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 V.18 No.25 | June 18 - 24, 2009 

Bear With Me

Nervous Breakdown

A step-by-step guide

I recently had the privilege of going completely crazy 500 miles from home.

Stress at work (fighting with an entire backwoods police department) and chemical imbalances (What journalist doesn’t have one?) led to various and sundry temper tantrums that required medication. A doctor prescribed an antidepressant—I had quit taking one several months earlier that had been prescribed for obsessive-compulsive disorder. He warned that the drug would make me feel like I was bouncing off the walls and prescribed a benzodiazepine to calm my frazzled nerves.

For those of us just tuning in, benzodiazepines are an addictive class of sedative hypnotics that include Ativan, Xanax and Valium. They made me feel like I was floating on a cloud of wonderfulness, which is always a bad sign.

I raised my concerns about addictodiazepines with my new doctor and he said, “It’s a good thing you realize that.”

Then he gave them to me anyway.

I took the drugs for about two weeks, and, lo and behold, I got addicted to them (I work fast). The addiction manifested itself as panic attacks that tended to strike at 2 a.m. At first, the doctor thought I was having an adverse reaction to Benadryl.

A panic attack occurs when the brain decides it is in danger (of not having another Ativan) and dumps a mother lode of adrenaline into the bloodstream.

The muscles in the legs tense and make the bones feel as if they will snap in half. The heart beats like techno music at a dance club. Sweat floods from the temples. The sufferer feels as though a heart attack or stroke is imminent.

The truth is panic attacks will not harm the sufferer physically. The damage is purely psychological. But the mind is a powerful instrument, especially when it has turned on its owner.

In addition to panic attacks, I made frantic phone calls I cannot remember, lost 20 pounds and my blood pressure was high enough to crush small animals. I began to resemble a raccoon from lack of sleep.

My doctor reduced the antidepressant, but the attacks continued. He believed I had a bipolar reaction to the antidepressant and prescribed an older version of the same drug. He added a sleeping pill.

Nothing worked.

I would take the sleeping pill and wake up screaming two or three hours later. I paced my house, unable to stop or sit down, fearing death.

I began missing work because I was afraid to leave the house (think Howard Hughes, but without the money). I communicated through e-mail and notes plastered on my front door.

After 19 or 20 panic attacks over a three-week period, I began having suicidal ideations. I didn’t want to commit suicide, but the attacks were accompanied with quick flashes of glass plunged into the neck, slashed wrists, a fiery intentional car crash on the turnpike.

I feared losing my bearings in the midst of a panic attack and whacking myself. I couldn’t allow this to happen. I hadn’t made 30 and wasn’t ready to go, especially not in some damn conservative hate pit.

I decided to commit myself.

After explaining my dilemma to no less than three health care professionals, I was escorted to a state mental hospital, local branch, by a very nice police officer (who got not so nice when he lost the handcuff keys).

The staff issued me size 4X scrubs, complete with permanently imbedded chewing gum in the pocket, and asked what illegal drugs I had ever ingested.

Two hours later I was issued an addictive sleeping pill (dammit) and sent to bed.

I awoke the next morning and the on-call psychiatrist told me I was not obsessive-compulsive, just paranoid.

After breakfast, I joined the pacing-up-and-down-the-hall patients, mostly because I felt totally unsociable and catatonic schizophrenics tend to be light on the chitchat.

Just when I thought Oklahoma couldn’t get more conservative, I arrived at a state-run mental health center. For reasons not entirely clear, the worldview present in an insane asylum swings so far to the right it resembles a White Aryan Resistance meeting.

So there I was, a liberal police reporter staying at a mental hospital in Bush Country.

It was just me, two schizophrenics, a pregnant bipolar woman and 35 methamphetamine addicts.

Most of the staff were also crazy.

While having what can only be described as a “screamer” panic attack, a staffer told me to relax. Later, as I laid in my bed—rubber with no pillow—I told him I was mad about the two mental illnesses I had been awarded in recent years, OCD and Bipolar II.

He told me that it took his doctor several attempts at a diagnosis before settling on borderline personality disorder.

For some reason, I failed to find comfort in this. I rolled over and tried to drown in sweat.

On Monday I got to see the attending psychiatrist—for about two minutes. He also said I wasn’t OCD (I wondered if he was right for the next 16 hours). We didn’t get real deep into the bipolar question (not in the mood that week).

I made the big mistake of saying this to the psychiatrist:

“Doc,” I says, “I think coming here was a mistake. You have got some seriously mentally ill people in here and they make me nervous.”

He says, “Well, gee, John, so sorry we can’t move the crazy people to another wing because they bother you.”

I took this to mean he didn’t think I was crazy. He wrote on a piece of paper: Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia” and “Cannabis Abuser” (only in Oklahoma).

I checked myself out later that day, gobbled some more pills both in the parking lot and back at my house before flushing the rest down the toilet (not one panic attack since).

It was the longest day and a half ever.

 
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