Sharp Turns

A Thin, Frayed Line

My most recent hospitalization was in April of last year.  My shrink let me attend an out-patient program in Des Moines for a week instead of forcing me to be admitted.  This was my third hospital experience in five years, so I thought I knew the drill.  I never expected it to be a turning point in my life.

These counselors gave concrete tools for living.  It was the first time I’d heard that exercise was the most important element in managing depression and mood swings–sometimes more effective than medication.  They introduced me to Dr. Daniel Amen’s work on brain function and health.  And they provided tools for monitoring the distorted, negative thinking that slips in as mood fluctuates.  The only other place I’d ever heard about monitoring thought and reaction was in my spiritual studies and practice in becoming more aware.

The psychiatrist assigned to the unit also gave me new information.  In the five years since being diagnosed, I’d tried every anti-depressant, anti-convulsive and mood stabilizer on the market.  When the doctor prescribed Trileptal (an anti-psychotic) for me, she said, “This is it.  Once this stops working for you, you’re on your own.”

Clearly, I needed to take a more proacitve approach to my mental wellness!  So, this summer, when I read Robert Whitaker’s book. Anatomy of an Epidemic, I was primed.  The book followed research on psychotropic drugs and how a large percentage of patients got worse instead of better.

I recognized myself in the studies.  Before I started medications, I rarely experienced manic episodes.  But, in the years since I had several manic episodes a month and developed “rapid cycling” where mania and depression rise and fall quickly, sometimes several times in a day.  I believed my memory loss and reading disability had resulted from the electroconvulsive therapy I received in 2006, but Whitaker’s book uncovered research linking these symptoms to anti-psychotics and anti-depressants.

The book scared the crap out of me.  So, I asked my doctor to help me wean off my medications.  He agreed reluctantly.  It took four months to become medication-free, and I’m still detoxing.  The process wasn’t pretty–complete brain fog, lots of watery depression, anxiety, and just plain weird thoughts and sensations.  But, I could afford the chaos.  I don’t work and I don’t have a family to take care of.  My obligations are very simple.

Now, my memory is coming back, and I can read a book without having to take notes or read out loud like the Reading teacher at our high school advised me to do.  I haven’t had a manic episode in over 2 months, and the depressive episodes are changing.  They last longer, which is crappy, but the skid down and the rise back up take up most of that time.  I just came out of an episode that lasted 12 days.  On medication, I would drop suddenly, stay in the dark for 3-4 days, then pop up into mania–or visa versa.  So, I still have a lot of adjusting to do and new skills to pick up–like how to practice patience, gentleness and resiliency with these longer episodes.

Since that last hospitalization, I’ve moved into my own sweet apartment (HUD housing for folks with mental disorders), gone off medication, and just this week started managing my own finances again.  Life took a sharp turn back in April, and the trajectory takes me farther and farther from the person I was.  All things seem possible now.

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