A Personal Essay
It is hard to document a journey you spent over a decade avoiding. The timeline concerning my history with depression is mostly blurry, save for specific dates concerning hospitalizations or medical appointments. I pluralize hospitalizations because on more than one occasion I was hospitalized for my mental health. Dates are the only hint of factual evidence I have spotting my lengthy record with mental illness.
It is to be understood the dates are evidence of my darkest hours. Sporadic doctors’ appointments spanning the stretch of fifteen years mark the moments I was so terrified depression would finally erupt and devour me that I forced myself into my physician’s office. And rarely the same doctor because I had the nasty habit of running from any physician that would diagnose me or prescribe medication. I was convinced the suggested medicine would numb by brain and fade the colors of my personality. I wanted to remain myself despite having no real idea who “myself” was anymore.
My first hospitalization was after a month or so battling a depression so heavy my bones would ache. Anxiety was my depression’s menace of choice. For months I was terrified that I was going to break and commit suicide. An important detail to appreciate is I never wanted to kill myself, I was just fearful it was the natural progression of my illness. But you can’t go saying things like suicide when you are a barely-20 something-girl with parents and sisters and friends that care about you. Doctors get involved and eventually you are quiet inside an ambulance that lights the streets leading to a mental facility.
The hospital was everything cliché you imagine a mental hospital to be. Loud, aggressive and incredibly sick patients spent large amounts of time alone as to ensure a level of protection to all parties involved. Mandated group therapy with reluctant, pissed off men and women. Shit food. Open showers. My parents would visit with candy and clothes. My sisters and a few friends made the trip to visit me and everyone did a bang-up job pretending they weren’t thoroughly rattled. But I was rattled. I was tired and defeated and willing to accept dismissing medication was not an option. I spent a total of three nights in the hospital and left relieved and committed to taking better care of myself. And I did that for at least one year before I deemed myself clear and discontinued treatment.
Anxiety is a real piece of work. First, you never know it is anxiety until you completely break down so for a staggering amount of time you are managing your life around it. You freak out when you are in a car on the highway because of all the trucks. You do this so often that people grow immune to your hysteria and it becomes a part of everyone’s life. You must make your bed a certain way every morning a specific number of times because you don’t want something horrible to happen to your family. It is nothing short of a nightmare and one that brings everyone around you down with it. Incidentally, therapy is terrific for anxiety. I never did therapy. The concept, while continuously recommended to me, was an absurd one. If I went off my medication and my depression or anxiety cranked in high-gear, I would go back on the pills for a bit until I felt safe enough to discontinue. This cycle was laughable but it was the only effort I was willing to contribute to my mental health at the time.
Maintaining a level of constant fear was my normal. That dread and consistent buzzing across the lines of my chest and spine was simply how I worked. Until even I, master of total avoidance had nowhere left to shove my emotions. My data had reached its limits and in order to continue, I would need to start deleting some of the pressure. My brain did a swift collapse and I found myself unable to work or eat or hold conversations. I was terrified I was going to bring harm to my family. It was a thought that dominated my mind from the very second I woke up until the very second I was able to sleep. I would hide in my bed and hurl tears into my covers, begging for this fog to lift. I was on medication and it was not working and I didn’t know why it wasn’t working. I was 33 with a job and an apartment and people that found me utterly delightful. Yet there I was, sick as I could ever remember and acutely aware that this episode was stuff of hospitals.
My second hospitalization was much more recent, just over two years ago. Night and day does little to detail the differences between this stay and my previous stay ten-plus years prior. For example, my latest stay was outpatient, meaning I slept in my own bed. Prior to admitting me, I spoke with a nurse that made certain I was fit enough to leave the grounds. Because I have such a history with anxiety and depression, I was able to understand this as a ghastly, but temporary flare. This helped the staff make the decision to sign off on outpatient. I had insurance this time and my level of care reflected that. The facility was clean and warm and bright placed inside a major medical facility with cafeterias and women delivering babies. I felt safe just stepping inside.
The greatest difference was my participation in therapy, both group and individual. With this second hospitalization, it became crystal clear that my mental health was never going to change unless I wanted to work. Because I was so ill, I was ready to try anything, even the therapy. I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, a diagnosis that surprised me, but upon investigation, made perfect sense. Not many people will tell you the day they are diagnosed with a mental illness is one of their better days, but trust this is true. I met the monster that tormented me and I was able to begin working with this beast towards a healthier self. After a week of outpatient, I was out of the program and substantially healthier. I was lucky enough to convince the therapist on staff to see me after I was released despite the unwritten rule in place of seeking outside therapeutic referrals.
This time I did not disappear from my therapist team or immediately discontinue my medication. I followed up weekly with my therapist and continue to see him to this day, only we are down to monthly visits. I am off medication, but at my physician’s recommendation. I have been off medication for a year and a half. I put in the work we discuss in therapy. I take it home and wrestle with, I rarely panic, save for a few episodes, but even then the panic is more about trying to find the true root to my pain. The true cause of my discomfort and what else could be screaming from below that needs to find the surface.
I am not cured, but I am not certain if I believe that I am someone that needs to be cured of anything. I am aware and because of that, I am grateful and very verbal regarding mental health. I am an advocate, fearless and strong and willing to lend my voice to anyone that may benefit. I have stopped avoiding and started living my life. I find myself marveling at the tiniest moments of beauty as if viewing the world for the very first time. It is remarkable, this change. remarkable. The truth is that help is out there. Despite the pain and rage and loneliness, there is a light to be found. A light so vivid and safe it would surprise you. I am a very smart, very compassionate and incredibly funny girl. I am the face of mental health, not the stigma you believe in. A stigma I believe one day will be faded, barely-there and stripped of any power.
Patricia Doody is a thirty-something born and raised Chicago. Her bills are paid working in the city; her spirit is achieved through writing. A fierce advocate of mental health awareness, Patricia is ecstatic this essay debuts as her first published work. Additional creativity can be found at http://pattycakes80.wordpress.com/.