I had already been thinking about writing this for the last couple of weeks when The Schizophrenic Programmer Who Built An OS To Talk To God made the front page. There appears to be a sizable contingent who still believe that mental illness == crazy. 4% of the population will have a serious mental illness in the next 12 months. So let me share what it's like to be mentally ill.
Am I mentally ill? Sure. I'm being treated for both PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and MDD (Major Depressive Disorder).
Am I "crazy"? No. No "voices in my head", no "visions", no "loss of contact with reality"; in short, no psychosis.
About 3 years ago I went into a deeper and longer depression than ever before. I had reason to be depressed - my retinas were deteriorating, using a computer for 8 hours a day was out so I figured (rightly) that my career as a programmer was probably over, and I didn't have a clue as to what to do next. I wasn't able to stay awake more than a few hours at a time, and when I wasn't sleeping I found my thoughts turning more and more to suicide.
I dropped out. From slashdot. From the net. From friends. From family. My life boiled down to trying to think of any excuse, any reason, to have hope, and walking my dogs in the winter snow.
As the weeks turned into months, I had failed to convince myself that the pros of life outweighed the cons, so I picked a date - the month of May. And yes, I had a plan.
Spring came, and I think it was in April that my mood started to reverse itself. By May, my depression had mostly passed, and I resigned myself to slogging on and hoping for better times.
I was an idiot - I freely admit it. It never even occurred to me to go to an E.R. and ask to see a psychiatrist. I had managed to make it through all these years without professional help, that when I needed it most, it was off my radar.
Last December things started to fall apart again. My eyesight had temporarily deteriorated to the point that I was letting my dog mostly lead me around outdoors. I was having nightmares, anxiety and panic attacks, and I dared not show it because a couple of hundred people were depending on me to lead the fight against a property developer who had taken over our apartment buildings. They were trying to illegally kick half of us out by February 1st, do some renovations, jack up the rent, then repeat with the other buildings. So I'd go and encourage yet another family that I wouldn't let them down, then go home and cry.
One particular nightmare convinced me that it was imperative that I get to an E.R. sooner rather than later, or I'd end up down the same rabbit hole I had fallen into 2 years prior.
I got lucky. At first, I befuddled the psychiatrist with my story. I explained that yes, I was a transsexual, but that had nothing to do with the problem at hand, which was PTSD, which had been diagnosed at another hospital after a sexual assault, but it had started when I was in high school when another classmate killed his father.
I was talking so fast, and my story was so incredible, that (he later confided) he thought I was having a manic episode. Or on drugs. Or both. I gave him permission to check the other hospital's records to confirm the assault, and to call one of my sisters to confirm the murder. My urine sample came back negative, so we talked about what was happening in my life, and what I wanted from him.
That last bit was simple - "I don't want what happened before to happen again. I don't want to go into that black hole with no way out."
I left with a prescription for an antidepressant, and a follow-up two months hence - but if things got bad, "don't wait - call me."
We had to change antidepressants twice - the first one ... well, I've never done drugs, but waking up and being able to control my dvd player / tuner with my mind was a bit too much. The second one removed by ability to sense that I was going hypoglycemic - I went to rise from my kitchen chair and immediately passed out. Woke up just over an hour later on the tile floor with a solid concussion and bruises on both sides of my body.
The third time was a charm. The new prescription ended the anxiety, didn't interfere with me realizing that I had screwed up my insulin dosage, and the only side effect was that I often had to take a nap around lunch. I was now in a good place again.
It was about this time that I started therapy to help me how to deal with PTSD. Here too I was lucky. My therapist had previous experience dealing with transsexuals, as well as people with PTSD and rape victims, so when she had a chance to work with someone who combined all three she immediately volunteered.
By this point I was symptom-free, so I was able to focus on applying what she was teaching me - distorted thinking aka cognitive distortion, as well as helping me to finally understand that not only was there nothing I could have done to prevent the murder and that most people would have been killed, that crazy events don't have rational explanations and trying to find one will just drive you crazy, that trying to help someone else but failing doesn't make me a failure, and that those in my family who won't accept me by now, there's not much to do except accept them the way they are.
I also underwent a few sessions with a psychologist, giving him background info, answering his questions, taking different tests. The Rorschach was the most interesting. I told him how strange it was - I remembered the answers I had given as a kid, but I didn't see the same things at all (my previous answers were "dark").
So, everything was now under control, and I felt better than I had in ages. I was moving to a larger apartment in a better neighborhood, having fixed things up so that none of my former neighbors had to do ANYTHING except (1) refuse every offer, (2) wait for a summons, (3) go to court, and (4) PROFIT. We had the judgments, we had the law on our side, and I had delayed work on my side of the building by 6 months by the simple expedient of refusing to move out. Any further delay and the project was dead.
My therapist had warned me that because I have a history of depression, it would likely happen again. She was right. Late August and early September were denoted by three back-to-back negative events. The worst was that despite my best efforts, and moving into a larger place that had enough room for someone confined to a wheelchair, there was no way that I would be able to keep a close relative from having to go into palliative care instead.
I then set up the two laptops (one Windows 8.1, the other Fedora 19) and two 26" screens, and set about trying to get back into coding, since I have one eye that I can still read with. I was hoping against hope, but it turns out there's no way I can get "back into the zone" again. At least not while taking anti-depressants, and that's just too risky.
And in the end, almost every person who had agreed not to accept any offer from the developers folded without a fight. Sheeple really are sheeple. I feel sorry for them.
Three failures, back-to-back-to-back. I took the first one particularly hard. I started to get "down in the dumps". When it didn't clear up in a couple of weeks, I promised myself that if there was no change I would call my psychiatrist. Things started to improve, but it was like the calm before a storm. Within another week I was not able to stay awake more than 2-3 hours at a time, despite 10 or more hours of sleep. My mood darkened, thoughts of suicide came to seem more and more "reasonable". "Why should I continue if I'm always going to end up back here?" "There's no future." "The only person who benefited from all my hard volunteer work this past year was me. Couldn't even do that right." "My life sucks." "Being me sucks. What a waste."
A month in, I was counting the days to my next appointment with my psychiatrist, which was still a month away ... It was draining. My days had devolved into sleep, get up, walk the dogs, have breakfast, surf slashdot for a while, take a 3-4-hour "nap", walk the dogs, surf slashdot for a while, take another "nap", have supper, walk the dogs, go to bed, all while thoughts of killing myself were chasing me.
The last week of October things started getting better. I was still unable to stay awake for more than a few hours at a time, but by the first week of November, I was in a better place emotionally. No more thoughts of pulling the plug, and that's all that counted. I described it to my psychiatrist when I went for my appointment and he told me that I should have called when I first noticed things going downhill. I told him that I hadn't wanted to intrude, seeing as we had a scheduled visit coming up, but he assured me it wouldn't be an intrusion - he's there to help me, it's his job. I understand that, but I still feel a bit like I'm imposing on him.
The upshot is that my evening antidepressant dose is now doubled, and I now have a different one for the morning, which will hopefully get rid of the need to sleep during the day. So far, it's not working, but it's only been a week, and I see him in another 4 weeks to re-evaluate.
So, as promised, a look into what being mentally ill is like. It must seem strange, alien, to most of you, but probably not so much to the "walking wounded" out there who are suffering in silence because of all the stigma and prejudice. Not to mention sheer ignorance - I don't know how many times people (especially family members) have told me that I should "just pull myself out of it". Now THAT'S depressing :-)