Zelophehad’s Daughters

This Life of Continuing

Posted by Lynnette

Last summer, I posted about some of the mental health-related challenges that I’d been facing in the previous year. It’s been about six months since I wrote that post, and I thought it would be interesting to write about some of the things that have happened since then.

I saw my psychiatrist a few days ago. He’s new, and we’re still getting to know each other. We agreed that I’m doing pretty well and there’s no need to tinker with my meds right now. I said, as I always do, that I’m still not convinced that I need to take them, and that I want to have another “me” who’s not on meds to be a control group, so that we can determine whether or not they are actually doing anything. He said we could do a double-blind study in which neither of us knew whether the meds were placebos, and see what happened. Except that he doubted we would get approval from the Human Subjects Research Board. I had to laugh. It’s always nice when mental health professionals have a sense of humor, and actually talk to you instead of lecturing.

Last summer, I was up to three hospitalizations in the previous year, and pretty much treading water as far as my mental health was concerned. Not drowning exactly, but wondering how close I was to drowning. And then last November, the week before Thanksgiving, came hospitalization number four. This one didn’t come as too much of a surprise. It was actually partly due to the meds working—we’d increased one of them, and I was starting to feel a bit more alive. For a person with bipolar or depression, this can be a particularly dangerous time, because you have the energy to act on whatever self-destructive thoughts may have been simmering. I reluctantly admitted to my therapist that I couldn’t contract for safety, and away I went.

Well, I actually didn’t go away quite that fast. I spent a good 12 hours in the ER, getting medical clearance and waiting for a placement. The person in the room across from me, a middle-aged man, was there because of chest pain. He talked to himself quite loudly about the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover and other such exciting topics. When the nurse came in, he said that he was going to sue the hospital for medical malpractice because he knew that his doctor wasn’t a real doctor but an FBI agent, and he wanted to know had happened to the real doctor. Since I was on a psych hold, there had to be someone watching me at all times, and the security people observing me were joking that they were maybe assigned to the wrong room.

It was a really rough night. They told me they were going to send me to the place I’d been for hospitalization number three, which had been a horrible experience: a bleak environment, a clueless ex-Marine who ran mental health classes (really!), and just a general lack of any sense of community. I’d worked very hard to get back out as quickly as possible, and I couldn’t imagine going back. I told the doctor that it was only going to make me worse, but he wasn’t terribly sympathetic. I lay in my room in the ER and sobbed and wondered how I was going to get through this, given that my emotional state was already so unstable. And then—it turned out that that hospital wouldn’t take me. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so happy to be rejected. I know I wasn’t the only one praying for things to work out, and while I can be plenty skeptical about stories of divine intervention in the world, in this case I’m not about to rule out the possibility that that’s exactly what happened.

I finally got a placement somewhere else around 2:00 am, and I endured 45 minutes lying in the back of an ambulance and feeling more than a little queasy as we headed to large, private hospital, where I would spend the next week. And remarkably, something really shifted for me. This hospital was a much better place than the previous one, thankfully, but that wasn’t all of what made this such a different experience. Due to something I can only describe as a gift of grace, I was surprisingly at peace—especially for someone who was in a psych ward due to internal turbulence. I felt okay about being there, and willing to accept that it might be what I needed right then, rather than construing it as some kind of failure to have landed in the hospital yet again. Instead, I could see it as a place where I could take a break, figure out how to breathe again, and maybe think a little more constructively about some of the challenges in my life.

So all things considered, it was not a bad week. They did a good job with keeping us busy. There were five units, I think, and I was on the highest-functioning one, which from what I heard, was much tamer than the others. I found that I connected with some of the people there, which really made a difference, and we spent a lot of time hanging out and coloring—a surprisingly soothing activity. The classes and groups were for the most part helpful, and I didn’t feel resentful about having to attend them. (You don’t have to attend such things, exactly, but the more you hide in your room, the less likely you are to get released.) And they had long visiting hours, which was great.

The usual things were still frustrating. No electronic devices, or access to the internet. Just one phone for the whole unit, which was locked during groups. A ban on any kind of normal pencils or pens. Since writing is probably my number one coping strategy, I found that one particularly crazy-making. We could use those little golf pencils, but that was it (and of course, we couldn’t sharpen them ourselves; we had to get staff to do it). And as in every place I’ve been, there were some staff who were great, and some who weren’t.

