by Patricia Obletz
I can't believe my luck. Nearing fifty years old, I was finally back
in the driver's seat, safer, more comfortable, more aware than I'd ever
been able to be.
My luck is amazing. Three out of six psychiatrists treated me for full
blown manic depression, with intelligence and warmth. One doctor ignored
my fears and pushed medication, condemning me to lithium for life, a thought
I couldn't tolerate in the throes of onset in 1981. The second forced
me to form future goals despite the fact both my parents were dying of
cancer, my creators who took me in the two times psychosis overwhelmed
me. The third insisted I had an eating disorder; he failed to call me
back when, in a state of panic, I appeared in his waiting room eating
bananas, remedy for anxiety I'd been told; he didn't see me between patients
I waited for three, then left; it took an hour walking the streets of
a development without sidewalks before I felt safe to get back in my car.
The national average should be better than three out of six. The fact
it isn't I attribute to lack of heart. In the rub of time and money, patients
become one more chart to fill, one more obstacle to the next step. People
forget the person trapped inside the spin of imbalance. People forget
that heart anchors spirit, that part of us mental disorder claims first.
Lost, though I was, in the bipolar storm, my family, my friends, my colleagues
anchored me to some sense of myself beyond mental illness. They believed
I would recover, and they never stopped reminding me of that fact.
Full blown mania took me further into feelings than the adventurer in
me cares to brave again. I reeled in the shock of losing my mind long
years after. I couldn't get beyond the ring of incessant emotions. I couldn't
find myself in the years cancer coveted my parents, keeping suicidal intention
alive in me I wouldn't lose them if I died first.
I never stabilized long enough to see manic depression as an illness
to recognize and fight.
Writing my story kept my spirit alive deep in mental
it gave me a sense of control; it was a challenge I could conquer.
I couldn't step back and target its triggers; like breathtaking, sleep
taking, weight taking responses; like finding negatives in neutral territory;
like overreacting to word and deed.
Fate brought me back to Buffalo after twenty seven years, reviving the
spirit of my childhood after my parents died eighty one days apart in
1987. In the return of energy, and under medical supervision, I withdrew
from norpramine, Ativan, and lithium one by one, cutting Xanax back to
one at night for sleep. I learned the hard way that I needed maintenance
doses of lithium. Now, I bless the fact it's available and that it works
for me. Lithium lets me moderate my reach into intensities without dulling
their gleam, without hurting myself and others. Final freedom from fear.
An amazing release, leading me out of isolation to work in a field where
I'd already taken root.
My recovery began in the city of my birth. Being there brought back the
past, when time was more positive than negative, that balance lost in
the years of disorder. Through the grief choked, raw daze that followed
the loss of my parents, in Buffalo I felt eighteen again, the age I was
when I left for college, then Manhattan, then Chicago, never once thinking
of Buffalo as home once my parents went south. I was an artist then, painting
life on canvas, creating my heart's desires through shape and color.
Passion for writing came from mental disorder out of my need to understand
and live with my fears. Writing gave my thoughts and feelings black and
white definition, leaving no room for speculation. Writing my story kept
my spirit alive deep in mental disorder; it gave me a sense of control;
it was a challenge I could conquer.
Halted by grief for two years, my book, "Change of Mind," took
on new life late in 1989, a drive into bliss that ended with escalating
mania and the desire to take my medicine.
In 1990, I sent my book to another agent. Like the others, he said if
I were a celebrity, he'd take it.
The days grew longer, their weight increased. I canceled a date. I recognized
the impulse to isolate and called him back.
Days came more slowly, left more slowly. It was February, and I was too
tired to write. I didn't feel well. My book, my "child," had
been rejected, a refrain repeating in my mind.
One morning I awoke to a great sense of relief: gas logs fueled my bedroom
fireplace. I could die in my bed, not in the oven. I didn't have to leave
my dog, Flyer, behind.
Pleasure centered within me, absorbing intolerable pain. my dog kissed
me into feeding and walking her. It was cold that morning, and snow was
falling in slow separate patterns; heavy, wet. I looked up into arcing
flakes coming like sparks from Fourth of July rockets. I stood awhile,
white rain gathering on my glasses, against my face. Snow covered my lenses.
