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.


I saw this sign in one of my favorite breakfast places last Saturday:

It was a good reminder BEFORE I ordered breakfast, especially since I had a hankerin’ for something syrupy. My best wouldn’t have been to order the praline-stuffed French toast or the Indian pancake. My best was to order the egg white omelet with spinach, mushrooms, and smoked gouda. Nothing about smoked gouda would make me whine or complain that I didn’t have something with syrup. Booyah!
I’ve been thinking a lot about what my best is, especially since posting my last blog about depression. Depression can take away your desire to do what’s best and, instead, tell you it’s OK to settle for what’s safe or do what takes the least amount of effort. After breakfast, I thought about sitting around, pretending to write and do homework while actually playing Words With Friends. But it was a beautiful day and the lawn needed to be mowed, so no excuses. I chose to do my best. I got out of my jams and into my work clothes and I cut the grass. Except for the wood tick that embedded in my arm, it was a good morning of mind-cleansing, honest work.
Thank you so much for all the comments, both on my blog and via email, regarding last week’s post. As Sharyn wrote, I wasn’t looking for sympathy. What I got was a LOT of empathy. Many of you have been there, done that, still wearing the t-shirt. It’s not an easy place to be in. Depression can isolate like nothing else. Just knowing we’re not alone can sometimes make it less scary, and together, we can offer each other a hand up out of the dark.
One of the comments wasn’t so kind, but in hindsight, I wish I hadn’t deleted it. Anonymous (of course) wrote: “Uh…..how about an SSRI dumbass.” That stung a little at first, but I breathed it in and gave myself space to explore my response. I thought again, as I often do in difficult situations, of the Buddhist teaching of the second arrow, that when we encounter things like insults from anonymous commenters (when we’re shot with the first arrow), we have the choice of how we internalize that situation. We can whine, complain, or give in and believe ourselves to be dumbasses, thus shooting ourselves with the second arrow, or we can experience the insult of the original arrow and live from within that sting and work out the best course of action that will not further our suffering.

For me, that best course of action – doing my best – was to see inside the comment and to wander into the mind of who would write such a thing, especially to someone who was already feeling pretty badly. What I found there was pain and anger, emotions I am familiar with and could empathize with. To be angry with Anonymous would be the same as being angry with myself for those times I suffer like that. Spending time in that kind of petty anger is a waste of energy. Better to put that energy into something positive, like metta (loving-kindness)meditation, or, as others might do, offering a thoughtful prayer up to God.

My best is not perfect, but I’m not a dumbass.
Another awesome weapon I have in my “doing my best” arsenal is Alice T. Dog. She makes me want to do my best, and to not whine, complain, or make excuses. Walk you in the rain? ….OK…. Throw your Kong even though I’m in the middle of a Mad Men season 5 marathon? ….OK…. Thanks for letting me cry into your scruff, Al. Thanks for always being happy to see me, even when I’m not so happy.
Al, on left.

I took Al to see her sister, Willow, a few days ago. They’ve been apart for six weeks, but Will remembered Al and she was so happy that she wagged her tail for the first time in weeks, her owner, Becky, said. Will is afraid of most everything and everyone, but under her sister’s care for an hour, Will was a little happier, a little more free from suffering.

Alice T. Dog: champion of best.

I See You. I Feel You.

I woke up this morning, as I have many mornings the last few months, lacking a sense of purpose. Depression does that. It anesthetizes even my most simple of intentions, and I struggle to remember that sunlight makes me happy, if only I would look outside and see it.

