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 unipolar 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 is treatment?

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 oh-so-dreaded drugs.

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." 
 

 

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