Although they have been some of the most painful years of my life, I wouldn’t trade these last five years for anything. All that I have endured has made me who I am today – stronger, more grounded, and more aware of my personal limits.
My experience with psychosis, mania, depression and anxiety began with motherhood. The hormonal shifts that occurred in my brain around the birth of my children and the subsequent weaning of them from breastfeeding ignited a bipolar condition that manifested itself in a rather sudden onset of irrational, delusional and hallucinatory behaviour. This behaviour was alarming and at times terrifying for those that love me and who witnessed it firsthand.
I have had two major psychotic breaks in the last five years. In both instances I needed to be taken to hospital to be seen and assessed by psychiatric health professionals. The process of taking me there was emotionally and physically draining, and in some ways, traumatizing for my husband. Both times he took me alone. He was straightforward and calm with me – reassuring me that I was very ill, that I was in crisis and required medical attention to get better and that he was doing this because he loved me. He did this with unwavering strength and compassion. I owe my current health and well-being to his courage.
From my point of view, going to the hospital was unequivocally terrifying. I have never been more physically stressed in my life. It felt as though my heart would beat out of my chest. I was hot and sweating. My mind was racing so fast that when I attempted to communicate verbally, I was often nonsensical. I was paranoid beyond belief, continually concocting elaborate stories and scenarios for what was happening to me. When I heard the terrified screams of a woman (clearly suffering a mental crisis as well) for Jesus to come and save her – I was so compelled that I escaped the ‘safe’ room I was in to go to her – believing that I myself was Jesus and I was being called to her assistance.
On my second admittance to hospital I stole drugs in an attempt to clear the bloodshot look from my eyes. I believed we were headed to see my father soon (it was his birthday) and I didn’t want him to worry about me. A nurse saw what I had done and a Form 1 was issued shortly thereafter.
I was transferred by ambulance to the nearest hospital psychiatric ward where I was housed with four men and one other woman in the intensive care unit. I was put on a very high dosage of drugs to bring me down from the mania and get me some desperately needed rest. I was watched 24 hours a day – if I picked my nose they knew about it.
During that first night, I awoke from a deep sleep intent to use the washroom. But with the dosage of drugs I was on, when I stood up my blood pressure dropped so quickly that I fainted. In that moment I felt like I was dying and was so adamant I slipped back into sleep believing that I was dead. It took days for me to realize that in fact I was not.
When I awoke I continued to suffer delusions and hallucinations. I watched the young woman’s face beside me morph into one of an elderly woman. I convinced myself that all of the names of the nurses had specific meaning for me. I tried desperately to decode the meaning of ‘messages’ like these. I was convinced that the staff were trying to trick me by hiding my food and my clothes. I would stare longingly out the window at the park below assuming that outside all time stood still when I willed it to be so. And the entire time I was certain that I was pregnant with our third child, scared to take the drugs for fear that I would harm the baby.
My family and my husband’s family rallied behind him and I. They came to my bedside as soon as they heard. They helped me laugh and make an attempt at conversation when my words and actions were slurred and delayed from the drugs. They encouraged me when they saw worry and paranoia in my eyes – always telling me straightforward what was occurring. They sat across from me and smiled, while the unnerving sounds of patients in mental distress filled the room around us. They looked at me with a certainty in their eyes that I would recover – even though they must have doubted it themselves. They became my advocate, spoke for me when I couldn’t, urged me to contribute what I was thinking and feeling, and kept in constant contact with one another lifting each other up when one became weary.
I firmly believe that my family had no other choice than to force me into treatment. When my illness was escalating – it was happening somewhat under the radar. My husband, family and friends began to notice odd things about my behaviour, but there was never quite enough evidence to build a case for calling me ‘mentally ill’ until I reached a point of crisis. Before the crisis, because I could function – take the kids to school and daycare, cook meals, handle the household – they certainly didn’t feel comfortable discussing with me the changes they were noticing in my behaviour. And I think it was easy to attribute the changes to stress around sleepless nights with the kids, or the transition and move we had just made to a new community. The tendency was to err on the side of positive thinking – she will get back to normal when ‘things pass’. The trouble with me was that things didn’t ‘pass’, they got worse – fast.
While my family was noticing changes in me, so too was I. I could sense that my emotions were more volatile. I was unhappy with my short temper and curt tone with the kids. I got frustrated with how quickly I went from feeling content one moment, to feeling so angry I could punch the wall the next. It was often the simplest of things that set me off – a comment made in passing, a misplaced toy at my feet. In a moment’s notice a force of energy would start at my toes and move through my body hurling itself out of my mouth in fiery and hurtful words. I felt as though during those extreme mood shifts, I became an entirely different person – and I was terrified to think that I would be this person forever.
