mental illness

Do you know what you are? A memoir of mental illness and discovery

The Sunday before Halloween was a relatively warm day for October. I remember waking up to the sense of the sun draping through my olive-toned curtains. It was going to be a great day…I could feel it in my bones—the warm, tingly, build-up of emotion I’ve come to consider “happiness.”

In retrospect, what I was feeling that sun-filled morning, just like the countless others before it, were pre-onset symptoms of mania. Mania, as defined by Merriam-Webster is, “mental illness marked by periods of great excitement, euphoria, delusions and over-activity.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, common signs of mania are as follows:

  • Feeling very “high,” “up,” or elated
  • Having a lot of energy
  • Acting more active than usual
  • Becoming easily agitated, irritable, or “touchy”
  • Believing you can accomplish many tasks at once
  • Entertaining risky behavior like recklessly spending money or having unprotected sex

I used this “happiness,” now recognized as mania, as motivation to start my day. I was in an uncharacteristically uplifted mood, feeling like the coolest breeze on a hot dry day. Nothing could bring me down…even the most menial errands became an excitement-inducing activity. After all, I was just supposed to be getting brunch with Alex (my at the time) not-so-boyfriend, “boyfriend.”

On the morning of our breakfast date, I had been in therapy for almost five months and had recently started seeking psychiatric treatment in addition to the weekly psychotherapy sessions. I had been started on a low dose of an SSRI, or a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, commonly used as an anti-depressant in depression and anxiety patients, according to the Mayo Clinic.

SSRIs, like that of Lexapro, Zoloft and Prozac, have side effects just like any other medication. Most of the time, these side effects are weight loss or gain, mood swings and increased thoughts of suicide. But when an SSRI is prescribed to someone with a mood disorder, with no other form of stabilizing medication, all hell can break loose.

According to my psychiatrist, Dr. Mitchell Cabisudo, SSRIs are known for triggering both manic and depressive episodes and impulsivity in people with mood disorders like Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder and Schizophrenia.

SSRIs take about three weeks to build up in your system before any results can be deciphered. I was rounding the 21-day marker of my daily Lexapro regimen when I met up with Alex at our favorite little bakery in Rosendale, The Alternative Baker.

That bakery in particular seems to be a source of inspiration for both he and I. We’ve made multiple visits, which have always seem to end with an adventure. What was supposed to be a relaxing and reviving morning, quickly turned out to be the exact opposite with one comment.

“I want a pet,” I said.

“Right now?” Alex questioned.

“Yeah, I want a cuddle buddy and I’ve been stressed, I deserve this. It’ll be good, I’ll get a little one.”

“How about a cat?” Alex replied.

“Maybe. But we’re definitely going to the shelter after this, it’s somewhere in Kingston and we’re like already here,” I exclaimed.

Alex pleaded with me to think it over and to not be so impulsive, reminding me that this was a living creature that was to become dependent on me.

So what did I do?

I fucking adopted a dog.

Which on its own, doesn’t seem like such a terrible thing, right? I rescued one, instead of indirectly funding a puppy mill, and all animals deserve a loving home. So on the surface, it looks like I actually did something pretty respectable. Too bad we’re not here to discuss things at a superficial level—otherwise, I’d be crowned a hero.

 I didn’t just adopt any dog (no, of course not)! I adopted an 11-year old, diabetic, bichon-poodle mix. Cute as hell, sweet as sugar. It was love at first sight. Her previous owner had to surrender the dog over to the Ulster County SPCA because she was suffering from dementia and could no longer take care of the pooch. I immediately felt for the dog.

“She doesn’t belong here!” I kept telling myself.

Since she was diabetic she required insulin shots twice a day and they were to be given to her after her meals, to prevent sending the dog into insulin shock. Vetsulin costs around $40 for a 10 mL vile and that would last around three months, in this case, according to the Ulster County SPCA. Yet, I found myself still so eager to break this mutt out of doggie-jail.

Jill, later named Suzy Creamcheese (as a tribute to Frank Zappa—my hero), had bonded with me already. Plus, this dog was clearly not a “shelter dog,” she didn’t belong among the loud, chaotic and almost satanic screeches and howls from hounds and felines, who ever-so-obviously had a better place to be—otherwise, why put up such fuss?

