Posts tagged Mental Illness
When the Best Prescription is Not to Cure

The unit is separated from the outside world by two pairs of locked double doors. A blinking green light and a soft beep herald our passage through them into a no-man’s-land where a guard sits, patiently unlocking the doors as we come and go. When I enter the airlock the first morning, hang my coat and stow my backpack, it feels as though I’m in a sci-fi movie, an intergalactic explorer awaiting my first excursion into the uncharted expanses of space. The atmospheres equilibrate and, I will soon learn, norms are stripped away, decompressed. Not sure what to expect, the door chirps open and I step into my month-long rotation on the inpatient psych ward.

Each morning, residents, psychiatrists, nurses, social workers, and I pile into a tiny, windowless room with chairs pushed up against the walls in two rows facing each other. I am the only medical student among them, a wide-eyed interloper squeezing into a center chair. Patients are led in one by one to sit beneath a watercolor painting of goldfish in a pond while we ask them things like, “How is your mood today?” and “Did you need your Zyprexa to sleep last night?” A pleasantly psychotic woman, untroubled by her delusions of being a powerful real estate lawyer – she is homeless but insists that her office has faxed her discharge paperwork – doesn’t seem to notice that I’m there. With fifteen or twenty minutes per patient and our elbows and knees bumping up against each other, these encounters are concentrated in time, in space, in feeling, and they leave me jelly-legged and dazed when I finally stand up hours later. Every minute I’m cycling through the full range of human emotion, from proud to sad to irate to hopeful. I fidget in my chair as tremulous patients beg for benzos. I hold back tears as a suicidal businessman crumples wet tissues in his bandaged hands. Sometimes I just stare at the goldfish and wonder if this is what it’s like to be crazy.

One day a few months prior on a surgery rotation, I stood in the OR at the end of a long case, carefully running a subcuticlar skin closure.

“You’re a natural.” The surgeon, arms crossed, looks over my shoulder. “What specialty do you want to go into?”

“Neurology.” I watched the last stich pull the skin into a taught pink line the patient would remember me by.

“Neurology?” She sounded confused. “But don’t you want to fix people?” Her jaw was tight and face serious.

This was nothing new. From the beginning of medical school we are taught to diagnose and treat. We recite mnemonics for the acute management of myocardial infarctions, and can name first, second, and third line therapies for asthma. We titrate blood pressures to evidence-based levels, and feel weirdly satisfied when our heart failure patients pee after a dose of diuretics.

We are taught to grow from the first year student who can report that something is wrong to the doctor who can do something about it.

On the psych ward, my patients’ foggy insights clouds my own. I find myself in the thick of the confusion with them, trying desperately to “fix,” to “cure,” to achieve some venerated end I had been conditioned to strive for, and driving myself insane with an inexplicable rage when I can’t. A woman with a functional tic can’t accept that her problem is not the result of medical errors and refuses psychiatric intervention. A kind man with bipolar disorder and an addiction who got high and tried to crash his yacht tinkers with his medication doses and stares silently out the window at the sailboats dotting the river below. A deeply depressed attorney can’t allow himself to just feel sad. Seeing them every day is excruciating: each carefully articulated question I ask falls flat, and simple conversations quickly turn into circular back-and-forth’s that devolve to the absurd. Every day I feel like banging my head against the wall, and each night I drag home the weight that others can’t carry.

Shelly* is 30-something, wiry, all clavicle and bony knees– breakable, almost – with thick glasses that magnify her round eyes and give her a permanently forlorn look. She wears Victoria’s Secret sweatpants with a black sweatshirt and Ugg boots, her long brown hair pulled into two braids that fall down her back.

The night before her arrival, she had lined up her anxiety pills, her mutinous artillery of serotonin and GABA, in one last attempt to create order in her chaotic life, before swallowing them one by one. However, her final act of treason was interrupted, and she ended up with us. When we first meet, she is reticent, eyes downcast, giving up only a word or two in barely a whisper. But soon, she opens up.

Two young women in a foreign land, we hit it off: she shows me the drawings she makes in the journal she guards tightly against her chest with crossed arms as she walks around the unit, and talks about seeing her dog when she gets home. She is tougher than her small frame lets on, both physically and mentally. After a week of dutiful CBT practice, she is deemed ready to go conquer her automatic negative thoughts on her own, out in the real world. On the last day of my rotation the two of us sit under the goldfish, talking about going home, about passing through the airlocked doors back to the outside world. Suddenly, her face clouds and she begins to cry for the first time since she’s been here. I hand her tissues.

