A New Fix for an Old Problem
Depression and anxiety have been the bane of my existence since I was ten. I grew up with few friends, no family confidants, and a crippling sense of loneliness. Social isolation and darkness followed me into my thirty-first year, where, mangled by the stress of a PhD program (in psychology, no less), and incapacitated by the pain of living moment to moment, I became obsessed with suicidal thoughts for weeks. Finally, the taut wire of my equilibrium snapped. I attempted suicide and landed in the psych ward on the top floor of one of Chicago’s best hospitals.
I was angry. My admittance, while “voluntary,” was actually just an alternative to being arrested. I did not belong there. After all, I had been managing this pain for years, and although the pot had finally boiled over, I believed that I could bring it under control again. My denial and lack of insight were shattered during the next five days, however, and in the best possible way.
The transformation began when I acquainted myself with some of the other residents. My roommate, suffering from depression like me, was a large crack-addicted black woman, prostituting to support herself. Her boyfriend stole copper wire for a living and sold it for what she said was “big money.” She was also funny, caring, nurturing, and I loved her the most.
Those of us who were depressed were in the minority; the ward was full of people suffering from psychosis. T was a delightful Irish woman in her mid-fifties who had “adopted” another resident, an elderly woman in perpetual confusion. T was convinced that her husband and daughter were keeping her there against her will and that the people on television were lying about the real date. She was capable of carrying on a lucid, even intelligent conversation, and at times I wondered whether she was psychotic at all. But then I would hear her at night, sitting on her bed in her room all alone, wailing. “God help us all!” she would yell. “Let me out! Why won’t they let me out?”
R was a large Mexican woman, missing both legs from the knee down, who would roll around aimlessly in her wheelchair, with a big toothy grin on her face. Many times I saw her sitting motionless, carrying on a conversation softly in Spanish, with someone I could not see. Also, she refused to wear pants.
These women were just a few of the colorful characters I met. At first I was scared because a number of them were underprivileged or homeless, malodorous, and plain incomprehensible and I felt that I was on a higher, saner level than everyone else. But I quickly learned that they were considerate, funny, and very likable, and the one thing we all had in common is that we were human, which is easy and dangerous to forget. Being diagnosed with a mental illness can be a very dehumanizing process; others tend to equate your illness with your core personality, and they may treat you as that illness until you internalize it and dehumanize yourself.
The staff in the hospital treated us like the disorders they thought we were, not people at all, and by day two, I felt like the crazed lunatic that I swore I was not on the first day. Ironically, it was the other “lunatics” who brought me back to earth, and reminded me that we are all individuals, with unique personalities, worthy of consideration and respect. They showed me the light at the end of the tunnel, which I reached a couple of months after I left.
I was prescribed Zoloft and Lamotrigine, a mood stabilizer generally used to treat Bipolar Disorder. I had never taken a mood stabilizer, although I had been on plenty of different antidepressants. My doctor must have gotten it exactly right with this cocktail; after two months of continued depression, the world brightened suddenly. Everything changed for the better: My attitude, my goals, my relationships. I do not believe that these changes were one-hundred percent due to the medication, rather, they jump started my recovery and I gained momentum as I made changes along the way. It saddens me a little to know that I never really experienced happiness, or what other people consider a normal life, before now.
For all of my resistance and anger, I am grateful for my visit to the psych ward. I met delightful people who, just by being themselves, taught me about myself. I also met a wonderful doctor who started me on the path to recovery. To anyone who is struggling to make it through life, I recommend this: Seek help, even if you think you do not need it. It may be the best thing that you ever do for yourself.