I can remember day after day longing to be free from the horrible feelings of shame, loathing and sadness that come with hurting the people you love. So many times I had been angry with my children for no good reason. So many times my husband had struggled to understand what kept me unhappy – trying time and again to reassure me and encourage me to get over whatever was bothering me. But an underlying unease, discontent and sadness persisted. Until one day, just the right concoction of brain imbalance, stress and life circumstance boiled over in a crisis.
Because of a similar experience we had as a family with my sister (before me), my husband, my family and my friends new quickly what needed to be done to get me the help I needed. But no amount of reasonable arguments or reassurances from them would convince me that I needed to be in the hospital. Perhaps a discussion in the week or two leading up to the crisis might have yielded a more compliant response from me. But in the throngs of a crisis, I was not rational nor could I appreciate reasoned arguments.
Getting me help required a forced hand. I walked right through the hospital emergency doors holding my husband’s hand with my only my delusions for real comfort. I believed we were there to share comfort and peace by holding the hands of the dying – the gravity of my own situation was the furthest thing from my mind. Although my husband could hug me, or try to reassure me with his words and his body language – there was no way to convince me that I was sick and that treatment was my way to inner peace. During a crisis, my mind was much too wily to buy what anybody was trying to sell me.
In the initial days and weeks following my first trip to the hospital it was hard for me to see the way my family was supporting me. I privately referred to their 24-hour rotation of shifts as my ‘suicide watch’. I was utterly humiliated that my every movement needed to be surveilled like I was a hardened criminal. It was so hurtful to me that in an instant I had been deemed unfit to be alone with my own children. I had done no wrong. I had no intent to harm anyone. In my state I couldn’t rationalize why any of this was happening to me.
But with time, the medications I was on would work their magic. My feelings of anger and frustration with those who loved me would pass and be replaced with gratitude. I came to realize just how supported and encircled with love I had been during the most vulnerable and painful moments of my life.
It would take a significant amount of time before all of the delusions would pass and I could reflect back on my beliefs when I was ill. With hindsight I can see where my thinking went astray. I can remember what led me to believe certain things and now I can see how I had mistakenly interpreted events and interactions incorrectly. I understand how my thinking had developed grandiose tendencies and how I had felt invincible throughout the experience – all while my body and mind were deteriorating rapidly.
Living the cycles of bipolar disorder is exhausting. I don’t kid myself into thinking that I have experienced my last bipolar episode. I live every day on the lookout for indications that it might be steadily overtaking my mind. The recovery has been painfully slow and frustrating both for me and my husband and children. But I have found writing about my experience and sharing it with others to be very healing for me. I have kept up a journal into which I confess my inner most wonderings and reflections. Flipping back through the pages, I can recall where I once was and know with reassurance how far I have come.
For my sister and I, there is no cure for what ails us. Every day we are responsible for using a variety of strategies to stay healthy. We both take a strong anti-psychotic medication and in the past I have experimented with anti-depressants. It was with these drugs that we were able to get our footing and start to come back into ourselves and begin the road to recovery. Even when I feel good and have an urge to try living without the medication, I remind myself of what bipolar sufferers before me have proven time and again – coming off the drugs when one feels well is a common desire that way too often proves unsuccessful in preventing more episodes. So I stay on the drugs, resigning myself to the fact that I will likely stay on them for the rest of my life. I figure if that is what it takes for me to stay stable for me and my family – then that is what I will do.
I also have a mental health professional that I have developed a warm and trusting relationship with. She keeps me grounded and encourages me to express myself in different ways to aid in my recovery. I try to run and get other exercise when I can, because this helps incredibly with raising serotonin levels and endorphins and it keeps me feeling good and happy. I take vitamins and try to avoid eating foods that are notorious for causing mood swings. I also get myself out of the house with friends and loved ones – just to keep the feelings of isolation associated with depression at bay. And whenever I feel blue or defeated – I talk to someone I know will understand. I have my sister – she has been a God send. And I have other friends who are navigating the rocky waters of mood disorders and mental health illnesses.
And perhaps the most helpful and healing approach that I have been taking of late, is to share my story. Recently I shared my story for the first time publicly in front of an audience of 80 women. When I finished speaking they all stood to honour my courage. I was overcome with emotion and gratitude at their response. A great number of them approached me individually afterwards to share their own personal stories with mental illness.
Unfortunately the stigma and lack of public education that surrounds these illnesses serves only to isolate those who are sick and divide families and friends that are heartbroken by the changes in their loved one. If my story can bring peace of mind, even momentarily to just one person, then I feel reassured to have shared it.
Please share my story – with whomever it might possibly help. If each one of us speaks out with love and concern, the walls around the people who suffer may just crumble at their feet.