I was terrified of electroshock therapy, until I wasn’t.

Monday, April 27, 2015

In less than 12 hours, an anesthesiologist will place me under IV sedation. A doctor will attach an electrode near my temple. He will turn the dial on a machine and intentionally flood my head with enough electrical current to raise my brain above its seizure level. I will be allowed to seize for about 30 seconds. The electrodes will be detached, I’ll recover from the anesthesia, and leave.

I’ll do this twelve times over the next four weeks.

It’s called electroconvulsive therapy or ECT. You might know it better as electroshock treatment.

I’ve been depressed, anxious, or bipolar for as long as I can remember. My first encounter with the mental health system came in junior high, when my parents brought me to a local therapist to help with my anxiety. He prescribed the self-help book The Assertive Woman. I was twelve.

Since then I’ve tried talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, and EMDR. I spent ten years misdiagnosed with major depression until a prescription for Paxil threw me into a rapid cycling bipolar state. I’ve struggled to find the magic combination of drug and talk therapy that can keep me at or near the mood levels normal people apparently experience without woe. In this quest, I have been on the following psych meds, alone or in various cocktails:

  • Abililfy
  • Buspar
  • Celexa
  • Depakote
  • Desepramine
  • Effexor
  • Eskalith
  • Klonopin
  • Lamictal
  • Latuda
  • Lexapro
  • Librium
  • Lithium
  • Luvox
  • Neurontin
  • Paxil
  • Prozac
  • Remeron
  • Risperdal
  • Seroquel
  • Serzone
  • Trazodone
  • Trileptal
  • Valilum
  • Wellbutrin
  • Xanax
  • Zoloft
  • Zyprexa

For most of the 2000s, I was relatively stable. But bipolar women often find that during perimenopause their hormonal changes suddenly render their carefully crafted medical cocktails ineffective. This has been my struggle since late 2013. After a nervous breakdown last fall and mounting interventions since, I failed a structured outpatient program last winter. I say “failed” because the program confirmed what I’ve long suspected: My bipolar disorder is treatment-resistant. There are no drugs left to try.

So what’s left? ECT and other brain stimulation techniques – the scary stuff – turn out not to be so scary when the alternative is to live with the pain. [Or not. The suicide rate for people with bipolar disorder is as high as 20%.]

Electroconvulsive therapy, they tell me, is not the electroshock treatment of old – the Jack Nicholson “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” cultural touchstone that strikes fear into the very patients who could most benefit from it. Psychiatry tried to pretty up the name, but I’m not sure whether focusing on what my body will be doing (convulsing) versus what the doctor will be doing to me (shocking) makes it any more palatable. With anesthesia and muscle relaxants, there are no broken bones, no emotional trauma. You sleep. Maybe your foot twitches, or you grimace. It’s not Academy Award-worthy.

And so I’ve gone from being terrified of ECT, to being resigned to it, to being hopeful. ECT is now considered a first line treatment for bipolar depression and is particularly useful for the bipolar “mixed state” – a combination of manic symptoms like extreme anxiety and agitation together with major depression – that I suffer from. Memory loss, ECT’s primary side effect, is much less severe now than it had been with older, cruder forms of the treatment. Its efficacy rate of 70-90% is as or more impressive than talk and drug therapy. Side effects include confusion, headaches, fatigue, and nausea, as much from the anesthesia as the ECT.

Nice statistics aren’t much comfort tonight, though, as I flop sweat my way through the final hours before treatment. But I’ll take healthy nervousness over empty hopelessness.

See, I’m clinging to hope. A hope that years from now I’ll look back and see a dividing line. A time before, when I had to keep telling my kids “Mom is having a hard morning.” A time before, when the days clattered and collapsed around me, the world all elbows and angles. A time before, when the road contained more bumps than pavement, and I stalled out.

And a time after, when the days’ edges softened and, at last, I could glide.



image by Saad Faruque CC/BY


Posted in ECT | 39 Comments

The Yips.

In sports, they call it “the yips” – a sudden and inexplicable loss of fine motor ability. An athlete’s skills simply vanish – no more pitching strikes, serving aces, or shooting free throws.

I’ve had the yips. I lost my writing hand last fall and I’ve been beating myself up about it every day since.

Oh, I never stopped telling stories. I tell stories in my head every day. I tell stories while I drive, when I’m walking the dog, as I’m waiting for my daughter’s roller derby practice to end already.

In my head, I’ve written about the summer of the Nestea plunge at my grandma’s lake cabin. The tragic hair intervention my eighth grade friends staged for my out-of-control locks. The solitude I found nestled in a cove of wild grapevines, journal in hand, at the far corner of the Minnesota acreage I grew up on.

I’ve mind-written a long-form article called “400 Miles to Ohio with Jason Derulo” and part of a one-woman show called “What’s a Girl Gotta Do to Get a (Non-Alcoholic) Beer Around Here?”

