Dear Dr. H***,
You were right. Seven years ago this August, I left your office with my husband, round belly bulging with my nearly full-term first child, cursing your name. It was our first appointment together and you basically told me I was going to fail. When I explained to you that I had been off meds and symptom-free from my bipolar disorder for almost a year and that I wanted to stay off medication to breastfeed, you nodded with a sympathetic smile on your face, scribbled in your notebook and simply said we needed to have a plan.
A plan for which hospital I’d go to when I became manic to the point of needing that level of care. That level of care that you were so sure I’d need.
You were right.
At that stage of my fight, Dr. H***, I was still in denial about the fact that I had been diagnosed with a mental illness. I thought maybe, just maybe, since I had nearly a full year of stability without meds, the past had been a misdiagnosis. Perhaps those eight psychiatrists I had seen over the years since my two hospitalizations for mania were all wrong. I mean, I hadn’t experienced any significant episodes of depression or mania since 2006 and most importantly, I felt solid and stable. Didn’t that count for anything?
Didn’t that make me normal again?
I was so excited to be a mom and every spare moment I had was spent preparing for this new little life who would soon enter the world. His crib was set up, clothes had been washed and lovingly put away, and diapers and wipes sat waiting on the changing table in his nursery. One of the last things on my list was meeting with you, a psychiatrist who agreed to treat me without medication for the remainder of my pregnancy and beyond, according to my wishes.
Man, am I glad we met when we did. Because you were so right. And when the time came, four weeks after his birth, when the compounded lack of sleep and absence of meds in my bloodstream caught up to me in the form of full-blown postpartum psychosis, my husband had someone to call for help.
He called you.
How terrifying it must have been for him to see me unravel the way I did. How helpless he must have felt watching me slowly lose touch with reality, my eyes glazing over, unable to focus on the simplest task of taking a shower or eating a bowl of cereal. And when the psychosis reached its peak, he saw me scrambling to pull together every journal I had ever written in, piling them up before the blazing gas fireplace in our family room like an offering before I died. My legacy, scrawled in ink for my son to read someday since in my mind, I wasn’t going to make it back to the surface. I was hurling to the depths of hell which to me felt like being dragged to the floor of the ocean, my ankles cuffed with a ball and chain pulling me to the bottom. I was sinking faster than I could breathe. And I was so scared it was my day to die and I’d never see my baby again.
Mania to the point of psychosis can do this to a person.
I was taken under a Temporary Detention Order to the Emergency Room where I was held handcuffed to the bed. The doctors and nurses eventually determined I was a threat to myself or others and the green light was given to find me a bed. I was lucky, beds aren’t always available, as the Deeds’ family tragedy recently and unfortunately proved. I only had to wait overnight and the next morning I was transferred to our local hospital’s geriatric psych ward, the only open bed in the surrounding area.
I made it through. It wasn’t easy, in fact, it was pretty awful being in a psych ward for a week of my new baby’s life. My mental illness had landed a forceful blow to the gut, showing me it was in control of my body. Still, wandering the halls at night I’d stumble, groggy from the antipsychotics, to the nurses station to ask for another dose of whatever sleeping pill they could give me. I knew sleep was my friend in there. After a week, I got well with your help, and with support from my husband and family.
I focused on getting stable. I followed my treatment plan and took my meds religiously. Then it happened again. I thought I knew what was best for my next baby. I didn’t. Acute mania reared its ugly head to the point of psychosis, repeating the nightmare a year and a half later when I found out I was pregnant with my daughter because I had stopped my medication.
You were right again. At five weeks pregnant I landed in the psych ward again.
Those days are tough for me to look back on, the times I was in the hospital and the weeks and months of recovery afterwards. But I wouldn’t trade them for anything because they are a part of who I am now and they tell the story of how I’ve evolved. Those slices of my life do not define me, but when added into everything else that makes me the person I am today, I am grateful for those agonizing, terrifying, heart-wrenching experiences.
You are the expert when it comes to psychiatry, Dr. H***. Me, I’m just the patient. But when it comes to making life decisions, I asked for your opinion but of course only I could make that call. You expressed the same sadness that so many in this world share over the injustice mentally ill people experience when they expose their conditions. I was looking for justification that it would be okay if I wrote openly about what I had been through, but I didn’t get that from you. In fact, you recommended that I keep my illness hidden, lest I be discriminated upon because of it. Once more, it was as if I were hearing “destined to fail” all over again.
Good thing I didn’t listen that time.
I’m writing now, Dr. H***. Remember when I told you I wanted to write a book? Well, I still do, but first I’ve started self-publishing online, to gain experience. I have a blog, and over the past two years my readership has grown tremendously, all organically, due to my dedication to sharing my story in order to help others.
I’ve met so many incredible people through blogging and social media. It blows my mind how I can write about the struggles I’ve gone through and in return, I get emails from people saying, “Me too!” and “Thank you so much for being so brave.” My heart is blissfully content because I know I’ve uncovered my purpose in life and my words are having an impact on people, a positive impact. I can feel it. And every time I put my thoughts out there for the world to read, my voice grows a little stronger.
I’ve created a show and non-profit organization called This Is My Brave where others like me who live with mental illness can stand up on stage and share our personal stories, our suffering and our breakthroughs, the hope we’ve found in long-term recovery. This is our chance to show the world our vulnerability in an effort to raise awareness and acceptance.
For years after I was handed my diagnosis I feared the backlash of people who knew me finding out about my mental illness. Conversations were uncomfortable, I cared too much about what other people thought of me. It didn’t take me very long to realize that living in fear is not really living. Taking off my armor and choosing to expose myself and my story was one of the best decisions I ever made about my mental health and my life in general.
Revealing my vulnerability freed me to follow my dreams.
And I have you to thank. Thank you for being right. Thank you for letting me fall. Thank you for being there when I needed you. Finally, thank you for doubting me and advising me to stay silent. Because I needed my chance to prove someone wrong and you were that person for me.
Jennifer Marshall (your patient from 2008-2011)