Overcoming the Impossible

Mental Health

I wrote this article a couple of months back.  I wanted to share it with you.

Recovery IS possible.  Enjoy!

When I was a little girl, I loved giving my Barbie dolls haircuts.   I had zero cutting skills, but sometimes I was lucky and they would end up with razor cuts as fierce as Rihanna’s.  And then there were the unfortunate-bald-headed dolls who wound up looking like G.I. Jane.

I took my dolls on exotic vacations.  The living room was Nassau.  The kitchen was Vail.  The den was Miami.  My life was one big fairytale.

So when I saw my dead great-grandmother floating in the bathtub—wearing the pale blue dress I saw at her funeral—I assumed she was an extension of my fantasy.

I didn’t tell anyone about my grandma being in the tub. I was 6 and very shy.

I rarely initiated conversation.  I only chimed in on ones already in progress.  I never made any real contribution.  I just recycled other people’s thoughts and sayings. Dead grandmothers were never a topic of discussion, so I never discussed seeing mine.  She was my little secret.

My grandma showed up every night for almost two weeks.  Same posture.  Same blue ruffled dress.  Stiff as a board.

I took up bathing out of the sink until she disappeared. I scooped warm puddles of water on my shoulders and toes so my mom would think I was bathing in the tub.

One day, my grandma left and never came back.  And I started bathing in the tub again. I piled mounds of bubbles on my arm and let my Barbie dolls jump from the soap dish on the tub’s ledge into the bath water below.

I didn’t know I was hallucinating. I didn’t know mental illness ran in my family and that my number was up.  I just thought my mind was broken and I hoped it would somehow fix itself.

I was 19 and in college when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  I had no idea I was going to get a mental health diagnosis the day I went to see a psychiatrist.  I’d gone to the doctor to find out why I wasn’t bathing or brushing my teeth.

I thought I would be given positive affirmations to say and given a healthy diet to follow. Instead, I was given a bipolar disorder informational pamphlet outlining my different symptoms of mania and depression, a business card with a toll-free number that I could call whenever I felt like killing myself and a prescription for Zoloft she said I could take to manage my depression.  I fought back tears as she told me there wasn’t a cure.

I tried to turn back time.  I wished I’d never gone to the doctor.  I wanted to be that carefree girl who wasn’t bathing or brushing her teeth, but at least she thought she was healthy.  I didn’t want to be mentally ill. I felt I had a taint that couldn’t be washed off.

I needed someone with me.  I needed a hug from my mom.  But there was no one there. I was 400 miles away from home.

People getting Lasik eye treatment are required to bring people to their appointment, for their safety.   I needed the same courtesy extended to me.

How was I supposed to cope with this disease when the very disease made coping impossible? I was hanging on by a thread, and now I felt like I’d be on the edge forever.

I sped from the doctor’s office in my tiny green car, fighting off thoughts of suicide with a face full of tears.  I could not stop them.

Rage was the next emotion I felt.  Life seemed so unfair.  Why did I have to have this horrible disease?  I wondered why I couldn’t get diabetes instead.  I was livid.

“Wrap yourself around that pole,” my mind shouted. “Drive over that kid on the sidewalk,” it demanded.

“No!  Life has value!  I’m not killing anyone.  I’m not killing myself!” I cried.

I pulled over in a nearby McDonald’s parking lot and cried until no tears were left.

I made it back to my dorm over four hours later with a throbbing head, congested nose and a tiny orange bottle full of Zoloft pills tucked in my hand.

I walked to the communal bathroom on the second floor of my dorm.  I read the directions on my tiny bottle: take two pills twice a day.  I popped two of the tiny pills in my mouth and chased them down with water from the faucet.  I stared at my reflection in the mirror.

“How did I get here?”  I asked.  “What happened to you?” I studied my face as I waited for a reaction and I wondered if I could really do this.

I was always afraid of street drugs, because they weren’t natural to the body.  I didn’t feel any better taking the Zoloft just because a doctor had given it to me.  I didn’t know any gland in the body that excreted Zoloft, so I wondered about its long-term effects.

I wondered if I would become addicted.  Would I have to rely on this medicine to feel “normal”?  What would happen if my insurance ran out?  Would I resort to stealing?

I hated my answers. So I walked to the nearest stall, emptied my orange bottle and flushed.

I told myself I would eat really well and think positive thoughts.  That psychiatrist had made a mistake; she didn’t know what she was talking about.

Eight months later I was kicked out of school for failure to maintain a decent G.P.A.  I went to class every day but was too fatigued to read — and when I was able to read, I didn’t retain the information.