Suzy Creamcheese weighed eight pounds and was noticeably anxious in her present environment. But when I held her, she seemed to melt into my arms and the rest of the rational world faded away. I felt a connection to her, like the two of us shared some sense of internal strife with where we had ended up in life.

Alex saw me in this mania-induced, mesmerized-hypnotic-state and he knew he couldn’t let me go through with this adoption, that it was a bad idea for both the dog and me.

“Why don’t you just sleep on it, it’s a big decision. Just sleep on it one night,” he begged.

I could hear him, but I wasn’t listening to him. His words graced through me like pollen in a breeze. I recognized they were there—but couldn’t understand his rational thoughts, when mine didn’t seem to be that irrational after all.

The entire process of me adopting that dog is fuzzy.

Sign here.

Read here.

Initial here.

I remember waking up my first night with Suzy and seeing she had snuck out of her bed. I peered over the edge of my bed, searching for her on my rugs, under my bed, wherever I thought she could be. No luck. As I went to get out of bed, peeling back the layers of blankets, I found a little fluff-ball all curled up under every single one of my covers, comfortably snuggled in the crevice of my leg.

mental illness
“Suzy Creamcheese, oh, baby. Now, what’s got into you?” Photo by Marisa Losciale

It was that moment I knew I was fucked.

I had fallen in love with a dog I could clearly not take care of– for God’s sake I could barely take care of myself.

The next morning I realized managing her insulin was harder than expected. Imagine trying to stick a cuddly, loving, eight pound dog in the neck with a needle, twice a day: it’s not easy. It took me at least two tries to get the needle with the insulin into her.

She couldn’t stay with me.

As I left for class at a quarter to eleven, Suzy freaked out. Barking, crying and lucidly helpless in an unfamiliar environment. Already overwhelmed with the situation, I broke down and brought the dog to class. No one noticed until halfway through when my professor looked at me, puzzled and questioned, “Is that a dog?”

I frantically called my psychiatrist that afternoon, explaining that the Lexapro had caused an adverse reaction. I was in over-my-head and had impulsively adopted a dog I couldn’t possibly care for properly—he told me to stop the Lexapro completely and immediately.

So on the first day of November I began withdrawing from three weeks worth of SSRIs that had been building up in my system and slowing causing me to go crazy. The same day, I knew I had to surrender Suzy Creamcheese. So at 10 that morning, I called the Ulster County SPCA and explained my situation (in between sobs). The shelter agreed to take her back and thanked me for my honesty and compassion.

Alex, once again, agreed to drive to the shelter in Kingston with me. We left around noon and I cried the entire ride—apologizing to Suzy and begging for her to forgive me.

mental illness
Surrendering her was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Photo by Alex Antiuk

When we arrived at the shelter 30 minutes later, I was awkwardly greeted by a man who clearly worked there and wanted to approach me, but didn’t know how given my state of hysteria. He paced around me, hoping I’d stop crying so he could talk to me. Finally, he approached and asked how he could help.

Somehow I managed to stutter, “I’m here to surrender my dog.”

“Oh. I’m sorry about that, what’s wrong?” The unfamiliar man asked.

“I just adopted her …two days ago…” I began to explain.

“Oh did she come from here? She looks familiar.” He inquired.

“Yeah, and this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do…and I’m so, so, so, sorry, but I just can’t take care of her properly, the insulin shots are too much and I feel like I’m torturing her.”

He cut me off there. Immediately the employee couldn’t handle my state of distress.

So he brought not one but three women to “help” me. While Alex reminded me to focus on my breathing, the older woman, who reminded me of my mother, sat me down in a nearby chair and told me a comforting story about how she has a problem giving her diabetic horses insulin, so she understood my pain and reassured me that I was doing the right thing.

But a different woman, who would ultimately take my dog, quickly replaced her.

“Do you need a minute?” The lengthy brunette asked.

“No,” I said with rivers rolling down my face, “I just want this to be over.” So she took Suzy, and I lost all ability to control myself. My whimpering was matched by the evil whines of a nasty cat.