It’s been 13 years since I’ve felt this way. Twenty five years since the first time. It’s nothingness and futility, acute dread, and the stinging pain of powerlessness that turns every motion into an Herculean effort, both emotionally and physically. Who knew getting out of a chair could require such debate?
But unlike 13 years ago, I won’t put a down payment on a handgun. I won’t stare into the river and call myself Jezebel. I won’t hide under the sheets with someone who doesn’t love me or numb the numbness with a bottle of tequila.
This time, I’ve packed a more useful toolbox to work through this depression. Notice I didn’t use the words “solve” or “cure.” Solving depression is like grabbing air. Depression is in my DNA, so it will likely return some day. I want to give its reincarnations a fighting chance at being less difficult and shorter in duration, so this time, I’m allowing the feelings in rather than trying to keep them outside. Just like the smell of skunk spray, sadness and worthlessness will find their way inside. Better to keep the windows and doors open to allow fresh air to move about and neutralize the odor.
One of the tools I’ve adopted is reading positive books and reading weight-loss/maintenance blogs (many of which are written by those of you reading my own blog. I’m out there lurking, just not always commenting), and blogs that deal with everyday, real life issues. I read other people’s words for a sense of solidarity, as well as to learn how others cope with their own struggles.
There are two books I’m reading simultaneously. The first is “The Power of Kindness: The Unexpected Benefits ofLeading a Compassionate Life” by Piero Ferrucci.
Ferrucci asserts that kindness is a “universal remedy – first for the individual, for we can be well only if we are able to care for ourselves, to love ourselves.” Being kind to ourselves means being honest with ourselves, to recognize a problem rather than to pretend there is none. To illustrate, he tells the story of his son, Emilio, who was going back to school after vacation.
“He did not like the idea at all and was filled with anxiety. To him, the approach of school days was like a monster that threatened him and wanted to squash him.”
As his parent, Ferrucci would do anything to ease his son’s fears, so he decided to give his son something that was considered taboo in his family: French fries from a fast-food restaurant.
“Usually anything that is prohibited appeals to Emilio, especially junk food. I thought I had the ace up my sleeve. But  no. Emilio’s reply ought to be chiseled in stone: ‘Dad, you don’t solve problems with French fries.’
“Touche. You don’t pretend problems do not exist, and you can’t solve them with ephemeral distractions. You have to face them with open-eyed honesty.”
My depression won’t go away by ignoring it. Only by saying, “I see you and I feel you” can I begin to dismantle the barbed wire fence that threatens to bloody my life.
One of the blogs I read is Brene Brown’s “Ordinary Courage.” I took Brown’s advice and bought Richie Norton‘s book The Power of Starting Something Stupid. I bought it because of a quote she included in her review, one that took her breath away:
“People wait. They wait for the elusive day when they’ll finally have enough time (guess what? – you never will), enough education (there’s always more to know), enough money (no matter how much you make, someone will always have more)…People wait until that fateful day when they wake up and realize that while they were sitting around paying dues, earning their keep, waiting for that elusive ‘perfect time’ their entire life has passed them by.”
Reading that last line, I realized that for the last few months, I’ve been sitting around waiting for depression to leave me, like it’s a houseguest who understands that her boarding pass must be used by a certain date. No, I realized, I have to be the one to kick out the houseguest, to tell her it’s time to go home now. Here, let me do your laundry, help you pack, and drive you to the airport.
Only by engaging my depression can I learn what motivates it, what feeds it. This is my depression and I am only speaking to my issues. I know depression affects individuals in many different ways and often requires medical and pharmaceutical interventions. I do not rule those tools out, but for now, therapy, reading, meditating, and crying (yes, it can be a therapeutic tool, even if it’s an all-day cry) are making a small hole in that barbed wire fence. Someday I will pass through and I will once again intuit that sunshine makes me smile.

Tuesday Afternoon

“If you’ll just come with me and see the beauty of Tuesday afternoon.  The Moody Blues

The beauty of this Tuesday afternoon was in the eyes of my still beautiful mother-in-law. They are cloudy and her sight is fading, yet they express what she can’t verbalize anymore. She has Alzheimer’s and she’s still alive.

Lillian can’t feed herself or use the bathroom, but she knows cold and warm, she feels the sunshine and breeze through her window, she’s able to scratch her nose and cheek when they itch, and she knows when she’s comfortable and when she doesn’t want to be moved. She sits in her chair most days with no stimuli – no television or radio, just muffled voices from beyond her nursing home door.

When Larry’s sister told us that Lillian couldn’t speak clearly, we thought it meant she couldn’t speak at all. What we learned is that her voice, a sweet southern accent, can be quite strong although garbled much of the time.

When we walked in the room, she had slid deep into the side of her recliner, her head lying just above the arm rest. My sister-in-law and Larry lifted her upright, straightened her pillow, and covered her with a blue Sam’s Club fleece. She smiled and her eyes brightened when she saw us in her room and she said slowly, “Who’s this pretty lady?” as she reached for my hand. Then she saw Larry and found his hand and gripped it tightly, every once in awhile holding it to her cheek. There’s something instinctive about our tasks as mothers. We can be deeply involved in something – a book, a sermon, work – and yet if our children come near us, we are aware of their presence without being fully conscious of it, and we reach out and touch them and let them know they are always a part of us whether we are fully in their presence or not. Today, Lillian was Larry’s mother, not consciously aware of who he was, but ever present, somewhere in her mind, of his being there with her.

Lillian also had one clear, precise recollection of a detail today, a completely lucid moment that lasted five seconds at best, but it was five seconds in which our guilt for being healthy as Mom suffered with Alzheimer’s was lifted and she was a part of our collective conscience, a participant in our conversation. When Lillian was a little girl during the Great Depression, her father killed himself. Her mother’s brother, fondly known as simply Uncle, moved in with the family and raised Lillian and her sisters as his own. She has a photo of Uncle in her room and when Larry showed it to her today, she said, “He never had a girl.” My sister-in-law, Larry and I looked at each other and smiled. She was right. Uncle had a few girlfriends, but he remained single all his 94 years.

It’s hard for us with working, thinking minds to comprehend having no real awareness of time, people, things, or consciousness in general. And so we try to fill in gaps that probably don’t need to be filled, but we fill them anyway to ease our fear that perhaps another lucid moment might come about and our loved one with Alzheimer’s might, for one split second, realize that there is nothing or no one nearby. No music playing. No television on. Just a bare wall in front of them. It is in that fear and feeling of total helplessness that Larry decided Lillian needs flowers, if for no other reason than he’ll feel better that she has colors to look at instead of a dresser with little more than a photo of Uncle and a mirror reflecting her hospital bed. We will buy a bouquet before visiting her again tomorrow.

“It was nice to connect with my mom again,” he told me tonight. 100_0217

As I said in my last blog, you can’t say goodbye to the living, no matter how dead they seem inside.