My extended family grew up during the Depression, World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War 1950’s. My parents were products of this era but through the choice my father made in joining the Army, they were exposed to alternate ways of being. Dad’s family was rife with untreated mental illness while my mother’s fraternal side produced alcoholism. Neither family had the wherewithal to climb out of that paradigm even if help had been readily available for those living in abject poverty on the edge of the Everglades in south Florida.
In 1960, as soon as my parents moved to the San Francisco area so Dad could work at Fort Ord, Mom sought emotional health care. As rudimentary as it was with early psychiatric drugs and talk therapy, it was a shift away from the world she grew up in. Dad worked out his mental issues through work and attempting to prove to himself he was not as crazy as his parents and siblings had always insisted.
Fast forward to the late 1970’s where I, as the oldest child of three, began my indoctrination into the family curse. With the advent of puberty, isolation and mood swings became my constant companions. Introverted as I was, I could still be outgoing enough to make at least superficial friends at school. Moving every eighteen months with the Army made deeper connections impossible. My symptoms were passed over and put down to the shifting of environments and trying to fit in at each new place.
My life took a turn from moving around with my dad’s career to relocating due to my first husband’s job transfers with a construction company. Again my disruptive behavior was overlooked and excused by myself along with the parade of new acquaintances around me at each location. I saw no reason to be alarmed as I had always been this way and many times my hypomanic state helped me get things done. The depression I experienced was “cured” when boxes were needing to be packed for the next stop in my mutable existence.
After a divorce where I was left high and dry with no home, no job and no husband, I ended up back home with my parents. I trained as a nurse at a business college in their Accelerated Medical Assistant program. I flourished in a hypomania land for those seven months and then graduated with honors. I got a job right away with a podiatrist and once the new wore off, promptly fell into a depression until the next wave of change occurred when I moved into an apartment on my own. I had never lived by myself before, so all the years of suppressing whatever hurt and trauma I had accumulated caught up with me. For six months I worked then came home to ruminate and cry each night.
After working at this job for a year, I realized I needed more money to purchase a better car. My dad helped me join a Navy Reserve program where I didn’t have to go through Basic Training or a school since I had a nursing diploma instead. This lifted me from the aftermath of my recent depression. It also put me squarely in the middle of a potential war with Desert Shield and later the reality of it with Desert Storm. In the midst of this, I fell in love with a former patient who was raising his seven-year-old son. We married before the new year and waited to see if I would be deployed. A quick altercation in the Middle East made all the worry and planning moot. Depression came calling now that the possibility of change had been removed.
My daughter was born in 1993, and true to my ancestors, I developed gynecological problems as each female on my mom’s side had in their turn. In 1996 I had a hysterectomy, and by 1998 I finally succumbed to psychiatric care, including medication and talk therapy. If not for my mother’s example, I might have drifted along, suffering as my extended family had done. Instead, I began a new type of suffering, and this was only the beginning.
Shortly after starting the first of many, many psychiatric medications, my blood pressure began to rise, causing me to be prescribed a diuretic. I noticed chest pain that wasn’t there before. It was severe enough at one point to put me in the hospital for three days and receive a heart catheterization. Several relatives had succumbed to heart attacks or needed bypass surgery in the past. Knowing family history can be a blessing and a curse. Everything checked out fine, and I was fine as far as my heart was concerned. But by 2000, my symptoms were so disruptive that I had to abandon my nursing career of ten years.
My husband’s insurance changed several times over the years due to union contracts being re-negotiated. Our benefits steadily declined so there was never any continuity with my care except that prescription drugs were always covered. One insurance needed a pre-certification for every three visits to my psychologist. Another gave me twelve visits per annum when I went every week the prior year. Again coverage was changed, and I had to speak with a therapist on the phone to get care. All this time the drugs were prescribed, filled and taken though I never made it to a “therapeutic” dose according to the standards they were shooting for.
My first hospitalization was in 2002 when I had been crying steadily for a week and considering taking a handful of those prescribed pills and not waking up. Mom called and offered to take me to the hospital. I was there for six days on a locked floor where I was given the diagnosis of bipolar and a new medication and sent home. The Pendulum Group met at that hospital, so I attended this support community for bipolar patients each month. I was back in the hospital six months later, the second in a total of four inpatient stays.
After beginning school, my daughter began showing signs of a childhood mood disorder. She then started her trials of medications and doctor visits. Our life revolved around drug schedules, lists of items to talk about with our therapists, my constant spending, her rages, and disability filings, all while my husband and her father grew ever distant as his work schedule increased. My stepson’s behavior was increasingly erratic and abusive toward me until he married and moved out of the house. Oddly enough, our stepmother/stepson relationship improved after that event.
The ever-present prescriptions were adjusted, discarded, changed to new “improved” ones and the cycle continued. I took baby doses, to the frustration of my doctors. At times, even these small quantities proved too much for me, leaving me forgetful of appointments or how to operate the toaster. Other drugs induced stronger reactions such as rashes, headaches, and one medication left me catatonic. I was still sitting in the same chair nine hours after my husband left me for work that morning. I don’t remember that day and would not even know that much if he had not told me.
With the help of a hospital advocate I convinced my insurance to allow me to take a class in Dialectical Behavior Therapy. This class was my turning point. I don’t remember much about the modules they taught, but the facilitator told us that first day that the basis for the class was grounded in eastern thought. Intrigued, I began researching this subject. My world started its shift that day. From just those two words being spoken, I realized I might not have to be this way forever — medicated and worthless to everyone around me.
I found ways to help myself that did not need an insurance company’s approval. I did yoga and qigong using VHS tapes, read books on healing the body and mind, learned to meditate using guided visualizations on CDs and sought out holistic practitioners to help me in my quest to be well. One of my more useful purchases, when I was at my worst, was a CD soundtrack that used binaural beats embedded in nature sounds and ringing Tibetan bowls. I had been listening to this CD every day for about three months when my therapist asked me what I was doing that was different. I mentioned the CD. She said she could tell the difference in my speaking and the calm demeanor I now had. I vowed to continue.
My daughter was beginning high school, so I started attending an online metaphysical college to learn more in depth about the holistic subjects that were helping me feel better. Whatever I discovered I shared with my daughter when she was amenable to the idea. We both saw improvement, though slowly at first. The medications I was taking numbered at around ten when I was at my worst. Almost half of those were for the psychiatric disorder with the rest intended to mitigate the side effects of the other. As I learned and implemented the holistic strategies, my medications decreased in number and in milligrams.
By 2011, I was taking an antidepressant, an anti-anxiety pill and one for sleep. My blood pressure was still high, I suffered from migraines, had gained 100 lbs since 1998 and had sleep apnea, all of which needed a drug or expensive equipment to regulate. I felt ready to get off the remaining psychiatric medications. I did not feel comfortable asking my psychiatrist to help me with that goal as he was reluctant to discontinue previous drugs I was on. I researched again and found The Road Back Program online. The program gave me a step-by-step way to taper off each type of drug and access to the supplements that would allow me to do that as smoothly as possible. I previously had a helluva time switching from one antidepressant to another, with severe withdrawal symptoms of headaches, destructive behavior, insomnia and skin-crawling sensations. I wanted to avoid that at all costs. With the help of the program instructions and the supplements taken to the letter, I was finally off the psych meds in seven months. Then my issue was feeling my emotions again without thinking I was still sick.
After three years to get used to having a healthy emotional life, I began working on my physical issues. I used many of the same methods that worked so well on my mental health for my body. I changed my diet to be gluten and caffeine free and immediately shed 40 lbs. I was able to reduce and then discontinue the blood-pressure meds with ceasing the diuretic a year ago. The migraines stopped when I began a regimen of magnesium and B6 each day. It remains for me to shed another 50 lbs and I still use a CPAP machine for the apnea. The long-term effects of the diuretic have left me with kidney issues and there are memories from during the time when I was heavily medicated that just aren’t there. My family is supportive of my efforts though they sometimes feel confused as to my methods. But at this point, they truly can’t argue with the results I have achieved.
October 2018 will be seven years out of a psychiatrist’s care. I have continued my education in holistic practices and earned a Doctorate in Metaphysics. The discovery of myself and why this episode that took up the beginnings of my life happened to me is an evolving truth. It was hell to live through, but I am a better person for the experience. I am over the anger at the psychiatric system and am grateful for the increased empathy I feel for people. After a lot of inner work, I now enjoy deep connections with my husband, children, and grandchildren. I even have a few close friendships that have nurtured me through this journey. I am able to handle an emotional range that does not scare me or cause a panic attack that sends me to the ER. I have had speaking engagements where colleagues are surprised at what I have been through.
The world calls what was “wrong” with me “bipolar.” I prefer the notion that I went through a birth process to become the healer that I am today. I have had people tell me to be silent about my experiences if I wanted to get ahead in this world. I can’t be silent. I can’t because I know there are people like I was who are trapped and may not realize it yet. When they begin to see the prison bars that surround them, I want to be there for them as others were for me.
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.