But while nothing amazing happened while I was there, I came out of that hospital much less depressed, and in a better place than I’d been for a really long time. Still feeling lost, confused, uncertain about life generally—but somehow not as hopeless. I credit a lot of things for that: meds, friends, therapy, and spiritual support have all played a significant role. But I also keep thinking of the lines of a poem by Jane Kenyon, who was herself no stranger to depression:

“There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.1

When I’m really depressed, I find it difficult to label it as such. In other words, I don’t necessarily think oh, I’m depressed—instead I think, the world is a miserable place and life is hopeless, and that’s just the way things are. I forget any frame of reference that would challenge that. (I remember a psychiatrist telling me, after I’d scored in the “severely depressed” range on a standard screening questionnaire, “this really isn’t normal,” and me replying, “are you sure?” That was the beginning of a conversation that led to hospitalization number three.) Usually, it’s only when I’m less depressed that I can look back and say wow, I was really in a bad place then. In the past few months, things have come back that I hadn’t realized I’d lost, such as the ability to concentrate enough to read a book, or to genuinely enjoy things, or to think about the future without overwhelming dread.

Though while I am less depressed these days, I feel fragile, hesitant, tentative. Like things could easily shatter again, or whatever resilience I have built up may not hold up against the next storm. It’s good to be doing better, to have the darkness recede a bit. But it’s also scary. It’s unfamiliar. I’ve thought a lot about an observation made by patient-turned-psychologist Lauren Slater:

“I started to understand that, like Gretel, I might need a map, a scatter of something to mark my way, but when it comes to deciphering health there is surprisingly little help . . . After all, when you are sick, there are plenty of places (insurance willing) where you can go to get healed, but when you are healed are there any places you can go to learn not to be sick? The very idea of having to learn the landscape of health sounds vaguely ridiculous, so ensconced are so many of us in the notion that health is organic as grass, in the right conditions growing green and freely.2

Like many who have the diagnosis of bipolar, I struggle to accept it. As I said at the beginning of this post, I’m not entirely convinced I need the meds—and it is always tempting, despite all of my experience, to go off of them, just to see what will happen. I tried out a support group for people with bipolar last fall, and it was actually reassuring to hear that everyone in the group had at some point gone off their meds, and that multiple hospitalizations were not uncommon. It made me feel less crazy. And I do think some acceptance of the reality of this illness helped me a lot in my last stay in a psych ward—I was able to say, okay, this is a real problem, and I need help for it. I drift in and out of that kind of acceptance. Maybe it’s so difficult because it means letting go of a certain amount of control, and realizing that there are challenges in my life that are not going to go away. It is unsettling to consider that if I don’t take this seriously, if I don’t engage in the kind of self-care required to stay on track, it can be lethal. It can be difficult to take my meds simply because every time I do it, I am implicitly accepting  both that this is a real illness, and that it’s okay to treat it, to get help—that I don’t first have to earn that somehow (which is often a pressure I feel). And while every other time I got out of the hospital, I made a “never again” resolution, I’m coming to realize that part of learning to accept this is accepting that there are no guarantees.

My experience with meds is that they can make a significant difference, but they aren’t a magic bullet. Rather, they take the edge off of things, and get me up to a level where I can do the work of therapy: the work of learning to think differently and act less self-destructively. It’s hard, and it’s slow, and I don’t always believe that it’s worth it. I often find myself using something like Alma’s paradigm of experimenting on the word to make sense of what I’m doing. To have faith, I believe, is to adopt an attitude of openness to possibility. I try to come back to that when I’m not sure there’s much point to any of it. Sometimes you walk by faith not because you are particularly virtuous or committed, but simply because there is no other way to walk.

Two years ago, I was putting the finishing touches on my dissertation. I haven’t done a whole lot of academic-style theological work since then. But I’ve been dabbling again lately, and I feel shaky. Can I still write, and do the kind of critical thinking that I spent so many years training to do? As I mentioned in my previous post, I feel like my identity has taken a real beating. I feel disoriented, and yet in some ways, oddly liberated. I’ve been re-evaluating a lot of things. I’ve realized just how much pressure I’ve felt from both the church and the academy to live out particular narratives, and I’m not sure that the standard narrative for either of those is really a great fit for me. I might well end up going in a different direction altogether. That’s unsettling, to say the least, but sometimes, on good days, it’s also exciting.