I was forced to move back home, as much as I didn’t want to.  Home was in Lake Alfred, a town with one traffic light. Everyone knew your name, just like Cheers, but in a bad way.

If I could’ve afforded to live in another city, I would have. But I didn’t have any funds; I was living on a diet of ramen noodles and tuna fish and barely had enough money to put gas in my tiny green car.  I loaded it with my mini fridge, clothes, textbooks and loose stacks of paper, and headed home.

When I arrived, my body took me through all the changes outlined in the bipolar disorder pamphlet the psychiatrist had given me within three months. But I still refused to think I was sick.

When I was manic, I thought it was because I worried too much and wasn’t strong enough to handle life.

During manic periods, my mind raced so fast I thought it would fly out of my skull.  One time it did. It took hours for my mind to come back.

Other times I would get a headache, because there were so many different thoughts crowding my brain.  When I felt like this, no one could understand me.  My speech rattled off in clusters like verbal potpourri.

I couldn’t sleep when my mind was spinning a hundred miles per hour.  I did everything I knew to pass out.  I drank warm milk.  I counted sheep jumping over wooden fences.  I held my breath in 10- second increments.  I counted backwards from 100 to 0.  Nothing worked.

So I usually tossed and turned until 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning and would wake up around noon or 1:00pm the next day.  That was my life.

When I was depressed, I felt exactly the opposite.  My thoughts didn’t move when I was depressed.   My mind was empty.  If I had a thought, it was centered around death and dying.  Any energy I had was used to talk myself out of suicide.  It was a constant battle.  I usually locked myself in my room and slept all day.  I didn’t eat.

And then there were the symptoms that weren’t on my pamphlet.

Ghosts often haunted me at night, entering my bedroom through the window.  Hissing and mocking at me.  They always came at night.  I would turn on all my lights and the television, because I knew they hated noise.

It was during these times that I wished I had been stillborn.  I would read my Bible to escape, focusing on proverbs and psalms or whatever Scriptures that said Jesus loved me.

The ghosts always hissed and only spoke once.  If they had talked more, I think I would have lost my mind for good.

One night the ghosts were louder than normal.  They swirled around my room for several hours, hissing at me.  And then they stopped and filed into my radio and powered it on. I watched as the dial turned while they searched for a frequency. When they found one, my radio played, “Da na na na na na na num.  Who you gonna call?  Ghostbusters!”

They laughed and slid out of the radio and out through my window.

I passed out from fear.

At the time I didn’t tell anyone, because I truly believed I was cursed.  I thought the struggles I were experiencing were between me and God.

I thought if I told someone they wouldn’t understand. I probably would be confined to a mental ward.

I wasn’t always depressed or having racing thoughts. There were moments of remission when I felt somewhat normal.  When I felt healthy enough, I returned to school and graduated with a degree in psychology.  Initially I had been a business major, but I switched to psychology after my diagnosis — thinking I’d find a cure.  I didn’t.

After graduation, I took a job teaching special education.

And my disease was still there even thought I tried to ignore it.

I used new tools to cope with it.  When I was 19 I used loud music to silence ghosts; now I used wine and beer. Sometimes it worked.  Sometimes I woke up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning.

When I had work the next day, I never drank.  I used my computer instead.   I conducted Google searches for hours as my mind raced.

I researched whatever popped in my mind. The gestation period of orca whales, the origins of emus, the cost of a vacation to Cozumel.  I would type for hours until my body passed out.  This was my nightly ritual.  I would wake up and my comforter would be on fire from my laptop’s battery.

I was eventually fired from my job.  Google can do only so much.  I was late a minimum of 2 days every week and my principal had had enough.

That’s when I hit bottom.  That’s when I decided to emerge from the cloud I had let envelop me.

I couldn’t find an excuse for losing my job.  I had tried my best, but my illness had caught up with me.  I decided that maybe the psychiatrist who diagnosed me ten years earlier had known what she was talking about.

I researched mental health facilities in the area and found one that would see me on an outpatient basis. The receptionist said they would assess me once I came in for the treatment I would need. She said I might be able to go back home, but if I needed to stay awhile, they had those services too.

That’s what scared me. I had no control.  And I love to be in control—but now; my mental illness was in control.

I wasn’t sure if they would admit me or not, but I couldn’t stand envisioning myself walking around in hospital gowns with my butt sticking out.  I shrieked as I saw orderlies chase me with needles full of Depakote.

That was death to me.  I was afraid.

I had long suspected my hormones were affecting off — and now that I was facing hospitalization, I felt this was the time to explore them again.  I was 29 and could count on two hands the number of periods I’d had my entire life.  My period had been wacky every since my first one at the age of 12.  Whenever my period did show up, I would get razor-sharp cramps and headaches that felt like aneurysms. My bleeding would be so heavy it looked like I’d been butchering something.

