From time to time, we think it’s important to put a “face” on what it’s like to live with a mental health condition. Some choose to remain anonymous, like our friend “Alex,” who has lived through multiple diagnoses. We hope these stories shed a light on mental health in this country, and that living with these conditions is no laughing matter:
“I had my first visit to a psychiatrist as a child. After my parents got divorced, I had severe separation anxiety when it came to my mother. I was about seven or eight, and I remember sitting in her office in her soothing, wood-paneled office, playing with ink blots and coloring while she asked me questions about how I felt about things. She asked me questions about my parent’s relationship, and gave me some deep breathing and self-soothing techniques to help when I went into a frenzy if Mom was late picking me up or she had to travel for business. After a while, I stopped going because I learned how to panic without a ton of suspicion. My father hated getting dragged into therapy, and it was easier just to be quietly afraid and upset than to create another reason for my parents to fight.
Besides, I wasn’t sure telling her about his abuse would help my cause. He’d already threatened to kill my mother if I ever told anyone, so I had to keep that secret. I keep secrets really well, it seems, particularly if my or someone else’s life depended on it.
I kept that secret until much later in my life. I guess I would say that eventually I kept so many secrets, I shoved so many unspoken terrors under my mental rug that I eventually tripped over it. I had a nervous breakdown years and years later, and wound up in a therapist’s office on a suicide watch. I didn’t articulate what happened at that point. I was completely unable to function. I couldn’t get out of bed, I didn’t want to go outside, I would have to excuse myself for extreme crying fits at work, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t stay awake, and I felt like I was crawling out of my skin. The breakdown was diagnosed, and the cycle of therapists, psychiatrists, and medication trials started.
Eventually, I remembered all of the things that had happened to me as a child, and I told the truth. My parents, long since divorced, were ordered not to see or speak to each other. I broke all ties with my adult father after he dismissed my admission as a “misunderstanding.” The trips to the therapist’s office started, the medications were shifted, and we started a three-year journey to find the right diagnosis and the correct medication therapy to handle it.
At one point, my mother and I started making a chart of all the different medications I had taken as it corresponded to my diagnosis. The tricky part of getting better once you’re diagnosed with a mental health condition is getting the right medication at the right dosage. Within my first two years, I was diagnosed with six different mental health conditions by three separate psychiatrists, which led to twenty-six different cocktails of medication. Anti-depressants, sleep medication, SSRIs, lithium and lithium alternatives, antipsychotics. You have to stay on the drugs long enough for them to know it’s working, which can take up to six weeks or three months…sometimes longer. Everyone’s experiences are different as to how many medication combinations you’ll undergo to get your brain chemistry right, but mine was twenty six. All I know is that by the time we rounded the corner into the third year, I changed hospital systems, asked to speak to the head of the psychiatry department, and brought all my empty bottles, the chart, and all my diagnoses in with one simple request: “Can someone just please get this right?”
And he did. In the end, we realized no one had picked up on the fact that I used alcohol and drugs to self-medicate. Not only was that never part of my diagnosis (no one ever asked me about it, nor follow up on the amount that must have been evident in my blood test results, particularly the liver panel,) but it threw off the very diagnoses themselves. After three years of misdiagnoses, I was diagnosed with chemical dependency and chronic clinical depression. I opted for a twelve-step program, an antidepressant, a change in diet and exercise. The run through the side effects is over. I still see a therapist for cognitive behavioral therapy once a week, and the combination of these solutions has given me an outlook on life I could never have imagined.
I’m not sharing this because I don’t want people to seek help. Your journey may not look like mine, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll have to go through multiple diagnoses and/or medication cocktails. But I do think it’s important to share these stories to put a reality on what it takes sometimes to get the right diagnosis. The brain is a tricky thing, and sometimes it takes a while to get it all figured out. The side effects aren’t great sometimes. Adjusting to different medications can be really challenging. But in the end, you will find the right path.
Also, I wanted to share my story to ensure that you know that you are your own best advocate in the mental health system. Be honest to a fault with your therapist, even about things you don’t think matter. EVERYTHING matters. If you don’t think you’re getting the right care, speak up. Find a new doctor. Take charge. Ask questions. Do some of your own research and come prepared to discuss your treatment plan. You deserve to be happy. You deserve to get the right care. In the end, you are the one living with your mental health diagnosis and your treatment plan. Although the journey to better health might be arduous at times, it is possible, and brighter days await you. Just hang on through the tough parts. You’ll get there.”