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The Lost Year

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I knew I was depressed, but I also knew that depressed people who shared their grief were shunned and considered crazy. Crazy, a scary word. I ignored my symptoms and did my best to go on with each day as though nothing was wrong. But, everything was wrong.

Work was a mess. The boss was making horrendous decisions and it seemed that no one had the power, or the desire, to stop him. Morale was low. People were fired for questionable, yet legal reasons, and others simply gave up and quit. I was one of the weak ones who hung on because I was too scared to do anything else. One day, I garnered the courage to speak up.

I contacted the Board chair and explained the current atmosphere in the office and begged her to take action. She glossed over my complaints and like the boss, she handled everything in a legal, yet questionable manner. Although I was not fired, I feared for my job. 

After this reaction to my complaints, no other employees would come forward to substantiate my charges. We all went on as if nothing had happened, but the fact that no one was going to do anything ate away at me.

The stress of work and my anger at the situation carried over at home where I was irritable, impatient, and angry. My husband and daughter tolerated me, but this was not a happy home most of the time. I don’t know why my husband stuck it out, but I am thankful he did. If he had left me I don’t think I would be here today telling this story.

My life was black, shrouded in anger, hate, and fear. Each day was a struggle as I robotically went through the motions of my job and caring for my family. The slightest difficulty could set me off. I remember one particular day when I was so ticked off at someone that with one swoop of my arm, I cleared my desk of its papers and knick knacks. Thankfully, my door was closed and no one saw my tirade.

This went on for weeks. When I was overwhelmed I threw things, drove my car erratically or hid somewhere and cried. I was very good at keeping all of this hidden from my co-workers and although my husband and daughter witnessed some of these outbursts, they did not know what to do.

One sunny autumn afternoon I could no longer hide my secret. I left the office to go to a routine medical appointment. I did not return from that medical appointment. I successfully hid my condition by lying to the doctor. Leaving the office I avoided making eye contact with anyone. No one could know I was crazy. I had to keep it contained at all costs. I went to my car, but I did not start it. Someone pulled into the parking lot beside me and saw my distress. He went into the clinic and told the nurse there was a woman in the parking lot crying and pulling her scarf apart.

I recall the doctor's coming out to the car and guiding me back into the clinic through the employee entrance, apparently to avoid embarrassing me and frightening the other patients. I sat in an exam room with someone, but I don’t know who it was. I only remember bits and pieces of the rest of the day.

The doctor called an ambulance, the nurse called my husband, and the next thing I remember is sitting in the hospital emergency room with my husband where a mental health worker concluded I was dangerous to myself. They sent me to the local psych hospital where I stayed for a week. Again, I don’t remember much of that stay, but do know I heard voices telling me I was worthless and that no one loved or needed me. The voices told me I had to kill myself so no one would be burdened with me.

My husband and daughter visited every day; I was adamant that I did not want to see or talk to anyone else. My husband brought me coffee when he came to visit, until the nurses caught me trying to cut my wrists with the coffee lid. I had fashioned a blade with the plastic top and it was apparently sharp enough to do some damage as I carry the scars of those weak suicide attempts with me today. The scars are deep and run parallel to the radial artery in my wrist. I don’t know if I purposely missed the artery or not. This was the start of a long, long road to recovery. I essentially lost an entire year of my life.

I was released from the hospital a week later with a bag full of medications. My husband was given the job of guarding me. I am so sorry for the pain my illness caused my family. In addition to the stigma of mental illness, they had to watch me all the time to be sure I did not slip back into the hole that was trying to pull me in. 
 
I did not go back to work, but I did work. In addition to weekly visits to my psychologist and psychiatrist, I attend group sessions on a daily basis. While I don’t recall all of the details of those sessions, I know I hated them and felt very alone during. We talked about our lives, colored, and did crafts. I still have some of the drawings and poetry I composed during those sessions. It is very hard for me to look at them because they are so dark and hopeless.

At lunchtime, my husband came to the hospital to eat with me as I was so insecure that I did not want to be alone. I believed the other patients would reject me and I would be the pathetic single girl sitting by herself in the cafeteria. 

I continued my counseling sessions, but nothing seemed to work. The medications kept me in a fog all day. I slept most of the day, only getting up to attend appointments and occasionally eat. My doctors were very worried that I would not recover. My psychiatrist recently told me that I was one of the sickest patients she had ever seen in her career. The doctors had hit the wall and had only one option left, ECT. Yes, it’s what you think it is electroconvulsive therapy. It sounds barbaric, but I’m told it really is not. I have tears in my eyes right now as I write this as those were some of the worst days of my life – even worse than being confined in the psych ward.

My husband made arrangements for our daughter to stay with my mother and drove me the 150 miles south to the closest hospital that performed ECT. He left me at the hospital for the night; the first ECT treatment scheduled for the next morning.
 
 I perceived the staff as mean. We were marched single file like prisoners to the dining hall to eat, each of us clinging to the wall as we shuffled down the long hall. The staff never smiled, and always seemed to be barking commands at us. I realize now that this was the only way they could control us and protect themselves. We were, after all, a bunch of crazies. Who knew what we would do.