“What’s wrong?” I break the silence.

“I feel like a failure,” she says through tears. “I’ve worked so hard, what if I’m not actually better? What if I go home and it all starts again?”

I pause.

“Well, at least you’re trying, right? That’s pretty good.” I watch her think about this for a moment, brow furrowed, tiny fists balled in her lap.

“Yeah,” she smiles a little to herself, eyes looking thoughtfully at the floor. “I guess that’s something.”

Back between the doors, I wait for the green light one last time. Four weeks, ten discharged patients, dozens of prescriptions, and countless long silences later, I don’t think I fixed anyone. I sat with them, though, through all the tears and all the tic-ing, and heard what they had to say. Maybe this is how we help: we shelter, we stabilize, we listen, and we together we take steps, however small. We may not always be able to fix. We may not know what happens when our patients leave the quiet of the pond for the rough ocean waves. But we try. Well, I reassure myself, I guess that’s something.

* Name has been changed

Emma Meyers is a third year medical student at Harvard Medical School. She grew up in New Jersey and graduated from Columbia University with a degree in neurobiology. She plans to do a residency in neurology. Outside of medicine, Emma enjoys art, reading fiction, hiking, cycling, and traveling.

Living Bipolar

Chris is a 38-year-old Ph.D. student who spent 10 years struggling with and fighting against his psychotic illness. His condition has been hard to diagnose — it’s been characterized as Bipolar and Schizoaffective Disorder at various times. Regardless of the specific diagnosis, the bottom line is the same: Chris has a lifelong mental health condition. He hears voices, and has suffered from paranoia, depression and mania along the way.

His symptoms started when he was a 25-year-old grad student in New York City. Before that, according to his mother, Eileen, he was extremely high functioning — an excellent student, an athlete and a friend to many. She would never have suspected that her son would become ill. But when he grew paranoid and started acting erratically, Eileen began to worry. Ultimately, when she realized how sick her son had become, she knew she had to act. She quickly learned how difficult it is to get help for someone who is mentally ill but over the age of 18. Eventually, after multiple frustrating and unsuccessful attempts to get Chris into treatment, she was told “you need to find three strong men who love him, and you need to go get him, and you need to take him to a hospital,” and this is what she did. Eileen’s story highlights the challenges of navigating the mental health system and of accepting and ultimately embracing her son’s medical condition.

These days, Chris says he is in a different and better place. He has accepted his illness and has learned to manage it with medications, therapy and his support systems. Like any chronic condition, it requires constant monitoring, but he feels equipped to handle the ups and downs and he has become quite skilled at recognizing his symptoms and titrating his medications in response. He is now a Ph.D. student at the University of New Hampshire’s Natural Resources and Earth Systems Sciences program, where he is integrating environmental economics with his background in environmental sciences and engineering. He is engaged to be married and will soon gain a step-daughter. Though his illness complicates his life, he has learned to live with it while maximizing his happiness and productivity.

Unfortunately, and despite much talk to the contrary, mental and physical health problems are treated very differently in our society. We marginalize the mentally ill, and often fail to see the individual underneath the diagnosis. In so doing, we make it hard for such individuals to seek help and to move forward.

Why this double standard? Why the stigma? For many of us, it is easier and less scary to imagine losing physical capabilities than it is to imagine losing control over our mind, even temporarily. In fear, we distance ourselves and see the mentally ill as “other”. This distancing is detrimental on an individual and a societal level. Instead, we should listen and try to understand, and focus on our similarities instead of our differences.

Originally published on WBUR Commonhealth Blog, February 22, 2013


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Depression and Meaning Making

In the two years since the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013, we have seen many amazing examples of human resiliency. We have seen the people of Boston rise up and bond together over this shared trauma, with Boston Strong our motto. And we have seen families and individuals move forward with courage in the face of loss. Powerful news media images of amputees learning to walk on their new prostheses are emblazoned in our minds.

Quieter, less visible personal transformations have also occurred in many who were not physically injured by the bombs. Jennifer, a 42 years old woman who has suffered from depression for years and who was volunteering at the Boston Marathon Finish Line in 2013, describes the events of that day as “a turning point” in her life.

In Jennifer’s words, “Since the marathon, everyday is a gift.” She realizes how lucky she is to have walked away that day without any injuries, alive. Moreover, the events of that day, which for Jennifer included helping a runner reunite with his family in the aftermath of the explosions, changed her life goals. She now feels it is her responsibility to do something to help others and is committed to finding concrete ways to do so.

