Op-Ed

Surviving the terror mental illness inflicts on you

I will forever associate spring with an up-close-and-personal encounter with crazy, with losing my mind in an over-the-top kind of way. And indeed, my March madness of 1990 ended life as I knew it.

I was teaching English at a Christian university in Oklahoma, suffering through a not-so-pleasant spring break when I began to crumble.

I began obsessing over trees and branches, still bare but budding, and the potential messages they brought — their effort to lead me to an alternate dimension, parallel to the world around me.

I wanted desperately to go there, wherever "there" was, and that longing muscled me to bring branches indoors and decorate my walls with them. I was suddenly aware, acutely aware. The sculptural quality of bare branches stunned me, spoke to me.

In my mind bringing branches inside was a sacramental action — an effort to access the bare bones of reality, the holy hollow at the center of everything.

I also felt compelled to tear up the carpet in my rental apartment's living room, to strip the floor clean and access the concrete beneath — a more solid surface on which to stand. So I stayed up all night, utility-knifed my carpet into carrying-sized strips, stood a ladder beside the dumpster, climbed rung upon rung and deposited my former floor within.

A rug literally ripped out from under me, I was hospitalized the next day at a state psychiatric facility, where I walked the halls and fingered the walls for weeks, as all around me sentences bloomed into branches. A dazzling display of crazy.

I don't remember arriving at Parkside Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Tulsa, Okla. I don't remember how my dog came to be kenneled at the vet's office, who took me to the hospital or if it's possible I even drove myself.

Indeed, it's these gaps in memory that I remember most, the fact of forgetting, the empty space where the story should be — gaps I fill in and flesh out with details recorded in the journals I kept. For example, the night I so unceremoniously removed the carpet from my living room, I described an intense sense of alienation and confusion: "I know that other people must not experience the world the way I do, because if they did, the world would be a very different place and I wouldn't feel so strange, so marginal, so near the edge and falling off ..."

The hospital had three floors and a basement — the first an intake unit and small lobby, the second a locked but moderately restricted unit and the third a locked but highly restricted one. I was admitted to the third floor. I remember a day room at one end, four dormitory-style rooms at the other and a hallway connecting the two. The hall had a nurses' station along one wall, an elevator on the other. With windows along two walls, the day room was large, filled with wooden tables and chairs, where we patients spent most of our time: played games, watched television, ate meals.

The patient rooms were bare and barracks-like, with partitions down the middle — two beds, two wardrobes and a desk on one side — the same on the other. Bathrooms, one per room, boasted a toilet and shower stall, as well as a sink with metal mirror above — no glass allowed, lest patients break it and purposefully injure themselves.

Behind the nurse's station was another hall locked and off-limits to patients. Here were a number of seclusion rooms, each with a single bed bolted to the floor in the center — each equipped with four point restraints — wide leather cuffs that strapped wrists and ankles to the bed. I spent time alone in these rooms when I was particularly distressed, but only once in those restraints.

I walked the hall between these dorms and day room, repeatedly. The anti-psychotic medication made me restless, so I paced, feeling the walls with my palms, an effort to comfort myself, to calm the cacophony of crazy that worsened every evening.

One nurse would sometimes walk with me, attempting to reassure me and lessen the aloneness, as I tried to quiet the chatter in my head, the echo of children's voices saying senseless, sing-song rhymes. But mostly I walked that hall alone, alternately fighting and forgetting a psychosis that whiplashed between extremes of nothingness and nowhere.

This whiplashing made me acutely aware of my own nothingness, the fact that at the center of myself a huge hole swallowed and, indeed, devoured all I thought I knew about myself and the world around me.

I was nothing.

The world around me a vacuum — nothing but emptiness sucking.

Suddenly my experience of myself shifted. I was not who I thought I was.

I was nobody.

I was nowhere.

I saw myself stripped of all seeming substance, of all that seemed solid and predictable in the face of free-fall. I was naked and drowning — bare to the glare of what others called crazy.

If I was indeed out of touch with reality, as the doctors told me, what did that mean? And if I couldn't trust my own mind, what could I trust?

Inevitably, this possibility that I couldn't or shouldn't trust myself terrified me. And my mind, though insane, was adaptive enough to not consciously fear itself.

Instead, I displaced this terror in all directions, becoming terrified of everything and at the same time terrified of nothing. I couldn't articulate exactly what I feared. I was only and always overcome with dread. I knew something was terribly wrong.

As I look back on it now, I imagine I wanted out, but not so much out of the hospital, as out my own mind — a mind that, if insane, was no longer an asylum.

This is the terror of mental illness.

This is the terror from which, now, more than 20 years later, I am largely recovered, my bipolar symptoms finally well-managed by medication.

Recovery from mental illness is possible, and, at the very least, new developments in psychopharmacology allow those with psychiatric illnesses to live relatively normal lives.

During the month of May, Mental Health Awareness Month, please remember the struggles faced by folks with mental illness. Please donate to NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

Share stories like mine with those you love, and encourage others to talk about and write and blog about their own battles. Let those who live with mental illness, and their families, know they're not alone.

The world is still a staggeringly beautiful place, and those of us who struggle with psychiatric illness make it a richer place to live and love. We hope big hopes. We dream ever-more enduring dreams.

Recovery is possible.

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