The first week of October was Mental Illness Awareness week. I wanted to write a blog post to honor it but since I’m behind the times as usual, I’m just getting around to it now. I’m generally not one to give trigger warnings but if you’re the kind of person who requires trigger warnings you can consider yourself warned. Mental illness isn’t pretty and the worst mental breakdown of my life, which I’m about to describe now, was very ugly.
This is the kind of stuff that would generally be considered inadvisable to post on Facebook and would certainly be considered inadvisable to post on a public blog but I’m going to post about it anyway. There’s a lot of shame and stigma surrounding mental illness. Many mentally ill people suffer in silence and are too afraid to speak out about their experiences. Not long ago I was one of those people but I’m not anymore. This blog may cause some people to judge me and mock me but I can deal with that. I care much more about the people who might be helped by a blog like this or who might realize they’re not alone in their struggle with mental illness than I do about the people who might decide to be jerks about it. The people who might be helped would make the jerks worth it to me. Moreover, since this blog is called Crazy-NOS, I think I owe it to my readers to describe the time I went completely batshit crazy ( I say that in a tongue in cheek manner. I know that mental illness is not synonymous with craziness.)
Sometimes mental illness occurs in conjunction with physical illness, physical disability or a developmental disability. I have a developmental disability that falls somewhere on the autism spectrum and I’ve been told that the depression I’ve experienced is related to that. I think that’s definitely a major factor but I may have been prone to depression anyway. Since it’s hard to parse out the developmental disability from the mental illness, we’ll never know for sure.
Both my developmental disability and my mental illness have required extensive treatment. I’m going to begin this story at the point in my life when I’d just left a residential program for young adults on the autism spectrum. I’d done fairly well in that program and was in pretty high spirits when I finished. I’d just completed my associates degree and the next step was university. I’d been to university before and hadn’t done so well but this time I was confident I would do well. After all, in the autism spectrum program I had won the award for most improved student.
Shortly after I left that program I got a text message from a woman we’ll call Tammy. Tammy was a former staff member who had been fired for stealing money from an autistic client. Against the advice of my psychologist I had become friends with Tammy. When she was fired I was devastated and against the advice of all the other staff I continued to remain friends with her. I even threw macaroni and cheese at another staff member to defend Tammy’s honor but eventually after she stood me up on multiple occasions I decided she was just not a good person to be friends with and I stopped talking to her. She still sent me text messages occasionally but I ignored them. They were pretty boring and innocuous so they were easy to ignore.
This text message, however read “I just got a job at a mental hospital and need to spend 24 hours hanging out with a retard so uh, want to hang out?” I asked her what the hell was up with that text and she replied “It’s a joke.”I did not appreciate that joke for multiple reasons. For one thing ‘retard’ is an outdated and offensive term. Secondly, patients in mental hospitals are not usually intellectually disabled. I’m sure some mental patients are intellectually disabled but many of them are very intelligent. I’m sure some intellectually disabled people are also mentally ill but mental hospitals are intended to treat mental illness, not intellectual disabilities.
That joke seemed especially mean spirited because I had been upset when she’d stood me up after making plans to hang out with me and because people on the autism spectrum are sometimes referred to as retards in a taunting manner due to their disability. “You should lock yourself up in a mental hospital” I replied.” Her reply to me was “Why? I don’t cut myself or twitch.”
Some people who suffer from depression or other mental illness engage in self mutilation. I cut my arms with a razor for the first time when I was 14 years old and shortly afterwards I was sent to a mental hospital for the first time. I continued to cut myself sporadically for years. I cut myself once at that residential program and Tammy witnessed the aftermath of it. Some people on the autism spectrum “twitch” as they engage in stereotyped movements and self stimulatory behavior. I have engaged in that kind of behavior my whole life and Tammy witnessed it many times.
Tammy went on to refer to me as a leech and a spoiled brat. She said she felt sorry for my parents.She made fun of me for never having had a job. She said that I didn’t make it at my last university and I wouldn’t make it at this one either because I wouldn’t have someone holding my hand. She said I would never be anything more than a graduate of a retard program.
I won’t pretend that I didn’t say some nasty things to Tammy as well because I certainly did. I called her a scumbag and pointed out that she didn’t really have room to criticize me for not having a job when she had been fired from her job for stealing money from an autistic client. Tammy was a very large woman so when she said she was laughing her ass off at me I asked if laughing her ass off was her new weight loss plan. However, I’m pretty sure that in this situation the onus was on her to behave with integrity.