In what Jennifer describes as “an amazing coincidence”, she was signed up to participate in a Relaxation Response program at the Henry-Benson Institute of Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital the week following the marathon bombings. Primed by her marathon experience, she devoured what the course had to offer. The teachings not only deepened her sense of self-acceptance and gave her skills to manage her own depression, but also strengthened her resolve to help others, and she ultimately went on to become a peer counselor for subsequent groups.

The central message she came away with is that while we cannot necessarily control what happens to us in life, we can control the meaning we make out of our experiences. She is determined to make the events of April 15, 2013 mean something, and to translate this meaning into action. As far as her depression is concerned, she has come around to recognizing “some of the good things about depression”, namely her appreciation for the small things in life, and her increased sense of empathy for others. “It’s like any other illness”, she says. “It doesn’t have to limit you. It’s all about making it mean something.”

I have so much to be thankful for. I should NOT feel so horrible. But, I did feel horrible. Lost. Lonely. Exhausted. Often. I was a sophomore in college. 18 years old.

I had spent several nights crying, not knowing how to get rid of the dull ache I felt inside of me. Now I was on my way to an intake session at the University Counseling Center, at the suggestion of my best friend. I had tried my best to hide my sadness, but having struggled herself, she saw right through me. I skipped my history class to make this appointment, trading time in a class I enjoyed for an hour that was one of the scariest of my young life. I sat in the corner of a slightly dim room with a box of Kleenex in one hand, sobbing and spilling out my inner emotions to a woman I had never met. After 45 minutes of listening, she suggested regular counseling. An appointment was made for the next day.

I was so terrified that I almost called it off, but I knew I had to be brave, so I showed up the next day and weekly thereafter. It seemed to be helping, but then, after the third week of counseling, one of my closest friends seemed to turn on me without explaining why. He just shut me out. Suddenly. I was mad, confused, and hurt, not sure if I wanted to go on. I cried so much in therapy that afternoon—all I felt was despair. I could only imagine that he stopped being my friend because I was so messed up. Too much of a burden.

I was still the nerdy bookworm I had been in high school, but being at the university had opened my mind to new ideas, people, music, art, and lifestyles. It was exciting but at times overwhelming. I was a perfectionist, not satisfied with any grade lower than an A. As an Honors Program student, I was constantly surrounded by overachievers like me. By the time I entered counseling, I had pushed myself harder academically and emotionally than ever, so hard that I bottomed out. Nothing I did felt good enough. Slowly, over months, my counselor helped me to see and appreciate who I was becoming. Things would be OK, I thought.

Things were OK, at least for the rest of my undergrad years, but anxiety and depression were never too far away. I went on to grad school, still never feeling good enough. As the first in my family to graduate from college and pursue an advanced degree, I constantly compared myself to fellow students who went to better schools and came from families with more wealth and status. I was afraid I would be “found out” as the fraud I assumed I was. Every night, as I tried to go to sleep, my mind would swirl with thoughts of all the things I could have done differently, better, often reliving mistakes made years earlier. I often wished that I would fall asleep and never wake up.

There was also a lot of good happening in my life during graduate school. I fell in love and got married. I had a job that I enjoyed. But still, even when things were going well, I knew that eventually, depression would find me. It felt inevitable.

I was in my late 20s when I first discussed my depression with my primary care physician, and she suggested I try an antidepressant. In my mind, this marked for me the moment of my “official” diagnosis of depression, even though the feelings had been longstanding. Now that I had been labeled with major depression, I had the comfort of a diagnosis and potential treatment, but also a fear that I was now associated with a condition that carried a great deal of stigma. How was this stuff going to change me? Could it really work? Would I need it for the rest of my life? Did needing antidepressants to function mean that I was too weak to deal with problems on my own?

The first two weeks on Wellbutrin were difficult. I felt like someone had turned up the volume in my brain. I had trouble sleeping. Every so often I involuntarily twitched. I was afraid to tell the doctor. What if she took me off of the meds and I lost this opportunity to maybe get better?

And then, about two weeks later, the buzzing in my head stopped. One morning I woke up and everything felt “even,” as I came to describe it. The internal criticism stopped. I could fall asleep and started sleeping a little more soundly. It felt like a miracle.

I finished my Ph.D. two weeks before my thirty-second birthday. Before I knew it, I had been offered what I long described as my dream job, and my husband and I moved to Boston. Everything about every day was new and exciting. I was happier than I thought I had any right to be. I was gliding.

