By Heather Loeb
I arrived at the psychiatric hospital in June of 2019. I had struggled for years with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, and they both worsened after having my two kids. Leading up to the hospitalization, I had been abusing my anxiety medication (a benzodiazepine) and struggling with compulsive behaviors, like shopping, cutting and binge eating.
That first day, I wore a long, blue and white dress with a sash around my waist, which was dressy for me. I was hopeful. I figured I would be there for just a couple of weeks, and then I would be cured. Maybe that’s how hospitalization works for some people, but it did not go that way for me. And for many people living with serious mental illness (SMI), the journey to recovery is not that simple.
Looking back on my history, I hope to share the lessons I learned along the way.
That morning, after kissing my husband goodbye, a member of the hospital staff took the sash from my dress. I was not allowed any item that could be used for self-harm. I was taken to my room, which looked like a dorm room, but there was no shower door, just a curtain (also a safety precaution). During the day, a staff member would come by and check on us every 15 minutes. At night, too. These extreme measures opened my eyes to how dire my situation was.
My work to create an effective and sustainable treatment plan — one that would carry me through my outpatient healing — began immediately. I was given a busy schedule of classes on how to cope with difficult emotions, how to communicate about my illnesses and how to be mindful. When I didn’t have class, I met with a team of doctors and staff — social workers, therapists, a psychologist and psychiatrist. They told me I could not be discharged until we finished and approved my treatment plan. I also did a battery of psychiatric tests, growing my list of diagnoses: dysthymia, avoidant personality disorder, along with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
After doctors determined I had treatment-resistant depression (meaning that some medications would not work for me) we opted to try electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). That also was a big wake-up call: I was very sick. That’s when I first understood that I would be walking a tight rope when it came to my recovery. I couldn’t be cured, but I could manage my symptoms and find my balance.
After six weeks in treatment, I felt like I’d made significant progress and was ready to head home to see my family. But looking back, I wish I had stayed at the hospital longer, soaking up all the classes and advice I could.
When I left inpatient treatment, doctors recommended that I continue ECT treatments, go to weekly therapy and refer to my treatment plan, which outlined ways to cope at home.
At first, I relied heavily on ECT to work its “magic.” I would take my medication and go to therapy, but any sign of a bad mood left me wanting more ECT. I was going for a treatment every four to six weeks in a city two hours away. Eventually, I learned that even ECT can’t fix everything. My therapist once told me that I couldn’t get ECT every time I had a bad day. And she was right. I had to do the work, and it was hard. I struggled to sit with uncomfortable emotions.
I still turned to my binge eating and compulsive shopping for comfort, racking up thousands of dollars on my credit card each month. I didn’t mean to, but this was a behavior that had served me in the past. I needed to learn how to acknowledge my feelings and tolerate distress in a healthy way.
That’s one thing I’ve learned about recovery: It’s all a balancing act. And, as my compulsive behaviors spiraled, I didn’t know if my family could take another fall. Or if there would even be a net to catch me this time.
I often feel resentful of my own brain; it seems like a betrayal that I have to walk the line so carefully when others don’t. And sometimes, I wonder if I I’ll ever go a day without thinking about my mental health. Even four years after my hospital stay, my recovery is a constant effort. I’m still learning that not all coping mechanisms are healthy and that slip ups and setbacks are common. I’m learning that medication can fail and even if I follow all the “rules,” I can still find myself in a depressive episode.
However, I find comfort in knowing I am not alone. In 2020, an estimated 14.2 million adults in the U.S. dealt with a serious mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). And many of us who make up this statistic find the right kind of help and successfully manage our symptoms.
When I get discouraged about my mental health, I like to think about the progress I’ve made — I’m miles away from where I was that day in my blue and white dress.
For a long time, I blamed myself for my illness, and I shouldered the heavy burden of other people’s opinions about me and my mental health. However, through treatment and reflection, I have come to understand that my illness is not my fault.
Reaching this realization has allowed me to find my voice. After I left the hospital, I started blogging about my experience. I told the truth about everything (suicidal thoughts, diagnoses, etc.). I told readers my deepest darkest secrets, and it was so freeing. I no longer feel shame or any stigma associated with having a mental illness. So many people have reached out to me since 2019, saying they feel the same way but can’t talk about it with loved ones yet. I get that, and I’m happy to lend my voice to others’ struggles if it means they don’t feel so alone, like I did years ago.
Even with all this progress, it’s still hard — and that’s ok. Every day I get a little stronger, and I grow. That’s all I can ask of myself.
Heather Loeb is the creator of Unruly Neurons, a blog dedicated to eradicating the stigma of mental illness. Heather has lived with major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, avoidant personality disorder and binge eating disorder for the past 20 years. She also writes a mental health column in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times and is the Communications Manager for NAMI Greater Corpus Christi.
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