Speaking of mental illness

In September 2015, I was in handcuffs again. I was carrying a battered lunch box filled with totems of my chaotic manic episode, including a marijuana pipe and un-bottled psychiatric pills. As they read me my rights, I invited the arresting officers to be in my “movie,” a film that existed only in my delusional mind. As it turns out, inviting the Horse Cave cops to be in a movie constitutes bribery, whether or not the movie actually exists. They threw me in the Hart County jail, and I was given a medication that finally began to extinguish the raging psychosis that was destroying my life. For the first time in months, I began to realize how much trouble I was in. As reality began to slowly creep back into my mind, I crumbled under the enormity of the consequences and fell into a severe depression. This is one of many humiliating stories I’d just as soon not tell, but I believe there’s a purpose in telling it.

Mental illness can be hard to talk about. It is largely misunderstood and carries a powerful stigma. And I get it — it is difficult to understand. Even after dealing with my own mental illness for over 20 years, there are times when even I can’t wrap my head around it. Mental illness is just as legitimate a medical condition as diabetes or cancer, but it is harder to recognize because it is largely invisible. It exists inside the brain where no one can see it. When someone breaks their arm, everyone sees the cast and knows immediately what the deal is. But with mental illness, which is a behavioral disease, the symptoms manifest themselves as behaviors. When someone is experiencing symptoms of a mental illness, their behaviors can be bizarre, erratic and even scary. These behaviors are what the world sees, and without the understanding that the behaviors are symptoms of an illness, people naturally draw conclusions based on that person’s behaviors alone.

My behavior during my manic episode in 2015 was not only awful — it was also very public, and many people formed negative opinions about me. When I look back at how I was behaving, and read things I wrote or hear stories about what I did during that time, I am appalled. If all I knew about me was what was on display during that time, I wouldn’t like me either. Part of me would rather not talk about it and open myself up to scrutiny, but there’s another part of me that sees a bigger purpose in telling this story. This is an opportunity to start a discussion about mental health, to make it more acceptable to discuss a topic that has been taboo for far too long. I want my story to demonstrate that, despite having mental illness, you can still live a decent life with proper treatment and support. I wrecked my businesses, my relationships and my finances, but, thanks to the support of people who hung in there with me, I am sober and stable and working hard to regain the trust of the people I hurt.

After my initial diagnosis of bipolar disorder in 1995, I found a wonderful psychiatrist and entered recovery. I took my medication and attended 12-step meetings. I cofounded a popular movie festival and opened a retail store. But in 2014, I slipped into “melancholic depression,” one of the most paralyzing forms of depression. It lasted for over nine months and defied multiple medications. Unable to function, I underwent ECT, aka electroshock, as a last resort. While it was effective in ending my depression, it also triggered a major manic episode. For the first time in nearly 20 years, I stopped listening to my doctors. By early 2015, I was uncontrollable and beyond help. I was hellbent on undertaking a risky new business venture and immune to attempts by family and friends to steer me back on course. I became indignant whenever they suggested something was amiss. In my mind, I thought nothing was wrong with me. By that summer, I lost all sense of myself. I started drinking alcohol and smoking pot, ending almost 20 years of sobriety. At this point, I was completely off my medication and spiraling out of control in a psychotic state with no sense of reality or right and wrong. By the time the cops hauled me into that rural Kentucky jail, I had inflicted irreparable damage to every aspect of my life.

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I have a dual-diagnosis of bipolar disorder and addiction, which means I have to treat them concurrently and with equal respect. If one of these gets off kilter, the other goes right along with it and absolute chaos follows. Being bipolar means I can have mood swings from soaring euphoria to deep depression. When I’m depressed, everything stops, just getting out of bed seems impossible, let alone everyday tasks. While manic, I can be highly productive, full of energy and confident. If unchecked, mania can lead to delusions of grandeur, extremely risky behavior and wild spending sprees, which is all a very apt description of how I was for the better part of 2015.

Today, I am sober again and working with my doctor to get the right balance of medication. I am hyper-vigilant about my mental health and have taken measures to ensure that this never happens again, including giving my family the power to hospitalize me if needed — an option that was sadly unavailable last time around. I have learned to never turn my back on my mental illness. I know now that in spite of how long I’ve been stable, it can still come raging back and take everything from me if I don’t treat it properly. I feel lucky to have survived, and am eternally grateful for the support I’ve gotten from my family and friends as well as people in the community. I have begun working with mental health organizations to raise money and awareness, and have been invited to speak about mental illness in the community.

I did a lot of damage, hurt a lot of people and did things I deeply regret. I am truly sorry for the harm I caused and am in the process of making amends to those I hurt. I cannot change my past, but I can move forward in a positive direction. There’s a big part of me that wishes none of this had ever happened, but it does give me a unique opportunity to be an advocate for mental health and that, at least, is a silver lining.

If you or someone you know needs help, help is available. You can contact NAMI Louisville at 588-2008 or at NAMI.org. Additional help and resources are available through Centerstone at 589-4313 or at Centerstoneky.org.

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