How To Adapt A Task To Reflect A Shift Math Surviving Mental Illness – A Personal Account

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Surviving Mental Illness – A Personal Account

This will probably be the most serious, personal, and emotionally charged article I will ever write. I am not doing this out of self-pity or for any other selfish reasons. It is something that I feel I need to share, and my greatest hope is that someone out there will take something useful from these writings, whether it is to know you are not alone with your mental illness or a better understanding on a subject that is still taboo even in today’s world.

No Cure, Only Treatment

There is no cure for mental illness, only treatment. And finding the correct treatment can be an extremely difficult task. I’ve almost given up several times. Obviously, I didn’t, since I’m still alive and writing this. I have managed to become a survivor.

A Brief Warning

I want to stress on the outset that I am NOT a doctor. I cannot give any medical advice, only friendly and sincere suggestions. Hopefully I can point the people who need help in the right direction, but please keep in mind that I do not have all the answers.

Family History

Before my father’s death in 2005, my parents were happily married for 50 years. Throughout their marriage, my father would always surprise mother with poems he had written for her or give gifts for no reason at all.

Mother always showered him back with love, by making his favorite meals and surprising him with gifts too. All throughout my life I saw them display affection for one another, always holding hands while watching television, going on walks and outings together, sometimes just holding each other in silence. It was a perfect marriage. They had three children: my sister (15 years older than me), my brother (12 years older), and then finally myself. I wasn’t an accident, however. My parents, and later my siblings, wanted a third child. There was no substance or alcohol abuse in my immediate family. However, there were uncles and aunts who were alcoholics, even one was a sex addict. Also while growing up, my brother, sister, and I heard stories that some of our aunts, uncles, and a few distant cousins were often “moody” or “eccentric.” Later, I learned that these were signs of emotional/mental illnesses. Early Childhood With such older siblings, I almost felt like an only child with two sets of parents. I was usually surrounded by adults, so I never really connected with children my own age. In fact, mother has often mentioned that I would conduct self-discipline, making it hard for her to get mad at me. If I had done something wrong – or even perceived that I did – I would break one of my favorite toys to punish myself. In all of my childhood, she only spanked me once and that was for running across the road through traffic. I was a creative child too. I would be constantly drawing pictures, building elaborate structures out of Legos, or create stories with little toy people. Without any childhood friends to speak of, I managed to keep myself entertained most of the time. But then there were other times when I would lose my creativity and would sleep often. I was often checked for anemia, and I did have low blood pressure, but still within the range of safety. However, sometimes I just didn’t feel up to playing.

Late Childhood

My later childhood was a slow-motion train wreck. Because of my lack of childhood friends while growing up, school was very difficult for me socially. While my grades were quite good, I had problems fitting in with the other children. I was a bit of a misfit even at this early an age. I felt more comfortable around the teachers than the other students. But I managed.

There was a department store that mother and I frequented. One of the undercover security guards who looked out for shoplifters took an interest in me. For the record, she was an alcoholic, 50+ in age.

From my recollection, I was approximately seven years old when she wanted me to call her my girlfriend. She told me that I was her boyfriend and that no one was supposed to know about our relationship. Even now I do not wish to talk about it in detail.

Surprisingly, the effects of this matter did not affect my grades or my self-worth. I was still able to carry on like nothing ever happened. But my alienation from the rest of the children grew. As well as my depression.

History Repeats Itself

Four years later, another incident, just like the first one, occurred with an alcoholic aunt-by-marriage, age 60+. I was eleven at the time. Unlike the first situation, I loved this aunt tremendously, and I felt actual love in return, whether or not it was real or imagined. As before, I do not want to go into details.

When puberty struck, I was now “programmed” for being attracted to much older women.

All through this, I still had periods of great creativity followed by lethargic periods. My grades were still good in school, but I was a social outcast with children my own age.

When I turned 13, things started getting worse on several different levels.

Middle School

My first memories of self-loathing and thoughts of suicide were when I was 13 years old in the eighth grade of middle school. Always an outcast from my peers, I now found it hard to relate to adults as well.

While other students were going to games, on dates, and acting like “normal” 13 year-olds, I began to become even more alienated. I still didn’t know how to interact with them.

On top of this, the hormones of puberty were raging throughout my body, and the only people I became attracted to were the female teachers. After all, I’ve had experiences with women even older than they were. I developed a benign yet extremely powerful obsession to one woman in particular, which still gently echoes to this day, 24 years later.