And I do have good days. That’s something that’s still pretty amazing to me. As I said above, it can also be scary—it’s hard not to wonder how long this will last, and to worry that people will be disappointed in me if I crash again. It’s not easy to stay in the present. But I am working on it, grappling with the question of what it means to be okay, to be alive and not just surviving.  I’ve been thinking of these lines from the poet Adrienne Rich: “but this life of continuing is for the sane mad / and the bravest monsters.”3 I like that way of putting it: a life of continuing.

  1. Jane Kenyon, “Happiness” []
  2. Lauren Slater, Prozac Diary, 35-6 []
  3. Adrienne Rich, “Inscriptions” []

34 Responses to “This Life of Continuing”

  1. 1.

    Thank you. Everything in this post resonates so much with me, and the place I’m in right now. I have depression, and it seems that most people don’t understand that medication is not a “magic bullet,” and that I still struggle on some days.

  2. 2.

    Thank you for sharing this and helping us understand a little about how mental health is treated. And I think I can relate to the “this really isn’t normal” and “are you sure?” I’ve asked my husband, “Well, haven’t you ever felt like X or thought about Y?” and no, he never has or has only once or twice had a fleeting thought. I’ve told him, “Well, I feel like that a lot of the time, and I figured most people do, that’s only normal, right?”

    I’m glad you have such supportive family and can recognize when things aren’t safe for you. <3

  3. 3.

    Every word you wrote is so so true. I’m trying desperately to shake off the remaining vestiges of my depressed pole and return to business as usual, and it is as tenacious as tar. I’m in the “get through the day” phase, and itching to do more while trying to exercise the self-care to not push too hard. This stuff is hard.

  4. 4.

    I learned so much from every word of what you wrote here, Lynnette. I have a number of bi-polar family members, and I’ve always felt like I’m loving them and watching them and trying to support them from the outside. Thanks for giving a glimpse of what it’s like on the inside.

  5. 5.

    Even though I have never been diagnosed with Bipolar disease, I can relate to the sever depression aspect of the disease. Depression is a fast spiral downward that takes an act of God to come back from. When I was depressed for a couple of years, I too found that faith was the only way to walk because all other options were closed off. As it turned out, I had Celiac Disease. When I stopped eating wheat, my thyroid healed, and I finally felt happy again.

    Lynette you are right there is no program or institution in our society that teaches us to be healthy the right way. If it wasn’t for my mother, I would still be miserable. Through my mother and her research on what it takes to be healthy, Mom has taught me to garden, can, latco ferment, and boil stock. I wish I could teach everyone the ways to a healthy lifestyle.

    Good luck, Lynette, and I hope you find the shiniest brightest and most gloriest happiness.

  6. 6.

    “it’s hard not to…worry that people will be disappointed in me if I crash again.”

    Never.

  7. 7.

    “In the past few months, things have come back that I hadn’t realized I’d lost, such as the ability to concentrate enough to read a book, or to genuinely enjoy things, or to think about the future without overwhelming dread.”

    I’ve only experienced one major depression, but when I came out of it after about eight months, there was a defined moment when I realized that I each one of these gifts in my life again.

    I continue to learn so much from you and grow in my admiration and respect for what you have to offer the communities you are part of.

  8. 8.

    “it’s hard not to…worry that people will be disappointed in me if I crash again.”

    Never.

    Your post, Lynnette, and Eve’s comment, are among the many reasons that I’m honored to know you both.

  9. 9.

    What Eve said.
    Beautifully written!

  10. 10.

    “Sometimes you walk by faith not because you are particularly virtuous or committed, but simply because there is no other way to walk.”

    Here, here, sister! We all have our demons.

    Thank you for your courage – or even if not that – just for sharing your experience and insights. You have a gift, regardless of where you are in your mental health status, and I feel fortunate to be one the lucky ones who has discovered you and your writing. Both wonderful.

    God bless you.

  11. 11.

    This!! “Though while I am less depressed these days, I feel fragile, hesitant, tentative. Like things could easily shatter again, or whatever resilience I have built up may not hold up against the next storm.”

    This is both my least and most favorite phase of coming out of depression–holding your crystalline soul in your hand. Yes, you might drop it, but it is right there for you to see, maybe even tentatively admire the fine glassy tendrils of self…

  12. 12.

    Thanks for keeping us posted. There are lots of people who care about you.

    I also add my echo to Eve’s “Never”.

  13. 13.

