Four Phases of My Mental Illness Journey (So Far)

CN: mental illness, mental health industry, child abuse, sexual violence, Catholic Church

My mental illness journey has four significant chapters, beginning with my decision to seek help. I use the term “phase” rather than stage because it isn’t so much that they play out this way in most people’s lives as my being able to differentiate how I was being treated.

I was 22 when I first sought professional help as a graduate student. It wasn’t the first time I asked for help – that happened several times during college, but our Catholic school had zero mental health supports even with a thriving undergrad program in psychology. So I just struggled on my own.

Once in grad school I went to the student mh center and was diagnosed with depression.  At the time it, made sense. I dutifully took my pills, continued drinking too much beer as graduate students are want to do, and rotated through student therapists practicing their craft on me. It was less than ideal, but it was more than I had ever had access to.

Let me interrupt myself to say that giving up alcohol is one of the very best choices I ever made. I wish I had done it back then in grad school as I was advised, but I had to spend another 15 years or so before I would realize how much I was hurting myself with just a glass of wine AND my daily medications.

I suspected something else was amiss, but I was using The Patty Duke Story “Call Me Anna” as my base line so no one took me seriously. That’s unfortunate because being misdiagnosed and improperly medicated sent me spiraling toward disaster.

I rolled up on my 26th birthday fueled by a multi-year-Prozac-driven mania that was in part responsible for me dropping out graduate school and heading to Western Kentucky to be a missionary. My heart was broken, I fell in love with my rebound, they broke my heart as well, and I hit the mania wall.

It wasn’t pretty, but I got through and I got a new diagnosis of a mood disorder. And new meds.

I spent the next five years with varying degrees of health insurance or health care. I was on ‘indigent programs’ to access my meds. I spun through therapists and a successful stint of graduate school. I read everything I could find about my diagnosis. Again, I knew there was more to my story, but had no idea how to figure it out.

Phase Two began when I was referred to a practice specializing in mood disorders – Dr. Mallinger and therapist Debbie Frankel MSW. It was the first time the pills were tied directly to the talk therapy. I learned about the nuances of my illness. I agreed to try Lithium. I had access to support during personal emergencies. I was given a list of appropriate books to read.

Dr. Mallinger and Debbie saved my life. They gave me a foundation to pursue treatment rather than just meds or emotional bandaids. I can’t emphasize enough how much the time I worked with them together altered the course of my life.

Phase Two bleeds into Phase Three because Dr. Mallinger diagnosed me with PTSD and incorporated that into my treatment. Then, he left for a job at the National Institute of Health.

I continued working with Debbie, but finding a permanent psychiatrist was a genuine nightmare I’ll save for another post. It was an eight year span of despair. Finally, I had to make the painful decision to leave Debbie’s care (10 years!) and go to a community clinic so I could access psychiatric care.

But during one successful doctor pairing, I learned that I was living with anxiety. I had no idea that being terrified to answer the door was a legitimate symptom, just assuming it was a moral failing. I had difficulties with transitions, including Fridays and Sundays and returning to work after a vacation. I had anxiety attacks that I couldn’t describe, but suffered silently through the years.

So Phase Three was an exploration of the anxious life on top of a moody swingy life. I took some meds and began a slow, but fruitful behavioral change.

My current phase, Phase Four,  began a few years ago when I was assigned to a damn good therapist named Heather Brown. Heather is the first person to confront me with the harm I was doing to myself by stuffing my memories down inside myself. She saw through the superficial tales I allowed myself to share to deflect questions. To be fair, I suspect Debbie saw through them, too, after ten years of working together. She just saw that I could not go there at that point.

Heather left Persad, I rolled through three interim therapists in three months until finally landing with a trauma informed and trained therapist, B, in the spring of 2018.

By this point, my tactics of stuffing things down inside were no longer working. My brain got on board with what I describe as “knitting” my fragmented memories with my knowledge about child development. I was diagnosed with Complex Trauma Disorderat age 48.

It’s overly simplistic to say the trauma caused the mood disorders and anxiety. They coexist in a careful choreography to protect me. Walking through 26 years of treatment prepared me for this. I had to ‘phase up’ to trust myself enough that I could handle it.

And this is fucking hard. I will likely never share most of my story because other survivors are involved. And its just a ridiculous terribly story.

To pursue trauma processing therapy like EMDR, I have to keep my mood and anxiety somewhat stable. But like the overachieving client I aspire to be, my mind is three steps ahead in exposing me to my traumatic memories and experiences.

It is important to note that these are not repressed memories in the sense that I’ve always known them, but I just shoved them away. I severed my life experiences from my day-to-day reality. The unanswered questions might be resolved by putting the pieces together accurately, but there’s unlikely to be new information there.

Here’s an example. When I was about 12, I found a stash of letters my mother wrote while she was inpatient while pregnant with my brother. I asked my Dad about them and he promptly destroyed the letters and explained to me, not without kindness but absolutely without detail, that my mother had an ‘episode’ and went to the hospital for a bit. I stayed with family members. And we didn’t talk about it again. This was circa 1983.

Now I had been occasionally told that I lived with these relatives in a casual manner that would normally be very appropriate in this situation. Your mom gets sick, someone takes care of the baby, right?

It took me a long time to connect the dots with the reality that these were not safe people, that one of them assaulted my mother, and that I was being groomed by one. And to realize that the separation from my mother at a tender age hurt me. There’s no one to clarify how long we were apart, but I guess between six months to a year during my infancy. I did establish a bond with the family members who cared for me, but it was all an illusion based on horrible lies. I would have stood better chances in foster care or had any other adults in our family stepped up.

Losing my faith in that early bonding when I began to learn the truth about those people was like having the wind knocked out of any good thing in my life, past or present. I thought I was relatively adjusted and attached because they were safe. Then I lost that, too. It just sucks.

So now I knit this together with what I know about attachment and bonding. I look at my trust issues in a new light. I’m furious with the adults who knew, but did nothing. My fear of abandonment and rejection makes more sense, even as it continues to disrupt my life.

I knew all of these facts all along, but had never put the pieces together in this order. And as fucked up as it is, the truth is better. Because I understand more of the ‘why’ I do certain things or feel certain things or get triggered by certain things. Like Diocesan cover-ups of the 23 years predator priests staffed the parish two blocks from my home.

I don’t know how Phase Four will play out or how long it will take. I’m hoping Phase Five will be a bit more blissful, but that’s probably ridiculous.

I used to wince when people asked me to speak to my younger self and comfort her. Now I visualize myself reaching back through the years to grasp her hand firmly and pull her to safety. And then tell her the truth or as much as I can bear to speak out loud. She doesn’t deserve to be stuck back there, reliving those traumas.

Doing this work allows me to look back at the past 30 some years and put the wrong diagnoses, the insufficient diagnoses, and so forth in perspective. I was the one holding back all those years because my mind was wrapped up in knots protecting me from everything. I was afraid of everything even when I was at my most confident. Perhaps in another few years, my perspective will change. But I’m going to be eternally grateful to whatever pushed my 22-year-old self to contact that student mental health center.

A sequence of the Blood Moon lunar eclipse photos were taken over Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, July 27, 2018. While lunar eclipses occur sporadically throughout the year, this particular one