My psychologist had warned me against becoming friends with Tammy because she felt that a friendship between someone in my position and someone in Tammy’s position was a violation of boundaries and could potentially be harmful to me. I brushed off my psychologist’s concerns because I’d had friendships like that before and they’d all been helpful to me, not harmful.
The truth is there is a potential danger in friendships like that because there is an uneven power dynamic that one person has the ability to exploit to their advantage and use to harm the other person if they so choose. The client, whether they’re a current client or a previous client is vulnerable in a way that the person in the helping position is not and the person in the helping profession is powerful in a way that the client is not. They will have gained insight in to the client’s vulnerabilities and will know how to hit them where it hurts. This had never been an issue for me before because the people in helping positions who befriended me never had any desire to hurt me. They were kind, ethical people who cared about me deeply and who only wanted to help. Tammy was not a kind or ethical person. Her own mental issues interfered with her ability to care about me and sometimes she did want to hurt me.
She succeeded in hurting me. Her words still hurt today when I think about them but at the same time I try to find them funny in a not funny at all kind of way. I tried to do the same thing at the time they were said. The things she said were just so inappropriate and she really had no room to criticize my flaws like that considering her own flaws. Moreover, I was determined to prove her wrong. I would make it at this university and I would do it without having anyone hold my hand.
My mother had some hesitations about leaving me alone at a university in Florida while she was in New Jersey . She made me promise that I would seek out the disability support services of the university but I did not keep that promise. That would entail having someone hold my hand, which I had decided I did not want or need anymore. The first semester I did just fine without having anyone hold my hand. In fact I did quite well. I got good grades and I made friends. In my psychotherapy class one of the assignments was to write a sample personal statement as if you were applying for grad school in psychology. I talked about how I felt my own personal experiences with mental illness and disability gave me insight in to those issues and empathy for people who struggled with those issues.My professor said it was one of the best personal statements he had ever read. I had friends say that they admired me for continuing to go to school and keep going when I’d faced so many struggles with disability and mental illness. I had friends say that I didn’t need to feel bad about situations that had not worked out for me in the past, that they were glad I was doing better now and had found the tools I needed to succeed. When a group of my friends came in to my dorm room with a cake for my birthday I remember having the thought “Life is good now. Self destruction is not attractive to me anymore.”
Self destruction had been attractive to me at many points in my life. Over and over again I would deliberately sabotage myself emotionally, socially and academically. I vowed to stop doing that but unfortunately that also ultimately ended up being a promise I didn’t keep.
I continued to do well for most of the second semester. I continued to get good grades, I continued to make friends and I participated in extracurricular activities. One night while I was eating dinner with my friends the subject of depression came up. Some of my friends had personal experience with depression and of course I had personal experience with it too. One of my friends said that she had tried to kill herself and she asked me if I had ever tried to kill myself. I told her that I’d had thoughts about wanting to die but I’d never actually attempted suicide. Another friend said that he had struggled with depression and had tried many different treatments but he refused to try medication.
I had been on medication for depression for years and had tried many different types of medication. My friend certainly wasn’t the first person I’d encountered who had objections to psychiatric medications. I didn’t have any objection to them myself and I usually dismissed the objections of others but when my friend made that comment it planted a seed in my head. I was doing so well now. Maybe I didn’t need medication anymore. I did realize that my medication might be part of the reason I was doing well but in a sense taking medication was like having someone hold my hand and now I wanted to get by without hand holding from other people or from drugs.For the first time in years I felt like a semi-normal person. I knew I would never be a completely normal person and I did not want to be a completely normal person but I thought it might be nice to be the kind of person who could get by without psychiatric medication.
I did not make a conscious decision to stop taking my medication cold turkey then and there. I still took my medication but I wasn’t as vigilant about it. My friend’s words weren’t the only factor that contributed to me not taking my medication either. My second semester I was put in a gross, hot, moldy dorm. The atmosphere of the dorm was causing my medication to melt and that seemed like another reason not to take it. Complaints that were made to the university about my dorm being gross, hot and moldy were dismissed but complaints that my medication was melting were taken seriously and I was moved to another dorm. In my new dorm room my medication did not melt but by that point I had gotten used to not taking my medication and I was starting to go downhill. Of course if you’ve stopped taking your medication and you notice that the ceasing of medication corresponds with a decline in the state of your mental health the logical thing to do is to think “Huh, maybe there’s a correlation between me not taking my medication and me feeling bad. Perhaps I should resume taking my medication.” Unfortunately mental illness is often not very logical.