And in my head, I’ve told the stories of the past year since I quit my day job. I have told these stories over and over as they’ve unfolded, in blog-sized bites that I can’t seem to transmit through to my keyboard. They have titles like:

  • Lying in the Fetal Position Writing a Motivational Speech
  • Spelunking with Children, ft. Hypomania
  • My Cry for Help (or How Blue Cross Ruined My Winter)
  • Badass Outpatient
  • Trying to Find Happiness in a 12×12 Room of Depressed Appalachians

These are stories of a mom, interrupted. Of a downward spiral. Of sussing out just what rock bottom looks like (spoiler alert: there’s a moldy shower stall floor involved).

And there is a simple post of apology I’ve been meaning to write – to family, to friends, to students, to former colleagues. To all of you who have reached out to say you are there and you care.

That post is called: “I’m Sorry I Didn’t Return Your Phone Call or Reply to Your Facebook Message or Your Email or Even Your Text.”

I opened the front door to my inner self a week ago, surprised to find spring waiting for me on its stoop. I pulled on short shorts and vintage Frye boots. I carefully threaded my seventies-era hoop earrings through my ears. Digging around in the bottom of the bathroom drawer, I unearthed my make-up. I rifled through my stack of fedoras and chose the jauntiest.

With boot heels clicking, I picked my way along a cobblestone street to meet an online friend for the first time. I watched as she resolved from a profile picture into a real human being. We sat on the sun-dappled patio of an outdoor café. The air had just begun to hold on to its humidity, and the breeze smelled like hope.

Photo by Kevin Collins/CC BY

Photo by Kevin Collins/CC BY


I won an award today for writing. A BlogHer Voices of the Year award, affectionately known as the VOTY, for my post “The Layered Look Only Works When You Wear Layers,” about flashing my daughter’s taekwondo class. It’s my third VOTY in three years and my friend Bill has won three in three years and he’s a real writer, so I’m thinking, through the fog of my wintry doubt, that I might be too.


Posted in shut up and write already, These posts are not funny., Uncategorized | 14 Comments

I have lost my words.

b and w the leap 2

I have lost my words and I am failing my literary idols.

Norman Mailer, whose towering work of creative nonfiction, The Executioner’s Song, made me want to write in that genre, said that “[i]f you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are . . . asking your unconscious to prepare the material.”

And Joseph Campbell, whose work changed my world vision and whose theories I taught for twelve years, said to find “a room, or a certain hour of the day” that must become your place of “creative incubation.” He promised that if you visited, “[a]t first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.”

The message is simple. In order to find your words you must show up. Write every day. Make a commitment. Do the work and the inspiration will come.

It’s a message I pass on to my writing students: Write regularly and the ideas will flow. You will form and shape your stories and give them life as only you can do with your authentic voice.

Perhaps I am failing my students too.

Because I have no words.

I quit my day job last April to “be a writer.” To take a leap and the universe would catch me. I even tattooed that quote on my forearm, a constant reminder that once I was brave and did brave things, and that everything would turn out all right in the end. Never one to shy away from hard work and secure in my belief that I was the smartest girl in the room, I trusted in my ability to give my dreams flight.

But I can’t find my place of creative incubation and my unconscious isn’t preparing the material and I can teach, but not do.

And so I’ve barely written. The “award-winning writer” phrase in my bio makes me cringe, as though it were spit-laughing in my face. Dust gathers in the corners of my blog, and the cobwebs overtaking the ceilings would make Miss Havisham proud.

My mind is never at rest, racing with a flight of ideas I can’t harness and hitch to the page. My archives read like a blow by blow account of the mania, anxiety, and depression that trap my bipolar mind, and they shame me. That illness holds my words locked away in a high tower, neither a length of tresses nor a shining prince in sight to rescue them.

I count as close friends the talent-filled members of my online writing group. I applaud them as they chalk up success after success: Agents, book deals, articles in influential newspapers, stories in literary journals, posts accepted by major websites. Their voices rightfully need to be heard because they are unique and valuable and resonate and capture universal emotions and change hearts and minds. Their work astonishes me and leaves me breathless and I am honored to be among writers of their caliber.

But I feel like I’ve become a silent partner.

I hate my mind. It’s taking away the one thing I thought was my purpose, and I am left here, my world shrinking to the isolation of my bed and the eight square feet of my desk and the school drop-off line and my keyboard, which stares up at me with the sad, empty eyes of rejection, begging for human contact, and daily finding its affections unrequited.

It is breaking my heart.



Posted in I am the weakest link. Goodbye., These posts are not funny. | 38 Comments

“They won’t mind if we sort of steal these pumpkins.”

I needed twelve mini-pumpkins stat for Akeyla’s birthday party craft – the only craft I’d planned for the preschoolers who would be descending on my home in a mere two hours.

The pumpkin patch was closed.

Who the fuck closes a pumpkin patch an October 28?

“Let’s just take them and I’ll leave a note,” I said to Astrid. “We’ll come back later to pay.” I began to examine pumpkins and stuff them into the fair trade basket I bought to look like I was headed to the farmers’ market even though I never go.

“Isn’t that stealing?”

“Nah. It’s more like a rent-to-own situation. Look. I’m writing in my best handwriting and leaving my name and number and how many mini-pumpkins we took.” I scrawled my explanation onto the back of a Dunkin Donuts flyer. “See? I made a little invoice that shows I know how much I owe them.”