But not for long. Depression continued to haunt me as I spent time in and out of therapy, on and off medications, feeling okay and not okay. My last serious relapse in 2011-2012 was the scariest. I would often cry riding the train to work, wiping the tears from my face, trying not to call attention to myself. When I couldn’t take the pain any longer, I started therapy again, got my meds changed, and again, began to work toward feeling more even-keeled, but it took much longer this time. Sometimes I just wanted to disappear from the earth. I came home one night, curled into a ball on the ceramic tile of my bathroom and behind that closed door shaking and sobbing as quietly as I could so that I would not scare my husband.

Although I was generally quite open about talking to my family members about my depression, more often I felt the need to hide my pain. They did their best to support me and I did not blame them if at times they felt helpless. At the same time, I felt guilty for causing them to worry, broken because I could not seem to get better, and exhausted from living in a world I felt was filled with more pain than I could bear.

In early 2013, I decided I needed to find a new approach to managing my recurring depression. Although my symptoms had subsided thanks to regular therapy and medication, I feared another relapse, and I didn’t want more or different medications. Before moving to New England, I had a regular tai chi practice and was experimenting with mindfulness and meditation, both of which had helped me deal with the stress that tended to trigger depressive episodes. My search for similar experiences and training led me to the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine. I signed up for an eight-week session to learn the Relaxation Response that would begin on April 16, 2013.

The day before the program was scheduled to start was a sunny Patriot’s Day morning. I arrived in Boston at the time I would normally have arrived for work, but instead made my way to my volunteer assignment for the Boston Marathon. I had been volunteering at the race since my first year in Boston. As a recreational runner myself, it is a great way to support the running community, and something I am always honored to be part of. This year I would be working at the first water stop after the finish line.

I was ready for a long day on my feet, first turning the caps on the water bottles to make them easier for the runners to open, and then handing them out with a smile and congratulations as runners moved through the stretch along Boylston Street after finishing. I was surprised at how physically beat up many of them looked--some encrusted with sweat or bleeding in spots where they had been chaffed by clothing. Faces winced as legs hobbled slowly forward, a situation I could relate to only too clearly, having finished the Chicago Marathon about six months before. Some runners were in better shape and had the smiles I expected to see. Just being there to help these runners was a very emotional experience for me as I shared with them all the joy and pain of finishing 26.2 miles.

Hours passed. I watched the numbers on the runners’ bibs get higher, indicating that we were getting deeper into the field of over 25,000 participants. My feet and lower back started to hurt from prolonged standing. I remember looking at a clock on a Boylston Street building that read 2:00 pm. My anticipated check out time was still 4 hours away.

At 2:50 pm, as I was looking down Boylston Street toward the finish, I heard an explosion, followed by a plume of smoke, then another explosion. Fireworks, I wondered? The runners continued down the stretch and because I was so used to seeing battered bodies, I could not tell from their faces what had happened. And I was afraid to ask. Then I saw a female runner coming toward us with a look of horror on her face. Soon, the emergency vehicles began screaming down Boylston Street toward the finish, an area that was now a cloud of smoke and blinking lights from emergency vehicles.

In a world where news and information are available almost immediately, there was a void—no one knew what was going on. Speculations and rumors spread. Then, one of the first responders asked us to clear the area. They were looking for a third unexploded bomb. All I remember is a sense of unreality as the scene unfolded around me. I wanted to help but was afraid to help at the same time. No one knew where to go but someone told us to go to the Fairmount Copley Hotel, located on the other side of the Square.

I cut through Copley Square, running behind the big white medical tent to the corner across from Huntington Avenue. The hotel was in lock-down. Emergency personnel was pushing people on stretchers toward waiting ambulances. At 3:20, the first of many text messages started arriving from friends and family, those near and far. Where was I? Was I OK?

A volunteer wearing one of the white jackets designating her as medical staff approached me with a man in a wheelchair, a thin but very fit middle-aged man, with sandy brown hair and a beard. Michael. He was shivering in his thin runner’s singlet and shorts and was desperate to get his gear bag back, which contained warm clothes. The medical staff had been treating him for stress fractures after he crossed the finish line. He did not have a phone – could one of us text his wife to let her know where he was and that he was OK? Then Michael and I were alone. I sent the text “I am with Michael – he is OK – are you OK?” I still don’t know if that message ever made it to her.