Because my period felt so awful, I didn’t care that it wasn’t around much when I was 12 and 13. That meant I could spend more days at the pool, without worrying.  But by the time I reached 16, I was very concerned.

I went to several different ob-gyns over the years and they all said the same thing.  They said I might have difficulty conceiving later, but that it wasn’t medically necessary to have a period. I was told that if I had to have a period I could take the Pill.

And so I did.  I tried taking four different brands, four different times throughout my life, and the results were the same.  They made me sick.  They made me feel crazier than I already was.  I would blow up like a puffer fish, sometimes gaining twenty or thirty pounds. Some days I felt so out of control I thought I’d punch someone if they looked at me wrong.

So for a while, I decided my doctors were right — the Pill made me sick; I wasn’t supposed to have a period.

But now that I was facing hospitalization, I thought my hormones deserved a second look.

And so I started to do research.  I did keyword searches for hormone balance, and every time Dr. John Lee’s name came up.

I figured he was the authority on the subject and that if I wanted to know something about hormone balance, I should read his work.  I drove to the Barnes and Noble around the corner from my house and bought his book “Hormone Balance Made Simple.”  I took it home and read it in one night.

I discovered I had a condition he called “estrogen dominance.”  Estrogen dominance means estrogen is “dominating” (wreaking havoc in) the body, because there isn’t sufficient progesterone present to balance it.   Now I understood it was the estrogen in the Pill that had made me so sick; if I had taken only progesterone, I would have been fine.

Dr. Lee’s explanation also made sense because I had been diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) ten years earlier.  PCOS is an ovulatory disorder — when one doesn’t ovulate, progesterone isn’t produced.  So everything made sense.

I followed Dr. Lee’s advice. I corrected my progesterone deficiency and my health quickly improved.    I started having monthly menstrual cycles.  My fatigue disappeared, my moods stabilized and I was able to sleep through the night for the first time in years.

Progesterone was the ghostbuster. The ghosts that had haunted me since high school went away.  This is when I realized I wasn’t cursed — only hallucinating for nearly 13 years.

At the time I didn’t expect to recover from bipolar disorder. After all, I was taking the progesterone to get rid of my headaches and fatigue and to regain my period. How grateful I was to find that it cleared up everything else too.

Now that I’ve emerged from that dark cloud, I realize there are many others still trapped within it.  The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that 8 million Americans are living with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.  That means millions of women (and men) are living with unspeakable pain.  Some are drinking and drugging to escape their lives.  Others are talking to dead people. Some are losing their minds.  And it’s not because they’re really bad people or because they’re cursed or lazy. For so many, it’s simply because their bodies aren’t making sufficient progesterone. They just don’t know it yet.

2 Responses to “Overcoming the Impossible”

  1. Julie Says:

    This is a great account of a person with a hormone imbalance that mimicked the symptoms of bipolar disorder. What a frightening and difficult experience you have had. However, you never had bipolar disorder. You were misdiagnosed, so you never really recovered from bipolar disorder. You recovered from a hormonal imbalance.

    My doctor had me give a complete medical history and see an endocrinologist when I was dxd to rule out any hormonal problems. Anyone making a good dx should do this. It is sad that it did not happen in your situation.

    My periods are perfect, I am very fertile and I still have bipolar disorder. It has nothing to do with hormones for me.

    I think that your story highlights the importance of getting a thorough physical examination prior to any mental health dx in order to avoid misdiagnosis. Thank you for your blog.

  2. admin Says:

    Hi Julie, thank you for the feedback. I understand. It seems too simple. How can a hormone imbalance be the cause of mental illness for so many?

    Well it can be. Sex hormones, estrogen and progesterone, really shouldn’t be called sex hormones. Because calling them sex hormones limits us from seeing what they really are.

    Estrogen and progesterone are powerful, neurosteroids, with important roles in the brain. They regulate neurotransmission. They do this by regulating the levels of sodium and potassium in the brain which are essential for healthy brain function. They make up the white and grey matter of our brains.

    And most importantly, progesterone, along with estrogen regulates serotonin, dopamine and other neurotransmitter systems which are so frazzled in those with mental illness.
    Mentally ill people need relief. There are far too many of us living in hospitals and jails. Far too many of us living on the streets. Too many mentally ill people are not living the lives they were created to live, not because they are cursed or lazy, it’s because their bodies aren’t making sufficient progesterone. So I’m sharing my story to help others to see that recovery is possible. And that hormone balance is essential to everyone’s mental health. Doris