Four years ago this week, (the third week of February) I was discharged from Spring Harbor, a psychiatric hospital in Westbrook, Maine.
It was my most recent hospitalization. I have been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for more than 40 years, sometimes on a voluntary basis; other times as an involuntary patient. I have been hospitalized in Arizona, Tennessee, Oregon and Maine. So, I consider myself a little bit of an expert on this subject.
Trust me on this: being a patient on a psychiatric ward sucks. In all fairness, being a patient in any kind of hospital for any reason is no picnic for anyone. Hospitals are typically places we go to when we are ill or injured. Other than child birth, most people do their very best to avoid hospitals.
It is the same for psychiatric patients. I have heard people say or joke that they could use a “vacation” on a psych unit or that “mental people use hospitals to avoid their responsibilities.” These are actual quotations.
I have been on vacations. I have been a patient on a psychiatric unit. Believe me. There is nothing similar between these two things. Nothing.
For more than four decades now I have been taking a wide variety of psychiatric medications. Today, I take five different medications to treat everything from life-sucking depression to anxiety and yes, the consequences of a schizo-affective disorder.
Imagine your spouse telling you that they had to stay in the basement in order to get away from the government? Or imagine what it would be like if your sibling called you, crying and confused because they had gotten lost on the way home from work?
Imagine not being able to remember anything that happened last week or being unable to read more than two pages a day? This is my life off medications. And yup, this is also my life on medications. The meds just make the consequences less frequent and less severe.
Why do I say all this? Am I just looking for sympathy? Shouldn’t I keep this stuff private?
Take me to the river
I have been publicly open about my mental illness for several years now. That, and my pitiful attempts at trying to be a father, are the two things I want to be remembered for. They are the two things in my life, other than Laura, that matter most to me. They are my only real contributions to society, to the world around me.
Of course, like most people, I am generally selective about what I share on social media. I try to portray myself as witty, as some kind of half-assed satirist, a fun-loving guy, someone you would want to be friends with; a hard-working and responsible member of society; a successful husband and father.
Maybe I am those things. Maybe not.
But it seems that publicly sharing my personal struggles with mental illness gives others permission to reach out to me in search of a friendly ear, advice about a family member or their own struggle with some kind of psychiatric illness.
That is so gratifying to me. Beyond words.
I want to break down and destroy the myths and stereotypes that accompany mental illness. Imagine a friend telling you that they have been diagnosed with brain cancer. What would you say? What would you do?
I’m almost positive you would not say something like “stop feeling sorry for yourself,” or “it’s all in your head,” which, ironically is sort of true about brain cancer. Why is mental illness different? Why is it still okay for Hollywood to refer to psychiatrists as “shrinks?”
Those battling cancer are described as brave and courageous. We wear ribbons to show our support. We are quick to offer our empathy, our support, our understanding.
Tell someone that you are hearing voices and the reaction is a lot different. Trust me. Way different.
Honestly, what do you think of when you think about someone with a psychiatric illness? Do you think about someone like the character “Multiple Miggs” in the movie Silence of the Lambs; or do you think of them as your neighbor, co-worker or someone walking their dog past your home?
At the start of this piece, I stated that I have been in and out of psychiatric units for more than four decades. That is true. What is also true is that during the same time period, I have purchased a home, paid taxes, worked hard and was promoted in the private sector, raised two kids, held together a marriage for more than 19 years (and counting). Today I still mow my lawn, pay my bills and spend time with friends and family.
The scary thing? I’m a lot like you and other people you know and trust. The idea of being diagnosed with cancer is terrifying and for good reason. I have lost close friends to that horrible disease. Unfortunately, I have also lost some very good and close friends to mental illness.
So that’s why I’m open about my struggles. That’s why I try to remember to take my meds, even though they sometimes adversely impact my libido, my energy, my sleep and appetite.
Later this week, I am scheduled to have another ECT treatment (Electro-Convulsive Therapy). ECT treatments terrify me. I am afraid that I will not wake up from the anesthesia. Basically, ECT involves having enough electricity beamed into your brain to induce a seizure. So why do I go through with it?
Because, for me and many, many others, it works. It allows me to live. Once a month, I participate in an ECT support ZOOM meeting with other patients. It is so gratifying to see the progress that many of these people have made. To see them smile, laugh and be able to hold a conversation. To hear them say they were reluctant to get ECT until they heard me and others share our own experiences.
That’s what matters. That’s what is important to me.
If you ever want to reach out; if you ever need a friendly ear, please do not hesitate to contact me. If you don’t know me or have my contact info, you can ALWAYS reach out 24/7 365 days a year toll free at 1.888.568.1112 if you are concerned about yourself or somebody else.