When I came home for winter break I spent most of my time in bed and I didn’t speak much.
“My god, Kira, you’re a zombie. What’s the problem?” my mom asked.
“I’m just miserable”
“But why? Things are going well for you. You’re getting good grades in school, you have good friends, you’re enjoying the volunteer work you do. There’s no reason for you to feel this way .”
“I don’t care. I do feel this way.”
“But you seemed happy a month ago.”
“Well, I’m not happy anymore.”
“I don’t know.”
“You haven’t been taking your medication, have you?”
“No, not really.”
“Well, that would explain it. You need to take your medication every day.”
Of course I should have listened to my mother but did I? Nope. When I got back to school she called me every day to remind me to take my medication but I only took it every once in a while when I could be bothered to do so. I’d reached a point where even reaching in to my medicine container, pulling out the pills for the designated day and finding some water to swallow them with felt like too much effort. Eating felt like too much effort too. I often skipped meals because I couldn’t be bothered to walk down to the cafeteria. I also couldn’t bother showering regularly.
Not taking my medication was not technically a fatal mistake because I’m still alive today but it was a mistake that nearly killed me emotionally.
A dark cloud had descended on my life. My classes were no longer interesting to me, my volunteer work was no longer rewarding to me and hanging out with my friends was no longer fun for me. I just felt sad all the time. I continued to spend a lot of time just lying in bed. My thoughts turned to all my failures in life and to how much of a failure I was as a person. When I talked to my mom about how much I messed up at my previous university she said “Well, then don’t mess up at this school too. You’ll be so sorry if you do.”
What my mother was saying was very logical but at that point I was not listening to logic. I had gone in to self destruction mode. I tend to go in to that mode when I feel overwhelmed. I get in a frame of mind where I want to make bad things happen to myself. Well, maybe want is the wrong word. I don’t really want bad things to happen to me but I feel compelled to make them happen if that makes any sense. Actually it probably doesn’t make sense. Trying to make mental illness or the world in general make sense is probably an exercise in futility.
As you will see later in this mental illness saga, eventually several people suggested that I was hearing voices that caused me to do the things I did. I never heard any voices but I did hear thoughts. My mom would say things to me like “Kira, you’re headed down a dangerous path here. If you keep going down this path you’re going to have to withdraw from this school and you’ll be so sorry if that happens. You need to take your medication, eat your meals, talk to a psychologist, talk to your friends, set yourself up with disability services” and in my head I’d have the thought “No, I’m not going to do any of those things. I’m going to withdraw, I’m going to withdraw, I’m going to withdraw.”
Sometimes I’d have the thought “Maybe I should do those things my mother suggested. They might make me feel better” but I usually didn’t get around to doing those things and when I did I only did them half -heartedly. Since my mother realized that at that point I wasn’t going to reach out myself to people who could help me, she tried reaching out to them for me. She called the psychologist I had at my autism spectrum program and told him what was going on. He left a message on my answering machine asking me to call him back. I didn’t.
For months I refused to see a psychologist but one day after I got a C on a test in a subject that I would have expected to be good at, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore. I marched my butt down to the university counseling center. I think I made quite an impression on the therapist that saw me. God knows how long it had been since I’d eaten or showered.
“So, what’s going on?”
“I’m really depressed and I want to kill myself.”
“I can see that you’re in a really bad state. I think that at this point you need to take a mental health withdrawal. Is there a parent or anyone else I can call about you?”
The psychologist called my mother and told her I needed to withdraw. She said that if I refused she would have to Baker Act me. The Baker Act is a law that allows for people to be forcibly committed to a mental hospital if they are danger to themselves or anyone else. My mother was busy with work so she asked if I could fly home myself. The psychologist said no, I was in no condition to travel by myself. She needed to come get me.
In the hotel room I had an “Oh my god, what have I done?” moment. In the beginning I had been so determined to succeed at this school and I had enjoyed it so much. Now here I was failing at school and at life yet again. Tammy had been right about me not making it at this school and my mom had been right about me feeling so sorry about withdrawing from it. I told my mom how horrible withdrawing made me feel. She could have easily said “Told you so” but being the loving parent that she is she assured me it was not the end of the world, I could go back and everything would be all right.
Unfortunately mental illness would continue to take its toll on me and for a long time things would not be all right.