Editor’s note: Until recently, mental health and illness were taboo subjects in the black community. But thanks to the efforts of those brave enough to speak on it, that’s changing. In that vein, The Root team is taking this week during Mental Health Awareness Month to write about how mental health has touched our lives.
It’s hard to remember what led up to my very first hospitalization in 2003. At times I get it confused with what caused the second or third ones. Everything is jumbled up in my head, representing a long-ago time when all messes were hot, and I cried so much I could have filled the dry bed of the Kern River in Bakersfield, Calif., where I was living.
I think the first time it was the medicine. I was on an antidepressant; maybe it was Lexapro. Maybe it was Paxil. All I remember was that it was common and often prescribed to people with depression, which was what my doctor believed I had. I’d been on it for six weeks and had stopped sleeping and eating. My apartment was filthy, a sink full of dishes. I would get horrible anxiety attacks in the middle of the day, so I took to finishing my stories before noon so I could dip out of work at lunch and drink some tequila to take the edge off.
Either way, I do remember that a pair of friends drove me to the hospital under my doctor’s orders. They were to take me directly there and not listen to me if I suddenly changed my mind. Which I did, briefly trying to talk them out of taking me. But at this point, I was such in such chaos that no amount of my jokes and convincing could get them to see otherwise. I needed to be in the hospital, and so I went to one of Bakersfield’s mental health facilities, where they took all my personal effects—including a particular blue leather watch that I never got back—put them in a box and led me to a dorm room where the mirror was made of polished metal so it couldn’t be broken and used to harm oneself.
That first day, as I put what little clothes I had away in a few drawers, I sang the theme song from the musical Cabaret, which I had just reviewed at the local independent theater, the Empty Space, earlier that month.
“What good is sitting alone in your room?” goes a particularly prescient line.
The hospital is “interesting.” And by “interesting” I mean it’s kind of like being in a “nice” prison that you agreed to enter but can’t leave until you exhibit some kind of mental stability. Time is passed with arts and crafts, exercise, group therapy sessions and smoking cigarettes while drinking decaf coffee (caffeine, a drug, isn’t allowed). At the time of my first hospitalization, most of the people in the hospital with me were women close to my own age. It was very Girl, Interrupted.
We all bonded quickly in our shared pain—a recently married Japanese woman struggling with culture shock after moving to the States with her white American husband; a young white mother battling postpartum; and an impulsive, animated, depressed 19-year-old white woman. And me. The others I don’t remember, and the only man I recall being in our ward was an elderly black man who let me bum cigarettes off of him that I would puff on even though I hated the smell.
One group session, we played a game tossing a ball back and forth and talking about our feelings, us women, with our male therapist, who was painfully clueless. I think the game was supposed to teach us about how complicated our lives get when we try to do too much, but I mocked the exercise as I was able to show the others how we could easily keep all the balls going by working together—an unintentional lesson learned.
I broke all sorts of rules in group therapy. I would hug people who were sobbing (there was a strict no-touching rule). I would speak up for other women who struggled to express themselves. I would argue back with the group therapist until I had all the women ganging up on him with questions, undermining his techniques and poking holes in his qualifications.
I’m almost positive he was afraid of me, because he hadn’t anticipated my intelligence or how easy it was for me to befriend the other women and basically lead an insurgency against his asinine techniques. I was too smart for my own good. I could charm any doctor. I could talk my way out of almost every treatment. I picked apart the male therapist, making him question his own relevancy, and as the antidepressants brought me back up and out of my fog, I was ready to leave after about a week. I was “cured.”
The second hospitalization was probably the one with the neck twitch. Just like the year prior, I was trying a new antidepressant, this time Zoloft, and just like in 2003, I stopped sleeping, stopped eating and turned into an anxiety-riddled zombie who would stay up all night watching the Summer Olympics. After an incident when I felt an overwhelming urge to crash my car into oncoming traffic coming back from Visalia, Calif., one night, I knew I needed to be in the hospital. I went to an ER to try to get admitted and failed. Later, my therapist and psychiatrist would again go through the dance of getting me admitted to the same Bakersfield hospital.
This time there were no Girl, Interrupted shenanigans. No young women to bond with. The first time I was hospitalized, my job sent flowers. This time, there was nothing. After a few days, I became irritated and probably manic, and again, I talked my way out of the hospital after staying there less than a week.
I probably remember the third hospitalization the best. After one near overdose on wine and Klonopin and a few incidents at work, I ended up taking a leave of absence as my therapist worked to get me diagnosed properly. There were a lot of signs that I didn’t simply have my original diagnosis of depression, but my therapist and I needed a psychiatrist to make that determination. There were concerns I had dissociative disorder. Another doctor thought I had bipolar Type 1.
