Stress is relative. It’s all about context. When I was involuntarily committed to the psych ward, my stressors were unlike any I encounter today. So were the “solutions.”
It’s 1993. I’m lying in a hospital bed under the ubiquitous blue blanket. A pale, rather humorless doctor looks over his bifocals and explains “You have rapid cycling, mixed state bipolar disorder with psychotic features, mild temporal lobe epilepsy and generalized anxiety disorder.” Easy for him to say. If I wasn’t under stress before, I certainly am now.
For years, I’d battled disabling mood swings shifting, sometimes in a matter of hours, from suicidal depression to euphoric highs. Until one day, I became so manic I fell into psychosis and landed in the psychiatric ward. I assumed life’s many ups and downs and my obvious lack of coping skills were throwing me from one end of the mood spectrum to the other. Little did I know the culprit was, among other things, influenced by biology and genetics.
Mental illness was never a concern of mine until that one fateful October morning, when my father gently but firmly collected me into his car and rushed me to the emergency room where I found myself fidgeting in a locked hospital room, waiting to see a doctor. A psychiatrist.
It’s been 20 years since my diagnosis — that doesn’t mean since my recuperation. It’s a long hike from surviving to thriving and the “come-back” trail is an ongoing road trip. It took over nine years of hard work to get back to where I was before I ran naked down a street in a snobby postal code in a euphoric manic psychosis.
In the hospital, my life (among other things) was stripped to the essentials. Ironically, it was one of the beauties of a hospital stay. My daily practicalities were cared for and I “only” had to come to terms with what I was experiencing. Yes, I needed to eat and shower, and go to group, but the biggest obstacle was defining my experience and choosing a next step. Hopefully, it would be a healthy one.
During the initial diagnosis and the first stages of recovery, I conceptualize stress as follows:
Related: My Heart Hurts and I Can’t Take It
S.T.R.E.S.S.: Severe Trauma Requires Extremely Simple Solutions.
In the acute phases of my mood disorder, prior to accepting treatment, my living circumstances reached unprecedented lows. I was in debt, burned bridges of friendships, could scarcely work a four-hour shift and my acting career was dead in its tracks.
In the hospital this third time, I realized I needed help managing these massive yet fundamental upheavals. On the recommendation of an insightful nurse, I enlisted the help of a psychiatrist whom she believed I could trust. Dr. Dillon introduced me to what I like to call the “meat and potatoes” approach to treatment. Stabilizing the basics to allow self-sufficiency and self-reliance to emerge. I couldn’t imagine these concepts. I barely believed I could get out of the hospital, let alone back on my own two feet.
Below are my top three “simple” approaches in the preliminary period of healing. These approaches are simple but that doesn’t mean easy. They were put in place slowly and simultaneously, and as they were, each influenced and strengthened the other.
1. Stabilize the Basics.
I moved from the unsettling rooming house in which I lived and into my parents‘ home (bless their hearts). I begrudgingly faced reality, swallowed my pride and applied for social assistance and disability status. I sent away for a subsidized bus pass. My meals were looked after. I could do my laundry. When forced to struggle with the everyday nitty-gritty, I could do little to fortify my mental health. But once these were in place, I could focus on getting well.
2. Trust and the Psychiatrist.
If I was going to work with a psychiatrist, it was imperative I trust him. It was essential he partnered with me rather than dictated to me. Regardless of how wise he might be, if trust failed to be established, progress could not occur. I actively searched, discarded and searched again for the right fit. I had the luxury of living in a city that offered me alternatives. If you don’t have an option and have something less than ideal, strengthen the less-than-palatable ties you do have while building a network you do cherish.
3. Club Medication.
I resisted and resisted until I feared I’d continue seeing the inside of hospital walls and wear minty green cotton smocks for the rest of my days. I hated the idea of “succumbing” to a “crutch.” But doing without medication was creating more harm than good. The positive relationship I had with Dr. D. and the respect I received from him allowed me to try antidepressants and mood stabilizers. When I found the right combination, I was stunned. Side effects were minimal. The dark veil began to lift. Mania and psychosis failed to rear their ugly heads. I began to feel like myself. It took many trials and errors before finding the correct dosage and type, but once uncovered, I sheepishly admitted medication was a viable answer for me. Not the only answer, but part of my arsenal of management skills.
When I crossed the line from sanity to “madness,” even as my health returned, my old identity as I knew it would never be the same. This does not mean, however, I have not found meaning and peace within the trauma. It only means I found it via terrain not normally traveled by most people.