3 Years: Recovery Birthday Update

I really gotta start taking regular-ass selfies for these sorts of posts. Pic by MLA Photography

I really gotta start taking regular-ass selfies for these sorts of posts. Pic by MLA Photography

About 4 or 5 times every year, I’ll have a friend, acquaintance, or sometimes an anonymous reader reach out for insight/help dealing with mental illness issues – whether with themselves or a loved one. At least once every few months, someone will pop up with a “Hey, I’m just starting [fill in the blank antidepressant/anxiety/psychotic medication] and was just wondering if you knew anything about it” or “My S.O is being hospitalized for mania and I have no idea what to do” or “My BFF/sister/parent/child is suicidal and I’m scared.” Look, I honestly never  believe I have any of life’s answers, but in these times, I am so, so grateful to have experienced what I have so I can be someone’s trusted confidante in a social climate where we’re only just starting to normalize mental illness. (For what it’s worth, I don’t get on any of my soapboxes or try to talk anyone out of psychiatric treatment/lecture about the perils of misdiagnosis and/or long-term effects of psychiatric meds. Believe it or not, I’ve actually become quite the supportive listener these days and just give objective, informed answers when asked. Yeah! Really!) I’m happy to be a free, nonjudgmental resource when called on, because clearly that’s an in-demand niche I can easily fill.

This is why, despite still being exhausted with dealing with/talking about my personal psychiatric/depression/suicidal ideation issues, I keep sharing my story publicly on occasion. A close acquaintance once attempted to insult me by accusing me of making “oversharing” my personal brand. Had I not been receiving consistent evidence for years now that my oversharing is directly responsible for presenting an open door for dialogue between myself and people in my social circle who need an insider’s perspective, I might have considered being offended. Instead, I keep posting blogs like this one and being called on for what knowledge I have (even though I am often positive everyone I know is equally exhausted with me as I am 80% of the time. Thank you all for continuing to prove me wrong. <3)

Today marks 3 years since I finally detoxed off all my psychiatric meds. This feels like a birthday that I actually earned. Three years without manic episodes, psychotic breaks, whole-body aches, or reckless impulsive behaviors I could never explain. Three years of settling into myself and realizing that I’m pretty fucked up, but also, I’m kind of fantastic. Three years of forward movement after more than a decade of waiting. It’s been wonderful.

In case you’re just tuning in, I wrote about this all for XOJane a couple years ago, but here’s the short version: I’ve had suicidal ideation since I was 11. I started antidepressants at 19 when [mis]diagnosed by a university-health-center psych [who would be fired two months later for handing out drugs like candy to students at my college.] The meds made it worse (1 attempt & 2 hospitalizations in the next 4 years) Instead of scrapping my initial doc’s first diagnosis, subsequent doctors kept piling on more meds to treat side effects of what turned out to be too much serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) and I became increasingly manic, impulsive, and psychotic over the course of a decade while still bottoming out with suicidal compulsions every couple months. Was given meds for aaaalll that extra garbage as well. On a pile of antipsychotics and mood stabilizers, I felt dead and useless for about a year until I realized this was all bullshit and detoxed myself off everything in ‘2014 after 12 years on varied cocktails of prescription drugs. (I did a lot of research about how to detox safely but it still suuuuuucked. #BrainZaps) I also quit birth control during just to get an assessment of myself at “base level” – something no doctor had ever suggested from 2002-2014. Learned in the year afterward that I’m actually fine most of the time, but I have PMDD, which means A) I have soul-crushing depression for a week and full-on suicidal compulsions for about 18-36 hours before I start my period and then I’m fine and B)Taking antidepressants in the weeks when I’m not premenstrual were making me very literally insane. Trying to take antidepressants one week per month just for PMS weren’t worth the side effects, so we focused on just trying to level out my hormones naturally and get a normal, healthy monthly cycle going which made things much, much better. I’m like a different person altogether.

It’s funny; I remember when I got pregnant in ’07, I immediately quit taking any medication and I felt fine. In fact, during my pregnancy, my mental health was the best it had been since I was a kid, but once it was over and I’d finished nursing, my depression and anxiety came back with a vengeance. I can’t believe it took us so long to connect the dots that my depression issues have always been hormonal. (I’ve discussed being angry that no doctor ever mentioned it, but I’m at a place where I’m finally not mad about it anymore. Hell, maybe they were ignorant, too. Best I can do is just keep talking about it.)

I’ve paused my blathering about this so much because I’ve really just wanted to let it breathe. The act of coming out of this era has been its own separate story where I’m rediscovering who I am, what I’m capable of, and where to go from here. In fact, I started seeing a counselor again for a little while in ’16 because I felt stuck in this post-recovery mode and wasn’t sure how to get out. I’d identified as a “sick person” for so long and was so unable to complete anything I really wanted that I had this overwhelming sense of powerlessness once I finally came out the other side. Talking to a psychologist helped me get some perspective and generate some momentum.

