When I was 23 I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, PTSD, and Anxiety. The Dr. put me on Neurontin, telling me it was a synthetic version of Lithium. I am still not sure if that is true as I have been unable to find any documentation that confirms that. But I am not a doctor. What I do know is that I went to the doctor because I was losing control of my emotions and I was watching as my mood swings caused my 1-year old son to react to me. Sometimes he was scared, sometimes confused, but I knew I had to do something when I saw the look on his sweet innocent face. And when I was put on Neurontin, things got worse instead of better. I had already been on a downhill slide, so it took me about 2 months to realize these new symptoms were the medication, and not my issues worsening.
I felt like the chaos in my head was building momentum and growing stronger than me. It literally felt like a tornado in my brain at times. I could feel the debris that was being picked up and tossed about causing more damage, like rooftops that were being torn off and slamming into neighboring houses destroying everything in their path. This was the first time in my life that I understood why cutter’s cut. I thought they did it for attention until I experienced it for myself.
For multiple reasons, I did not actually cut but instead found other ways to relieve the internal pain. I could not sleep, so I would lay in bed and grab large chunks of my hair and pull until I felt satisfied; for the moment. I would scratch my back, slowly and with as much pressure as possible without breaking my skin, making sure to leave as little evidence as possible. I would hit and slap myself to feel the pain but not leave marks. My favorite thing to do was wait until very late at night and go outside into my driveway. I would lie face-down on the hot pavement, wearing as little as possible so that I could feel the sand and small rocks sharp against my skin. I would lay there and fantasize about walking barefoot into the desert hills just north of my house. Walking in one direction over rock, cactus, anything in my path until my feet were a bloody pulp and I could walk no more. All of these things brought relief from the endless torment in my head. Physical pain on the outside of my body demanded my attention, taking it away from the emotional pain inside my body.
Another thought that seemed to consume me during this time was my death, but not in the way I imagined a suicidal person would imagine their death. I was confused by this. I did not want to kill myself. I did not imagine the act itself. Just the aftermath. I would have visions of my lifeless body slumped at the bottom of my shower. Always the same vision. Naked and bloody. I was seeing myself from the left side of my crumpled body, and slightly above. I had a large bathroom with a garden tub and a separate 1-person shower. The shower was located in the far-right corner. Sometimes the vision moved as if I was coming up to the scene. Already very close to it, my focus turned to the right taking in the whole red picture. My bloody feet in the left front corner of the shower floor leading to my bent knees higher up. Back down to my thighs, butt, and hips. Smooth wet skin. My limp arms and still hands stuck in a graceful palm-up pose and my bent, leaning torso. My wet hair stuck to my head, face and shoulders as they were held somewhat upright by the bottom of the right wall of the shower stall. Blood mixed with the water and left pink trails all over my body as gravity pulled it to the shower floor. It was beautiful and calming.
I don’t remember how I came to the conclusion that it was the Neurontin, but I thank God that I did. I stopped taking it immediately, even though I was warned to taper off. I went to see my regular doctor and told her of the diagnosis as well as the experience I had with Neurontin. She prescribed a different medication, and there began my search for normalcy and what I would later call my Wonder Drug. The new medication helped a little. For 2 years I settled for this, in fear of changing meds and feeling like I did on Neurontin. Then it just stopped working. I tried another that did absolutely nothing, and another one made me feel so numb, that I couldn’t hold a conversation. I would become annoyed at just being asked a question because it meant I had to talk. I would even roll my eyes when my family said, “I love you” to me because I was expected to say it back, but I didn’t feel it. I didn’t feel anything. Finally, I found one that helped a little and lasted for almost 10 years.
When this one stopped working, I remember telling my doctor that all I wanted was some light at the end of my tunnel. That has since become my favorite description of depression. A dark tunnel. My medications usually gave me a light at the end to look forward to. A reason to not drown in despair, to keep fighting. The light had gone out and I was sinking. My doctor listened, really listened, and prescribed a new medication to take in addition to the one I was already on.
I was 37. 37 years old! Almost immediately the light at the end of my tunnel grew so bright that the tunnel disappeared. I had never ever lived outside of this tunnel before. I did not know that people inhabited a place other than tunnels. I remember telling anyone who would listen, “This is what life is like?!?! I had no idea!” I felt human for the first time. Like I was seeing the sun for the first time after living 37 years under a rain cloud.
I knew a wonder drug existed because I met other people along the way that had already found theirs. I am 45 years old now and have been taking my wonder drug (it is actually a cocktail as I take low doses of 2 different medications) for 8 years. There have still been ups and downs. I sometimes feel so good that I think I am cured and decide I don’t need medication anymore. Big mistake. Big. I have also gone through life changes that cause my depression to worsen temporarily. The kind of depression most people experience when life throws curveballs. I have increased my dose slightly to help me through only to find that as the depression fades, the higher dose causes me to experience severe mania. But I am so familiar with mania that I don’t realize right away that it is severe and out of control until I look back at the destruction it is causing in my life.
While the journey has not been easy or uneventful, I consider it a great success. I know how hard it is to accept the diagnosis and to come to terms with needing medication just to function like a normal person. I know the stigma well, from believing it before I was diagnosed, to experiencing it firsthand in the eyes of friends and family. I know how long and sometimes torturous the road can be to finding the right medication, as each and every chemical imbalance is different, and what works for one person may not work for another. I know the danger of taking the wrong medication. But most importantly, what I know, and what I want to shout from the mountain-tops, is that you can’t give up. I know it is scary and exhausting and sometimes you will settle for just better and that is OK. But keep pushing! Keep reaching out! Relief is out there. It exists, I am living proof. Give yourself permission to want and even expect better than ok! There is more than just light at the end of the tunnel. There is sunshine. Glorious sunshine.
Please share this post if you or anyone you know has struggled with mental illness. My intention when writing this post was to encourage anyone who is going through the trial and error of finding the right medication for them. It can be painstakingly time consuming when you feel like you might break at any moment and you are already hanging by a thread. Keep your head up, you are almost there! And you are not alone!