Then the third woman approached, she I recognized from the few memories I had of two days prior, “Would you like to see another dog, something small that would be less demanding and easier to care for?” she asked.

“No, not today,” I said while wiping my now smeared makeup and snot off my face.

“Too soon,” I thought. Too fucking soon.

I cried uncontrollably from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. that day.

Six hours of sobbing, one intense vomit session, two calls to my psychiatrist, a visit to the SUNY New Paltz counseling center and a deep conversation with a friend who studies and researches depression, got me to realize that this entire ordeal was just another example of me setting myself up for emotional distress.

Some good did come out of this: a $200 donation to a well-deserving, no-kill shelter and my new best friends: Zoloft and Klonopin…until the Zoloft back fired a week later, forming compulsive thoughts that made me want to walk into traffic, “because it would be beautiful.”

But without any of these experiences, my doctors and I wouldn’t have come to a thoroughly concluded bipolar diagnosis.

Bipolar disorder is a type of mood disorder illustrated by two defining states: mania and depression, and sometimes a what’s called a “mixed state,” or the combination of mania and depression. There are currently two types of recognized bipolar disorder, but each disorder can contain it’s own set of features, for example someone can be diagnosed with bipolar type one and have schizophrenic tendencies, or the inclination of hearing, seeing, believing and interacting with fictional characters.

The defining characteristic between bipolar type one and bipolar type two is simply the severity of the symptoms, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. As of right now, it is yet to be determined which form of the disorder I have. All signs point to type one, the more challenging of the two, but neither my therapist nor psychiatrist has confirmed this. (Yet).

This diagnosis comes as little surprise to me. I always knew I was different, but as a child it’s hard to describe how you’re feeling when you don’t quite understand how you’re feeling. Especially when most of the thoughts you have are centered around death—your own, as well as the irrational fear of latent demise of your loved ones.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been held hostage to the physiological symptoms of anxiety. I was unable to survive a sleepover, even at relatives’ houses until I was a teen. Up until the age I could drive, I’d worry myself sick and have to go home, but if that wasn’t an option, I’d stay up all night dry heaving and waiting for time to pass, eventually succumbing to exhaustion.

As a baby, my mother referred to me as colicky. All I did was cry, especially if I was separated from my father or her. My mother, being a full-time working parent up until the age I was three, would bring me to either my aunt’s house or my Nana’s house while her and my father went to their jobs. I don’t remember much from these visits other than crying as my mother left me at six thirty in the morning, only to be appeased with an ice cream sundae courtesy of my now late but forever loved, Pop-pop.

A psychologist named John Bowlby established attachment theory in the late 1960s. In his research, Bowlby studied children’s development and temperament, in conjunction to their relationship with a caregiver. In his findings, he concluded that a strong attachment to a caregiver provides a child with some sense of security and foundation. Without a strong attachment present, Bowlby discovered there was then a “great deal of developmental energy is expended in the search for stability and security.”

Building off of Bowlby, developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth discovered something she called “attachment behavior.” Characteristics of this behavior are demonstrated in insecure children with hopes of establishing, or re-establishing an attachment to a presently absent caregiver. Ainsworth found that “children with strong attachments were relatively calm [after being separated from their parents], seeming to be secure in the belief that their caregivers would return shortly, whereas the children with weak attachments would cry and demonstrate great distress under they were restored to their parents.”

To this day, I suffer from terrible separation anxiety from my parents. The anticipation of moving back and forth between New Paltz and my hometown on Long Island makes me so apprehensive it takes me nearly an entire day to recoup.

But the question of how this became my instinctual reaction: consistently and incessantly worrying, is still open.

The presence of evidence concerning attachment theory isn’t just found in the relationship I have with my parents, but also in my perceived impossibility of having a romantic relationship.

In high school, the idea of being that close to someone freaked me out, so I’d break-up with boyfriends within weeks of dating. Pawning it off to “commitment issues” or the fact that I found myself to be “too independent” and the “dependency of relationships to be daunting.”

