The Mental Health Closet

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June 1, 2009 by D Stack

Zack Greinke

Zack Greinke

I’m imagining most people reading this have at least some memories of the Andrea Yates case. In brief she was a Texas mother who, suffering from post-postpartum depression, drowned her five children. She was found guilty of murder. This conviction was later overturned when it was discovered that a Law & Order episode which the prosecution claimed she used as an inspiration  for getting away with murder turned out to not exist. After this her conviction was replaced with a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.

I was pretty skeptical of the claim that insanity could make one murder one’s own children. At some level you would have to know this was wrong.

God, the universe, fate, karma, or whatever was obviously listening. After the birth of our first child my wife suffered from post-postpartum depression. Nothing like that of Andrea Yates and it was treatable by medication. But it was very real and quite the eye-opener.

And then in the ultimate irony a year or two later I found myself with my own issues. I’ve always been something of a worrier. But something shifted. I was no longer a worrier. I was, quite frankly, nuts. I’d begin driving to work and halfway there turn around to make certain I’d turned off the sink. I’d assume a crack in the basement meant we had to tear up the entire foundation. I was convinced that all the trees in our backyard were going to come crashing down into the house. None of this was normal. And here’s the thing. I knew damn well it wasn’t normal to think that way. But I still did.

I went to my doctor and also went to a therapist. The therapist was able to help me better understand what I was going through. He referred to it as “you worry about bullshit stuff” – stuff you know you shouldn’t bother worrying about. It gave me a name – General Anxiety Disorder. A very bland name for something which made my life absolutely miserable. I also took medication for the problem.

Amazingly, all of this worked. It wasn’t a cakewalk – we had to experiment with medication doses and prescriptions. One shot my blood pressure way up. Another turned off some rather enjoyable anatomical functions kind of handy when wanting to have baby number two… But we eventually found a medication that worked.

Now I can look back at it and wonder why these things worried me so much. I know it’s still there. After I’d been treated for about a year I worked with my doctor to try dialing me off the medication. It came right back. It was really odd. I knew it was a medical condition. I knew it my worries weren’t about anything “real”. But it was impossible to ignore. So I went back on medication. And it has required the occasional adjustment. But aside from needing to take medication, I’m fine. (Not to say I’m always a perfect wonderful person – there’s no pill for that…)

Why mention this? First off, to testify to its reality. It is not something you can ignore. To be honest, what I dealt with is pretty minor as far as mental illnesses go. I didn’t hear voices. No paranoia. No desire to kill myself. I was functional, able to perform my job. But my quality of life sucked and it adversely affected my relationships at home. I can absolutely believe people with conditions far, far worse than mine could reach such a point where they would do things they would normally find morally unthinkable. And it is not due to some weakness in character. It is not something that if you just tried harder you’d be able to ignore. I’ve heard of doctors simulating attention deficit disorder by giving a subject headphones which would periodically shout at the subject while he or she was trying to perform some task that required concentration. For a short time that is doable. But hour after hour, day after day? Not possible.

Secondly I’d like to point out the need for treating it like a true illness as far as insurance was concerned. I was fortunate – my employer had excellent mental health coverage. Not all mental illnesses are as easily treated as mine. But that is true of conditions like cancer as well. But it is a crime for someone to suffer when they don’t need to, whether the cause of their illness is physical or mental.

Finally, regarding the title of the blog. Many survivors of physical illnesses such as cancer are praised. And they should be. My mother-in-law is a cancer survivor, having passed her five years of being cancer free. And Lance Armstrong is a true inspiration, having survived cancer and gone on to achieve great things. I absolutely want to take nothing away from them. But people who suffer from mental illness often suffer in silence. It is a condition which many people do not consider real or indicates weakness of character or will. It is filled with jokes such as “better adjust his medication”.  You’d never make jokes about cancer treatments. And consider the flak that celebrities like Brooke  Shields take when they go public. “Oh she just wasn’t ready for being a mother.”

There are some signs this may be changing. The story of Zack Greinke is an inspiring one. He was a promising pitcher for the Kansas City Royals who walked away form his baseball carreer in spring training of 2006, suffering from social anxiety disorder and depression. Pitching made him miserable. At first he was happy to be away from baseball. After receiving treatiment he discovered he missed baseball and was able to return in 2007. Since his return he has had a superb career, at one point going 38 innings in a row without giving up an earned run. He is testament that you can function when being  treated for mental health issues. (For more on Greinke see this Mental Health blog posting and this article at NBC Washington.)

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