Continuing the Surviving Bipolar Series.
Surviving Bipolar is a series about my journey with mental illness. This is part 11 and covers more of the early days after my diagnosis. If you’re new to Speaking Bipolar, you can read the Surviving Bipolar Series from the beginning by clicking here.
When we last left off, day two had ended with me finally getting some sleep. I saw a doctor for about five minutes on day one, but then nothing. I needed answers, but all the staff kept telling me I had to talk to the doctor. When I asked when I’d see her again, the reply was always, “Soon.”
“Soon” is not helpful when you’re struggle to sit still and your head is swimming with more thoughts than you can follow.
Days three and four were about confronting lies in my head, learning my first coping skills, and dealing with a new label. Let me tell you about it.Start Today!
Finally, the Doctor
On the morning of my third day, I finally saw the doctor again. Dr. Hateful gave no illusion that she was interested in me or my mental health. With a cold, condescending voice, she told me she was going to double my Depakote prescription and start me back on Prozac again.
My mind had yet to make the connection with the damage Prozac was doing to me, so at the time, it sounded like good news. When I first started taking Prozac, I felt good, so I imagined that was how things would be again.
Dr. Hateful told me I had manic depression with paranoid and panic episodes. Remember, this was 1995. I’m not even sure how that would translate into today’s diagnosis other than saying that it was bipolar type 1 with psychosis.
While writing notes in my file, she also said she was starting me on a drug called Navane. That little wonder would cause me to sleep as much as 20 hours a day.
Dr. Hateful’s theory was that bipolar caused insomnia, the insomnia caused mania, and the mania made me a danger to myself and others. As many doctors felt at the time, her solution was to keep me so medicated that I would have no strength to act on negative impulses.
It was stupid reasoning that kept me in a zombie-like state for much of the next three years.
Anxiety Skills Class
I took more notes on the third day, at least for the classes where I stayed awake. There were a couple of sessions where I fell asleep before the teacher even told us their name.
There was one class about anxiety taught by a man we called Counselor Ken. I don’t remember much about Counselor Ken other than how he made me few. He was one of the few staff members to treat us like real people rather than damaged goods. I forced myself to stay awake in his class because I felt like he actually wanted to help.
Counselor Ken told us how panic attacks were like a tornado. At the bottom of the tornado, you’re in a normal situation, such as sitting at home in your recliner. Then something startles you–a noise, a voice, a smell, etc. The stimulation makes your mind start to twist as your pulse quickens.
The trigger causes your thoughts to race and the tornado picks up speed. As the feelings of nervousness bubble to the surface, panic washes through you and you’re in a full-blown panic attack before you know it. The world fades to white as you gasp for air with lungs that feel frozen in place.
Counselor Ken said the key to stopping the tornado had two parts. One, you have to learn to identify your triggers. Two, you had to develop the skill of mastering your thoughts when triggered rather than letting your emotions take over.
Counselor Ken said the biggest problem during a panic attack was that you’re feeling at a time when you need to be thinking. He believed that if you could slow down and think a situation through, then the panic attack would end. Controlled thoughts, at least in his mind, would bring the tornado to a screeching halt.
It sounded like good advice at the time. I was even a little excited at the idea of using my thoughts to control my anxiety. Still in the grasp of mania, I knew I could do anything with my thoughts.
As I would learn in the years to follow, there’s no amount of thinking that can stop a panic attack, at least not when you’re in full spiral. Once you’re triggered, you can try things like grounding techniques, but you often have no choice but to let the panic attack run its course.
On point one, though, Counselor Ken was right. Once you can identify your triggers it’s a whole lot easier to avoid them or prepare yourself to face them.
After an attack, Counselor Ken recommended you ask yourself questions like these: why did the trigger set me off? What made me feel nervous? What were my past experiences in this area? When was the last time I felt similar feelings tied to the trigger?
When you can pull apart the trauma inside triggered by the anxiety, then you can work through and learn to manage the trauma. This is one area where the only way past the pain is to go through it.
Connected Group Therapy
After Counselor Ken’s anxiety class, it was time for another group therapy session.
As I reflect back on those two days, that group session was the one event I fully connected. I wrote in my journal how amazed I was that the conversation flowed well during the session. The group leader said very little once one of the patients started talking about lost loves and the inevitable suicidal feelings when a relationship ends. Everyone sat up in their chairs and joined the conversation.
I’m sure I said something, but I didn’t write it in my journal.
Instead I absorbed everything the others were saying. For the first time, I felt a sense of validation for some of the scary thoughts in my head. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
After our regular group session, I had to go to what we called A & D, which was an in-patient version of Alcoholics Anonymous. Where attending group therapy was optional (people sometimes missed if they needed a nap), A & D was required. Failure to attend A & D resulted in demerits or losing the privilege to share in game night or nature walks.
Some staff person on my first day labeled me an alcoholic.
It didn’t feel right, but I accepted it. After all, the night before coming to the hospital, my friend had found me drunk sitting next to a table scattered with colorful pills. When I think back to the months leading up to my hospital stay, there were lots of times where I was managing my emotions with alcohol.
Maybe I am an alcoholic, I wrote in my journal. I guess it doesn’t do any good to stress about it. I am what I am.
I would learn more about alcoholism in the next few days, but the picture wouldn’t fully become clear until years later.
On day four, they finally allowed me to have visitors. While I was excited to see friends, their visit brought with it more complicated feelings. I’ll tell you that story next time.
Until next time, keep fighting.