Between family silence, social pressure not to take medication, a desire to fit in, a lack of clear paths to wellness, and the fact that we ask the sick organ to tell us it is sick, people with mental disorders get lost. They endure an incredible amount of unnecessary suffering.
NeuralMoxie was born out of love and sadness. Three generations ago a young mom was put in a mental institution by her parents. I don’t know what her diagnosis was but I know she was given electroshock therapy and was never able to live independently again. This life was that of my great aunt, a women whom I never met, but I feel our stories are intertwined.
Our mental disorder happens to be genetic so family silence and denial does not stop it from running like wild fire through the generations.
My mom has been the stop gap in my father’s family’s generalized anxiety disorder. As my father had a significant turn for the worse she was the one who stepped in, educated him on mental disorders, and took him to the doctor. He tried several medications across decades. When I was a child he would take me to San Diego State University where he would run laps and I would play. My mom was very careful to hide my father’s disordered behavior to the point that my sister had no idea he was sick until she moved back as an adult with two kids of her own. I only saw my father’s fully out of control behavior once. I had never really seen or heard my parents argue and it was the one and only time I left my house because it felt safer outside. I learned quite early that feelings and thoughts are not necessarily accurate and could be disordered, as such I learned to question and block my disordered thoughts.
The family rumor mill started when my cousin took a semester off college, “She is just stressed. She is fine.” We are the same age so I too was just starting college. My mom consistently asked how I was doing and I consistently lied, “I’m fine.” I distinctly remember talking on the phone with a friend when I could not make it back to my dorm room, hid behind a car in the parking lot and just sobbed. In college I was all of a sudden in charge of my life, which is exactly what I had yearned for and yet it felt more out of control than ever. I had access to parties, drinking, and drugs but I was so neurotic about staying in control that I did not understand the desire people had to partake.
The depressed economy, fear of the unknown, and love of research lead me to go to graduate school. While in graduate school my mental health continued to slowly deteriorate. I was so scared of doing or saying something that I didn’t mean that I almost always gave in to other people’s opinions and devalued my own. While my mental status deteriorated so did my cousin’s.
While my cousin was diagnosed in college with an eating disorder it wasn’t until years later that she was able to take control of getting to remission. NeuralMoxie’s first blog was her talking about her experience (click here). Her choice to do whatever it took to get mentally healthy was a door opener for our family. She made a public statement about her mental health status and decision to get healthy. My mom and sister both reached out in support. My mom wrote her a letter talking about my dad’s mental disorder, medical history and the medication that he finally found that helped him. My cousin says this letter was eye opening to her, she finally wasn’t alone.
During graduate school my health began to seriously deteriorate. In the last couple years of graduate school I visited the clinic because we wanted to adopt and you have to take a physical. While the nurse started my physical she said I had to see the doctor. My blood pressure was 130/94 and my heart rate was 140 bpm at rest. She asked about my stress, I said I was in grad school and then I spent the next year going to a cardiologist and being put on different medications. During this time my muscles became tighter and tighter to the point that it hurt to go up stairs. After a year of medical appoints my primary care physician sent me to see a clinical psychologist. He asked me a couple questions, told me how to get access to meditation soundtracks, said he was there for me if I needed him, and cleared me. I suspect he thought I was mentally ill but without me giving him the answers he was looking for there was very little he could do. Within a year I was out of grad school and the use of it as an excuse was over.
My transition to a job was not smooth. I was so hyper vigilant about my thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that I was susceptible to abuse, it was used against me by someone who worked at a company I was interested in. So, I decided not to get a job in industry and turned instead to a safer academic position as a part-time faculty member. While in my first semester teaching became very difficult. It physically hurt to stand and lecture, it took a substantial amount of effort to prep classes, and answer emails. My body felt like all it wanted to do was curl in on itself, but I knew that none of it was based on the real world so I pushed through and told my whining internal voice to be quiet.
My husband and I went on a trip which included visiting Wrigley Field, as big baseball fans this was a dream. We took the tour and the guide was talking us through the history of the field which included a lot of entrepreneurial stories all of which I should have deeply enjoyed but all I could think was “I should be enjoying this. I hope we get to sit in the shade soon. Do we have to stand up? Don’t cry!” After our tour we went to get pizza and my husband said “What is bothering you? We need to fix it so we can enjoy this vacation.” I didn’t tell my husband that my thoughts were disordered and the depth of my despair because I knew they weren’t based on the real world and I felt I needed to stop them. My mental status ruined that vacation for me and soured it for my husband. After we got home I felt completely gutted.
After several days of feeling completely worthless I finally gave in. I said to myself “I am weak and incapable. I don’t have what it takes to make it in this world without drugs.” I texted my dad and asked what drug he took, called the doctors office crying and was given an appointment that day. In the doctor’s appointment I told the physician that I had generalized anxiety disorder and specified which medication I wanted. After a few questions and comments by the physician (not my primary) she submitted my prescription for what I asked for and a Benzodiazepine. I was completely exhausted, brain dead if you will, after this appointment. I would have taken or done just about anything she suggested. When I picked up the prescription from the pharmacy the pharmacist talked me through the medications and asked me not to take the Benzodiazepine as it is addictive. I took the first dose of our family drug but no Benzodiazepine and have consistently taken it every night since. I am incredibly grateful to that pharmacist because while I have a PhD in Neuroscience and should have understood the risk, or at least been able to look up the drugs that were suggested, in that moment I was nothing more than a husk.
Looking back my story is more about my capability than my incapability. I was capable of hiding my mental health issues; my husband was surprised when I told him that I had generalized anxiety disorder and needed to go on medication, both my parents were shocked and worried and my mom was upset that I didn’t share my mental health status with her.
Being on medication was the beginning of my road to remission. It took three days for the medication to start working. This is ridiculously fast for a mental disorder medication and a benefit I inherited from dad’s decades of suffering looking for a good treatment. My brain needed another year to rewire through new experiences and perceptions to be in remission. Being in remission means I feel like myself everyday but it does not mean I take a day off my medication.
I didn’t know what it meant to have a healthy brain before I was on medication. How unhealthy could my brain be? I earned a PhD in Neuroscience while I was unhealthy, how bad could it be? There is one emotional response and two triggers that have made the depth of my disordered responses and loss of life clear to me. I laughed but now I laugh from the pit of my stomach and my whole body feels it, it’s like a whole body smile. Having the full sensation of fun and laughter has changed my perception and has made me much closer to my family and husband. I’m not sure their perception has changed but I feel more endeared of them. Before I felt that I needed them and now I just want to be with them. The second thing that makes me laugh is amusement park rides. Before the rides made my stomach hurt and I felt sick. Now I ride them and I laugh, a real laugh, it’s invigorating and a release.
I had absolutely everything going for me: educated family, known family mental disorder, supportive family, access to medical services, PhD in Neuroscience, and even a drug that worked for my father. Yet, I had symptoms from middle school through graduate school without medical attention. Why do we ask the brain to tell the outside world when it is sick?