My journey begins a few years back after reaching a tipping point in my life. I was feeling really drained while working three different jobs, parenting two young children, and being acutely aware that my marriage was no longer working.
Feeling extremely burnt out, I took my husband with me and sought help from a GP who prescribed an antidepressant (Citalopram) which I had not taken before. After moving to New Zealand, I had used Fluoxetine for six months to help me through the adjustment, but the GP was adamant that Citalopram was better. She did say I might be up in the night when taking this antidepressant. I didn’t think it would matter that much as I was usually disrupted in my sleep anyway, still breastfeeding my 20-month-old baby daughter.
I took the first pill (which was bad choice number one) and got no sleep that night. I thought this would settle down and took another. By the third consecutive night, having had no sleep, anxious and distressed, I called my friend who took me to the psychiatric emergency service. I told a nurse my story of how I felt my symptoms were “made up” and all I needed was to be loved. Nothing else was prescribed to help me get to sleep that night.
I decided to spend the night at my friend’s house with my little one (bad choice number two as I was in an unfamiliar environment). Feeling absolutely exhausted, I couldn’t get to sleep that night either. I was extremely anxious and panicked to the point where I believed I was so sleep deprived I was going to die. I did not know how else to interpret how I felt at the time. I couldn’t make any more decisions about what would help, and thinking that I would not wake up if I did eventually go to sleep that night, I kissed my daughter goodnight for what I thought would be the last time.
Each time I attempted to just lie there until I fell asleep, I panicked. Later that night my friend got really worried about me wandering around her house like a zombie. She rang the psych emergency service again, explaining that something was really wrong and that she had never seen me like that before. So eventually we returned to the hospital with two psych nurses. I met a psychiatrist who assessed me and that night I was admitted as a voluntary patient to the psych ward. I said something about wanting to wear a nappy as I was too tired to go to the toilet and for once I wanted to be the baby. Neither my friend nor the psychiatrist thought that would be a good idea.
I just wanted to be left to sleep there in the assessment room. After telling the psychiatrist my story, I had some hope for finally being able to fall asleep. I thought that in the morning I might be OK. If they would just let me sleep.
After a short nap, they woke me up to take me to the psych hospital (another transition) and I felt myself become hypersensitive. I felt pins and needles as I tried to walk so they brought a wheelchair. My anxiety increased, and the delusions that I was dying returned that night. I heard what I later discovered was a washing machine, but was convinced at the time that this was a machine they would bring to help keep me alive artificially. I remember other bits and pieces, like the nurses trying to give me Zoplicone that night—I thought they wanted to poison me and did not take it.
Once in hospital, I wanted to go home, but everyone encouraged me to follow the doctor’s recommendations, including my family and my friend. I spat out the medication at the start as it was making me feel worse, but my friend told the nurses, so I was put under the mental health act and was made to take them. This loss of control probably made me more depressed than anything. I had to stop breastfeeding, which was one of the few activities I still enjoyed at that point. A few medication changes later, I became suicidal and tried to strangle myself in the hospital (I had never attempted this at home or at my friend’s home).
It was all a bit of a haze, but I started to cooperate as I did not really have a choice. However, after getting out of hospital about three weeks later, I was determined to get off my medication as soon as possible. I played my role as outpatient extremely well, as this was far better than being an inpatient. I went back to work, took my pills, and said the right things so I could earn “currently in remission” beside the diagnosis on my discharge report and have freedom to choose my own treatment options again.
Six months later I went on a retreat where I got some perspective on things. I slowly weaned myself off medication without any “professional” help (bad decision number three). This was while I was still unhappy in my marriage, unfulfilled in my job and more or less solo parenting as my husband was working full-time and studying. No one identified that these were the real issues underlying my “illness,” and apart from some counseling to talk through things, nothing really changed. I did start running as a way of coping while coming off Mirtazapine, and continued to run regularly. However I was still stuck in occupational imbalance, experiencing a lack of love in my primary relationship, and battling with the labels I had been given while trying to figure out what they actually meant.
My second ‘breakdown’ (or ‘awakening’ as I now like to refer to it) occurred after a year off any medication, just a couple of weeks after I had completed a half marathon for the first time in my life. After being on a high following this achievement, a number of stressful events soon followed. These included not getting enough sleep while caring for my sick children as my husband was away traveling for work, dealing with disappointment after an unsuccessful job interview, not having enough time to take care of myself, and not asking for help from others early enough. I was feeling stuck in a stressful job on a child oncology ward—I desperately wanted to resign but felt I would let others down. Adding the stress of living in earthquake-damaged Christchurch for the past five years, my ‘relapse prevention’ plan failed miserably.
This time I was labeled by the crisis response team as “profoundly psychotic,” thought-disordered and a risk to myself, because I tried to get out of the car when they were taking me to hospital. I was not so lucky as to be admitted voluntarily this time—I got locked up under the mental health act straight away. In hospital I wanted to contest this decision, but I deteriorated rapidly, significantly becoming nihilistic within a day. Within a week I was catatonic and not eating so they decided I needed ECT. After this I apparently slowly started to “recover” and was allowed some home visits after about the second or third treatment, according to my notes.
I don’t remember anything during this time, really, aside from the last treatment. After the third ECT the psychiatrist wanted to use bilateral ECT due to my “significant improvement,” but my husband did not consent to this on my behalf, for which I am truly grateful. As I had apparently gotten better with the unilateral treatment, in hindsight bilateral ECT did not seem justified. After six ECT sessions, I was discharged and was on Mirtazapine, Risperidone and Nitrazepam for sleep.
As an outpatient, I once again wanted to get off the pills as soon as possible, starting with Risperidone if I could. I sort of settled back into my job, but only long enough to resign, which was the best decision that I have made for my well being.
If I had been helped to sort out the imbalances in my life, I probably would have recovered without needing anything else. Instead, the first thing a doctor suggested was a pill. Currently my psychiatrist wants me to stay on an antidepressant for life, but I feel this recommendation has little evidence to back it up, especially now that I live a more balanced life and am gaining confidence in my ability to keep myself well (and to cope with being unwell temporarily).
I have also done an Imago relationship course with my husband; when we use it to communicate, I feel loved and appreciated again. I am involved in my local community and have some voluntary roles, while also enjoying being a full time mum. I have aspirations and dreams about studying health promotion and using both my personal and professional experience to help others regain occupational balance in their lives.
I do regular mindfulness-based meditation now. I’ve also joined a depression support group and am involved with the local peer support organisation. After complaining about the mental health service with regards to the lack of treatment options, I’ve been offered the option of attending a group on “compassionate mind training,” run by a psychologist and social worker. I am hopeful that I have the self-compassion I need to be able to get through any of life’s adversities which may eventuate, including deaths, marriage breakup, or anything else, without ever getting locked up on a psych ward again.
I have grown a lot through my experiences, and would not have made the changes I have made, nor be the person I am today, had my madness not returned a second time. It returned because I did not pay enough attention to the wake-up call the first time around. I now listen to my emotions (which can be “extreme” at times) and can tolerate distress, and take action, without accepting the illness labels given by psychiatrists or GPs who seem to want to prescribe pills to “help” people stay in unhealthy situations. I now cherish my most frightening experiences, as they made me pay attention to what I needed to do to become well. I am aware of my triggers, and my enablers, and of what I need to return to equilibrium. I am OK with who I am and what I have been through. I am sharing my experience in the hope that others who experience distress can find hope and not feel alone.
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.