolate fibers, the new carpet that had been tacked down just before we moved in. “Lipstick on a pig,” Sean had commented, but we hadn’t pulled it up hadn’t changed a thing, had only put the cribs together and I’d pressed stencils on the walls – vinyl monkey on a branch, buzzing dragonflies and cherry blossoms.
Everything in my head was hot and it kept coming. The room had become a shimmering halo of heat and electricity. Something inside flickered on and off. I couldn’t feel my arms or legs. I couldn’t move.
Is this the fatal seizure that they warned against?
But I was so careful. I was a good patient.
Consciousness shut like a door. Silence. Then, a boom. Heat again, so much heat.
Where is Sean? My God, can’t he hear her wailing?
How many pills did I take? Did I miscount?
I was aware of a tremor and of the feeling that I was alone in this room in the middle of the night with my daughter crying.
Is this what dying feels like? I wondered. Will Sean find me in the morning, cold to the touch, a milky froth slipping out of my mouth?
The roar rose and faded. Consciousness shut again, a velveteen black. Silence.
I lay there, listening for sound. She’d stopped crying. When did she stop crying? At some point, I realized that I could move my arms, though the feeling was like dragging them through mud. I reached forward and hoisted a leg underneath my body. I listed to the side. After a moment, I pulled myself towards the door.
A night ago, I shaved a tiny granule off of one of my pills. Dr. Jarvik had warned me to slice the smallest amount possible to avoid the most severe withdrawals but even he didn’t know. The following morning I’d fallen several times while trying to accomplish the most basic of domestic duties. Make the kids pancakes. Wipe Cassius’s bum. Sing Pippa Wren’s favorite Little Birds song. And when they’d wanted me to hold them, their tiny arms outstretched, I couldn’t. My breath came in short gasps. I dropped the milk. And the bruises continued to appear – green and brown smears mottling my arms and legs.
At the foot of the stairs, I looked up at nothing, not even a shadow. It was still so dark. I felt for a stair and willed my knee up. It was as if I was at the base of a mineshaft, looking for some promise of light. I lifted a hand, then a knee. Slight listing now. Up, up.
Crawling through the kitchen, my hands stuck to the tile. Shallow breaths pumped my chest. In the bedroom, I clutched at the duvet and then slumped, head on the carpet. Finally, I pulled a leg under me and lifted my torso, throwing my chest onto the bed. I breathed in the duvet. Was this the red one? The cotton one with little horizontal ridges? I could feel it in my mouth, the faint lines of fabric. After a few minutes, I rolled over. I lifted my arm and dropped it onto Sean’s leg.
I can’t believe he’s still asleep. He can’t be asleep.
Wake up. Please, please wake up.
Nothing. I waited, unable to talk. Words were queued in some waiting room, unable to travel the distance from my brain to my throat. Long breaths before I summoned all my energy and jettisoned a word like a pitched ball.
Sean’s body shifted slightly. He was in dreamland. It felt that he’d be in dreamland forever. I gathered my words again. The effort was monumental.
My question hung and stilled in the air. It was impossible to harness any more words. I lay on my back, too tired to move or speak. Sometime later, I fell into a shadowed, murky sleep.
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.