For those of you who don’t know, I recently came home to Cincinnati to seek treatment for a mood disorder I’ve been struggling with for quite a while. The stresses of L.A. and the relative isolation I was experiencing there eventually pushed me over a dangerous edge, and I knew that if I didn’t get some kind of help soon, well…you can fill in the blanks. I don’t want to say it again as my poor mother has had to hear it too much already.
Anyway, my last few posts have been about my cross-country drive home, reminiscing and in some ways reliving my past, and preparing to finally let go of it. Not surprisingly, I was exhausted when I got home, but also resigned. Truth be told, I was relieved to have made it and I wanted to waste no time getting into treatment.
My family and I did some research on local mental health facilities, since it was decided that a hospital wasn’t really the right place for me. We found a renowned treatment center very close to us, and I enrolled in their voluntary program for a 10-day diagnostic stay. Strangely, I had hardly any reservations at all about heading off to a looney bin for a mini vacay. I think I had just been suffering for so long that I was willing to try anything.
And I mean, shit, if I could make it through the crazy train that was The Glass House for three months, this was gonna be a cakewalk.
Anyway, I cannot overstate how much better I feel. It really is like night and day. And I made some great friends while there that I’m sure I will continue to be in touch with in the future.
The program was nice in that it wasn’t at all the typical white-walled, sterile, confining atmosphere that you think of when you envision a mental institution. It was much more Promises of Malibu than “Girl, Interrupted.” We had our own private rooms, could keep and use our cell phones, laptops, etc., and could choose whether or not to attend group therapy. Being at a small facility where admission is voluntary is a whole different ballgame from being committed against your will in a crisis situation. You weren’t eligible for the program if you were psychotic, delusional, or out of touch with reality in any other way. So everyone in the unit was suffering from depression, anxiety, mild mood disorder, OCD, substance abuse, or a combination thereof.
While I left the center feeling fantastic, I definitely had my ups and downs while in there. Naturally, I tried out different combinations of medications throughout my stay, and the heavier doses sent me into a serious and exhausting depression for a few days. At that point, I started to lose hope, I think because I felt a lot of pressure to “get better” due to the astronomical expense of the program and all the guilt I had associated with that. But my parents insisted that I not worry about the expense, which made me feel a little better. And in some ways, it was actually very good that I swung as severely as I did during my stay there, because the doctors and counselors got to see just how extreme and transient my moods could be. Ultimately, though, they got my medications straightened out, and I swear to God, I didn’t know it was possible to feel this good without feeling TOO good. I can’t believe I’ve gone my whole life without having this kind of balance. On the one hand, I wish I had done all of this sooner, but on the other, I’m enormously grateful to have done it while I’m still young.
In all fairness, I suppose I should add that the staff, while hospitable and capable, was completely disorganized and dropped the ball on more than a couple of occassions. Apparently they hired a new director several months ago and they were still “working out the kinks.” I had to advocate for my own and others’ care many, many times. But I erred my grievances calmly and cordially, and the staff was for the most part very apologetic, in large part because I genuinely liked all of them and they genuinely liked me. As the saying goes, you kill more flies with honey.
I don’t know why, but I always end up in these situations; leading the charge when incompetent bullshit is afoot. So of course, I became the mouthpiece for all the other pissed off patients and basically prevented what was shaping up to be a mutiny. Once again, Erica was the squeaky wheel, but ultimately, myself and the other patients got the grease.
But I digress.
On day nine, I had a feedback session with my treatment team to discuss my diagnosis. After hours and hours of written testing and sessions with doctors, I sat down with them all (with my mother on speaker phone of course) to get the results. This part I was a little nervous about. Ironically, I came in there afraid they would tell me I’m crazy, but by the end of it, I was afraid they would tell me I wasn’t. Because if nothing was wrong with my mind, what the hell was wrong with ME? And how would I fix it?
Luckily, this wasn’t the case, and I am, in fact, crazier than a bag of angel dust. No, I’m only kidding, turns out I’m not that nuts. My established diagnosis of ADD was confirmed (no shocker there), and I was given additional diagnoses of alcohol abuse (even less of a shocker there), and rapid-cycling Bipolar II (pretty much in the ballpark of what I anticipated). Bipolar II is a form of bipolar disorder with a predominant depressive mood coupled with periods of hypomania, which refers to an elevated mood and energy level distinguishible from actual mania, which includes psychotic delusions, paranoia, etc. Cyclothymia is extremely similar to Bipolar II, but I was diagnosed with the latter because of how rapidly my moods cycle, which is apparently not typical in cyclothymia. The treatment team believed (and I agreed) that my alcohol use was an effort to self-medicate which had actually been causing more severe mood symptoms. They also agreed (and this really surprised me) that in the absence of alcohol use, my hypomanic episodes weren’t actually doing me much harm aside from the sleeplessness, though that symptom was not to be minimized. In accordance with the diagnosis, it was recommended that I stop drinking, get heavily involved in therapy, and take my medications as scheduled. They believed my prognosis for recovery and/or remission was very good, and when I left that meeting, I did, too.
