Note: This is a serial blog. To start at the beginning, click on Chapter 1 – The Meltdown under “Categories” and start at the bottom.
It was a horrible six months for me at the start of 2003. I had a major psychiatric Meltdown, was hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital for the first time, went on short-term disability, was diagnosed with a severe and chronic mental illness, was prescribed anti-psychotic and mood stabilizing medications, and had a course of ECT. All of these events were completely contrary to my previous identity as a person who had depression magnified by childhood trauma, who just needed to take antidepressant medication (like, it seemed, most people I know). I was reeling from all of these developments, while at the same time I remained deeply depressed. It was unimaginable that things could get much worse for me, but it wasn’t over yet.
Going back to work was a consistent goal for me throughout 2003. I’ve never done well with life changes, even minor ones. I certainly wasn’t ready for all the changes that were happening to me at that time. I wanted my old life back, and latched onto my career as the only way I could achieve this. However, the timing of my return to work six months after the Meltdown was terrible. I had only finished my first few ECT treatments, when I was informed that I needed to return to my job or lose my position. My employer had been very accommodating to that point, holding my position past the length of my FMLA time period. I couldn’t complain much, therefore, when I was told my time was up. I was grateful to Dr. Sanchez for understanding my need to stop the ECTs soon enough for me to return to work, and to Sharon for arranging it all with my supervisor. I did feel better after the seven ECT treatments I received, and was hoping it was enough for me to get back to work successfully.
Unfortunately, I didn’t return to the best situation. The day I returned to work, my supervisor told me I’d need to address my team of coworkers. Apparently I’d made comments during my leave from work which made some of them uncomfortable. I had fairly regular contact with my team while I was off of work, usually meeting some of them for lunch on Fridays. I have a sarcastic, self-deprecating sense of humor, and I was trying to break the tension with my co-workers by joking about what I was going through. I have no memory of anything I said, but I guess some of them did not find my attempts to make light of my situation funny. I was never told exactly what I said which made them uncomfortable. Not knowing what I was apologizing for made it even more anxiety provoking.
Talk about a nightmare during my first week back! I was anxious enough about returning to work. Being open with people under the best of circumstances made me very nervous and uncomfortable. It was okay to make jokes about myself in small groups of people, but to be forced to discuss my very painful issues seriously in front of the whole team at once was terrifying for me. It magnified my already overwhelming anxiety. Somehow I was able to do it, and to say what I needed to say. I survived it, and was relieved.
Another factor which made returning to work at this time difficult was that I had to start over with a totally new case load. I had been gone so long, my clients had to be transferred to other case managers so they could get the help they needed. While I understood and expected this, it was hard for me to begin with all new families. My social anxiety issues made working with new clients hard even when I wasn’t depressed. Taking on new clients in the state I was in at that time was extremely stressful.
To make matters worse, one of the new families was very resistant to working with my program. It was a case that had been referred by the probation department, so they were court-ordered to comply. Court-ordered clients were frequently resistant, but these people were very angry about it and very vocal about their anger. I don’t do confrontation well. I’d been really stressed by resistant clients prior to my Meltdown, and being depressed and anxious one week after finishing a course of ECT certainly didn’t put me in the best possible place to deal with them.
I lasted about a month before the stress became too much and I had to give up my job. Sharon wrote about all the ways I was being self-destructive during that time, seemingly sabotaging myself in my efforts to get my life back to normal and succeed at work. I really don’t remember all of that. The ECTs I had before and after that time make all of it a blur. But it doesn’t surprise me when I read Sharon’s recounting of my out of control behavior of drinking and skipping medications during the time I was working. This is what I did back then when I was depressed, or too anxious, or in hindsight, experiencing mixed mania. I suspect it was probably clear to me, deep down, shortly after I started back at my job that I wasn’t going to be able to manage it. I couldn’t face that reality, and escaped by drinking. I wasn’t thinking clearly, obviously, when I made the decision to skip my meds. Probably I skipped them because to take them and drink meant bad side effects. The bottom line is that I was overwhelmed, still depressed, unable to process the reality of what was happening to my life, and just trying to go to work every day and survive. It finally caught up. I’m surprised I was able to avoid going to the hospital when I lost my job, since it felt like the end of the world to me. But, Sharon quickly convinced me to resume the ECTs, and my brain got refocused on my anxiety about that.