Then the clincher: “They won’t mind.”

I’m big on ‘they won’t mind.’ “They won’t mind if we park in this reserved spot for twenty minutes” I might say. “I’ll leave a note.” The leaving of the note is essential for the ‘they won’t mind’ to work. The note cancels out the wrongdoing, making it okay to temporarily break the rules.

I wedged the note inside the screen door and heaved the basket into the car.

Astrid glanced across the parking lot. “Why don’t we just go in that building and ask?”

I followed her gaze. The world beyond the pumpkin patch resolved into focus. She was pointing at a church.

A church. I was quasi-stealing pumpkins from a church.

We crept in the side entrance, my confidence in the whole rent-to-own scheme wavering. To the distant hum of unfamiliar hymns, we tiptoed down the stairs in search of answers to our pumpkin dilemma.

“Mom, what’s that rumbling sound?”

I panicked. “THEY’RE GETTING OUT!” Parishioners, freed from their pews to go in peace to Cracker Barrel, stampeded like herd animals to the exits, ready to lose their church offering envelopes in the nearest collection basket.

We tore up the stairs. “Mom! Why are we running?”

I didn’t know. All I knew is that we were strangers in a strange land and I had a load of hot mini-pumpkins in the passenger seat of my van. I imagined the Town & Country surrounded by pitchfork-wielding churchgoers demanding atonement.

I turned to Astrid. “Act natural.” We folded ourselves into the crowd. I tried to look like my soul had recently been nourished.

We ambled to the car and left with our loot, promises to return flapping in the autumn breeze.

PUMPKIN CRAFT INSTRUCTIONS:  PIN THIS!


Click on photo to enlarge instructions.


Posted in Inappropriate Behavior | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

Apple Hell: A Fun Fall Family Tradition.

The girls and I were going apple picking. So what if it was 90 degrees? This was guaranteed fun.

Maybe I should have turned back when they waved me into the third overflow lot and directed me to park on a rocky outcrop. Instead, I snapped open the orchard map so we could check off fun activities. This place was about SO MUCH MORE than apples.

Previous fun-loving families had stripped the low-hanging fruit like locusts, so we pushed deeper through rows of Galas, Honeycrisps, and Jonagolds in search of apples we could reach without a ladder.

We trudged by goats. We felt sad about penned-up peacocks. We explored the incongruous bamboo forest. We dodged a tractor dragging a trailer full of slack-mouthed Carolinians. The hayride, apparently.

Astrid stopped. “I’m hungry.” I handed her an apple.

“It’s covered in pesticides.”

I polished it on my shirt.

“Seriously, mom?”

“One carcinogenic apple’s not going to kill you,” I said. “Today.”

When we had checked off every fun thing on the map, it was time to pay.

The check-out barn smelled of sweat and sorrow.

We stood in line behind all of America. A grown man nearly cried when he reached the front, only to be turned back for failure to bag his apples first. Another woman, dripping with perspiration and toddlers, learned the hard way that the orchard only took cash. A man towed a Radio Flyer wagon filled with apples. The Duggars couldn’t have eaten that many apples in a lifetime.

I slapped our apples on the counter. But we required EVEN MORE APPLE MERCHANDISE. “Hey!” I asked Apple Guy, “Can we buy all our apple stuff right here?”

“Of course!” Apple Guy said, “Whaddya need?” I ticked off fudge apples, caramel apples, cider, donuts. I handed Apple Guy all my money.

I waited, but no products appeared.

“So the cider’s over at the cider counter” – he waved at the barely visible far end of the barn – “the candied apples are in the gift shop, and you can grab the donuts in the Donut Hut.” He stuffed a handful of checkered twist-ties into my hand. “Just give these to the cashier and she’ll know you paid.”

No one was going to crack that code.

I sent Astrid to stand in the block-long donut line, twist-tie in hand. I dragged Akeyla to the gift shop (ten people in line) and the cider counter (uncountable number of people in line). Twenty minutes later, we rejoined Astrid, who hadn’t moved.

The heat index was soaring above 100 degrees. I hung my head between my knees. “Are you, like, going to pass out?” Astrid asked. “Maybe you should eat an apple.”

I was panting. “I (gasp) don’t (gasp) like (gasp) apples.”

“You don’t like apples?” Akeyla asked. “Why are we here?”

“BECAUSE. IT’S. FUN.”

“Nobody likes apples!” Astrid said, “You come for” – and here she pulled out a pair of air quotes – “the ‘experience.’ And the donuts.”

At last, toting a piping hot box of donuts and guzzling cider from the jug, we staggered up the hill in search of the cliff upon which our car was parked. I backed out, avoiding dogs, children, and a dude carrying a black backpack filled – I presume – with apples self-baking into a not-delicious pie.

On the main road Astrid spotted an apple stand. “We totally could have just gone there,” she said.

Akeyla yawned. “I really, really, really . . .” she trailed off, rubbing her eyes, “never want to go there again.”

chewed apple

the remains of the day

 



Posted in I am the weakest link. Goodbye., Inappropriate Behavior, Self Improvement | 21 Comments