I’m not sure how long we waited at that corner across from the medical tent but at some point, I decided I needed to do something, to take action and make sure that Michael reconnected with his family. I decided to wheel him to the family meeting area and try to find his gear bag so he would have some warm clothes and his cell phone.

For such a lean runner, he was much harder to push than I expected. As we came to the end of the block, there was a rough spot in the curb cut. I hit it with a thud, knocking Michael forward and practically out of the chair. He reacted with an expression of pain. Until then I had managed to keep my emotions in check, for the most part, but now I started to cry and my hands began to shake. “I am so sorry,” I told him, and I was. All of a sudden, I realized where I was, what had happened, and what I was doing ...

Now Michael comforted me. I needed to take my mind off of what was immediately happening, so I asked Michael to describe his wife to me. “She has brown hair. She’s beautiful, and she should be wearing a brown coat,” he said. We got to the family meeting area but she was not there. My heart sank. I told Michael I would not leave him until he was back with his family.

In the meantime, I would retrieve his gear bag. Amazingly, not only did I find the school bus that had brought his bag back to Boston but the volunteers actually gave it to me to take to him. I returned to the meeting area and was overjoyed to find Michael’s wife standing next to him. When he saw me carrying his bag, Michael exclaimed, “My angel!” His wife and I needed no words of greeting as we reached out to one another to hug, sobbing with relief, for what seemed like a long time.

When I was certain that there was no more I could do to help Michael and his wife, we said goodbye.

I wandered from Back Bay to my office on Cambridge Street in a state of shock, stopping regularly to respond to a steady flow of text messages coming from friends, family, and coworkers. As I opened the door at my workplace and saw one of my coworkers at reception, I let out a series of sobs that shook me to the core. Everyone who was in the building at the time came down to the lobby to see me, hug me. I called my husband. My supervisor drove me home. All I could do was crawl into bed.

Not surprisingly, the Benson Henry program did not start the next day as scheduled. There was too much uncertainty about travel in the city. The people responsible for the bombing were still at large. By the time the program started, one week later, I had spent seven days feeling completely numb, going through the motions of life. I can hardly remember it. But I still remember the first guided meditation in the program clearly, a body scan, and how good it felt to finally find some brief moments of peace in my own body. The next seven weeks brought more meditation experiences, opportunities to share the impact of these practices with the group and to listen to the stories of others who had sought this program for a whole variety of reasons. The most valuable part of the program for me was learning to recognize cognitive distortion and negative automatic thoughts and to reframe them in positive and constructive ways. The many years of “should,” statements, all-or-nothing thinking, perfectionism, and other unproductive ways of thinking, slowly dissipated.

I was extremely sad when the program ended, so I was thrilled when the group leader asked if I would consider helping the next group as a peer counselor. Participating in the program again, in a different role, was perhaps even more enlightening for me. Now that I wasn’t focusing as much on myself, I was able to see how profoundly these practices impacted others. In addition to learning how to meditate, I was also motivated to restart my tai chi practice, and eventually, pursue a teacher training program at a local studio.

My relationship with depression began to change. As part of the Benson Henry program, we talked often about gratitude and making meaning. I had always been careful not to take things for granted, but after the Marathon Bombing, every day felt like a gift. I had walked away from the scene with my life and my limbs when others were not so fortunate. I was determined to find some way to bring some good out of this tragic event. If that day was going to change my life, it was going to change it in the very best way possible.

For the first time in my life, depression was not a hurdle to overcome, but part of me that I needed to accept, for better or worse. By acknowledging it and realizing how much the associated pain contributed to my capacity for kindness and empathy, I have been able to better cope with the occasional “funks,” none of which have escalated into the relapses I previously experienced. Feeling gratitude is key to helping me understand and accept depression as part of what makes me the unique person that I am.

I began longing for new and meaningful challenges, opportunities to further explore and understand my own health and wellbeing, and the chance to improve the lives of others.

I had a nearly 20-year career as a historian behind me and was our household’s primary wage earner. The decision to go back to school to study nutrition and public health was both the easiest and most difficult decision I have ever made. But I had to do something.

I often thought about Michael. At first, I had been so afraid to take charge of the situation, but I did. I met that fear and it changed me. I made a difference. I could do it again.

In May I will graduate from Tufts University with a dual degree in nutrition communication and public health. I have been befriended and supported by a community of scholars and researchers who have given me extraordinary opportunities to learn and grow. I am excited to see what comes next. I am truly blessed.

I have SO much to be thankful for. And I feel wonderful.

Originally published on WBUR CommonHealth Blog, April 20, 2015