Discover more from Cured: On Mental Health Recovery
🎧What Your Emotions Say When You Aren't Listening
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Enjoying ‘Cured’? Read the prequel, ‘Pathological’ (HarperCollins):
🎧 Listen to Sarah read this installment of Cured:
Note: This installment describes suicidality. If you’re having thoughts of suicide, speaking to someone can help. You aren’t alone. Call or text 988. If you don’t feel you’re a danger to yourself, call or text one of the many warmlines available to help.
My friend Lisa picks me up in her Subaru, and we drive to the suburbs. The idea is to get some things for my claustrophobic studio apartment to make it “homier.” Interior decoration appeals to me about as much as breaking a bone: painful at first and then just tedious.
But I want to be “normal.” After twenty-five years in the mental health system—an eternity, it seems now—my new psychiatrist has told me that recovery from psychiatric disorders is, in fact, possible, a secret none of the many clinicians I saw ever divulged. According to them, my diagnoses (I received six, one after another, trying to give a name to my mental and emotional pain) were lifelong. The best I could do was manage my symptoms. Now, I’m trying to heal inside a fantasy of what’s “normal” and what’s not.
We head west and eventually merge onto the highway. We’ve been friends for twenty years, ever since we both waited tables at the same restaurant. We fall in and out of touch. During one of my deepest depressions, I lived with her for about a month.
Lisa tells me her jewelry business is struggling. She’s dyed her dark hair blonde, which makes her perfect porcelain skin look even more flawless.
During a lull, I look out the window. The landscape seems to blur though Lisa isn’t driving that fast. Pressure builds in my chest. The pressure flutters, then tingles, then pulses.
I couldn’t name it then, but that’s how anxiety and fear manifest in my body. The American Psychological Association (APA) describes an emotion as “a complex reaction pattern involving experiential, behavioral, and physiological elements.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “a conscious mental reaction…subjectively experienced as strong feeling…typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body.” Some emotion theorists say we can physically map our emotions:
At the time, like many people, I didn’t even know that an emotion is a sensation or a series of vibrations in the body: a fluttering heart, sweaty hands, a stomachache, weak knees, a pulsing sensation in your head, heavy limbs, the tightening of your shoulders and neck, a rush of warmth to your face.
She asks how I’m doing. It’s as if the car veers too close to the traffic barrier. I try to sound peppy and say I’m fine, hearing the waver in my voice.
I deflect the conversation back to Lisa, who tells me about the man she’s dating. The pulsing in my chest increases. My cheeks seem to go numb.
Between the city limits and O’Hare, there are plenty of opportunities to ask Lisa to turn the car around. A couple of years ago, during one of the times we reconnected by phone, I told her I was bipolar. Her response was one of deep sympathy. But I don’t say anything and then it seems too late.
In IKEA, amidst seemingly endless objects—lamps and kitchen towels the store promises will give my harrowingly small apartment a “calm, peaceful vibe”—it starts. Passing through one of several demo kitchens, I feel my cheeks go numb. Pain shoots down my arm. A heart attack. I must be having a heart attack.
If I ignore it, maybe it will go away. Mentally healthy people shop at IKEA without having panic attacks, or so I think, putting a meaningless circular blue throw pillow in my cart, then a random drawer unit designed to permanently organize toiletries, then a cutting board I don’t need and a white decorative bowl I never wanted.
We’re headed to the checkout when she says she’s hungry. “Let’s stop at the cafeteria.” She loves IKEA’s mashed potatoes and gravy.
My mind races: I’m dying. I must be dying. I have to get out of here.
I smile. She orders mashed potatoes with gravy. At the soda fountain, she fills an impossibly large cup with Pepsi. I get a coffee, which only makes my heart pound more.
Once we’re in a booth, the tray of mashed potatoes and gravy and gargantuan Pepsi in front of her, she asks if I got everything I wanted. My voice comes out mechanical as I say yes and thank her for driving and coming with me. I have to get out of here. She smiles. “Of course, babe.”
We make it out of the store and back to my apartment without me dying. That night, I sit on the edge of my bed. The throw pillow and decorative bowl are still in the massive blue IKEA bag on the floor of my apartment.
The pulsing is still there, mixed with darkness and heaviness. At the time, I couldn’t have recognized the pattern: anxiety and panic rev up the mind, and depression is a way to subdue it in an attempt to restore homeostasis.
All I can think is that my new psychiatrist is wrong and those other therapists and psychologists and psychiatrists and GPs must have been right. There’s no hope. There’s no healing from mental illness.