Work. Friends. Agents yet to tap.
From the side of fulfillment, I could see the notion of suicide as option,
not order, as flame to my moth. Memory of rejection chased me home, Flyer
beside me. She came back to bed with me. My book was turned down me, my
life, my art. I called my doctor; he increased lithium and Xanax.
Quietly came the thought that my book had value beyond public acceptance.
Writing it had challenged and inspired me through all but darkest time,
keeping alive the only part of me I could like, the only part of me I
could trust. Every rewrite distanced me further from the grand and hideous
sides of psychosis. Every revision clarified my perspective, feeding me
insights and self knowledge, turning pain into art, validating experience.
In its latest version, the first signs of disorder became visible to
me, signs blinded by familiarity till they appeared in black and white,
over and over again.
Finally I understood that I've always been manic depressive, that sleepless
nights and weight loss encouraged brain chemical imbalance.
Finally, I perceived my book as a survival manual. Others could find
themselves, hold on to themselves, by putting their lives on paper. That
realization matured March 1991 when my first "Wordshop" met
at a psychiatric day treatment center; a second group followed six months
Our progress in enlightenment touches heart, touches soul, structuring
senses of accomplishment; a kind of positive feedback only possible when
forged by a tolerance and understanding bred by uncommon common ground.
Survivors feed hope to those still deep in struggle. Every recovery adds
escape routes. We are the heroes of our stories. Putting that in writing
mortars self esteem, as an act of creation, as a shoulder, as a road to
self awareness. Understanding is crucial to wellness, the core of comfort.
How I hurt for those who meet contempt whichever way they turn. In the
shift of mental disorder, distortion becomes reality. And the reality
of distortion becomes agony. I bless the luck that makes me respond to
medicine. I hurt for those who can't.
I now stop disorder long before sobs wrench me at sight of the evening
news, long before disagreement feels like betrayal. Balance keeps intensity
from raging, easier to live with.
Communing with Satan in the heaven of death taught me the value of
medication. I don't want to enter that mind again. I don't want to get
even close to the Messiah. I can't feel secure inside intensity unless
I know what it is, what triggers it. Only then can I fight the Messiah
All my life people have said, "Slow down; relax; calm down; don't
be so serious." They still say it. But not as often, nor as emphatically.
I was asked if I'd publicly admit
my relationship with full blown
manic depression. Surprised that
mental illness was still a source of
stigma, I declared that I was in a
league with Churchill, Hemingway
and van Gogh.
The month of May found me in love. The falling part sent me to a social
worker who had helped a friend. She taught me to ride panic, something
three psychologists and six psychiatrists had failed to do.
Would I have heard her in my years of disorder?
Mental illness is a profound human state. It disables, it kills if unchecked.
But death, unlike movies insist, comes far more from suicide than homicide.
Fall 1991, I learned that death also comes from incompetence, from ignorance,
I thought the snake pit was closed in the fifties. Those staffing the
treatment center where I volunteer "Wordshop" promoted that
belief. They treat everyone with respect and intelligence. Their programs
include symptom management, assertiveness, working and living assessment,
cognitive therapy, exercise, relaxation, music, painting, writing, cooking,
individual and group counseling. That their method of rehabilitation is
the exception rather than the rule runs anger through me. How can anyone
think for themselves if others regiment every aspect of life, ignoring
basic needs like money and home management, communication and vocational
skills? How can those so deprived possibly maintain balance outside an
institution? How can anyone treat those so deprived with negligence, ignoring
basic needs like dignity?
These issues were presented in November at a mental health self help/
advocacy training conference in Batavia, home of Terry Anderson, and of
my future, my career no longer hostage to disorder. I almost didn't go.
Being away from home with strangers beset me with claustrophobia; I didn't
dare test expressway panic, a cab was impossibly expensive. Still, I wanted
to know more about self help. My sister said she would come get me if
I wanted to leave.
At the conference, I met others who'd journeyed through psychosis; I
met directors of mental health agencies; I met directors from the New
York State Office of Mental Health, sponsor of the conference. The bond
of uncommon common ground filled the room; the bond of helping others
help themselves breathed in that room, energy united in a way never met
in the commercial world.
I was learning so much, and so much of what I believed was being confirmed.