I was a constant target of the other students. I was a misfit; I had no place in their world view.

I began rebelling. My attendance and grades started to take a beating, and I would do things to intentionally cause a reaction, such as bleaching my hair white and dying a blue streak down the front.

I became obsessed with death and dying, especially suicide, planning different scenarios and pondering the aftermath of my actions.

In my spare time, I would lose myself into music, mostly bands that didn’t fit the mainstream: The Cars, Blondie, The B-52’s, Devo, Talking Heads. I was in a clique all to myself.

I was often accused of taking drugs (I never did), but none of the faculty or staff seemed to care. I was just a novelty, someone to laugh about when I wasn’t around.

High School

The first year of high school was a continuation of the hell I went through in middle school. But within the first year, I began to learn to hide in the crowd, stay in the background, try not to make any waves.

It also began a roller coaster of grades, from A’s and high B’s to low D’s and F’s. There was no logic behind my learning. I was either very focused and in control, or I was lost in a sea of raging emotions. I still had reoccurring thoughts of suicide periodically.

At the end of my freshman year, I had befriended a teacher. She began to teach me tennis and music. But before the summer was over, we had become lovers.

Positive Influence

In our unique case, the initial outcome of our relationship was a positive one. She gave me a feeling of self-worth, improved my self-esteem, became a confidant for the confusing emotions I had inside of me. Despite being against the law and societal acceptance, it had a healthy effect on me, for at least awhile anyway.

Tragedy

Then the last day of my sophomore year, a student that I had really admired and respected, committed suicide. Once again, my emotions were scrambled.

I continued to struggle throughout high school with these terrible lows that would occasionally become natural highs. Again, my attendance and grades reflected my state of mind.

Too Much Pressure

As time passed, the strain of having a relationship with a teacher began to take its toll. The secrecy, the suspecting faculty and students, the paranoia – it was all a weight on my shoulders, as well as hers.

The relationship withered during the summer of 1989, and it was over by the fall, when I entered college.

A New Beginning

Then my mood took a dramatic shift. In the fall of 1989, I never felt better. Everything seemed perfect to me then, and even now when I reflect upon it.

A Natural High

My college life was absolutely phenomenal! I never felt freer and more in control of my life as ever before. There were older student that I befriended, and I felt at home in this new environment.

1989 was a stellar year for many reasons. For one, I became aware of spirituality, something that never interested me before. I ended an unhealthy relationship and helped start a music group. I became a grade “A” student, and my attendance was nearly perfect. I also became involved in tennis and got into shape. It was a perfect time.

Things were still going steady by 1991, despite setbacks with the band. I took great care of my health, found more friends with a New Age attitude, and appreciated life and all it had to offer. Everyday seemed to be filled with glorious possibilities.

Turning of the Tide

Then in 1992, I was able to land the lead role of Harold Chasen in the play “Harold and Maude”. I ended up in another failed relationship with the actress who played my mother, but immediately entered into another relationship – a woman I met through the college.

Things were great. Too great, in fact. I was riding a high that had no end in sight. But there were cracks around the corners of my world that I had ignored. What I know now but didn’t know then was that reality was about to do a major flip on me.

Familiar Emotions

It was Christmas of 1992 when I first felt something wasn’t right. To this day, it’s hard to describe it. It was a series of little things. Sometimes I would panic when my ladyfriend touched me. Seeing the Christmas tree made me break down into tears. I questioned if my family really did want me.

And thoughts of death and dying were entering my mind once again. I even started questioning my spiritual beliefs. Was there really an afterlife? Does life have any meaning at all? Perhaps living was only a waste of time, just one long distraction from reminding us of our mortality.

I didn’t voice my concerns, mostly because I didn’t understand them. And besides, everyone else around me seemed okay with life. Why upset them?

I had already gotten my college degree in the summer of 1992, but I decided I needed to go back. I really wanted to become a journalist, even though my skills were definitely in mathematics. Perhaps if I stayed busy enough, these creeping feelings would dissipate.

So I went back to college in 1993. As wonderful a year 1989 was, 1993 was its polar opposite. I tasted heaven for quite awhile. Now it was time for hell.

