Well, folks, it's about damn time. For a revolution. An evolution.
I found an old letter to myself I jotted down in June of last year and decided to post it last week as a kind of important moment in time. Very small, but important to note. I could have just wiped the negativity and sadness away from my screen as if it never existed, but that would be a lie. It most certainly did exist. And as you know, I set out for this site to be anything but lies.
Here's another non-lie: this is the first time I've physically been able to sit down and type anything for a very, very long time. I tried a few weeks ago but broke down sobbing after my fingers couldn't be still or focused enough to tap down even a sentence fragment. I've been in a place mentally that has affected how my body physically operates. (Not to mention medication side-effects. Good golly.) I feel it will be important for me to recall in detail my extremely personal struggles over the last two years in order to explain my absence. I miss writing. I miss sharing without superficiality. I feel ready to come back and tell you why I was gone.
It all began with my younger brother's cardiac arrests. I know I have mentioned in passing that Sam died and came back to us. It was an ordeal unlike anything I could have ever imagined and something that I will have to write about on its own. It deserves a book, honestly. BUT, during the events of that summer of 2018 I quit my job, started this site and had a health scare of my own.
At the end of August I had a special CT scan scheduled to check for possible atherosclerosis (a plaque buildup in the arteries, in Sam's case, genetic). My youngest brother needed one as well to rule out a similar fate for each of us. The scan came out negative, but it showed a hole in my heart and a collapsed lung. The hole in my heart is from birth, is tiny and won't cause any damage. The collapsed lung on the other hand presented a problem. They called it a spontaneous pneumothorax because, simply, it happened out of the blue for no reason. I wasn't having shortness of breath that I could obviously notice. I just felt a fluttering up my back when I bent over. I would never have known it was there except for that damn CT.
Collapsed lungs usually re-inflate and right themselves within about a month. So we waited. In the meantime I wasn't able to do any real activity and was placed on my couch. "Sit down," they said. As I waited I planned a trip back home to see Sam and celebrate his birthday. It was a big deal because he almost didn't have another one. I had promised that I would come back soon and check up on him, so purchase a plane ticket I did.
The month came--and nothing. My lung was the same. "Okay, let's wait another month and see. If nothing improves we'll have a couple options. We'll put in a chest tube or worst-case scenario we'll have to perform surgery." I told the doc I was going home around that time, and incredulously he stated, "Absolutely not! There are three things that would place you on a medical 'do not fly', and this is one of them. Because of the air pressure on the flight your lung would collapse completely, and you would have a major emergency." Cool cool.
There was no way I wasn't going home, so I cancelled my flight and began to plan a road trip. I would leave the day after Halloween and book it back to North Dakota after two solo 12-hour driving days. No problem.
I had my two month check-in with the doc on October 29th (my best friend's birthday!). Worst case scenario. I mean, the worst.
"We need to perform surgery tomorrow."
"Tomorrow. I want to admit you to the hospital tonight for surgery tomorrow."
"Tomorrow's my birthday."
"Well, happy birthday?"
The rest is history. My mom flew out the next morning to be there for me for my first ever surgery. And boy was it a doozy. I didn't think about how serious thoracic surgery was until weeks after when I went in for my final checkup before a previously scheduled surgery on my wrist when the doc said, "You had lung surgery WHEN?! There's no way we'll operate on you for at least six months. We can't put you under anesthesia. Too risky." That was the end of that.
The OR sang happy birthday to me on the operating table--or so they say. I was out in two seconds. I woke up a few hours later loopy and nauseous and pain-filled as fuck. I had a chest tube connected to what I lovingly referred to as a blood box sticking out of my right side. I was 5% lighter on my right lung. They had removed that much, scraped the hell out of my chest wall and inserted metal staples that will remain there til the end of my time on Earth. The recovery took longer than they had hoped. I was in the hospital for a full week, and still had to leave with the chest tube attached. That part sucked most of all. It hurt like a bitch and felt terrible. I couldn't find a comfortable position in bed because that damn thing was poking every which way. When it was all said and done, Mom left after two weeks by my side. I couldn't have done it without her and my two best friends (who showed up to the hospital every day with board games and non-hospital food).
I had been immobile for two months before my surgery and then two months after. Not fun. I gained weight and got sad. I was still unemployed and actually grateful for that at the time. 2019 came, and I began to feel worse and worse mentally. I was reeling from the trauma of my brother's event that I hadn't quite processed while experiencing my own mortality. I was scared that I was breakable--something I had never dreamed of before.