    Thank you so much, everyone. As hard as the last two years have been, one of the really amazing things to come out of all this has been an appreciation for all the caring and supportive people in my life. I could write a very long thank-a-mony. (“You like me! You really like me! ;) )

    I’ve been thinking about that awful night in the ER, when I still thought I was going to the hospital from hell. I was texting a couple of people and giving them updates. It was kind of surreal. But that thin thread of connection made me feel a little more grounded, despite everything. I know it can be hard to know what to do or say—I’ve been on the other side of this, too—but for me, just feeling connected really makes a difference.

    This is both my least and most favorite phase of coming out of depression–holding your crystalline soul in your hand. Yes, you might drop it, but it is right there for you to see, maybe even tentatively admire the fine glassy tendrils of self…

    I love that description.

  14. 14.

    “…just feeling connected really makes a difference.”

    This is the essence of Mormonism for me — celestial sociality and all that. I hate it that we fail as much as we do, but when we succeed, it really is wonderful.

  15. 15.

    I love that you posted this, Lynnette. I love that you’re brave enough to share it; I love that you’ve described it so well. I love this same part Kristine picked out: “Though while I am less depressed these days, I feel fragile, hesitant, tentative. Like things could easily shatter again, or whatever resilience I have built up may not hold up against the next storm.”

    It’s never hit me as hard as it has you, I’m quite sure, but I think you’ve described the experience perfectly.

    Also, I echo Eve that I will never be disappointed in you if you crash again.

  16. 16.

    Lynnette, I can’t tell you how much your honesty in this series of posts has meant to me. Also, I wanted to share a book with you that a very dear friend of mine has used as part of her therapy.

    http://www.amazon.com/Cognitive-Behavioral-Therapy-Bipolar-Disorder-Second/dp/1593854846

    She has a similar experience – meds would seem to take off the most self destructive tendencies, but she needed to change her habits of thought in order to move from surviving to thriving, and she has found this CBT guide particularly helpful.

    Much love to you and also to your family!

  17. 17.

    Oh, God bless you! I went through a similar experience, although they took me to the local psych unit and I was not helped.

    Now, two suicide attempts later, I’ve found a lot of relief from my depression using homeopathic medicine. I can look back to those years in darkness and realize how very ill I was.

    The stigma of mental illness must be overcome……my experience with medical professionals, ER’s, etc., is similar with the mocking. I don’t know what state you’re in, but Utah is unforgiveable behind the times in dealing with people like me and you. I was treated in a punitive manner when I reached out for help. Someone in that deep depression accepts other peoples evaluation of them as broken and the cycle goes round and round.

    Thank you for your courage and honesty. We must speak out for change.

  18. 18.

    It is so wonderful that you are willing to share this with the ZD community. My daughter suffers from depression, and I admire her so much for not feeling shamed about it but being open with others about her experience, and I feel that same sense of admiration for what you have written about your experiences. Although I only get to see you in person on (treasured) rare occasions, I hope you know how much I admire you and love you and wish you all the best in your life of continuing.

  19. 19.

    Lynette, thank you for sharing your experience. I appreciate your openness. And I am really glad to hear you are doing better.

  20. 20.

    “This Life of Continuing” – what a profound title. I hope you’ll keep writing.

  21. 21.

    This post is such a gift, Lynette–brave and honest. Thank you for sharing this.

    I’m glad those good days are reappearing. I wish you many, many more.

  22. 22.

    This was extremely meaningful to me. I’ve found a lot of success with the cognitive therapy that Enna mentioned. Though, like you said in the OP, it’s hard and it’s slow.

    Count me as another one who likes you, Lynnette!

  23. 23.

    Thanks so much for all the kind words! It really does mean a lot to me. And thanks for the book recommendation, Enna. I’m always interested in seeing what’s out there, especially if it’s focused on bipolar. I’m particularly fond of DBT (dialectical behavior therapy), which incorporates some elements of CBT and adds some other elements like mindfulness.

    annegb, that sounds awful. I’m sorry you didn’t get the help you needed, and that things have been so hard. But it’s good to hear that you’ve found something that’s helping.

  24. 24.

    A bit of a follow-up to this. I shared this post with my therapist, and his critique was that I’d downplayed the amount of work and effort I’ve put into recovery, and made it sound like it mostly came from outside sources. I’m still thinking about that. But I feel like there’s some post about grace and works simmering there . . .

  25. 25.

    I hadn’t heard of DBT but just googled it and it sounds awesome. One shortcoming I’ve experienced with CBT is that I think it lacks enough of a focus on acceptance and validation. It sounds like DBT might have that as well. Very cool.

