Friday, November 14, 2008

Musings on an Anniversary

It was 20 years ago today (no, not that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play) that I began an inpatient hospitalization for depression that lasted just short of two years. Yes, you read that right...two years. Absolutely unheard of these days. This is a summary of the events leading up to my hospitalization and a bit about its progression.

At the age of 20, I had for the first time in my life lost about 40 lbs. in a healthy manner, following Weight Watchers. I didn't binge, I didn't purge, I didn't starve myself. I followed the plan and I exercised. I had a new body image to deal with...and the resulting attention it drew from others.

The therapist I had seen since I was 12 years old decided that he didn't believe in long-term therapy...and as such, was preparing me for termination with him. There were times in my life where I thought he was the only human being/adult that actually cared about my well-being. I took this termination as a personal rejection and my incredibly fragile self-esteem and self-worth plummeted. He also felt that due to my history of sexual abuse, it was probably advisable that if I felt the need to return to therapy, I might want to seek the counsel of a female therapist. Within probably a month or two of his terminating with me (which was in June of 1988), I did just that...and I began seeing Martha Page Burkholder who was, at the time, working out of the outpatient mental health clinic at St. Vincent's Medical Center in the Village (NYC).

In early August of 1988, I came home one Friday night after being out drinking with some of the NYU law school students who lived in the dorm I had worked at. My mom had been to an AA meeting that night, and had seen one of our old family friends there. He informed her that my dad, who I had not seen in over four years, was in a coma at Holy Name Hospital. He had suffered with Multiple Sclerosis for many years...went on disability from work in 1974 as a result of it. I was 6 years old then. That night, mom and I went to see him at the hospital. He was brain dead but being kept alive on a respirator. Once his wife found out we'd been there, she was pretty livid and made sure that my mother would not be allowed to visit my dad again. She had no ability to stop my brother and me from seeing him, as we were also next of kin. I think she'd have done it if she could though. My grandparents on my father's side hadn't called to tell us about his condition, so I suspected they did not know and I called to tell them. Apparently, they'd had a falling out with my dad's wife and so because of her anger, she refused to communicate with them. When she found out that I had called to tell them of his condition, she was furious. The next time she saw me in the ICU visiting my dad (my brother was there as well), she launched into a tirade with me about my grandparents and mother, claiming that SHE was the real wife, and my brother, who typically stayed out of conflict with her, told her "No Ann, you're the real BITCH." Ann proceeded to yell at us that we were not his children; we were merely his biological offspring. You can imagine how well all of this went over with the nurses in the ICU. They came in to figure out what was going on, and my father's wife proceeded to tell them it was no big deal as my father had heard it all before anyway. From that point forward, she was not to be anywhere on the hospital grounds during certain hours that were deemed visiting hours for me and my brother.

My grandparents drove up from Texas and stayed for a couple of weeks. In Ann's anger, she made sure that my father, who was brain dead as determined by EEG, was on a "full code" and would be resuscitated if he went into arrest. And she made sure to hand write a sign she hung over his bed letting us know this, lest there be any confusion. She was a really hateful woman. My dad went into cardiac arrest at least three times over the two weeks my grandparents and aunt and cousin were there. Because of the full code though, he did not die and so they did not have the closure of attending his funeral. I think the hospital's way around this was to move dad down to another room from ICU that had less monitoring. He was taken off the respirator; they said he was breathing enough on his own that he didn't need it. Instead, the nurses checked on him every 15 minutes or so. My brother and I were there to visit him, on August 31, 1988, in the evening. It was the day before Andy would be heading back to college in PA, and we told our dad this. I told him that I would do my best to try and make it there every night. After we left, we went to hang out with a friend of ours. Mom called around 11 p.m. to let us know that the hospital had called and dad had died at about 10:10 p.m. that night...probably within about half an hour after we left. Ann had not made it back to the hospital to see him by then, and so Andy and I were the last to visit with him before he died. Ann was sure to tell people that we were actually there when he died and watched him die and did nothing to stop it. None of that was true, but I guess it made her feel better to tell people that.

At this time, I worked for NYU in their Graduate Housing Office. I was also attending nursing school at NYU. The union at NYU had gone on strike. It didn't take very long for me to figure out that I wasn't very good at not working during this period of time, and so I made the choice to cross the picket lines and return to work. My mind being idle wasn't a good thing at all. My boss and several of my coworkers, as well as the union president and treasurer, who sent me a sympathy card, understood...a few others did not. Despite studying for hours and hours for a chemistry exam, I failed it. First exam I ever failed. I was devastated and went to speak with my nursing adviser. She was on leave, and so I spoke with someone else about withdrawing for the semester. When I explained all that was going on, she was incredibly understanding and agreed that a leave of absence from school would probably be best. And so, I withdrew from my classes before I had opportunity to fail them.

