THE TWILIGHT YEARS
LIVING WITH THE ANGUISH OF MENTAL ILLNESS
BY SUSAN FRENCH
I grew up in a nice middle class neighbourhood in North Toronto. I attended
a rather academic high school, and even though I had just been an average
student, I managed to keep up with the eggheads in my class. I was pretty,
popular and always stylishly dressed. I had lots of girlfriends and by
grade nine, was starting to date.
In grade ten, at age fifteen, two of the most important things in my
life happened. First, I met a boy and fell madly in love. We became inseparable
and talked of marriage, children and what our home would be like, when
we weren't billing and cooing like two lovesick turtledoves.
The second thing that happened to me was much more nightmarish than
reality and was to change the course of my life. I had some sort of anxiety
attack right there in the classroom where I was striving to be a better
than average student.
It started with insomnia which gradually built into a total absence
of sleep for many nights in a row. I became agitated, talking incessantly
and laughing inappropriately. I was such a disruptive element in class
that I had to be removed and sent for assessment by the school guidance
counsellor. He referred me to a psychiatric clinic where a psychologist
and a psychiatrist interviewed me at length to gain some insight into the
reasons for my sudden and emotional outbursts.
My parents were beside themselves and had yet to learn ways of coping
with my erratic behavior.
They both seemed guilt-ridden, as if they had done something to cause
the aberrant behavior.
After many interviews and psychological testing, the doctors were able
to tell me that I had manic depression. But I wasn't depressed at all.
In fact, I was euphoric. The world seemed rosy and I was omnipotent. There
wasn't a task I couldn't perform; any problem I coudn't solve.
It was explained to me that there is a manic side to this affective
disorder. (That was the new way they liked to refer to mental illness).
Someone who only exhibits the manic side of the illness is said to have
disease and is referred to as a pure manic. Perhaps only 3%
of all manic depressives are pure manic. About 10% of the general populace
suffers from the disease.
Other generally depressing facts about the disorder: there is no cure.
It may be transmitted genetically from one generation to the next. It is
a recurrent disorder and does not seem to be triggered off by any one cause,
such as stress or diet. So what can be done about it and how effective
In 1963, the treatment of choice was to administer orally very high
doses of a major tranquilizer
called Chlorpromazine. Chlorpromazine is just one of the members of
a larger family of major tranquilizers called Phenothiazines. This drug
was so potent that a patient receiving it often required hospitalization,
if only to have constant surveillance for untoward effects.
My parents refused to have me hospitaized, and so, under very careful
observation, I was given the drug at home. My parents kept watch over me
day and night. For the first eight hours I slept so heavily that when I
finally awoke, it seemed I had been asleep for seventy-two hours.
My eyes were narrow slits as I tried to focus on my room and the harshness
of the daylight streaming in through an opening in the drapes. I tried
to lift my head off the pillow - it was like a giant sledge hammer knocked
me on the forehead forcing me back to the horizontal positon. My mouth
was so dry and my lips so parched that I could barely speak. When I attempted
to speak, my words were thick and slow and so slurred that no one could
understand me. My thought processes seemed to come lightening fast, but
I could no longer formulate them into verbalizations. The light hurt my
eyes and I had a dull headache. In total, I felt as though I was in another
body; one with stiff and deadened limbs which were incapable of acting
on the messages my brain was sending. I do not know of a more tumultuous
assault on the human body - it could be likened to a stroke.
Gradually, I became coherent. The high feeling I had experienced earlier
had now been replaced with a terrble deadness caused by the drugs. Whenever
I began to revive from the deadness, I would be given another dose of Chlopromazine
and the viscious cycle would begin again.
It was about three weeks, three weeks of living hell, until I responded
favourably enough to be weaned off the drugs.
I had to go back to school among lies and whispers that I had had a
nervous breakdown. People avoided me like the plague. My boyfriend David
stuck by me and that was perhaps the only bright spot in my life.
Throughout high schol I continued to have these manic relapses; as many
as three per year. When I failed grade eleven twice, I was ready to quit
school immediately. My older sister, who had herself dropped out in grade
eleven, gave me the courage to go on.
Whenever I got manic I was cloistered at home. My parents tried to protect
me as best they could from harming or embarrassing myself with others outside
the family. For this reason, I was often kept within the confines of my
own room, being allowed to join the family at mealtimes and during supervised
activities. It seemed a cruel punishment and I was often consumed with
the feeling that four walls could not contain me. On one such occasion,
I escaped unnoticed into the brisk winter air of a February evening. I
was free at last. Thinking very quickly that I had to get away from the
house as fast as I could, I decided to go to my sister's house. She lived
about two and one half miles away, as the crow flies, and that is exactly
how I plotted to get there. I tramped through a series of yards and gardens,
leaping fences with ease, facilitated by the deep snow. I reached her home,
at once out of breath and perplexed as to the reason for my coming. My
sister and her boyfriend tok me inside and tried to calm me down and reason
with me. Something they said made me angry and I left abruptly.