My parents, who were struggling with this miles away in St. Louis, agreed to pay out of pocket for a psychiatrist out of my insurance network and based in Los Angeles. It was she who got me admitted to UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric and Biobehavioral Health Services unit. I drove myself the two hours to Los Angeles to admit myself, white-knuckling it the whole way because I was terrified I’d crash my car into oncoming traffic. Somehow I made it there alive and got admitted into the wing where they kept the drug addicts and less severe mentally ill patients.
This time, I knew that there was no talking my way out of things. I was determined to stay as long as I needed in order to get properly diagnosed. I was in the hospital for two-and-a-half weeks in December 2005, over the Christmas holiday. Similar to the hospital in Bakersfield, there were designated times to exercise and do arts and crafts, watch television (which everyone argued over; there were plenty of donated DVD screeners from Hollywood types), eat and sleep.
There were a lot of group therapy sessions, and I went to all of them—from Alcoholics Anonymous, even though I wasn’t an alcoholic, to the group sessions we’d have in the workout area outside. There were strict hours and rules about phone time, and I slept on a broken, uncomfortable hospital bed that I couldn’t get to lie flat. Thankfully, I brought a lot of books to read, including Wicked and The Dogs of Babel.
My doctors realized I was bipolar Type 2 by the second week, when, after being on an antidepressant, I quickly became irritated and manic. I was talking loud and fast and not particularly making sense. I was put on the antidepressant desipramine and the mood stabilizer lithium, both two very old medications used to treat bipolar disorder, since almost everything “new” made me irritable. The medication worked, but I was extremely flat and still quite sad.
When I finally got out of the hospital and returned to Bakersfield, I was living a “new” life—one where lithium made me so lifeless, I could barely engage or have conversations. Work was hard; I moved to part time before returning to full time after six months. But a year after being hospitalized that third time, I realized I was too sick to work. In 2007 I walked away from my job at the newspaper and moved home to St. Louis to be with my increasingly concerned parents.
Up until 2007, me being mentally ill had been an abstract thing to my mother and father, but once I was in their house, the depths of my illness became painfully real. I’d stopped combing my hair, stopped bathing, stopped going out and stopped engaging. I spent most of my evenings secretly drunk, calling the suicide hotline. Every time I tried to pull myself together—fight for unemployment, get another job, try to get on disability—I would fall apart. It was too hard and I was too miserable.
At this point, I was on seven different medications—gabapentin, lithium, Klonopin, desipramine, Depakote, Lamictal and Prilosec (for persistent indigestion from all the meds). None of them really working. After flaming out spectacularly in three months at a good job with a St. Louis public relations firm, I returned to spending all my time in my parents’ basement brooding while occasionally doing freelance work for the same PR outfit.
It was during this time I started my blog, the Black Snob, as a creative outlet in the midst of all my sorrows. I would dedicate myself to it throughout 2008 but quickly found myself struggling to pay off all the debt I’d acquired while living in Bakersfield. So at my mother’s urging that I get out of the house and do something, I took a holiday job folding sweaters and doing inventory at a Macy’s department store in North St. Louis County at the old, dying Jamestown Mall. I would stick with the job until the spring, when I realized I needed to be hospitalized again. I no longer remember what the inciting incident was—only that I was suicidal, again, and this time it was my eldest sister who drove me to St. Mary’s Hospital in St. Louis to be admitted.
My parents, for the first time, got to see me in a hospital—which they did not like. My father, to this day, will comment on how he felt I didn’t belong there (I did), and that everything needed to be done to ensure I could return home. For me, at this point, the hospital was just the hospital, but for them, it was this brand-new, prisonlike experience that felt awful. Everything about St. Mary’s looked old, drab and odd to them, whereas I was grateful just be alone in a hospital bed, to finally get some sleep, as I wasn’t really sleeping at home. I was glad to have my life taken over by my doctors, who would tell me when to get up, when to eat, when to go to therapy, removing the confusion of my life.
It was during this hospitalization that talks about me undergoing electroconvulsive therapy came up. This woke me up a bit, as I knew I did not want to do ECT. I already had enough holes in my memory, and I hated how drugged out and miserable people who underwent it looked. But my doctors were at a loss. They’d thrown just about every drug you could throw at me, and I was still a mess.
In the end, my salvation came from the same psychiatrist who had overseen my care at St. Mary’s. First he greatly reduced my medication to three pills. Then I was offered an opportunity to speak at Harvard, and I wanted to go, but I was worried, then believing my work exacerbated my illness. But the doctor actually recommended that I go to Cambridge, Mass., because he felt that not pursuing my career was making me just as sick as working in Bakersfield had. The problem wasn’t my work, he surmised, but how I needed to learn better coping skills and to better care for myself. That I needed to learn to do things in moderation and find a balance with my illness.
Since then, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing, and have done, for almost a decade. While there have been times where I’ve gotten depressed or manic since 2009, none has been anywhere as severe as it used to be. I have therapy and medication to thank, those four hospitalizations, and the countless doctors and therapists who worked to get me back whole.
I was a mess, but thankfully, now, I am not. It was a hard road to walk, but I got to my dreams, one painful step at a time.