Shattering Around the Edges

By the end of 1992, my emotions seemed unstable, but I didn’t have a clue as to why. My family situation was fine. I had met an absolutely wonderful woman. I had my college degree, even though I still couldn’t find employment.

But I decided that whatever was the matter with me, I could change it around. I decided to make 1993 even better than 1989, a year when I felt a tremendous surge of positive mental and emotional growth.

I decided to go back to college and change my major to Journalism, writing being my second love, music being my first.

My First Manic Episode

But something snapped inside of me. The warning signs were all there, and even my friends and family warned me that I just wasn’t myself. I ignored them, because they just didn’t understand. I’m going to improve my life like never before!

So I took two journalism classes. By why stop there? If I’m going to be a journalist, I should know about law too, so I took a legal course designed for police recruits. And since I should know more about human behavior, I took an anthropology class as well. Plus a leadership course taught by the college president himself.

And while I’m at it, why not learn more about religion and cultures? After adding that philosophy course to my class list, I decided I should know more about the area I live in; thus I took an Appalachian folklore class. And to top things off, I decided to learn French, for no apparent reason.

Eight college courses in one semester. Everyone told me it couldn’t be done, but I knew I would prove them wrong.

As the semester began, I suddenly decided to write two novels. But I wanted them to be as factually accurate as possible. So I went to the library to check out books for research. I checked out books on the flora and fauna of the different regions of the world. I checked out books on geology, meteorology, marine life, the history of ships, and books on different world cultures.

I also needed to become more spiritually stronger. Despite my Christian surroundings, I chose a New Age path. I bought books about channeling, crystal communication, finding my Higher Power inside, psychic self-defense, and other esoteric topics.

I also decided I need to work more on my body, so I came up with a daily 90 minute workout schedule.

Feeling like a God

I felt great! I was in control. I was making myself into a modern day Renaissance man. I would be spiritually powerful, physically fit. I would be more than human.

Surprisingly, my grades were unbelievably high. Everything I did for class would earn me an “A.” I even did beyond what was expected of me. If I were to watch one of the network news channels, I would watch one and video tape the other networks, so I could watch all of them. Why do a five page report when I could write a ten page one instead? I flew through the Anthropology video tape series. And I would always be at least one chapter ahead in my French class.

I began to quit sleeping, or sleep very little if needed. I had no appetite and was losing weight faster than I had intended.

By March, I learned the hard way that there were boundaries and that I was only human. And a human that needed help desperately.

The Crash

I was racing along smoothly through January and February, but by the beginning of March things started shifting.

The first scary incident was a “field trip” to a newsroom in Knoxville for one of my journalism classes. While visiting the newsroom, I had this constant urge to bolt from the building. I barely paid attention to what was being said. I felt ill during lunch and just wanted to get back home. The trip back to my town was just as bad.

An Overactive Mind

I remember that I wanted to start sleeping more but couldn’t – my mind wouldn’t let me. I kept thinking about all I wanted to accomplish, conversations I had earlier in the day, dreams of what I wanted to have happen, new ideas for other novels. I felt like I was trapped in a room with several televisions blaring loudly all at once, and I couldn’t turn them off or lower the volume.

The Unraveling

I started missing the leadership class that the college president taught, which greatly upset him.

During one of my journalism classes, we were given a list of facts and we had to write a news article from them. I wrote the first sentence but didn’t like it. So I scratched it out. I tried again and wrote the exact same sentence again, word for word. I scratched it out. Then again I wrote the same sentence. I was suddenly scared. My mind was stuck in loop.

Things grew even worse in my next class, French. We were given a basic test, the kind I normally whipped through and would get an “A” on it. This time, however, I spent several minutes just trying to write my name. I forgot how to write in cursive. I started shaking.

Scared and Confused

Later, I told my ladyfriend what was happening. She was concerned, because she had relatives with mental illnesses. She was the first person to use that phrase concerning me. At first I felt insulted but on another level I knew she was right. There was something wrong with me.

When she hugged me, I had a sudden flight-or-fight reaction. My entire body went rigid, and I couldn’t hug her back. She understood and backed off.

I started missing classes. I didn’t want to be around people. In fact, I didn’t want to leave the house.

In the middle of March came a blizzard, rare for this area. This was the final push for me. I was about to hit rock bottom.

Paranoid Psychosis

When the blizzard came, my family and I were basically trapped within our house. In one way, it was comforting knowing I didn’t have to go back to college for a while. But then I also felt uncomfortable being stuck within the house with my mother and father. By now, they knew something was terribly wrong with me.

