A Little Story About Mental Illness

<!–[if !mso]>st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>It was 3 a.m. and my sister, mother and I were watching cartoons in a hospital waiting room, anxious for news about Dad, who’d had a heart attack. What began in my stomach as a churning crept upward to my heart, which began beating wildly. The feeling crept to my lungs, which couldn’t complete a full breath. It then crept into my mind, which began thinking, I’m dying, too. Within a few minutes I was on my own gurney and a doctor was handing me a pill.

“You had a panic attack,” he said. “Here, put this under your tongue.”
It was Halcion. Valium with a kick. Within seconds, I was calm. So calm I forgot why I was at the hospital. My sister reminded me and I remember saying, ‘Oh, that’s right,’ and I drifted off to sleep as my sister poured me into the front seat of my car and took me home.
I slept the rest of the morning. When I woke up, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. I was groggy and deeply frightened. Did my heart just skip? What did that sigh mean? That I can’t breathe? But no fortress could stop it. Panic returned and my only defense was to slip a Halcion under my tongue. It came back the next day and the next. By the end of the week my defenses were spent and the pill bottle was empty.
For two weeks, panic poured over me like tsunami. I went to every emergency room in the Minneapolis area begging for Halcion, usually in the middle of the night, waking my then-husband, Jason, and dragging the kids out from their beds because I couldn’t drive myself. The last ER physician I saw said I needed to see a psychiatrist and refused to write a script. He sent me home shaking and throwing up.
So I called a psychiatrist. He wanted to explore my past. I just wanted drugs. He assured me I could control my panic through deep breathing. I told him I hadn’t caught my breath in weeks. We were in a shoot-off and I was running out of bullets.
Then came the day at work when my Selectric II typewriter ribbon broke and I began to cry. I cried while I changed it, cried as I typed a memo, and cried when my boss sent me home because I couldn’t stop crying. I cried driving home, cried while eating a grilled cheese and Old Dutch potato chips dipped in cottage cheese (best comfort food ever). I cried when I dialed the phone to tell my psychiatrist I was crying, and cried even harder when he told me he was checking me in to the hospital. A special hospital.
A few hours later, Jason dropped me off at Golden Valley Health Center and I checked in to the psychiatric ward. I’d stopped crying, but I was exhausted. My head felt like a bowling ball and I answered questions with monosyllabic words.
After filling out insurance forms, a nurse led me to a scale in the hallway across from the nurses’ station. I was wearing knee-length knit shorts and a size XXL t-shirt stained at the hem. Tears had washed away my makeup, and my hair was matted to my head. I took off my slip-on canvas shoes with the hole in the toe and laid them beside the scale, like their half-pound weight would make a difference.
The nurse optimistically started the large metal weight at the 150-pound position and nudged the smaller weight higher and higher. The balance arrow didn’t budge. She moved the large weight to 200 and again moved the small weight higher. The arrow bounced a little around 240. For accuracy, she should have moved the large weight to 250, but she said cheerfully, “We’ll call you 249.”
The next day, I spent two hours in group therapy drawing pictures and writing in a journal and feeling completely out of place and ridiculously selfish among people facing electric shock therapy. One woman was the only survivor of a car crash that killed her niece and sister. She’d been the driver. A chain-smoking young man had locked himself in a closed garage and started his car’s engine a few weeks before. He’d been repeatedly molested as a child.
Could I be a bigger baby? I thought as I wrote my name with a blue crayon on a piece of yellow construction paper. We were to draw a “family tree of feelings.” The only thing I felt was guilty for taking up space in a facility meant for people with real problems, and stupid for having called my doctor in the first place. So I’d cried for a few hours? Big deal. People cry.
I took a two-hour, fill-in-the-hole-with-a-#2-pencil psychological test that asked me to answer yes or no to statements such as, “I would like to do the work of a choir director” and “If I could sneak into the county fair or an amusement park without paying, I would.” Were they kidding me?
The next day, a psychiatrist went over my results. She showed me a line chart indicating how I “scored” in regard to various emotions and behaviors. The line was flowing along nicely, indicating I was “normal” here and “normal” there, just as I expected. Then a steep, jagged line rose across the paper like a fjord on the Norwegian coastline. It went all the way to the top of the chart before plummeting back to the middle.
“That’s your anger line,” the doctor said.
“What?” I laughed. “Just because I don’t want to be a choir director, I’m angry? I have nothing to be angry about!”
I explained that my psychiatrist said I had a panic disorder and that a few days ago I couldn’t stop crying and that was why I was there. I just need to calm down, maybe lose some weight, and I’d be fine.
She nodded, wrote a few notes, and gave me Xanax. I promised to visit my psychiatrist weekly for a month and was released from the facility at the end of the week.
The Xanax worked almost instantly and it kept the physical symptoms of anxiety at bay. But the relentless weeks-long waves of panic prior to the Xanax made me afraid of fear and I was scared I’d have another attack at any moment. I needed something to change, something to help me feel normal again. God knows my psychiatrist was no help. He read the hospital psychiatrist’s report and ran with her whole “anger” diagnosis. He wanted me to journal about my anger, even though I insisted I wasn’t angry. But in order to get the Xanax, I wrote in the journal.
He also brought up Bruce’s death and asked me about Jason (domestic violence issues….another blog for another day), but I wouldn’t go there with him. I said there was nothing I could do to change the past, so why dwell on it? He said something about unresolved grief and lack of self-esteem and blah blah blah. Buddy, I thought, all I want is some control of my life.
I discovered the golden loophole a few weeks later when I went to my gynecologist for a routine exam. I told her how anxious I’d been feeling, leaving out the part about the hospital and the psychiatrist, and she diagnosed me with severe PMS. She wrote me a script for Xanax and that was the end of journaling about non-existent anger. I focused my energy on the one thing I knew I could control: my weight.
I joined Weight Watchers, but not before saying goodbye to a few of my “friends” – the ones I knew I wouldn’t be able to “contact” once I was on a diet.
The week before the first meeting, I made Kraft macaroni and cheese with real butter, and I grilled a T-bone steak. I ate garlic mashed potatoes and cheesy hash browns, baked a chocolate cake, and went twice to Dairy Queen for a Hot Fudge Brownie Delight. I poured 2-percent milk over Captain Crunch for breakfast, and made a parade of pasta dishes for dinner. Then on Saturday morning, after throwing out the leftover brie and French baguette, deviled eggs and Hershey Kisses, I walked into a Weight Watchers facility, paid the $8 fee, weighed in and left without attending the meeting. After four weeks, I’d acquired all the basic program materials and stopped going.
“You’ll leave me once you’ve lost weight,” Jason said.
“No, I won’t!” I insisted.
I subsisted on raw and boiled vegetables, fruit, skim milk and plain baked white fish. In my food journal, I checked off every allotted carb, protein and dairy allowed. I ate nothing more. I quit drinking and started riding a stationary bike I bought at a garage sale for $10. In return, I averaged a 3.5-pound loss every week.
I wasn’t angry. Heck no. Just highly motivated.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. NAMI is my go-to place for info and support. Mental illness is often a family thing and should not be an embarrassment. Ask for help, whether it’s for you or someone you love.

