Smoke and Mirrors
Face to face with mental illness.
I have always thought of September as a fresh start.
Summer days waned, holidays ended, and the ads on TV touted “back to school in style”. This meant a new school bag and pencil case when I was in elementary school, along with new running shoes and perhaps a few new tops and maybe some bell bottoms.
I looked forward to September. September meant new beginnings. A chance to reinvent ourselves. That moment of entering school on the first day of classes was filled with anticipation. “Who will be my teacher? Will I have to sit beside the girl who picks her nose again? Will I be teased? Will I have to do a flexed arm hang in phys-ed?”
Elementary through high school, college and university proved that January was merely a blip in the calendar. New Year’s Eve came with the occasional party, perhaps a night out, but it never held the cachet of the new penny loafers, a fabulous LL Bean sweater, and the Levis 501 jeans that I bought when I started college.
Even in my working life, September marked the start of a new season. I managed a trade show company and summer was typically a dead season for professional associations to hold meetings and major conventions. We started ramping up in August for “show season” that began in September then ran full-tilt through to spring. Summer in the office meant a more casual wardrobe but new suits came out in the fall along with killer pumps and perhaps a new purse bought while on holidays (something had to fill in for the pencil case).
On the morning of September 25, 2000, September’s new beginnings took on a whole new meaning.
Smoke and mirrors.
I had been sick since before our second child was born. Working seven days a week for a company recently purchased by an American firm. Placed on bedrest for the final months of my pregnancy, I worked from home next to a laundry basket filled with files. On the day our daughter was to be born in February, my husband was yelling at me to get off the phone with the office. I took calls in the hospital from the office hours after her birth. Upon returning home from hospital, I would rock her in her car seat with one foot, while working on my computer. I returned to work six weeks later.
As the weeks and months went by, I could no longer function properly. By May, I wasn’t sleeping. By June, I couldn’t write a sentence and I didn’t know the salt from the pepper shaker. By August, during our family vacation, I cried every day. By September, I was looking for the number for the employee assistance program. On September 24, I was sitting on a street corner, unable to walk back into my office building.
“Miss, Miss, unlock the door.”
I was in the emergency room in the hospital and I had asked to use the washroom. Of course, I had locked the door! Why wouldn’t I? It was September 25. Two colleagues drove me to the hospital after my employees found me under my desk quivering and shaking, unable to speak. My colleagues notified my husband who called my parents to come and sit with our infant daughter and pick up our eldest at school. The army had stepped in.
“So, whaddya you have? Schizophrenia?”
A nurse put me on a bench in a corridor with other patients. I was to be seen by a psychiatrist. By now my husband was with me and I was calm, exhausted. I wondered why I was in the hospital.
“So, you see, according to your postal code, we really can’t help you here. Hospitals are assigned to assist psychiatric patients according to specific regions and you have the wrong postal code.”
The psychiatrist gave us a paper with a list of hospitals in our city and referred us elsewhere. As we stood outside on that beautiful September afternoon, I sobbed. My husband called various numbers and we headed to the emergency department of another hospital.
By late afternoon I was in triage again, knowing this time to not lock the door if I needed to use the facilities. By early evening I had been assessed. Another paper, with an appointment for three months down the line. I’d never make it. I was numb.
The next day I received a call at home from a friend who had tried to reach me at the office. Upon hearing that I was at home she knew that something was up. Within a matter of hours, she had arranged for me to be seen by a psychiatrist in two days. As it turned out, I had taken care of a major congress for him the previous spring. I have a vague memory of my husband bringing me to the office and sitting with me.
“The employee suffers from major depressive disorder and will not return to work for at least three months.”
Three months turned into six.
I never did return to my original office or position in the company. Panic attacks prevented me from even going near the downtown core for more than a year. I did return to work in a new job with a sister company on a part-time basis. Ultimately, I resumed a management role and full-time status.
The years sped past.
Weekly visits with a psychiatrist. Medications. Various diagnoses. Part-time to full-time work. Another nervous breakdown in 2003. Weight gain from medications. Eating disorder treatment. A new diagnosis in 2005. A return to part-time work in 2007. Another nervous breakdown in 2017.
Smoke and mirrors.
Most people who meet me wouldn’t know that I have been to over 648 psychiatrist appointments. Most people who meet me would have no idea that in over twenty years, I have swallowed over 26,767 pills ranging from anti-depressants to anti-psychotics. That averages 3.667 pills a day. You might, by now, have concluded that one of my diagnoses is OCD. There is also depression and bipolar-2. FYI, that’s the good kind of bipolar. I don’t “see FBI agents at my door” or have delusions, but man, oh man, when I am manic you should see how fast my fingers fly on the keyboard!
Some people who are reading this may be learning for the first time that it’s alright to talk openly about mental illness. Some people may not know how to react.
I’m not working anymore. The 2017 breakdown was the last straw. I volunteer. I exercise. I write.
I also celebrate the joys in life; family and friends.
And, September continues to be the start of my new year. How grateful I am to be living in it.