My emotions were cycling rapidly in a perfect sequence. I would start crying uncontrollably for no apparent reason, I would then feel “normal” and confused to what was happening, then I would feel a sense of total ecstasy that everything would be great again and that I was in control. Then I went back to feeling normal and confused, and finally I would break down in tears again. My moods were swinging like a perfectly balanced pendulum.

Mother made me a bowl of soup. First I cried because of the loving gesture; then I thought it might have been poisoned.

I would try to block my bedroom door at night, so no one would come in and hurt me while I tried to sleep. But then at other times, I began thinking that I would help my family out if I would just end my life. All of this seemed sensible at the time.

Crashing Down

For approximately two weeks I had these weird delusions and mood swings. Finally, these thoughts settled down, and the only feeling left was severe depression. My moods no longer would swing. I just stayed depressed.

I dropped several of my courses except for three (which later became “F’s”). I would only see a handful of my closest friends but that was it. I was beginning to withdraw from the world.

But unlike many people, I admitted that I was ill, and I did try to seek help. Sadly, despite all of its advances, mental health care is still in the Dark Ages.

Bad Medicine

For the sake of brevity, I am only going to highlight certain aspects of my life from 1993 to 1999. Also, I’ve been on so many medications, I don’t remember them all or the complete order in which I tried them.

I went to both my family doctor and a state clinic for the mentally ill. Their initial diagnosis was that I suffered from severe clinical depression with an anxiety component, plus had signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Beginning the Medication Game

The first medication they put me on was Paxil. It completely drugged me out. I gained 30 pounds within a matter of a few weeks, weight I’m still fighting with today. I couldn’t function to go back to college or to get a job. I was a zombie.

The latter part of 1993 and most of 1994 are completely lost to me. I slept through the days, each day not being any different than the day before.

So the doctors tried me on Prozac. I had more energy but still was struggling with mood issues. I was able to function enough to join another music band in the latter part of the year of 1994.

At some point I tried Zoloft. I couldn’t tell the difference from Prozac. So they put me on Effexor. It only increased my suicidal thoughts. Then I was put on yet another antidepressant (can’t remember which one now) and it helped more than the others.

By the middle of 1995, I was able to get a job at a computer Help Desk. My attendance was shoddy at times when I had severe episodes of depression.

A doctor put me on Remeron, but after three days of continual sleeping I had to quit it. So I was put back on one of the previous medications.

Bad Turn of Events

I felt like I just existed through much of 1996. I really have few memories of that year, and the few I do have are bad ones. An aunt died in an accident and my brother almost died in an apartment fire.

My suicidal thoughts increased by early-to-middle 1997. I fired from my job at the Help Desk. Later that summer, I joined up with a benign cult just to have some sort of a social life and to find a distraction from my negative feelings.

Pills, Pills, Pills

By early fall of 1997, I got another job at the place I was fired from. I think I was on Wellbutrin and Luvox by then. I had taken Anafranil at some point – it didn’t help.

Around 1999, I began taken Xanax for my anxiety and panic attacks, to which I became physically addicted.

After all these medications, plus Geodon, Risperdal, Buspar, and others that I cannot recall, I still suffered from a severe bought of depression followed by racing thoughts of suicide (known as aggravated depression, a trait common to bipolar disorder).

Some things helped a little but nothing was working very well. I was barely functional at best. When my father was diagnosed with cancer and diabetes in August 1999, things only got worse.

Pushed to the Edge

With the exception of the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, the years of 2000 and 2001 were basically status quo concerning my mental health. Even though father was ill, no one could tell it. He still looked 20 years younger than his age and seemed to be in excellent form.

Work became more stressful due several circumstances not worth mentioning. But I held on as best as I could.

Due to a lack of Xanax and major upheavals at work, I began drinking in 2003. I was never an alcoholic. I didn’t drink every day, didn’t hide the fact that I was drinking. But alcohol is like a roll of the dice for me: it can really cheer me up or it can make me even more depressed. It was always a gamble. But it helped me to ration my Xanax. (Do NOT try this yourself!)

Making a Fool of Myself

My drinking and Xanax intake was also increasing, and I had a terribly embarrassing episode come from it. The college nurse knew I was having problems and would talk with me often.

One night, I came close to overdosing on Xanax and vodka and emailed her to let her know that if I should die tonight she was not responsible, and I thanked her for all of her help. The next day, I completely forgot about the email – Xanax-induced amnesia – until she found me. I was sent immediately to a therapist and psychiatrist.

Finding Good Doctors

After having bad experiences with a few psychiatrists and therapists in the 1990s and early 2000s, I thought I would never go back to another one. Fortunately, both of these people were (still are) excellent professionals. From 1993 until late 2004, I never had doctors that were as caring and as intelligent as these two people.

By the middle of December, I really cleaned up my act. I quit drinking and decreased my Xanax intake significantly. But the real reason for this was I knew I had to stay functional in case my father needed immediate help.

Death in the Family

My father died on January 4th, 2005 – Three days after my birthday.

Somehow, in some way, I felt more stable than I had in years. My therapist said it was because I had an actual, external reason to feel depressed, instead of the irrational depression I normally had.

I stayed strong for my mother, brother, and sister. I was the perfect model of mental health. No alcohol, very little Xanax. The psychiatrist put me on Lexapro, which I’m still taking to this day. So far, it has been one of the best medications for me. But it still wasn’t perfect.

Unable to Cope

By the middle of 2005, I collapsed emotionally. The stability was gone. I used the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to take a month off from work. The psychiatrist was concerned that the Lexapro wasn’t working well enough, so she put me on another antidepressant. A major mistake!

I never understood before why some people would cut themselves (self-mutilation). Now I did.

Cutting Myself

I don’t really remember how it began, but I took a razor and started slashing at my wrists. My intention wasn’t suicide, but if I had hit an artery, I wouldn’t have minded. My therapist referred to this action as a “dance with death.” He said it was a first step towards suicide.

There are two components that I have noticed when self-cutting. For one, there is a rush of endorphins that surge after a physical painful experience. And two, my mental depression now has a physical manifestation. I could put on a fake smile and use a cheerful sounding voice, but the cuts on my wrists tell the true story.

One night I cut myself so badly I had to go to the ER for a major laceration of the thumb. The blade had slipped and went right through the thumbnail. I hid my other cuts from the emergency personnel, but I’m sure they knew what I was up to. But I put on a fake smile and a cheerful sounding voice, and they didn’t ask any more questions. Perhaps they really didn’t want to know? Who can say?

Medicinal Change

After this, I immediately let my psychiatrist and therapist know what had happened. They immediately put me back on Lexapro and then a mood stabilizer called Ambilify. Within days, the urge to harm myself quickly disappeared, and I haven’t intentionally hurt myself since.

By now, people at work knew I was still an emotional wreck. My boss wanted me to stay, but Human Resources were looking for a way to get me out of there. They managed to fire another woman who also had suicidal tendencies – they used her attendance as an excuse.

And my attendance was shoddy too. With the Ambilify and Lexapro, I knew I was moving in the right direction, but something was still missing.

By the fall of 2006, my psychiatrist left and a new one took her place. He studied my records carefully and asked if I ever tried Depakote – a medication designed for bipolar disorder. I hadn’t, so he put me on it.

Could This Be the Answer?

I am still too amateur of a writer to come close to describing the difference it made me feel. I felt like I finally have woken up from a very long, dismal, and horribly bleak nightmare. My thoughts were neither sluggish nor rapid. The thought of suicide now seemed foreign to me.

Still, I lost my job due to absenteeism. But instead of planning my death, I began looking for a new one. I felt a sense of hope but one that is realistic. I could now organize my thoughts.

I felt “normal.”

But only for a while. The symptoms crept back into my life, and the emotional downward spiral came once again.

I felt defeated once again.

Today

I’ve written this article about my mental health well over a year ago. At the time, I felt like Depakote was the answer to my prayers. Sadly, it wasn’t. Neither was Lithium.

I’m taking Lexapro, Abilify, and a cocktail of medications to help combat anxiety. They help, but I still have a long way to go.

I have tried to find employment with no success. My natural state of mind is a depressive one, and I frequently lack energy to do the things I enjoy, much less activities and chores that must be done. Writing seems to be my only outlet and seems therapeutic.

Out of desperation, I am looking into SSI (disability) to see if I qualify for assistance. I haven’t made any money on the soundtrack I’ve written, and so far my freelance writing has been a washout.

But… I will still manage to survive.

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