Journey to a Diagnosis — The Series

It’s hard to sum up about 17 years of ups and downs with mental illness in just a few posts, but that is what I have attempted to do in my “Journey to a Diagnosis” series.  This may just be the beginning.  However, it’s a good start and gives a general overview of  how I went from fear and confusion about what was happening to me, to understanding what mental illness is and the role it plays in my life.

I may add to this as time goes on, and if that’s the case, you will see more links added here.

Thank you for being a part of my journey.

Journey to a Diagnosis–The Series:

Journey to a Diagnosis, Part I

Journey to a Diagnosis, Part II

Journey to a Diagnosis, Part III

Journey to a Diagnosis, Part III

Today I will write the final chapter in my Journey to a Diagnosis series.  Find the rest of the story here and here.

When I got home from the inpatient facility my house was empty of children.  My mother in law ended up bringing the kids to her own house for the last half of my stay.  I was grateful to have a little time to adjust to being home before I was thrown back into normal life.  When they finally came home, I felt really out of my element.  The high doses of medication I was on left me feeling less than energetic and “off my game.”

We had some great friends who did some renovations in our townhouse while I was away.  They painted some walls and our kitchen cabinets.  They also bought us a new tv and gave us some really nice furniture.  It was such a lift and helped me feel like I was going home to a fresh start.  I will be forever grateful for their kindness to us during this difficult time.

As glad as I was to be home and to be free of mood swings, I soon became aware of new difficulties that arose due to the medications I was on.  I was taking high doses of Lithium, Tegratol and Geodon.  The side effects were terrible.  I was on so much medication that I felt and behaved like a zombie.  My movements were markedly slow, I had digestive issues, and I felt almost completely devoid of emotion of any kind.  My mom and my closest friend both told me later that they felt like I had lost all of my personality.  It was difficult to talk to me as I never had anything to say.  I would just sit off to the side, my mouth literally hanging open.  I was overly sedated and everyone could tell.

In addition to these unpleasant realities, I was even more sedated at night, which was when I took my medications.  I would fall almost instantly asleep.  My husband found it impossible to wake me.  He just had to wait until I awoke on my own.  This meant he had to wake with our baby at night and couldn’t leave for work or school in the morning until I woke up.  Thankfully, this all worked out alright.  Our baby mostly slept through the night and Ryan’s schedule allowed him to be around in the morning.

The hardest part of all of this for me, was processing the reality of what I had been through.  I had been inpatient for my mental health.  I had “lost my mind”–or so I told myself.  I was so afraid of having to face the people I knew.  What would they think?  Were they all talking about it?  I felt like I may as well have had a flashing neon sign on my forehead that said “crazy.”  I felt that if people knew what had happened that I would lose all credibility as a teacher and mentor at church.  I felt like others would judge me harshly.  I didn’t think they would understand at all.  I certainly didn’t feel like I could talk about it openly.

To make matters worse, I felt that I was being excluded from activities that other young moms in my church community were doing.  I was likely putting a negative spin on events.  It is hard to know at this point.  But, at the time, I felt really left out.  And I thought it was because of what I had been through.  I felt they thought it was easier not to deal with me and my strange issues.  Again–in hindsight, this probably isn’t true, but such were my feelings and perceptions at this time.  This made a hard situation more difficult.  If only I had someone to confide in, it may have helped me better understand what had happened.

I was, however, very thankful for the amazing outpatient care I received from Dr. Holland.  He was kind and compassionate.  When I told him of my side effects, he helped me switch from Lithium to Lamictal.  This was a very positive change.  He also switched me from Geodon to Abilify.  Lastly, he took me of off Tegratol, due to some negative changes in my labs.  All of this helped me improve immensely.  I still had excellent symptom management, but I felt more like myself.

Sadly, Dr. Holland decided to close his outpatient practice and go exclusively inpatient.  I had to switch doctors.  I ended up with another great doctor.  As I continued to improve, he began to wean me down off the higher doses I was on.  This helped me feel even more like myself.  But this doctor went inpatient as well, and so I had to switch again.  I ended up going through a few more doctors for similar reasons.

I started doing so well, that doctors began telling me that they thought my initial diagnosis of bipolar was incorrect.  I was overjoyed to hear this, of course.  I was weaned off all of my medications until I was only taking a tiny dose of Abilify.  I was able to stay here and be well for a period of years.

If you’ve been reading my posts, you know the rest.  I weaned off my Abilify, became pregnant with my last child and everything fell apart.  Postpartum, I finally found myself sitting across the desk from a new psychiatrist–the one who could fit me in the fastest, as she told me in no uncertain terms that I most certainly did have bipolar disorder.  She passed me the box of Kleenex as I started to sob.

Coming to terms with this reality was very difficult for me.  I wanted to talk my way out of it: “But what about last time?  I got all the way better!  This can’t be real.”  The longer my depression went on, the more accepting I became.  “This is real.”  I was finally able to tell myself and I could believe it– and feel peace about it.

Whenever I am tempted to think I am home free and everything is fine.  I think back on the last 17 years and I know that I am fooling myself.  It helps put things back into perspective and reminds me that I still need to take measures to protect my mental health.

I am deeply grateful every day that I can function in my life.  In my mind, It is nothing short of a miracle to go from where I was to where I am now–and to realize I have been through this twice!  Two trips through hell, and back.

I have a special place in my heart for people who suffer–with anything, really.  This is because I have felt suffering.  When I think of others enduring agony, I can empathize, because I have felt agony.  I especially feel for women–mothers, who struggle with mental illness, all while trying to raise their families and get through all that that entails, day after day after day.