The intensity of my interest grew. Mid afternoon, an advocate for mental
health rights described her experience on a psych ward. I'd never known
that kind of abuse in the name of care. I fled the room. Shuddering in
the lobby, I had visions of being committed against my will. Visions of
over medication, harsh voices, neglect. Visions of involuntary drugging,
restraints, isolation. Drugging as punishment. And then I saw myself left
alone with the fact my mind had turned against me.
My parents had cared for me in my months of psychosis. My parents were
dead now. My sister might not be around, my brother was in Milwaukee.
Fears tumbled inside me.
A woman from the conference joined me. She said, "Self help/advocacy
groups help peers manage disorder, and ensure fair treatment. Don't worry."
She squeezed my hand. "When was your last episode?" Her grin
was bright in her eyes. "I like being able to swap psychotic adventures,"
I responded. Laughing, we traded dates and returned to our table.
We heard about a bill before the New York State Senate that would extend
involuntary commitment of anyone with a psychiatric label, even without
signs of violence towards themselves or others. No more dancing on sidewalks,
singing on corners, grumbling alone out loud about vicissitudes. Thank
life that bill hasn't passed. But the politicians the ones putting finance
before humanity haven't dropped it. And I think that is criminal.
Over drugging is criminal. I was overdosed on purpose once. But it was
to haul me away from suicide, not punish me for being a bother. Over medication
is violent. Three deaths on a psych ward in 1991 were due to over medication.
There could be other deaths, ones hidden, ones where advocates for mental
health rights are barred.
After the conference I joined a selfhelp/advocacy group, marching for
Peace and Civil Rights as I had in my youth.
January 1992, I was appointed to the Board of Directors for Action for
Mental Health, Inc., a group formed to work with agencies, providers and
recipients of services to improve status quo.
In February, I was encouraged to apply for a consultant position with
the New York State Office of Mental Health. It meant driving around the
state evaluating self help groups funded by the National Institute of
Mental Health. I had yet to conquer expressway panic. But I wanted to
see what other groups were doing. I wanted to learn everything I could
about mental health, my most important subject.
I was asked if I'd publicly admit my relationship with full blown manic
depression. Surprised that mental illness was still a source of stigma,
I declared that I was in a league with Churchill, Hemingway and van Gogh.
I was nominated for "The 1992 Courage to Come Back Award in Mental
Health", sponsored by a local business group and a United Way agency.
I wanted the award. I wanted the consultant position. I feared the public
speaking and the driving each would entail. I won both within days of
each other. My lithium intake increased, as did Xanax.
The week before the Courage Dinner, I drove to Ithaca, site of my first
evaluation. Fear ran high at the start of the three hour drive, but a
friend's tape of "PRIVATE LIVES" distracted me. Into the second
hour, anxiety disappeared. I relaxed and enjoyed the view.
Triumph carried me home. I'd conquered expressway panic ten years after
it first occupied my mind. And then I faced five hundred people at the
Courage Dinner, my fear of the microphone magnified by the heights of
conquest. Mouth dry and with the shakes, I looked at the award, a glass
sculpture shaped like a mountain. It sparkled in the spotlight. I looked
over it and out at a thousand eyes looking back at me. My heart was racing.
"It's a mountain," I said, holding the sculpture aloft. "And
I'm a Capricorn we goats always climb mountains."
I wished I'd said I'd rather climb mental disorder than Mount Everest,
and that madness taught me who, what and why I am. Madness led me to my
love for words, and turned the story of losing my mind into art. And,
in practicing my art, I found hope for myself. I found self esteem. I
found self control.
I am a lucky one. I'm branching out again growing. And I owe it all to
love and to madness.
I was born
the seer, the sage, the fool
From the pool of my genes
formed the poles from which
my life would swing
opposites attracting from up to down
how high, how low
extremes of nature few know.
Lucky them. Lucky me.
of having the enemy be
your own mind.
Sheer terror ebbs slowly
It changes self respect to self doubt
The heart, The spirit that comes from imbalance
Doors opening heaven in hell
Helping others help themselves.
(This article was first published in 1995 in The Journal of NAMI California)
PATRICIA OBLETZ is Editor in Chief of the Western New York quarterly
publication Mental Health World.