Once I was out of the hospital, I resumed my old pattern of faking it to convince my family and friends that I was okay. I was still very depressed and suicidal and having difficulty sleeping, but I wanted everyone to believe that I was back to “normal” again. This required a lot of effort and energy on my part. My hospitalization came out of the blue for all of them. I think my friends and family were still concerned about me after I got home, but they also wanted to believe that I was okay. They didn’t want to upset me with constant hovering, as they knew from past experience that I hated this. Meanwhile, I was telling everyone I was fine and minimizing my continued symptoms (or lying about them, as necessary).
Soon after my release from the hospital, I was supposed to babysit my eighteen month old nephew for a week while my brother and sister-in-law went on vacation. Some people may question the safety of this for my nephew considering that I had just spent three weeks in a psychiatric hospital. However, his safety was never an issue. My nieces and nephew are my favorite people in the world, and I would do anything for them. My brother and sister-in-law knew I loved him and he’d get the best possible care while I was watching him. Being responsible for him was probably the best thing that could have happened for me, right out of the hospital. Even though I was still deeply depressed and ruminating on suicide, caring for him took my focus off of my own issues. Suicide wasn’t even an option. As many people know, taking care of an eighteen month old is a full-time job. I was determined to get it right.
We stayed busy during that week. I stayed at my brother’s home, as it was easier to care for my nephew in his home environment than at my apartment. So, every day we made the twenty minute trip to my apartment to take care of my cat, Epiphany. We visited with my parents and went to the store in between naps and meal times. I took him to my office to meet my coworkers one day. One night, one of my coworkers visited us with her young son, and the boys played together. My nephew and I had a good but stressful week together. I slept poorly, partly due to my continued insomnia and partly because I wanted to easily wake up in case my nephew needed me.
I returned to work immediately after my brother and sister-in-law returned home. I just worked half days for the first couple of weeks, and then I went back to full time. My memories are a little hazy of this time, partly because I was still freaking out and partly because it was so long ago. My return to work wasn’t as awkward as it could’ve been, since I had gone to lunch with several coworkers during my time off work (while I babysat my nephew). This helped break the ice a bit. I had to address a team of my co-workers in a staffing meeting shortly after I returned to work, telling everyone what had happened and reassuring them that I was okay. I joked around a lot about my circumstances to make them more comfortable, trying to lighten the mood for them and for me.
The truth is I was still depressed and ruminating about death, and feeling very anxious. I continued to have insomnia and felt stressed about being back at work. I did what I did with my friends and family…I faked it. Being a case manager was a stressful job, between the expectations of the job and the paperwork that accompanied it. Working with families who have experiences with abuse and neglect is a high demand, low reward proposition. Frankly, it’s a bit depressing in itself and comes with a high burnout rate. I’m not sure how I managed to function as well as I did, convincing others I was okay and taking care of my responsibilities at work. It must have been all my years of practice.
I’ve been naming my vehicles since I owned my first car, Crombie, a gray Mustang. Crombie was named after a friend’s cat, Abercrombie, who used to like to hang out on top of the bird feeder which I thought was pretty clever, so I christened my first car after him. In 1995, when it was time to replace Crombie, I purchased a two year old white Jeep 4×4 with manual transmission and a black soft top. Being such a fan of the Peanuts comic strip, my Jeep became known as Chuck, for Charlie Brown, from the comic. I loved this vehicle! It had four wheel drive for the snowy winters but, most importantly, I could take the top off in the good weather and have a convertible. I loved to feel the sun on my skin and wind in my hair all summer.
My love for Chuck is part of the reason I was so devastated when his engine blew shortly after I got out of the hospital. I had gone to visit my roommate from IU in Chicago for a couple of days and was returning home. I was on the Indiana Toll Road going about 65 miles per hour, when it happened. I don’t remember the details (what it sounded like, if there was smoke, etc.) other than the fact that I lost speed quickly. I wasn’t sure what had happened, I just knew I was going more slowly all of a sudden. It was dark outside and I was about ten minutes from my exit on the Toll Road. From there, it was about a fifteen minute drive to my apartment. I was freaking out, trying to figure out what to do. I really didn’t want to pull over in the dark on the Toll Road. I just wanted to be home. So I decided to just nurse Chuck home, rather than figure out who to call to help me. I probably did more damage to the vehicle by choosing to do this, but I have never responded well to car emergencies. A flat tire or dead battery is more than I can handle.
I made it home safely and dropped Chuck off the following day at the car repair shop. I had an appointment with Dr. Greene that day, so I borrowed my dad’s truck and went to the appointment. While I was sitting in the waiting room, I received a phone call on my cell phone from the mechanic telling me that I had blown the engine. He gave an estimate of the cost to replace it, which was much more than I had expected and more than I could come up with. When I hung up, I immediately started to cry uncontrollably. I cried all through the appointment with Dr. Greene, alarming him I’m sure. I was already so depressed and suicidal, and this was a catastrophe I just wasn’t equipped to handle at this point. Plus, my irrational mind viewed this crisis as another indicator that I should kill myself.
