Oct 3, 2014

Coping With Mental Illness Makes Life Difficult

By Deb Saine
Oct. 3, 2014

I knew I was different as early as kindergarten with those feelings only intensifying with each passing year.

That low opinion of myself was reinforced one day after I overheard my kindergarten teacher talking with my mom. Mrs. M. told Mom that I was emotionally disturbed. While I didn’t understand what “emotionally disturbed” meant at the time, I knew it couldn’t be good because of my teacher’s tone of voice and the expression on Mom’s face after she heard Mrs. M’s comment.

It was a conversation I’ve never forgotten, and one that I never repeated back. The remark had hurt too much, cut deeply and haunted me for years.

Coupled with her one-on-one with my teacher was the fact that Mom constantly posed the rhetorical question, “Why can’t you be more like so-and-so?” She would invoke the names of her friends’ children who, in Mom’s eyes, were far better offspring than me. The implications were clear.

And after my parents divorced when I was 12, a year or so later, my father blamed me for their failed marriage. He said it was because of my “emotional problems.”

I talked too loud. I hated to wear dresses. I misbehaved whenever Mom hosted one of her bridge clubs. I was constantly getting into trouble at school because I didn’t sit still, I couldn’t keep quiet, I didn’t play well with others, I wasn’t making friends, and I couldn’t keep my hands to myself. I hated to be touched and couldn’t stand the thought of having my hair brushed.

Time-out would be called at home, and I was ordered to do one of two things for acting up: 1. Sit in a chair for 15 minutes to ponder my transgressions; or 2. Wait until my father got home so that I would be banished to the basement where I could “assume the position” by bending over, touching my toes, and getting three hard whacks with a paddle that was 2-inches thick and had several holes drilled throughout to enhance the sting and drew welts.

One grade-school teacher refused to grant me permission to go to the restroom, so I relieved myself on one of her shoes while she stood next to my desk. A friend and I stole an entire box of new, green “My Second-Grade Pencils.” I led a recess protest after our music teacher did something I didn’t like. Following a dare, I used a bobby-pin to poke a teacher hard enough in the calf that it drew blood.

And you know that teacher who didn’t let me go to the restroom? I decided to poison an apple using some chemicals from my chemistry set. I came so close to actually giving her the tainted piece of fruit before imagining myself wearing a black-and-white striped jumpsuit and looking out from behind a set of bars in a jail cell.

When a boy I didn’t like told me he didn’t vote for me after I’d tried out for cheerleading, I punched him and pushed him down. And when a girl I knew tattled after I flipped her off without really knowing what that meant, I lied about my action because I was afraid of my dad’s reaction.

I also liked to jump into mud puddles on the playground so I could get the prissy girls and their pretty dresses wet and dirty. And there was a time or two when I buried dead birds in the sandbox to scare my classmates.

In the neighborhood, I was the kid with a reputation and some moms didn’t want their children and me to play together.

Countless times, I would run into the house sobbing because somebody had hurt my feelings or made me angry. And it wasn’t pretty when I became frustrated or lost my temper.

My face would redden as my voice grew louder and louder. There would be tears, and I would talk so fast and jump from topic to topic that nobody could understand why I was upset, what had made me angry or what I was trying to say.

That thin skin didn’t thicken until well into adulthood.

The inability to calm my mind, slow my thoughts or block them out while I was trying to fall asleep at bedtime started when I was around 6. These days, I need medication to help me go to and stay asleep.

Three slumber parties Mom let me host ended in disaster. It was inevitable that I would stomp upstairs at some point and refuse to rejoin the festivities. I stonewalled those in attendance, giving them the silent treatment and vowing to stop being their friend.

I started drinking alcohol when I was 14, a habit that was immediately a problem, steadily worsened and didn’t stop until I quit when I was 30. Pot was thrown into the mix on a regular basis beginning my sophomore year of college.

My best friend’s mom, the wife of a pharmacist, recommended medication as a possible solution when I was in high school. After college, Mom took me to a psychiatrist who had me take the MMPI, which is a personality inventory used to determine psychological problems.

In college, I got drunk at a party that I hosted with my rommate in our dorm room and pulled out a hunting knife after somebody insulted me. My roommate snatched it away, and I never saw that knife again. The following year, she requested a new roommate, and I applied for a single.

Because my inability to get along well with others had carried over to college, two of my closest friends that I’d known since grade school took pity on me. They invited me to share a three-bedroom apartment with them and two of our college friends. I got the single.

After finally graduating college and eventually landing a job, the first of my two primary employers decided I wasn’t worth the hassles and fired me. One made quick work of it before the one-year anniversary of my hiring while the other put up with my antics pre- and post-diagnosis of manic depression for more than 15 years before pulling the plug.

I abused alcohol consistently for more than 16 years while occasionally popping pills and smoking dope. I got into bar fights, I passed out in restrooms, I got sick a few times in public. Every time I drank the hard stuff, I would get mean.

Whenever somebody would ask me why I drank so much, I’d tell that person it was to numb the emotional pain and to forget who I was for awhile. And throughout it all, I constantly was asking myself and others, “What’s wrong with me?”

At 30, I’d had enough of myself. I started to attend AA meetings and checked into rehab for a month. Life gradually became manageable as I slowly came to grips with the fact that I was a drunk.

I also realized that meetings weren’t enough; the 12 Steps weren’t enough; and so I sought counseling. Shortly after celebrating three years of sobriety, old thoughts of killing myself had started to resurface out of nowhere. What made those thoughts even more disturbing was that I’d formulated a couple of plans, something I hadn’t done in the past during my suicidal moods.

Scared and confused, I turned to some professionals and was diagnosed with clinical depression. Prozac was prescribed, which helped until it didn’t. But it would take several years of therapy with the same social worker before the possible diagnosis of manic depression was raised.

My therapist had witnessed my mood swings for almost a decade. She saw me go from feelings of despair and work my way up to fits of rage. I had few friends. The same behavior I’d displayed as a child had followed me into adulthood. And I wasn’t getting along with Mom. She was no more equipped or able to cope with a daughter who was out of control first as a child, then as a teen-ager, and finally as an adult.

The turning point came after I turned 40, decades removed from being labeled as emotionally disturbed and armed with 10 years of sobriety. I finally knew why I was different. It had taken hours upon hours of sessions with a therapist who knew what she was doing to make an observation that would prove life-changing.

These days, my mental illness is classified as bipolar disorder. I see therapists off and on and meet regularly with a psychiatrist who prescribes and adjusts my meds. And sometimes, I can only take life in five-minute increments.

Thanks for reading this post all the way through!