  26. 26.

    What Eve said.

    And also thank you, for your bravery & honesty. Not idle words since for the first time in my life I am in the hospital not just w/autoimmune diseases but because I could not stop weeping or barely cross the floor. My only pregnancy would’ve come to term very shortly, and while I need to work through many things to eradicate a now-pervasive depression, this particular trigger leveled me. I feel less a failure, less lost, and definitely more hopeful having read your words. I have always idolized you; now I see you as an extension of the sort of empathy I envision in a Christ I believe in on my good days–one open to and about personal pain as part of the integrity required to truly help others. Since right now I really need the help, that’s BIG. But I am going to hoard a pen before the ambulance hauls me off to the depressed person’s hospital on e they kill some infection I have. You ARE a goddess, of wisdom and other things. I can’t formulate thoughts well right now so again, just thank you. And I love you–have since the day I met you, 1st in prose and then in person.

  27. 27.

    Oh, Janet, I am so, so sorry. I really hope this turns out to be a positive and healing experience for you. Don’t forget that lots of people deeply care about you. You’ll be in my thoughts and prayers.

  28. 28.

    Janet, I’m so sorry. That sounds so hard. I really wish we had a ZD team in your area we could dispatch to you. You’re in my thoughts and prayers as well.

  29. 29.

    Thank you Lynnette for this post. I feel so honored to read your story.

  30. 30.

    [...] By Lynnette [...]

  31. 31.

    Lynnette,
    Thanks for sharing this beautiful and important post. I’m constantly amazed at how brilliant you are and how well you navigate these challenges.
    It seems I’ve fallen off reading ZD because I missed this post last month, but I heard you mentioned in the fMh podcast about bodies so I came here to find it (and maybe others?) If you haven’t listened to it, you should. Sarah says some wonderful things about you.

    One thing I’d like to share about focusing on well-being came from a book that Mark and I have been reading “This Will Make You Smarter” by Edge wherein many scientists have written short answers to the question, “What should people have in their cognitive toolkits?” Many fascinating ideas in this book, but the one I’m enamored with is the idea of focusing on global well-being (which can also be community or individual well-being) in measurable ways as an alternative to focusing on getting rid of bad stuff (unemployment, infant mortality, rape, etc). The acronym author Martin Seligman is PERMA (below is copied from his website)
    “The PERMA Model is a well-being theory developed by positive psychologist Marin Seligman. It identifies five essential elements to well-being. These are:
    Positive Emotions (P).
    Engagement (E).
    Positive Relationships (R).
    Meaning (M).
    Achievement/Accomplishment (A).
    By focusing on all five of these elements, we can flourish in life, and find the happiness we want. As such, PERMA gives us the starting point for living a great life!”

    Of course an acronym isn’t going to change anyone’s life, but I love focus on positive rather than just getting rid of negative. (Also, it makes the PERMA in perma-blogger even better!)
    I wish you the best as you continue down this new road and I hope that you find what makes you happy even if it is outside of the Mormon and academic narratives.
    Sending much love, Jess.

  32. 32.

    Lynnette, this was a tender post for me to read. (Your other one, too.) My mental health struggles aren’t the same necessarily, but many of the meta-struggles are so similar — the identity struggles, the fear of what others might think, the grappling with a lack of control. The wrestle with how the divine fits into such wrestles with weakness.

    For me, 12-step meetings and one-on-one support have been helpful for addressing unhealthy thought and belief patterns, coupled with a therapist who used a combo of tools like those in CBT and DBT. Like you said, having support and community makes a difference. One reason I like 12 steps so much is because it’s a place where it’s OK to admit you can’t control things, and where there is actually a sense of what healthy living can look like. At least that has been my experience.

    I just wanted you to know that I care and feel some measure of empathy. You aren’t alone in this struggle, even as all of our specifics may vary somewhat. Mental illness is hard stuff.

    I’ve linked my name to a recent post I wrote sharing a bit of my journey.

  33. 33.

    Just wanted to belatedly come by and respond to a couple more of the comments. Michelle, I read your story, and I appreciate your sharing it. Jessawhy, I think the posts you’re looking for were from the summer of 2011. (Though I’d also like to write a follow-up in response to that podcast). And thanks for the book recommendation! Janet, I’ve been thinking about you, and hoping things are going better. And everyone, all your good wishes mean a lot to me.

  34. 34.

    [...] blogged a little about what the last few years have been like for me. Difficult would be an understatement. But [...]

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