Fortunately for me, my family took over. My dad made the arrangements with the car repair shop to replace Chuck’s engine, and my brother and sister-in-law offered to loan me the money to pay for it (knowing that it was unlikely that I’d be able to pay them back such a large sum of money). While I felt guilty about taking the money, I was mostly relieved to have the crisis averted. I was more than happy to let my family help me out since I was incapable at the time of handling it. I am forever grateful to my family for helping me with this situation. I continued to drive Chuck for another five years, when it became time to trade him in for something newer. I still miss Chuck, especially in harsh winters and on sunny summer days…
Between the time I started therapy with Sharon in 1993 and the year prior to the Meltdown in 2003, I was generally stable. I worked for four and a half years as a mental health tech at a residential treatment facility for emotionally and behaviorally disturbed adolescents. This was a stressful job, as the kids were prone to verbal and physical aggression. However, I enjoyed the work mainly because of the people I worked with. Most of the mental health techs at this facility were young and recently out of college, so we had a lot in common. Plus, the nature of the work required that we function really well as a team in order to best deal with the acting out of the residents. We frequently had to physically restrain residents and respond as a team to crises, which brought us all together. I made friends with several of my coworkers (this is where I met Christi, the friend who took care of Epiphany while I was in the hospital). Once a week, we had a treatment team meeting to discuss the treatment of the residents. Prior to this meeting on Thursday afternoons, several of us went to lunch together. We also socialized in the evenings, going out after work to local bars. It was a stressful job, and drinking together after a stressful day further solidified our bond. During this period, I applied for an MSW program at the local IU campus. I was accepted, but put on the waiting list. Unfortunately not enough applicants turned down their acceptances, so I didn’t end up in the program. This was a blow to me, as I wanted the chance to move up in the mental health field.
After this disappointment and after about four years of that very stressful job, I was getting burned out. I had always said that if I ever got hit in the face by a resident, I would quit the job. Well, it eventually happened. I was helping a couple of staff members from another unit escort one of their residents from the gym back to their unit. The girl began to struggle, and punched me in the face. That was the last straw and I quit the next day.
I was burned out and stressed, and suddenly without a job. I decided I didn’t want anything to do with mental health anymore, and that I needed to find a new career. A large insurance company was looking for new employees, so I applied and was hired. Coincidentally, one of my former coworkers was hired there at the same time, which made the transition to a new job in a different field of work much easier. The job I was hired to do was telephone insurance sales in a call center. I took classes for about six weeks on insurance law, and then passed an exam to become licensed to sell property and liability insurance for about forty-five states. It was a Monday through Friday, nine to five job, which was great. Unfortunately, it was a phone sales job which did not work well for me. I hate talking on the phone, and definitely don’t have the right personality for sales. I don’t know what made me think I would be happy doing this. I think I was just so desperate to get out of mental health that I convinced myself I could do it. I did okay, not great, at the job. However, after about eight months when I was getting increasingly stressed by this work, I heard about another job prospect that sounded interesting. I quit selling insurance and returned to mental health.
This is when I got the case management position at the community mental health center, where I was working at the time of the Meltdown. After one and a half years as a case manager there, I had an opportunity to move to the county Office of Family and Children to become a caseworker for the state. I saw this as an opportunity to advance my career, and I took it. I liked this position and would have stayed there, if it weren’t for the on-call situation. One week of the month my caseworker team was on-call for Child Protective Services duties, after hours and on weekends. I didn’t mind being on-call, but I didn’t feel like I received enough training for this important duty. I shadowed another CPS worker for one week of on-call duty and that was the only training I received. The responsibilities of this job included making determinations such as whether a child needed to be removed from his parents due to abuse or neglect. I felt inadequate about making this decision, based on limited training. I was scared to death when I was on-call, dreading the beeper going off. I managed to do it without any problems, but felt totally stressed. After four months, when I heard of an opening at my former position as case manager I jumped at the chance to return to it. I was re-hired at the community mental health center, and even received a raise!
When Sharon told me she and Dr. Greene had determined that I fit the criteria for bipolar disorder I was shocked, but a small part of me was relieved. I was relieved because it meant that somebody had finally figured out what was going on and had a plan to treat it. I didn’t know much about mixed episodes at the time, in spite of my background in mental health. I did my own research on-line to get information aside from what Sharon and Dr. Greene told me. It made perfect sense as a diagnosis, as I exhibited all the symptoms of a mixed bipolar episode. It also helped explain my “crazy” behavior of the past better than simple depression did.
However, the relieved part of me was small. The bigger part of me was overwhelmed initially, feeling too many emotions at once to identify them. I remember feeling a physical jolt in my body, like an electrical charge, when Sharon told me. I was still reeling from the fact that I had been in a psychiatric hospital for three weeks. I don’t think I was remotely ready to integrate a chronic mental illness diagnosis too.
I had accepted my past diagnoses of depression and OCD without any issues. After all, I obviously met the criteria for each of these diagnoses and thought that they explained the neurotic behavior I’d exhibited since my teens. I was okay with it, and with being in therapy and on antidepressant medication. There was a stigma, sure, but it was small and I didn’t mind those close to me knowing my mental health situation. My identity was a depressed person who worked in the mental health field, and that was fine with me. It worked.
But being diagnosed with a chronic mental illness and having to take a mood stabilizer was a different scenario. I wasn’t prepared for all that meant. I worried what people would think when they found out, and whether my job status would be impacted. Suddenly, I had a new reality as a truly mentally ill person. It’s like I crossed a line between acceptable mental illness and truly being “crazy” (in the minds of society, not mine). I needed to change my identity, and change wasn’t something I was good at.
I wish I could say I quickly adjusted to my situation, but that’s not true. I didn’t easily accept my new life. I fought to keep my old identity for a long time. But I eventually realized that my new identity is just as productive and positive for me as the old one was, and I stopped trying to return to the life I had prior to the diagnosis.