During bed checks that night I was not in my bed. They found me cowering in the corner of the room like a trapped animal. That’s what I felt like. I did not know these people who were going to do something awful to me in the morning.

The next morning I was sent to my first ECT session. I was petrified, but I marched along hanging on tightly to my stuffed pig. The pig had been with me constantly since my breakdown. My husband was with us. I will never forget the look of sadness on his face and the pity in his eyes. He tried to be cheerful for me, but I knew he was in pain too. But, there was nothing I could do to stop this and I really didn’t want to. The voices told me that if I was gone, everyone could resume their normal lives and be happy again.

The ECT session began with an assessment by a nurse. “On a scale of one to ten, how sad are you?”    

“Ten.”

“On a scale of one to ten, how likely are you to hurt yourself?”

“Ten.”

“On a scale of one to ten, how hopeless do you feel?”

“Ten.”

Next came the IV. I still have a mark on my hand where they put the IV each session. After the IV I went to the waiting room where I sat as close to my husband as I could get without sitting on his lap, clinging to my pig. I was so nervous I could not sit still, my legs bouncing rapidly up and down. Then the dreaded words, “Okay, Miss Ann. It’s time for you and Miss Piggy to come with me.”

I grabbed my husband with fear. The nurse gently took my hand and led me into the room. The room was small, crowded with equipment. Music played in the background as the nurse led me to the bed in the middle of the room. The bed was soft and yielding, unlike typical hospital beds. I know now it was padded to prevent injury during the procedure.

I fearfully lay down on the bed, clutching tightly to Miss Piggy. The nurse stood at the head of the bed talking quietly to me while the doctor, at the foot of the bed, adjusted the instruments, and the anesthesiologist hooked me up. Before I knew it, I was getting sleepy. The next thing I remember is waking up in another room with a pounding headache, Miss Piggy by my side.

The nurse asked me a few questions to be certain I was lucid, gave me some Tylenol 3, and led me out to my husband. I sat for a few minutes, sipping juice, and then they released me. I think I spent another night in the hospital so they could monitor me. The next day I went home.

We repeated this routine three times a week. The only difference was that I did not have to stay in the hospital. We got up at 5:00 a.m., trekked the 150 miles south, went to the ECT appointment and then drove home. This continued for months, the time between appointments gradually decreasing from three times per week to one, then to once every other week, and finally, about six months later, once per month.

After approximately three months, I went back to work part time. The former boss was gone and an interim had been appointed until a new executive could be hired. My husband went to work with me every day. His job was to observe me to make sure I did not become overwhelmed. He was very good at reading my emotions and could sense when I was nearing a breaking point. He would calmly say, “Okay, that’s enough for today. It’s time to go home.”

I gradually increased my time at working, finally reaching the point where I could work all day. Eventually, my husband stopped coming to work with me and I was once again on my own. It wasn’t smooth sailing, however. I still had some really bad days, and I was still essentially going through the motions. I was on a combination of medications as the doctors tried to find the right mix to correct the chemical imbalance in my brain. Yes, that’s what it was. I had apparently always had this imbalance, but was able to live a fairly normal life with it. Although I had always been maudlin, seeing the worst in everything, hating myself, thinking I was worthless, I was a good actress. My doctors said the stress at work had caused the breakdown.

Even after I was back at work fulltime, I had to travel south for ECT appointments once a month. There were only one or two people at work who knew what had actually happened to me; the rest were told I was ill. Some of them thought I had cancer; others had figured it out, but never said anything to me.

I was eventually released from ECT after they were sure they had scrambled my brain enough to put everything in order. It took almost a year before the medications were finally set and I was on what they call “maintenance.” It sounds like a diet – trying to keep the lost weight off. Only I was trying to keep the voices away and rebuild my self esteem.

I can’t say that I am healed as I will always have this disease. Like most people who were suicidal, I have a plan filed way in the back of my head. No one knows about this plan, but it’s there just in case. Often something will bring me back to that awful year. Recently my husband and I were watching a movie about a woman who was erroneously put in a mental hospital. The movie was set in the 1920’s when treatments were truly barbaric. At one point the woman was led to a room for “shock treatment.” My heart began to pound and I had to leave the room. I could not control my sobbing. To this day, I get nauseous when we drive by the hospital where I had my ECT treatments.

I lost a year of my life to this disease. The ECT treatments caused some memory loss. I can’t remember much of the year I was ill, at least not the details; I have also forgotten other parts of my life. I can’t remember the Elton John concert I attended the year prior to my breakdown, my sister’s former house, my daughter’s first piano recital, and many other events. Frequently people will say, “Hey, remember that time we…” and I have to admit that I don’t.

I face the challenge of mental illness every day. I have learned how to deal with it: take my medications, keep active, and remember that I am not worthless. I also have to face the stigma of mental illness. People don’t understand that mental illness is a disease, just like diabetes or cancer. Like a diabetic, if I don’t take my medicine and live a healthy lifestyle, my disease will get worse, and I could even die. But, unlike the diabetic, I can’t tell anyone about my illness. I guess this essay is the first step in letting others know who I really am. Perhaps sharing my story will help others face their mental illness.

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