What also happened in this latest counseling work is that I learned I’m also on the OCD spectrum, and I always have been… and I’m a little pissed that I never caught it because movies, TV, and popular societal beliefs only represent parts of obsessive-compulsive disorder that don’t apply to me at all. I don’t wash or clean obsessively (seriously, clutter is where I thrive) and I don’t have any life-altering rituals (delusion-based or otherwise), so I would never have assumed I was OCD at all had I not read Mara Wilson’s book and learned more about the other aspects of the disorder (like that it’s under the gigantic umbrella of anxiety disorders, for example.) I started doing research and was shocked that I’ve had symptoms of this all along. I’ve always counted stairs and paces, for example. But even more destructively, I have always had obsessive ruminations that are invasive, involuntary, and distracting. I’ve had them forever. I’ve tried prayer, meditation, yoga, ancient rituals (yes. literally), drinking myself to oblivion, and everything short of animal sacrifice to banish them from my brain, thinking that this revisiting of trauma incessantly was something I was just too lazy or stupid to control – or thinking that it meant something about my psyche and how I was still damaged goods and needed to “fix” myself in perpetuity – instead of just having a mental tic.  Had I been diagnosed with OCD originally, I would’ve immediately been advised that spending years and thousands of dollars in therapy trying to pick apart the “whys” and “hows” of my specific fixations is dangerously counterproductive and only exacerbates the problem. So, effectively, all that time in therapy really was making me sicker and more obsessive… and more stagnant.

God damn it.

In a plot twist: It’s okay. I’m not wasting my time being mad about any of it. Part of dealing with this variety of OCD is learning how to take power away from things I tend to stay fixated on – like things in the past that I can’t change and tend to want to part out endlessly. I’m actually really proud of how much better I’m doing with changing my mental habits, even though thinking about all the time I lost in madness makes me unbearably sad and frustrated if I stop to think about it… which I avoid..which is new for me…

Aside from that, I was positively (finally) diagnosed with PCOS in the last year. This contributes tremendously to the whole hormone fuckery thing, so recently, my focus has been about reframing eating habits (UUUUUAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUGGGGGHHHHITBUUUUUURRRNSSS), keeping an eye on blood sugar, making sure to get exercise everysingledaynomatterwhat, and readjusting my sleep schedule.

Oh yeah! That’s another fun thing!  Until my official diagnosis [and subsequent lifestyle changes], I’d been having night terrors more and more frequently, usually in the form of hallucinations that I can see in the dark as I’m waking up screaming [to my husband’s absolute delight.] So, I’m asleep, then I’m terrified, then I wake up, then I see a nonsensical vision (like a man painted all blue dressed as a clown standing over me in the darkness, for example), all in the course of 2 seconds.  It’s superfun, y’guys! My daughter calls them “jump scares”, which puts a comforting sense of humor on it. Incidentally, I’ve always had what was called “exploding head sydrome” which – holy shit – sounds WAY more dramatic than it is, but it’s when, as you’re drifting to sleep, you suddenly get an audio hallucination like an organ blaring or a horn honking or someone yelling that jolts you awake. Those started for me in my tween years, but I never thought anything of it because they were periodic and I had a unibrow to worry about. As all this hormone crap has progressed over the years, so have the sleep disturbances. Once I figured out what was causing the hallucinations and that we didn’t need  to exorcise the house, I’ve learned how to keep it under wraps by curbing my drinking and tendency to stay up until all hours.

So, basically, if I’m sober and in bed by 9 pm, I won’t be terrorized by demons all night… Sounds like a premise for a church youth group’s terrible scare-tactic propaganda video.

As much as I hate reporting new diagnoses (because GOOD LORD have I had a heap of them in the last howeverfuckinglong we’ve been doing this), these two are actually spot-on, and manageable. And, as a result, so is my life for a change.

The monthly depression hasn’t vanished, by the way, but because I’ve gotten better, I can handle it better. I treat my suicidal tendencies as though I’m a werewolf; my PMDD-based self-harm compulsions come around for about a day during the full moon and, knowing it’s going to suck but I’m going to survive it, I just make preparations to hunker down and ride it out alone until it’s passed. Listen, I’ve been dealing with being at total-crisis-mode/completely-on-the-brink-of-killing-myself every month for 20 years now, and I’m still alive. I’m at the point where I can look at my oncoming Crazy, scoff “Biiiiitch, please. You got nothing”, and lie in bed eating fully-loaded baked potatoes for a couple days till I’m back to myself. It’s not glamorous, but it’s better than anything else I’ve tried.

And 28 days out of the month, I’m comfortable, I’m calm, and I’m finding a groove for what feels like the first time ever. I’m thinking for myself for a change; I’m embracing the things that make me happier and finally ignoring all those expectations from other people that I’ve always felt like were more important than my own; and I’m getting out of the house and having a life again. I feel happier and more grounded than I can remember being since I was a kid, and while my confidence isn’t quite back to 8-year-old-Liz-level, I’m just so damn happy to still be around to work toward it.

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