The strike at NYU eventually ended and everyone else returned to work. Some had hard feelings towards me, and some did not. My therapy appointments continued and increased from once weekly to three times weekly. At the end of each appointment, Dr. Burkholder and I would "touch base" on our verbal contract. I'd been thinking about suicide a lot...and I'd been hoarding some of my fiorinal (for migraines), as well as trying to ascertain just how much other OTC meds I might need to complete the job. The deal with Dr. Burkholder was that I agreed to call her if I was feeling like I was in serious jeopardy of hurting/killing myself. On November 14, 1988, I told her point blank that in all honesty, if I wanted to die that badly, the last thing I would do would be to call her because she'd only try to stop me. She told me that she couldn't let me go home, and that she felt I needed to be hospitalized. I'd already been down that road before, as a 14 and 15 year old (yeah, twice), and didn't want to do that again. I begged and pleaded, and she asked me to at least let her call my mother so that she could be assured that someone at home would keep an eye on me. I was very reluctant to do that, as my mom's reaction to my self-destructive tendencies was typically one of outrage directed at me...and I wasn't up for more hatred, I already hated myself enough as was. But, given the choice between hospitalization and enduring mom's wrath, I opted for mom's wrath. After Dr. Burkholder's conversation with her though, they both apparently agreed that I needed to be hospitalized. And so Dr. Burkholder walked me over to the hospital that evening, with my backpack on my shoulder. So it began.

I stayed there until May 9, 1989. I was the youngest patient on a primarily geriatric ward for patients with depression. They felt that was a better choice for placing me than the floor that housed the neighborhood patients who tended towards the drug addicted and psychotic, as I was neither and those units were far less "stable" places for me to be. For a while, they played with different medications to see what, if any, helped my depression. By December of 1988, they concluded that my depression was more environmentally than biologically based. In other words, the situation at home contributed more significantly to how I was coping than did any chemical imbalance. As such, it was their recommendation that I be placed in a longer-term facility that offered intense therapy to help unravel some of that stuff.

In May of 1989, after completing a lengthy application and screening process, and waiting many months for a bed, I was transferred to the New York State Psychiatric Institute's (PI for short) 5th Floor. They had a research program affiliated with Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital and their College of Physicians and Surgeons on character disorders. Apparently, that was the "bucket" I fit into. So many things happened while I was there...the biggest, though, was that I was actually finally allowed (and encouraged, no less) to feel and express what I felt, without being told that I was selfish, self-centered, etc. It was made clear that stifling my feelings was self-destructive in many ways and I needed to find new ways to cope and navigate my way through life. There were still plenty of times that I wanted to die there, but they kept me safe...sometimes to my great dismay at the time.

In August of 1990, I left...not entirely with their blessing as I did it pretty abruptly and without a specific discharge plan, but they offered me their support as best they could. I moved to Bridgeport, CT and began my transition back to the "real" world. I got a full-time job at Hewitt Associates, lived with my fiancée (who was another patient I met while at PI...he was there as an alternative to incarceration...sign of things to come in hindsight), and started a whole new journey. Lots of stuff transpired during those years in CT...and even in the years since I've moved to MA. But I continue to grow and cope and deal with life on life's terms.

Here I am, 20 years later, a single mom to an amazing little boy who is the best thing to have ever happened in my life. For many years, I have kept secret my past...the shame of mental illness, depression, my hospitalization, all weighed very heavily on me and I didn't want people to judge me or write me off because of the things in my past. In therapy this week, we talked about how I'm not ashamed anymore...and while I don't go around telling everyone about this, I won't hide it anymore either and live with it being a dirty secret of sorts. I survived. I have grown. I have become, and continue to become, someone I am proud of and think is a pretty amazing person. All of my past has contributed to that...all of the people in my past and present contribute to that. It's an amazing journey, this is what we make it...bottom line.


melinda said...

I think you are a very brave woman. You have endured so much. I wish you only wonderful things in your future, and am glad that you have a terrific child in your life to love and to be loved by.

Gubblebum said...

Wow, Amy. I had no idea you'd been through all of that. You should be extremely proud of who you are today. You're brave, beautiful, strong and smart, not to mention a wonderful and supportive friend. I wouldn't be where I am right now without your help and support.

Anonymous said...

Amy, I had no have accomplished so much in spite of all the past has held for you. Just goes to show what persistence and determination and love of a child can bring to your life. I wish you continuud success and many more years of health and happiness. You go girl! Love, P

Anonymous said...

Well Ames, you sure are a strong woman and someone to be admired. Bravo Amy!!!


jupiter6 said...

Might surprise you to know that we share very similar stories-- I was hospitalized myself, twice, once after being rescucitated after a very serious suicide attempt. I share this with people because I think there is great value in surviving, and helping others do the same. I lived with a very black and nearly terminal depression all my life-- and I say it now in the past tense because although I have my days, more often than not I find I *do* have the ability to keep my head above water, even as it rises around me hourly.

Wishing you continued peace and good health.