17 thoughts on “A Little Story About Mental Illness

  1. Becoming aware of a mental condition for the first time can be frightening and makes the whole situation worse. Once it's happened a few times, you start getting used to it and learn how to handle it. I'm not saying it's more pleasent, I'm just saying it's not as frightening because you have been through it before. Keep focused on the positive and learn to accept it for what it is. Resisting it only makes it stronger.

  2. Darlin' this is a very brave post. I have a therapist and a psychiatrist and have been on meds for many years. Those three have been a Godsend to me and helped me really change my life, and therefore my family's life. I have had a lot of anxiety, but only one panic attack. I thought I was dying. A friend had a panic attack and thought it was a heart attack. They are awful. I think it is very good to talk about these issues. A lot of people need help. Good that no one feels alone in these types of challenges.

  3. I found this post inspiring, Lynn. Thank you for sharing it. There are two NAMI meetings next door to a group I go to and I was wondering what it was all about. Did I need to be in treatment to go or was it for people with certain diagnosis.

  4. I have a soft spot for NAMI as well – in fact the 5K we did last Saturday was a benefit for them. Kudos for putting your story out there, my friend.

  5. So honest and raw. Thank you for sharing that. Naming it and talking about it makes you stronger. Silence leads to shame. There is no shame here. You are not alone.

  6. Thanks for sharing this. You are not alone. I spent most of my children's youth making excuses so that I didn't have to leave the house. You see, I was afraid of the panic attacks that had taken over my life. This was definitely a factor in my weight gain, because I was trapped, scared, with no relief in sight, except food.

    Today I had lunch with a friend who shared that she barely left her home for seven years. Treatment and medication have made a huge difference in her life. Mental illness is real, and it is a medical problem.

  7. Thanks for a very inspiring Post Lynn, we need to understand more about mental illness because it effects allot of people in out society,

    good on you for sharing,

  8. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can move forward. You are obvioulsy a very strong lady indeed and are committed to being healthy and getting well for your family. Well done.

  9. Very powerful post Lynn, it resonates with me a lot as I've had similar issues. Panic attacks are so scary, I was on the verge of calling for an ambulance when I had one.

  10. Awesome post. This will be very helpful to others. Also the many useful comments. As Mark says, learning how to handle a mental condition makes it less frightening to deal with even if it is still unpleasant in the extreme.

    Hopefully, the more good information that people have about the huge variety of human mental conditions, the more accepting and compassionate will be the responses. We are all different and we all suffer in our own way. It's good to know that there are others like us and we are not alone.

  11. Wow, thank you so much for sharing this! Heart wrenching but also so inspiring. I think it could inspire a lot of people to get the help they need, and so glad the story has a happy ending. Amazing what courage and determination can do!

  12. This is very honest and brave of you to share and I thank you for that. I appreciate it.

    I don't know much about mental illness although I had a friend once (we have lost contact over the years) who was suffering from depressions since she was a kid. She has told and explained some things about this back then which made me better understand.

    Thanks for sharing.

  13. Thanks so much, Lynn. My story matches yours in some spots, and I'm currently in OA and seeing a lot of things in an intense week of hours per day working the steps. I think different paths can help different ones of us at different times, and your story encourages me.

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