I also acknowledge that because I have felt deep pain and suffering, my gratitude for the good times runs deeper than ever before and my joys are deeper as well.  I am grateful for all the good that can come out of suffering.

So, yes, I have bipolar disorder.  It is a part of my journey.  I have learned to affectionately call this condition my “tutor”–because it has been through my experiences with it that I have learned and grown so much.

Where are you in your journey with mental illness?  Are you just starting and trying to figure things out?  Are you in the hard times right now, trying to get through?  Or are you enjoying a period of rest and peace in your life?

Wherever you are, thank you for being a part of my journey.  I’d love to hear from you!  Share your experiences below.

Journey to a Diagnosis, Part II

Today, I continue the story I began in Part I.

My husband and I drove to the inpatient facility, arriving in about 30 minutes.  I remember being so afraid.  I was afraid of what I was experiencing mentally and frightened of going to this inpatient facility.  I didn’t know what to expect.  I was also sad about leaving my children.  My youngest, only 5 months old, was still breastfeeding.  I had a friend who donated some milk for her to consume in my absence, for which I was grateful.  I had no idea if I would be able to continue nursing after they gave me medications.  There were so many uncertainties that night, but overshadowing all of these emotions was my determination to get help.  There was going to be no turning back.   I was determined to get better–for me and my family.

When we entered the lobby, I remember the lights being dimmed because it was the middle of the night.  Whatever was illuminating the room cast an orange glow over everything.  There was another person in the waiting room, but he appeared to be asleep.  After completing the intake paperwork, we were called back to a small office to meet with a kind man who asked me about my symptoms.  I told him everything that had been happening, no matter how inconsequential it seemed.  He then led my husband and I downstairs where I would be sleeping.  My husband carried my bag down for me and then we hugged and kissed goodbye.  He had to leave to go home at this point.

I can remember how scared I was!  I would be sharing a room with a person I had never met in my life who was there for a similar reason that I was.  I went into the darkened bedroom, quickly changed into my pajamas and lay down on the mattress, but I was too anxious to sleep.  I got up and asked the night nurse for something to help me relax and sleep, but whatever she gave me hardly put a dent in my anxiety.  Eventually, mercifully, I finally slept.

When I awoke in the morning, I realized that my fears were unfounded.  My roommate was an elderly woman named Barbara, and she was kind.   Everyone I met there shared a story similar to mine.  We were all trying to get help.

That first morning I remember getting a doctor’s examination and blood-work.  It didn’t take long for them to get the results back and I was asked by the doctor if I had ever been on thyroid medication.  I had to admit that I had unwisely gone off of it cold turkey.  I was promptly put back on it.  I also met with the psychiatrist who would be supervising my care.  He was also kind.  He is well renowned where I live and I feel grateful to have been in his care.  His name was Doctor Holland.  We chatted briefly and I explained, again, everything that I had been experiencing.  He asked me if anything like this had every happened before.  It hadn’t.

I soon learned that we were kept busy throughout the day with classes and group activities.  These included learning about self care, learning relaxation techniques, doing crafts or exercising.  The first group class I went to, the teacher was leading a discussion about what we enjoyed doing.  Favorite movies were brought up and I shared two of my favorites and then burst into tears with my head down on the table.  The enormity of what I was experiencing was so overwhelming.  The teacher kindly asked if this was my first time with this type of experience and I tearfully shared that it was.  I didn’t understand what was happening to me.

After a short stay in the basement, I was then moved to a room upstairs.  I’m not sure exactly why this happened.  My roommate there was a young girl, about my age.  She was also nice.  It turned out that being in the inpatient facility was not as scary as I imagined it to be.  I was grateful to be there.

Doctor Holland initially diagnosed me as having major depressive disorder.  I was started on anti-depressants and was rapidly titrated up to a therapeutic dose.

It’s been so long ago now that a lot of the details have faded from memory but I do remember that the first antidepressant they tried me on caused my tongue to move involuntarily and made my eyes dart around. My husband came to visit me as often as possible and he came one evening when I was dealing with these side effects. He says he remembers seeing me acting so strangely that on the drive home he was overcome with tears of sadness and helplessness. He was afraid he had lost the Chelsea he loved.

I was switched to a different anti-depressant but it wasn’t long after that that we realized the anti depressants were causing me to go manic. At one point, I felt on the verge of losing touch with reality. I alerted the nurses and apparently this means I was on the verge of psychosis. They were quick in treating the problem. I was given a shot of antipsychotic in my buttocks. Not the best and funnest thing I’ve had to live through. I felt so helpless. I wondered again and again what was going on and how I would get better.

Doctor Holland stopped the antidepressant and started me on mood stabilizers. I was told, at this point, that I would have to stop breastfeeding. I had been pumping at the hospital and sending it home when possible but I stopped doing it. This was heartbreaking to me.

Doctor Holland left to go on vacation. I was put under the care of a different doctor. My symptoms were not improving so another mood stabilizer was added: lithium. This made a total of 3 medications that I was on. High doses of each.

Finally after a few days on lithium, my symptoms stopped. I remember how deeply grateful I was to have calm in my mind!  No more chaos–I can’t even begin to describe how good that felt.  My doctor diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. I was so thankful to know what it was, and even happier that they had figured out how to stop the awful roller coaster.  Finally, after 2 weeks in the inpatient facility, I felt well enough to return to my family at home.

I was released just before Halloween, 2006.

There’s more to this story.  Watch for part III coming soon.