Losing my job was obviously very difficult. I remember cleaning out my desk and carrying my belongings out to Chuck (my Jeep) on my last day. I was crying quietly, and couldn’t look at my coworkers as I packed. I was close to my team, and was devastated to leave them. My supervisor, Jennifer, said she’d hire me back if I got to a place where I could return, but I think deep down I knew I wasn’t going back.
Around this time, Sharon and I had been discussing the possibility of filing for bankruptcy to alleviate some of my financial pressure. I was lucky I had short-term disability benefits through my employer, so I still had some income while I was off of work. However, I only received seventy percent of my regular income, which was causing greater financial stress. Aside from my usual debt, I now had medical bills for my time in the psychiatric hospital, ECTs, and increases in medication and therapy.
I made decent money as a case manager (I was at the highest salary for the position at my place of employment) and I didn’t have children, so I should’ve been in a tolerable financial position at the time of my Meltdown. Unfortunately, though, I had quite a bit of credit card debt and I didn’t have any savings or extra money to pay for these additional expenses. Partly due to impulsive spending habits on my part, and partly due to the fact that I had to live on my credit cards for periods of unemployment because of mini-meltdowns, I had a large amount of credit card debt. I’m not making excuses, I never should’ve had as many credit cards as I had. I had a VISA, Mastercard, Discover, and several department store credit cards. I made payments on time, but usually only made the minimum payments.
I was able to get by when I was earning my whole salary, but once I went on short-term disability and started to receive my bills for treatment from the Meltdown, it became really tight. I already owed my brother a ton of money for the repair bill for Chuck earlier in the year, so I wasn’t about to ask to borrow any money from family. As I was beginning to be more open with Sharon, I started talking to her about how stressed I was about money. This had never been a topic we had talked about before. Filing for bankruptcy was not an option I had ever considered.
When Sharon suggested it as a way to alleviate some of my stress, I resisted the idea of filing for bankruptcy for quite a while. I think this is because of my family values and the attitude toward finances I learned from my parents. I come from a working class family, in which there was never a ton of extra money. We weren’t poor, and I always had what I needed, but it wasn’t always the expensive name brands like other kids had.
My parents married young. My dad worked in a factory and was taking night college classes, while my mom stayed home with us three kids. My brother, Eddie, was diagnosed with cancer when I was a toddler, which put a huge financial burden on my parents. My dad had to quit college (only 17 credit hours short of finishing), which then limited his occupational options from then on. My parents had many medical bills for Eddie, some of which were paid for by insurance, but not all. They also had to make a couple of trips to New York to see a specialist for the type of cancer Eddie had.
In spite of this financial crisis, my parents managed to pay their bills on time. My mom had to go to work after Eddie died, to help financially. As I was growing up, there were periods in which my dad was laid off from work, and money became very tight. However, my parents always managed to pay the bills without assistance from others. They never considered bankruptcy as an option.
This is the environment in which I grew up, so the thought of filing for bankruptcy was against everything I had been taught. I felt embarrassment and shame at the thought of it. But, I was reaching the level of financial crisis, and after Sharon and I talked about it, bankruptcy was the only option I could see to repair my financial situation. I hated to do it, but I couldn’t see any other way out. I finally agreed to talk to an attorney, and borrowed the money from my brother to file for bankruptcy.
At that time, filing for bankruptcy meant easily being totally relieved of all debt, unlike today when the rules are stricter. So, I was basically given a blank slate financially. My bankruptcy decision absolved me of all of my medical bills related to the Meltdown, as well as my credit card debt (except for one Visa card, which my dad had co-signed on. I didn’t want to affect his credit by including it). I should’ve felt enormously relieved by this sudden financial freedom, but I didn’t. I felt even more like a failure.
Coming Soon: Robin’s Thoughts on ECT and Suicide