Brain Woozels

When I was 33 my mental health changed substantially. One Monday morning I woke out of a dead sleep with my heart racing and my arm feeling numb and tingly. I dismissed it as having had a bad dream or slept funny, and I got up to start my day, as I was due into the PR agency where I worked at 8am. I started coffee – my ears started ringing. I put on clothes to work out on my elliptical trainer and turned on MSNBC – as soon as I stepped on it I got vertigo so badly, I had to step off and put my head between my legs. Despite being right handed, I perform a lot of basic functions (holding a coffee cup, fork, etc.) with my left hand. Don’t know why, I’m not ambidextrous, I just do this. Went to pour myself some coffee and picked up the carafe with my left hand to pour it into a mug on the counter… all the sudden I couldn’t hold it, because I couldn’t make a fist to grip, and it slipped to the floor and shattered.

I panicked because I thought I was having a heart attack (that couldn’t be! I had just run a 10k the day before!) I called my Mom, who said “Go to the emergency room.” So I did and the doctors ran a whole lot of tests and told me what I had experienced was a “massive panic attack” (the symptoms of which emulate a heart attack) and that I had it in my sleep. Which was a sign that something with my body was seriously wrong.

At this point, I decided I needed my Mom and Dad. Within two weeks, I quit my job, packed up my apartment in SF, put everything into storage, and moved home to Ohio for the summer so that I could see the GP who had been my doctor practically my whole life and (if necessary) be seen by specialists at The Cleveland Clinic.

My GP listened to my symptoms, which I had been recording, and diagnosed me with Clinical Depression and confirmed the GAD diagnosis and put me on stronger medication and gave me more Xanax. I had a pretty relaxing summer, getting used to being on those drugs wasn’t easy, but I had the support of my parents. By September, I was ready to go back to San Francisco and resume my life.

One problem: Every six months or so my medication would stop working and my GP would have to adjust my levels to compensate. So I felt like I was constantly in the process of adjusting to psychiatric medications (which if you’ve ever done it, is not easy, fun, or comfortable.) Not to mention, I was partying way too much, which def didn’t help my body ease into new medications.

About a year later, in the fall of 2008, I had another breakthrough mental health crisis: I started experiencing more panic attacks in my sleep, and I started regularly experiencing vertigo/ringing in my ears, and headaches so bad that I literally could not pick my head up off my pillow or desk whenever they occurred.

I went to the ER, they blew me off and said to go see a GP, I called my GP in Ohio, and he said maybe it was time to see a psychiatrist, I saw a psychiatrist and they put me on new meds. They didn’t work. Doctor after doctor passed me off to someone else, everyone of them looked at me like I was drug seeking (another fun side effect of mental illness,) none of them could figure out why I was having these symptoms.

Finally, during one of these awful attacks, I took a cab to the emergency room. And, while the ER doc couldn’t figure out what was going on, there was a neurologist also on duty that night who decided to send me for a brain scan to see if they could figure out the problem by doing that.

And, they did. What they saw frightened the fuck out of them and me. They saw a huge black spot – which could either be a tumor or a clump of dead/dying nerves- in my Ralphi nuclei (otherwise known as your central nervous system, located in the brain stem.) Voila! An answer to my physical symptoms and my increasing psychiatric symptoms.

That neurologist at the emergency room (whose name I cannot remember) referred me to another neurologist at UCSF Medical Center. I had to wait a month for an appointment with her, but once I did, she tested the hell out of me and discovered that the nerves in my CNS were not producing adequate amounts of serotonin to support healthy brain function. Most of your serotonin receptors are in your gut. They help control the functions of your vital organs, along with contributing to your mood, etc. But, the place where serotonin really affects mental health is in the CNS/Ralphi nuclei… and, apparently those nerves/part of my brain were damaged. Fortunately for me, Dr. Amatti (my neurologist) was running a clinical study looking at how flooding the Ralphi nuclei with synthetic serotonin might help repair damage and restore healthy production of serotonin for patients with traumatic brain injuries. I did not have a TBI, but because of the severity of the problem, I was granted access to the study and underwent (very painful) treatment for a year and a half. At which time, they noted that my Ralphi nuclei was *indeed* once again producing acceptable levels of serotonin.

Though I was cautioned that my mental illness would increase in severity as I got older.

Now, my physiology was not the only contributing factor to my mental health (though it was a huge component, if your body cannot make serotonin in your brain you basically become a vegetable) – I had also experienced trauma – a lot of it – that exacerbated my symptoms.

At this time I was diagnosed with Chronic Major Depression, GAD, and SOCIAL anxiety disorder (because crowds tended to trigger panic attacks.) Fun stuff. They put me on a high dose of an anti-anxiety medication and an antidepressant. And, I did well. I stayed on those medications until December 2015 when I had a nervous breakdown following the death of my child in 2014 and a cervical ectopic pregnancy that required surgical intervention that month. I was bad, a mess… you might say “crazy.” I had delusions, I heard some voices, I thought everyone was out to get me, I behaved erratically.

At Christmas my Mom and British Husband sat me down (at different times) and insisted I get help, immediately. My Mom went so far as to say that I had to make a psychiatrist appointment in front of her, otherwise she wasn’t going to let me go back to Chicago. That’s how worried they were.

So I did. And, it saved my life. I went to a psychiatrist who gave me an additional diagnosis of Chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (not just for military anymore!) – for those of you that don’t know what that is, it is when your brain has been so overwhelmed by external trauma situations (in my case abuse, sexual assault, death of a child, repeated medical trauma) that certain stimuli (could be a sight, smell, memory, idea, sound, anything really) can kick your brain into a fight-or-flight status, flooding your body with adrenaline. It’s exhausting. And, I hate how it’s been trivialized over the years. It’s a very serious medical condition, which affects millions of people, and their quality of life suffers because of it.

I entered therapy, my medications were changed, and in about six months I was doing much better. I took a couple years away from work to really address my mental health. And, then we moved to LA – and, then I got pregnant with Peej. Now I’m here, blogging about it.

My point in all this: Using the word “crazy” to insult me or anyone else living with mental illness is a low blow. I happen to live with medical disorders. That cause symptoms. That can be addressed by medical intervention. Why is this any different than if you have cancer or the flu or a broken leg? Society surely wouldn’t use those MEDICAL diagnosis’s to shame people. So why do we use the MEDICAL diagnosis’s of more than 65 million people living day-to-day in this country to shame and insult people?

It’s sick and gross and reprehensible. I think that using psychiatric terms to demonize or insult a person should be along the same lines as using the “R” word to call someone stupid… unacceptable in our society anymore. Oh, and gaslighting mentally ill people is particularly disgusting. (You know who you are, bish. I see you.)

That’s what I came here to say today.

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