Not much changed through my college career when it came to dating people. I have enough credits to fulfill a doctorate in short-term relationships, both romantic and platonic. I subconsciously seek out people who are a mirrored reflection of myself: unstable and emotionally unavailable.

It’s almost as if I’m doomed from the start.

And in one case I was. The only identifying factor that differentiates this from any other damaging relationship in my life is the fact that I actually ended up putting myself in real danger.

Long story short, there was a friend of mine (let’s call him Patrick*) who had some pent-up romantic feelings for me, “unrequited love,” if you will. One night he came across a text on my phone from Alex, it wasn’t meant for my friend’s eyes but it angered him greatly.

At the time, I didn’t understand why he was mad at me. He ignored me all night, keeping distance between himself and my friends and I at the bar, only leaving to key my car in the nearby parking lot.

car keyed
The evident damage done to my car was the least of my problems. Photo by Marisa Losciale

When I got up the next morning to go grab coffee and run errands before work, I saw the damage done to my car. I broke down in the parking lot, “how could this happen?” I thought.

Patrick.

For some strange reason I had a gut instinct it was him, so I texted my landlord to see if there were video cameras in our parking lot. I was in luck. The next day I went over and reviewed the tapes. Starting at 11 p.m., I searched until I found my suspect whom I could clearly I.D. keying my car.

“Hey Patrick, you dumb P.O.S.” I thought to myself as I logged the time stamp and burned myself a copy of the tape.

“Here ya go,” my landlord, Dr. Robert Downs, said as he handed me the USB drive. Dr. Downs is a former psychology professor, so he began to explain to me a list of reasons as to why he believed someone would do this to me.

Then I told him about Patrick’s behavior that night, what had happened before we went to the bar and how he slightly keyed his own car as well but didn’t confront me about that. I told Dr. Downs that I heard it through the grapevine of our friends as I began to tell them about the damage done to my car, followed by the anonymous cryptic print-out “apology” that was left on my dashboard with cash and a note stating, “in a few days more money will be left.”

“Even my friends raised an eyebrow and now check in with me on the hour,” I told Dr. Downs.

Dr. Downs’ was visibly surprised. This escalated the level of violence strictly due to the now seemingly clear intentions. According to Dr. Downs, Patrick probably did this because he’s jealous of the level of intimacy I have with Alex, not only in an exclusively sexual manner. Patrick wanted to bring him and I “closer” by giving us something to “bond over”—the conveniently keyed cars.

I knew Patrick had struggled with mental illness in the past, so this act of violence wasn’t easy to swallow, but for me, it was digestible.

And I guess that’s because on some level, I can relate. I know what it’s like to depersonalize and disassociate—how it feels to watch your body do something but not to feel present in the moment. Or to not recognize yourself or any of your work as your own because there’s “no possible way I did that” or “that isn’t me, is that really who I am?”

But it’s never an excuse. My mental illness and the struggles I face are my battles to conquer. They don’t justify toxic and volatile behavior. If anything, they’re more of a reason to treat every day as a gift and every person as if they’re having the worst day of their lives.

Let’s be real, everyone is going through something. Some have it worse than others, but there’s no stereotypical face for mental illness. Hell, if you saw me walking down the street you wouldn’t assume I’m someone who struggles on a day-to-day basis. Which is why we need to break the stigma surrounding mental illness, because it affects everyone.

And the only reason I’m able to sit here and tell my story– now a year in the making, is because of my support system. Yes, I have myself to credit as well, especially since the only medication I use is for anxiety on a need-be basis. But no one should have to deal with insurance companies, medication changes and implementing therapeutic practices on their own, if they don’t want to. And I feel that’s an important actualization that’s yet to be made. Just because you’re mentally ill doesn’t mean you need a support group to depend on. In fact, the only person you should be depending on is yourself. It’s just nice to have a pal or two to comfort you when times get tough. And they will get tough.

 

*Name has been changed to protect the subject of the story.

I’m a 2017 graduate of SUNY New Paltz, where I studied digital media journalism and communications with a concentration in public relations. I consider myself to be more than a journalist or photographer, but a story-teller. My work has been published on a variety of media platforms, from The Daily Dot to The Norman Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies.

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