Thursday, April 21, 2011
Hospitals and Hell: Part I (edited)
This is a long post, but I hope you'll read it. It's important. This is the brief version of the story of the second worst day of my life. I feel I owe it to myself to explore what happened on April 14th so that perhaps I can understand it and maybe recover. Just know, as you read this, that while it is very difficult to be the person who finds him- or herself with a mental illness, to be the other person in the relationship can be equally confusing, frightening, and frustrating. Mental illness and the misconceptions about it ruin couples every day.
A funny thing happened on the way to my fourth month with Kim; I had a nervous breakdown.
This has been coming on for weeks, or should I say it's been coming on since the day the police came to my door and told me my daughter was dead. I began to grow more and more agitated in the days and weeks leading up to the second anniversary of Stephanie's death, and then it got worse from there. I began to lash out at Kim, and she began to pull back from me. The more she pulled back, though, the worse I got. We had loud, ugly arguments within earshot of the kids. Paul and I never did that, not even when we were in our darkest days. I told my friends, "I don't know what's wrong with me. This isn't like me." None of us put it together, though. It was all so out of character for me.
But what did Kim know about my character? Very little, since I moved in only a short time after I met her. She needed help, and I was glad to do it. She needed wound care, and I did it. She didn't know me before, so she had no context for understanding what was going on with me when the sadness and angst hit me. All she knew was that this woman she loved was losing it, hurting her deeply and scaring the boys in the process. She saved me from killing myself once, just before the anniversary, but I began to think about doing it again. When she asked if I was safe, I lied and said, "Yes. I'm not thinking that way anymore."
But I knew that something was really wrong in my head and some days all I wanted to do was to make it stop. If I could have slept, I would have slept for a week. If I could have eaten, I would have eaten everything in the refrigerator. Anything to make it stop.
I was seeing myself acting out, but I couldn't stop myself. I had already gone to the psychiatrist and to the therapist. My psychiatrist took me off the bipolar med in January, telling me he didn't think I had bipolar disorder at all and that sleep was what I really needed. He changed my meds and sent me on my way. Late last month, when I was up for three days with less than a few hours sleep, I went back to him, with Kim in tow. I said, "I'm not sleeping - at all." Kim's observation was that I was "very productive" when I didn't sleep. The laundry was done. The kitchen was clean. The pantry was stocked. I guess that was all good and not too scary, eh? All my projects at work were ahead of schedule, and I was taking on extra ones. It should have been a warning sign to me, but what I knew to look for in my daughter, I failed to recognize in myself.
The doctor gave me another anti-depressant that was good for sleep and anxiety, according to him. So I added one more pill to the mix. I began to sleep, and for a few days, I felt better.
But I was going into a full-blown crisis. Descending into hell.
Some of the symptoms I was having - besides my impulsiveness, agitation, and sleeplessness - were attacks of shaking and being cold, having flashbacks to the day I got the news about Stephanie. It's like I was reliving it over and over again. Nothing good was getting through to me. Even if Kim hadn't begun to pull away from me, I wouldn't have heard anything good she had to say to me. The stress of every little thing began to get to me. I wasn't able to handle anything with any strength or grace. She says that I complained about everything. My nerves felt as though they were on the outside of my body, and everything everywhere hurt. I wanted to be held so that I wouldn't feel as though I were falling to pieces, but ...
In the middle of this crisis, I had surgery to do the test implant of the neurostimulator for my bladder. Wrong decision. Though the device worked and I'll eventually go forward with having the permanent implant, the anesthesia made my anger and frustration worse. I wanted to sleep for days, but instead I started fighting with Kim even more. I think we both expected me to be functional the day after surgery, but I wasn't. Far from it. She called in the sitter to take care of the kids.
Things began to unravel rapidly. I tried to return to work on Monday, though I still felt lousy. At times, i would simply stare into the computer monitor, losing myself in my thoughts, which raced and jumped from one topic to another. I managed to get my bills paid for the month, for the most part, but I had to file an extension for my taxes. I simply couldn't get it together, and I still haven't. Everything felt out of sync and disjointed, and last Wednesday evening, it all fell completely apart.
I was freezing cold and trembling all over. I paid our sitter for an extra two hours with the boys because I was in such distress by the end of my work day. During a meeting, I had to have the manager repeat questions to me because I couldn't retain a thought for more than a minute. I wrote it off to being tired and recovering from surgery. I told the babysitter, a young woman who knew my daughter from AA, that I was feeling completely stressed out, exhausted, out of my head, and unable to function. I told her that I felt like Kim and I were hopelessly drifting apart, in large part because I couldn't function and couldn't be whatever it was she needed me to be. I was too distraught to recognize how deep the cracks were penetrating into my psyche. I was too distraught to know what to do. I thought maybe I should go away for a few days, as Kim had suggested earlier in the week. ("Would it help if you took a few days to be by yourself?" she had asked.)
The sitter said, "Maybe it would be good for you. Maybe you just need some sleep and a few days off."
I nodded. She was trying to be supportive. She'd seen some of the arguments and had seen how stressed out I had been about everything. Because she had known Stephanie, we had a bit of a bond. But neither she nor Kim has ever seen me at my best. They have only seen this desperate woman who was headed at breakneck speed toward a full-on meltdown.
Woodenly, I threw some things in a suitcase and took some items out of the room I shared with Kim. I intended to pay the sitter for the rest of the evening and just leave, but I felt like I was going to fall down from exhaustion. So I went to the basement and left a note for Kim. I told her that I had to go off and deal with my crap and she had to deal with hers. I told her I couldn't handle anything right then, not even talking.
Sometime during the wee hours, Kim came down and flipped the light on in the basement bedroom, wanting to know what was going on. She hadn't seen the note. She later said she'd half-expected to find me dead down there. Wouldn't that have been ironic, since my daughter died that same way? Of an overdose at the home of a friend, in the basement room? We argued back and forth and then she went back upstairs. I fell asleep.
In the morning, I felt a little clearer and wanted to talk to her. It was far too late for that. She was angry and hurt. My need for space and some time to think turned into a breakup. She marched the boys in front of me and told me to say goodbye to them, because they were a "package deal." I couldn't find any way to convince her that we could talk, that we could figure it all out. She was done. For the record, I didn't say goodbye to those children. They were crying and so was I. I told them I would see them later. The whole situation was way out of control.
The thing is, bipolar disorder is an illness that you can't control through willpower or inner strength. The brain chemistry is so out of whack that sometimes it can only be balanced through a medication or a combination of medications. In my case, it is taking some intensive intervention to try to get everything on an even keel.
I read a wonderful book a few years ago called "An Unquiet Mind," by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, a clinical psychologist who suffers from bipolar disorder. (She also wrote a beautiful memoir about the loss of her husband, Dr. Richard Wyatt.) Jamison - who certainly knew a great deal about the disorder, both academically and personally - had episodes that threatened her life, her education, her career, and her relationships. In fact, her illness was so devastating that she actually did attempt suicide. She now celebrates that day as her new beginning.
Maybe I will forever remember April 14th as the day I got a chance to start life over again. I didn't "pull the trigger," so to speak, but I did at first contemplate taking my foot off the brake and rolling out in front of a semi that was barreling north on Hwy 15 (but Lily and CC were in the car with me and I couldn't sacrifice them for the sake of my own illness), and then I contemplated finishing off all of my pills in a cup of yogurt, crushing up the extended release ones for an immediate, heart-stopping rush of chemicals. Instead, I began to cry. I cried and cried harder. Kim called Paul and told him that I had left the house, intending to hurt myself. He called me and kept calling me back every time I hung up. I managed to get to the townhouse, which we'd been packing up and cleaning up, preparing to rent it out, and, as he had done so many times before for physical maladies, he took me to the hospital and handled everything. He had never seen me like I was that day, and true to his word to our son, he never abandoned me. I'll always be grateful to him that he has saved my life on multiple occasions; this was no exception.
It took two years, but Stephanie's death added to all the physical and emotional stress finally broke me in two.
I was in the ER until about 1 o'clock in the morning. I surrendered my personal belongings and answered pages and pages of questions from a social worker. I signed a form, voluntarily admitting myself into a psychiatric hospital to which I was taken by ambulance and delivered at around 2 a.m.
It was the most frightening, humbling experience of my life, being taken into a locked ward and strip-searched for anything with which I could hurt myself. I was handed disposable scrubs to wear by a staff member who looked at me with suspicion and disdain. Instead of being treated as someone who was ill, I was being treated as someone who was suspect, stigmatized, and despised. I felt as though I were in jail, and my dignity was gone.
What came next was hope and help, but that first night, all I could think was that I would have rather had the yogurt cocktail.
"I long ago abandoned the notion of a life without storms, or a world without dry and killing seasons. Life is too complicated, too constantly changing, to be anything but what it is. And I am, by nature, too mercurial to be anything but deeply wary of the grave unnaturalness involved in any attempt to exert too much control over essentially uncontrollable forces. There will always be propelling, disturbing elements, and they will be there until, as Lowell put it, the watch is taken from the wrist. It is, at the end of the day, the individual moments of restlessness, of bleakness, of strong persuasions and maddened enthusiasms, that inform one's life, change the nature and direction of one's work, and give final meaning and color to one's loves and friendships." - Kay Redfield Jamison