I made my way to a busy intersection. I felt alone and abandoned. I
went into a restaurant to get warm, discovering I hadn't brought any money
with me. I sat down at th counter and began to cry. The restaurant owner
offered me a glass of water and asked me what was wrong.
I just kept saying, "I don't know. I'm all alone". I asked for a dime
to make a phone call and he gave it to me. I thought of phoning my parents.
Probably they were frantic by now. Instead I called the police and asked
them to come and get me and take me home.
Within minutes a squad car arrived and two uniformed policemen ushered
me into the safety of the awaiting car. I told then my address and that
I didn't have subway fare to get home. They listened with feigned interest
and began driving across town.
After what seemed like an eternity, we arrived at a great set of iron
gates which marked the entrance to a massive brick edifice encircled by
crumbling stone walls.
"Where are we?" I asked. No reply.
I was led into a dark corridor, and after a short exchange with a night
clerk, a uniformed matron came and took me away. She directed me into a
large tub room and instructed me to strip off my clothes and climb into
the swirling tub. I told her that I had bathed that morning.
"Its hospital policy." she said curtly.
"What hospital is this, then?"
"999 Queen Street." she said, matter-of-factly.
Oh no, I thought. This is the nut house! I'm not staying here, I thought
to myself. I was at once paralyzed with fear.
There were many heartaches. My sixteenth birthday was celebrated in
a drug-induced fog. When I blew the candles out on my cake, I wished for
death rather than having to endure another bout with the disease and those
When my older sister maried, I was in hospital and so far out of control
that I couldn't even attend her wedding.
The world seemed to pass me by as I stood marking time with the chalky
taste of medicine on my tongue, a dazed look in my eye and a sinking feeling
in my heart.
In the summer of my eighteenth birthday, my doctor suggested putting
me in hospital for the entre summer vacation. It had been determined that
my system was very sensitive to medication and it had been difficult to
stabilize me on some of the different drugs I had been given. The doctor
thought they could try a whole range of different types of drugs over the
eight week period, and find a drug that would work best for me, and have
the fewest side effects.
And so the experiement began, with myself as a sort of human guinea
pig. It was a nightmare from start to finish. I tripped out on each and
every drug I was given. I didn't know who I was, or where I was, or even
why I was. It was much like the trips that teenagers took on LSD in the
sixties.To this day I'll never understand how people can put harmful chemicals
into perfectly healthy bodies and eventually destroy part of their minds.
It was near the end of the experiement and I just wasn't responding
favourably to any of the drugs. There was a young senior resident named
Dr. Michael King, whom I shall never forget. He has been working closely
with my own psychiatrist, Dr. Dayton Forman. Dr. King suggested trying
a new drug called Lithium Carbonate. At that point it was still an experimental
drug in Canada. They had had some success in treating manic depressives
with Lithium in Sweden. They were able to get the go-ahead from the government
and to use the drug experimentally on me.
In a matter of weeks, I began to respond positively. My mood swings
adjusted to within normal limits. I felt well. There were no more untoward
effects from the drug. It was just like taking a vitamin pill.
My blood levels were monitored daily for the first two weeks of Litium
therapy. There is a danger that just a little too much Lithium can be very
toxic to the body. Lithium is a common salt which exists in muinute quantities
in the brain's chemica makeup. There is a theory that patients with manic
drpression have a slight deficiency of lithium in their brain's chemicals.
When lithium levels were stabilized, I was given a supply of those pale
green oval-shaped tablets with instructions to take one three times a day
for the rest of my life. I was also advised to have my serum lithium level
checked every month, and of course to report any new symptoms promptly
to the doctor.
I couldn't leave the ward without saying good-bye and a heartfelt thankyou
to a beaming Dr. King. He had virtually saved my life; that is a life of
worthlessness, agony and despair. As I expressed my gratitude for offering
me a new life of hope and happiness, he said to me,
"Susan, I think we have found the wonder drug!
The impact of those words changed my life. I did finally graduate from
high school. I went on to attain my diploma in nursing.
Today I am rewarded with a wonderful husband, a lovely home and a gratifying
career as a Regsistered Nurse.
Yes, I still have manic depression, but the relapses are less frequent,
shorter in duration and decidedly less severe than those anxiety-ridden
days of old. I was able to beat the odds of this disease through the continual
support of family, friends and two dedicated doctors who really cared.
My own raw courage helped me through the hardest moves, but afterall, "Through
this life, you go but once."