The room becomes cloudy—not like a room. The overhead light haloes. I rub my palms together, but they seem like someone else’s hands.
Parents whose children have considered or attempted suicide or ended their lives ask me about suicidality. We think of it as feeling too much of what’s there, but for me, there was too much of what wasn’t there: not feeling, not seeing a future, not being able to imagine a moment beyond this one. Beneath the not feeling, the not seeing, the not being able to imagine a future, there’s a terrifying ache. It’s lurking and monotonous and seems impossible to escape. There’s only my mind telling me it will never end. My doctors and the internet and everyone know that I am mentally ill.
That night, almost on cue, the stringent narrowing starts. It’s as if I’m in a tube, the circumference of one end getting smaller. There’s barely a pinpoint of light. My body and maybe a square foot on every side is my whole reality. All the books I’ve ever read—including my favorites, the ones I escape into, novels like The Brothers Karamazov and Beloved and The Great Gatsby and Invisible Man—don’t exist. The films and TV shows and plays—none of it. No sun to warm my face. No memory of the six-mile walk I took yesterday in the bitter cold, the wind tightening my cheeks. The brick wall outside my window doesn’t exist. Not even the IKEA bag. My family doesn’t exist. No one exists. Not even me. Just the not and the ache.
Then the pinpoint of light expands. I imagine the sunny face of my therapist from the partial hospitalization program and remember the safety plan we set up. With the thought Call Elizabeth, my reality widens. I get my cellphone. It’s heavy in my hand.
There’s fear and love in my sister’s voice. Most of all, it’s commanding. She runs me through the safety plan. I trip as I walk the short distance from my bed to the kitchen counter to get the translucent orange bottle of Klonopin.
I tell her I don’t want to take it.
“Take it,” she says.
I swallow the little yellow pill.
“Now, the worksheet.”
I pull out a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) worksheet that’s more of a distraction than a savior. It bides time until the Klonopin knocks me out, ostensibly—if I sleep through the night—buying me another day.
Dazedly, I put the phone on speaker, get a pen, sit at the kitchen counter, and try to fill out the CBT Thought Record. My pen moves over the paper. My eyelids droop.
“How are you doing?” my sister asks, her voice a disembodied presence coming from my cellphone. I’d forgotten she was there.
She asks if I want her to wait until I’m asleep.
I get up, leave the worksheet, and take my phone with me to the bed. I lie down. “No,” I say. My eyes droop. We hang up.
Drifting in and out of sleep, it seems those other doctors must be right. My life will always be like this, won’t it?
It won’t, but I don’t know that. Without our safety plan in place—a very concrete, step-by-step plan of what to do when I felt suicidal (get your cellphone; tap Elizabeth’s number; wait for her to answer; if she doesn’t, keep calling until she does no matter how long it takes)—I might not have found out. That safety plan worked because it was specific, not Call if you need to or I want you to let me if you feel this way again. And it didn’t necessarily involve the emergency room—where many people don’t want to go when in crisis—or a psychiatrist or therapist—who can sometimes feel like authority figures.
There were other options in terms of support, but I didn’t know about them. I could have called the suicide hotline, which at the time was 1-800-273-8255 and is now 988. (Note: If the crisis counselor deems a person a danger to oneself or others, the counselor will call 911—which may or may not be a relief depending on the situation.) I could have called a warmline, which, despite the name, are crisis hotlines manned by peer support specialists (people who’ve recovered from mental illness and addiction) trained to listen. And listen some more. And understand because they’ve been there too. Recovery respite centers—staffed solely by peer support specialists—offer a place where people can go when they’re in crisis.
The next morning, I wake groggy. A gauziness shrouds my one-room apartment. From the back of my mind comes a promise: You’re going to heal.
» For tips on how to develop your or your loved one’s or friend’s safety plan, go here:
Now available in paperback!
Pathological: The True Story of Six Misdiagnoses (HarperCollins 2022)—the prequel to Cured
Pathological was an Apple Best Books pick, hailed in The New York Times as a “fiery manifesto of a memoir,” and named one of the sixteen best mental health memoirs to read by Parade Magazine. It was featured on NPR, Oprah Daily, Salon, Forbes, The Los Angeles Times, and more.
Called “powerful, mesmerizing, and unputdownable,” Pathological recounts my twenty-five years in the mental health system. It’s a gripping, cautionary tale of what can happen when a young person negatively over-identifies with a psychiatric diagnosis and continues to do so into adulthood. Buy it now.
Continue to Chapter 5.