As most of you know I have suffered with depression my entire adult life. Anxiety since I was in grade school. I had a terrible habit of picking my scrapes and scabs until they took a month to heal. That terrible habit reached an unstoppable point of compulsion over the summer following the events of 2018. That's when I realized something was really wrong with me.
I continued to go to therapy as I had been for years at that point. I had even started with a psychiatrist to change up my meds. My therapist apparently became concerned about me in 2019 when she recommended I apply for the Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) at Kaiser. I had no details when I went in to speak to the psychologist. He evaluated me and concluded that I had bipolar 2 disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. This diagnosis would change my life. For the better.
He told me the program would be for three weeks, three days a week, for five hours a day. Intensive is right. I decided there and then to begin the week after my birthday. (Everything had come to a head exactly one year later...) That same week I was to start a part-time job. I was nervous about all of it.
The first day of IOP was the most beautifully emotional day. A day of opening up the floodgates to things I had previously spent years working around and not understanding at all. I had been highly functioning with terribly difficult disorders I didn't know I had. Now I was finally able to begin to process all of it. When they said it would get worse before it got better I quickly learned they were right.
I got a doctor's note immediately to be placed off work for the entirety of the three week program. I worked for one day at my new job before I was absent for weeks. Fuck. But I knew this was for the best, no matter what.
IOP changed everything. I immediately broke down knowing that I had been misdiagnosed for so many years. Taking antidepressants was actually making my hypomania worse. For those of you unfamiliar with bipolar 2, it consists of bouts of depression and lesser mania without the dangerous or destructive behavior. Mine manifests itself as an extreme amount of energy. I won't be able to sleep for six nights, and I'll clean and reorganize and paint and sand every surface in my apartment. Most people are impressed with my productivity, but it's to my detriment. I feel I can't stop, and I pace around for hours. (That particular 6-day bout was when I had been on the highest dose of my antidepressant which, remember, makes mania worse.) Once I was able to right my meds by at least starting mood stabilizers things began to get better.
I mentioned also finally being diagnosed with OCD. This was a game-changer for me. My entire life I thought I was just particular or slightly neurotic when in actuality I have an illness. It made me feel a rush of relief. What I thought were my worst habits were actually compulsions. I had always struggled with the idea that things were harder for me than most. Things that should have been easy. Remember the skin picking? That particular summer I had picked my ten mosquito bites until they were huge sores on my body that lasted for months. MONTHS. Other examples: I was driving in my car when I noticed in my rearview mirror that my back passenger seatbelt was twisted. I felt the strongest need to pull over immediately and fix it. I started crying when I realized how strongly the feeling was. I had to tell myself to wait until I got to my destination. The combination of being misdiagnosed with depression and never being diagnosed at all for OCD had given me a harder lot than was necessary.
The thing is though, how could I have been diagnosed correctly if I didn't realize that certain things about me were actually symptoms?? This is the difficulty dealing with mental illness. With folks like me who suffer in silence thinking that what we deal with is a baseline of suffering and function highly for years, working all the while, so much of the problems go undetected by doctors. Firstly we need to seek help. That's half the battle. When I began talk therapy years ago is when I finally began to change my life. It opened my eyes to my learned behaviors and thoughts and ultimately led me to IOP.
The intensive outpatient program I attended was the best thing I've ever done for myself. Sitting in a room filled with around 20 people who understand me better than anyone else ever could was life-changing. The entire space was filled with empathy. We all cried in front of strangers and shared things we haven't dared share before. Every day. I might even say these people saved my life. The first time I talked to my therapist again after joining IOP I asked her why she sent me in the first place. She said, "You've never mentioned thoughts of harming yourself or suicide, but your hopelessness sounded worse."
I have to say that the process of weening off my antidepressant to transition to other meds was horrific. The night sweats and dizziness and nausea were almost unbearable. It has taken me some time to find the right combination of things that work for me. Talk to your doctor now about talk therapy, meds and psycho-education if you feel like something is wrong. It takes time. I suppose I'm mostly sharing my experience here in hopes that if anyone feels alone he/she/they can come to me with questions or comments. I want you to know that there is hope. If you feel like something isn't quite right, please seek answers. And it's important to break the stigma and know that mental illness comes in so many forms. I am just one face of it.
For the past two years I've struggled more than the rest of my life combined, but I'm still here. I've learned so much about myself and understand my tendencies like never before. I also love myself like never before. I'm more understanding and more forgiving. Softer. And I have my diagnosis and struggles to thank for it all.
Kaiser Behavioral Health Care Member Help Line
For crisis intervention and guidance
Referrals and resources
After hours, weekends and holidays
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline