My Silent Enemy

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Through no aspiration of my own, I’ve become a speaker, writer and advocate for mental illness victims, myself included.

My all-American upbringing did little to prepare me for the silent enemy that would eventually claim my life, destroy my soul, shred my heart, and leaving me frail and vulnerable. No, I had the stay at home mom, Christian schools, happy family holidays and was blessed with good health. College graduation, marriage and the birth of three lovely daughters only ascertained how good life can be.

After my youngest went off to kindergarten, I felt unreasonably “blue”. I began to self medicate my pain with alcohol and prescription medications. After an arrest for driving under the influence, I was court-ordered to see a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with clinical depression. Therapy and medication improved my state significantly but far from completely. Six years later, my former husband lost his life to brain cancer, leaving me a sole parent of three young girls. My inability to process grief, nor help my daughters with theirs, was all it took to push me over the edge into a psychotic breakdown. After a desperate act, I was arrested and incarcerated for a lengthy period of time. At prison, I was diagnosed as bi-polar, which explained a number of things for me. After stabilizing, I began to realize how my life had spiraled out of control and became inconsolable and overwhelmed. After attempting suicide, I spent nine months in the prison’s pychariatric unit. Thirty months later, shortly before I went home, I was connected with my local community health system. It was then I was also diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome). I had difficulty sleeping, suffered frequent panic attacks, and depression that no longer responded to medication. I applied for and was denied state disability benefits. After a three year process with the Social Security Administration, I was finally awarded disability benefits. While that was a crucial victory, it also validated my mental illness and the deep level of my incapacity.

While this has been a tragic journey, I have been blessed in many areas that other mental health victims have not. I have a strong and supportive family and church. Contrary to many, I received excellent care both in prison and in community health facilities. The significant amount of “good” years I lived before my landslide to hell is of great comfort to me. I always had access to medications, whether it was doctor samples, pharmaceutical programs, and now, Medicare. I do however, remain fragile and my loved ones try to monitor me. A small amount of stress becomes a major stumbling block to me.

My silent enemy was a merciless thief that destroyed many years of my life and that of my girls, sister, and mother. I wrote this to dispel preconceived notions of what the ‘picture” of mental illness is to so many. That face of mental illness has changed. I see that in the mirror everyday.

Don Piper, a minister who experienced death for 90 minutes had a quote, one that has become like a credo to me. “Some things happen to us from which we never recover, and they disrupt the normalcy of our lives. That’s how life is. Human nature has a tendency to try to reconstruct old ways and pick up where we left off. If we are wise, we won’t continue to go back the way things were, we can’t anyway. We must instead forget the old standard and accept a “new normalcy”.  

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 This woman is fortunate in that she received excellent care both in and out of prison, which in the States is exceptional.  And she acknowledges that.  I'm glad for her.  And this man whom she quotes is right.  In his case it may not have been a mental illness, but in the author's case and mine it was.  And it is true that the aftermath of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder is the "new normal."  I studied to become a professional writer, but because of my illness I can only use my skills in non-paying environments.  It isn't necessarily the potential employer's fault either.  I was offered freelance positions in the past and had to turn them down after consideration because anxiety paralyzed me.  Freelance work is extremely stressful work when you're frail mentally.  The kind of job I would need is a 9-5 position in a closed office, and at my age it's unlikely to happen.

Community Builder

  There is an assumption in this post that I want to address because I find it pernicious.  It is the assumption that people develop severe mental illnesses because of a traumatic childhood, and while that can and does happen occasionally, it is NOT a sine qua non requirement to trigger the onset of the illness.  Actually, the current hypothesis is that a genetic mutation occurs at conception setting in motion a series of factors that will cause the illness to develop either in the teenage years or young adulthood.  My father was abusive verbally while I was growing up, but my schizophrenia did not start then.  I only began to experience auditory hallucinations while living on my own after a summer of working night shift at a mail sorting plant.  It was the odd hours that screwed me up and made me vulnerable to something that was already in my system.  

I think this assumption is related to the mistaken notion that psychosis leads to a Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde phenomenon and that psychotic people will stab you in the back if they get the opportunity to do so.  That is not the case.  There is a possibility that someone with psychosis might do that, but in reality the break occurs between reality and the patient's perception of it through hallucinations which can affect all five senses, or delusional thinking or a combination.  It is not rare for someone with schizophrenia to have both hallucinations AND delusions.  In my case, those delusions often took the form of religious delirium causing me to think I should engage in risky behavior.  For example, I would fast for days on end, which is a BAD idea when one is taking anti-psychotics, or any medication actually.  Or I would think that because someone felt they had to stop taking sleeping pills I should stop taking my anti-psychotic medications.  And that led to an even riskier notion that moved my mom to call my doctor because she could not talk sense into me.  At the time I felt that I should go off my disability income and depend solely on God's providence, and my voices were literally screaming in my head that I should do so.  This or other variants is what psychosis is about.  So people who fear that their mentally ill relative might pull cheap tricks on them should probably look elsewhere to find a deliberate intent to betray them.