Also, the IQ testing they did on me put me in the very highest intelligence bracket for verbal skills and knowledge (top 2% of the population). This has nothing to do with my diagnosis at all. I’m just blatantly bragging about it.
So I left feeling like they hit the nail on the head with the diagnosis, and feeling very good about my medication regimen. And let me tell you, folks…it’s quite a regimen.
But it WORKS. Enormously well. And the cocktail that we settled on is very low doses of more medications, rather than higher doses of one or two. This is great because I can achieve the mood stabilization I need with no undesirable effects on my personality and no side effects at all so far (well, except for a slight decrease in appetite, but who the hell complains about that?!). Thankfully, the psychiatrist agreed that the actual mood stabilizers were going to be too heavy-duty and possibly exacerbate the depressive symptoms, so we stuck with low-dose anti-seizure medicines (which makes me wonder even more about the possible link with my childhood epilepsy) and low-dose antidepressants. The effect has basically been getting rid of all the bad mood while retaining all the good mood — CONSISTENTLY. I had no idea that was possible. I went into this assuming that I was going to have to give up something to get something; that I would lose my spark or my wit or my sense of humor along with my depressive spells. It’s really impossible to explain how shocked and thrilled I am with the outcome of all this. I know people in this situation are always “cautiously optimistic,” but personally, I think cautious optimism is self-fulfilling, self-defeating, and pointless. Why put a condom on your own hope?! What, so that if things go wrong later on, you can say “I told myself so?” I don’t get that. I’m enjoying feeling great, right now, right in this moment, and allowing myself to believe that will continue, because I don’t see the advantage in believing otherwise.
I’ve spent the majority of my life waiting for and assuming that the other shoe will drop, and I don’t want to live that way anymore. Maybe now I don’t have to.
In addition to my meds, I’ve stopped drinking entirely and attend Women for Sobriety meetings. I went off-site to a couple of AA meetings while I was staying at the treatment center, but it just didn’t jive with me. It was kind of church-y and depressing…they make you feel horrible about your past use, but then give all the credit to Jesus if you quit. And it just felt like a bunch of grizzled old dudes trying to one-up each other’s horror stories from their boozed-up past. “I lived in a conversion van and woke up in my own vomit for two weeks straight…” “Oh yeah? I lived under a bridge selling oregano in plastic bags for a year until I got stabbed in the knee by a guy named Dutch!” Don’t get me wrong, I think AA is a fantastic organization that has helped millions of people, it was just a little too guilt-driven and mired in the past for my liking. Women for Sobriety is a much better fit. We’re more open with each other, we don’t continually refer to ourselves as alcoholics, and we focus on our present circumstances and on building each other up. It’s great stuff. Plus, we laugh our asses off in there. AA is so goddamn serious all the time.
Since I got out of the treatment center, I went on a date and celebrated St. Patty’s Day without a single drink, and I had an awesome time (at St. Patty’s, at least). I wasn’t so much surprised at my willpower as how minimal the temptation actually was. When I take my medicine, I feel good. I feel calm and happy. That urgent need to get some booze down my gullet so that I can feel normal just isn’t really there anymore. And if I can soberly survive St. Patty’s and what turned out to be a pretty boring date, I feel like that is a damn good sign. Besides, if I had been drunk on my date, who knows how long it would have taken to figure out that the guy was boring?! It could have taken me weeks! And how many dudes have I dated waaay longer than I should have because booze made them seem interesting?! I don’t even want to think about it.
So I can’t have booze. It’s pretty simple, really: diabetics shouldn’t eat funnel cakes and bipolar people shouldn’t shoot Jack. Makes sense, no? And I won’t miss it as much as people probably assume. I don’t need it for the reasons I used to anymore. And how much of my life have I wasted being either hammered, hungover, or regretful? Good riddance. I’m plenty fun enough without it.
I’m also working out six days a week and just fuckin loving it. I used to dread it, or never be in the mood, or do anything to avoid it, but whatever switch got turned on in my brain is now releasing endorphins the way it’s supposed to. While at crazy camp (a term I fondly coined for the treatment center), I got pretty into lifting. I do the obligatory 20 minutes of cardio to get my heart rate up, but spend the rest of my workout with weights. That burn gets addictive, and I put on muscle really fast, so the instant gratification seeker in me likes to see the results. I don’t really give a shit about losing weight; if that happens, it happens. I just want to be stronger and feel better. Basically, I’m gonna be an absolute manimal. A beast. Just ripped, bro. Cut. Crushing my fuckin delts and lats on the daily.
But I digress.
Anyway, I like exercise now.
And I also have a life coach now. That’s right, a life coach. I could not be more thrilled about this development. Having a life coach in Cincinnati Ohio is basically the same as being a Kardashian. I am telling everyone within a 13-mile radius about my life coach with the oblivious, unapologetic zeal of an obnoxious Californian who has just cut out gluten. It makes me feel fancy and special as shit. When she (my life coach, Melissa McCarthy, why yes, I do have her card if you would like it) calls me, I loudly announce to anyone within earshot that “I HAVE TO TAKE THIS BECAUSE IT IS MY LIFE COACH AND I AM VERY IMPORTANT YOU SEE.” It might get old to them, but it doesn’t get old to me. Also, everyone I know wants a life coach now. Who wouldn’t, right?! This nice lady is coaching the shit out of my life! I have every hour of every day planned out! I get stuff done! Like a normal human person! I have short term goals! I have long term goals! I have tracking mechanisms! I HAVE A FUCKING DREAM BOARD, PEOPLE! Anyway. If there’s one thing you take away from this post, and frankly that would be surprising,
Get. Yourself. A life. Coach. I’m talking to you, Alex Stein.
But in all seriousness, I really can’t believe it. I’m absolutely floored. My parents are floored. Everyone is floored. I have never felt like this in my life, and I never in a million years thought I would get the right cocktail of medicines right out of the gate. Nobody does. You hear horror stories about how long it takes to get the right combination, and the hell you enure in the process. But I might have just gotten lucky, and I’m not wasting time looking a gift horse in the mouth.
Earlier today, I was driving along and Dave Grohl’s voice came on the radio singing “it’s times like these/ you learn to live again,” and it just hit me all of a sudden; how quiet my mind finally was, how good I felt, how normal and capable and steady, and what a true miracle that is for me…and I’ll admit it, I just started crying. I actually had to pull the car over into a parking lot, lay my head on the steering wheel for a moment, and just cry.
It’s like getting a whole new life.
I go to sleep at midnight because I’m tired. I wake up on my own at eight or nine because I’m rested. I have actual energy, throughout the entire day. I laugh my ass off with my family. I laugh my ass off with my friends. My brain isn’t consumed with depressing thoughts about the past or manic fits about the future. I get to live in the present, consistently, for the first time in my life. And when I’m living in the now, I don’t put my purse in the sink. I don’t leave trash in my car. I don’t stuff unpaid parking tickets under a floormat. My mind is here, with me, in this moment, and I can use it to manipulate my environment. It sounds like a simple thing, but that’s because most people take it for granted.
And it’s hard to explain to people who have never had a brain like mine, but that never stops me from trying. It’s like the weather in your brain is constantly changing and you spend your entire life continually trying to survive the storms and clean up all the debris after they’ve passed through. It’s not the normal stress of life; it’s not some external event that triggers a natural emotional response; it is a brain that is firing off erratically almost all the time. It is as real an illness as it gets, and what really sucks is that, because people can’t see it, they assume it’s character weakness. It’s “just a phase.” She’s being “dramatic.” Or the ever popular “that chick is crazy!!” Interesting how the hordes of men (and women, but come on, it’s mostly men) throwing this judgment around never actually stop and express genuine concern for the girls they’re saying this about. I mean, if someone you knew started having an asthma attack, you wouldn’t just sit there laughing at them. You’d go get help. So why do we so often sit back and do nothing while a friend continually gets black out drunk, makes self-destructive decisions, and hides out alone for days at a time?
Why do we just laugh it off? “She’s crazy,” we utter dismissively, just glad it’s not us.
And I guess I just wish we, as a society, could be a little kinder about all of this. A little more tolerant and aware of these issues, their astounding prevalence, and the real pain they’re causing for the people afflicted with them. I can tell you first hand, it’s exhausting. I’ve walked around for years not even knowing I was sick, trying to live a normal life for both Jekyll AND Hyde. And it’s perhaps worth noting that, in that story, Hyde eventually wins out. And that almost happened to me. Hyde almost won.
But he didn’t. Thank God he didn’t.
And some people have come to me saying things like “but you never seemed that bad,” or “I never thought you were CRAZY crazy, just eccentric!” or “you know, you really shouldn’t let them drug you up like that at the expense of your uniqueness…” And while I know people mean well, that stuff is really frustrating. Of course nobody knew how bad it was — I hid out for days and weeks during my depressive spells, doing the bare minimum on the internet to make everyone think things were fine. Avoiding phone calls. Lying about being okay when I did take phone calls. I didn’t want anyone to see me like that, and for the most part, they didn’t. They saw the busty blonde comic who was always the life of the party. They saw my academic achievements, my television appearance, all my highest highs…and the thing is, there were many of them, which only obscured the fact that I was sick. Nobody realized that even when I was “succeeding,” I was either really unbalanced or not enjoying my successes. And how could I, when nothing ever lasted? After all, you can’t build anything on a continually shifting foundation. It’s like trying to build a house on top of a damn fault line. You can try as many times as you like to lay some bricks, but it’s only a matter of time before it all comes crashing down again. And after enough earthquakes, you just throw your hands in the air and say “fuck it!”
But I swear, these medications are giving me a new lease on life. I can’t even remember the last time I got normal sleep for more than two straight nights. I can’t even begin to explain what it feels like to experience balance when you never had it before. It’s almost like getting a whole new sense, but it’s authentic, not manic. It’s real. I can build something on top of this. I can build whatever I WANT on top of this. And all the pain I’ve experienced in my life has given me the insight I need to affect and empathize with people. It all had a point and a purpose, but it sure as hell feels like the worst is over. Feels like coming up for air. Feels like so many stupid, cliched, wonderful things that I could spend an hour writing them all out, but I won’t. Because it’s simple.
I’m really, really, really happy.