Embracing Imperfection: from Mental Health Provider to Mental Health Patient
I picked up the orange pill cannister and studied it. It contained a month’s supply of tiny, white pills, and my name was printed on the label.
I used to be a patient caregiver at a psychiatric hospital; how did I end up needing psychiatric care myself?
I guess it was the only logical result of years of mood episodes, a bedbug-infested camper van, and a panic attack in a hotel room in Houston.
* * *
For as long as I could remember, I’d always had seasonal mood fluctuations: down in the winter, up in the spring. Having grown up in central Pennsylvania, where it’s dark and dreary for six months and sunny and pleasant the other half of the year, I became accustomed to alternating between feeling full of life and completely deflated.
I remember the first time my mood reacted to the weather. During the spring when I was in eighth grade, I experienced a couple of weeks when it felt as if the world had opened up for me and I needed to take advantage of the newfound freedom being offered. I suddenly didn’t care that much about my schoolwork—an unusual departure from my perfectionist approach to academics that propelled me onto my school’s honor roll every semester to that point. For two weeks, I put homework and studying on the backburner and spent that time being physically active and daydreaming about my summer plans. I only started applying full effort to my schoolwork again when my Spanish teacher sent home a concerned note that brought attention to the fact that my grades were starting to slip.
As I got older, the winters in Pennsylvania seemed to be getting longer and colder, and although that added a spark to my springtime highs, it also meant that my lows were becoming consistently lower. In 2014, at the age of twenty-eight years old, I decided I was ready for a change of scenery. I figured that, given my seasonal mood pattern, I would feel eternally cheerful living in a warm, southern town dotted with palm trees.
With that mindset, I moved to Charleston, South Carolina. My first January in Charleston featured days when the brilliant sunshine pushed the temperatures into the mid-70s. That was springtime weather in Pennsylvania, and my brain must’ve taken notice because my mood lifted just like it historically did in Aprils since I was young.
But that January in Charleston was unlike any time in the past. I experienced an unparalleled amount of confidence and positivity. There were days I felt high as if I’d taken some kind of perfect drug that made problems disappear. Some evenings I could practically feel the happy chemicals buzzing through my brain, and during those times I would sit in my newly-purchased condo, close my eyes, and savor the moment with a big smile on my face.
I knew that what I was experiencing was unusual, but I rationalized that I was only experiencing what everyone felt when they lived in a geographic location that agreed with their physiological makeup.
My mood high continued as the weeks unfolded, and by the time the actual spring rolled around, I was practically living on a different plane of existence than everyone else. I came to believe that pain and interpersonal conflict didn’t matter. I pondered the importance of money and internally debated whether I should donate my life savings to charity. I felt invincible in every regard.
In conjunction with this period of ecstasy, I commenced a long-overdue journey of self-discovery. Although I never talked much about it, I endured a turbulent childhood that molded me into a resentful adult whose distorted worldview created problems at every turn. I was in desperate need of a personal transformation.
Spurred by my mood high that first spring in Charleston, I began practicing meditation and self-reflection. I also started journaling about my past in order to grow wiser and relieve myself of negativity I’d been carrying around for years.
And it worked—the more I focused on self-improvement, the more I felt like a new person. By the summer I was essentially reborn.
Once I realized that my journal entries could make for a captivating and insightful story, I set out turning my journey toward self-discovery into a memoir. My plan was to use my life story to help others.
For the first time in my life, I finally felt a calling: I was going to be a motivational speaker. I became even more optimistic about life.
In the fall of that year, I resigned from my consulting job so I could focus on my memoir and self-help work. I created a YouTube channel and began generating and uploading motivational videos. I also spent a lot of time studying mental health—a topic that always interested me.
In the spring of 2016, while still on a mood high, I published my memoir and began working as a mental health technician at an inpatient psychiatric hospital. I applied for the job because I wanted to put my newfound talents to use helping others who were in their greatest moment of need. I knew that working at a psychiatric hospital would be no picnic, but I believed nothing could go wrong because I still felt invincible.
I learned a lot while working at the psychiatric hospital. I learned the signs and symptoms of every major mental illness from anxiety to schizophrenia. I witnessed firsthand the wonders that psychiatric medication could do for some people.
I also noticed that I shared a few similarities with some of the patients—the bipolar patients, in particular. Patients in the throes of manic episodes seemed to live on different planes of existence than everyone else. Some of them acted as if pain and interpersonal conflict didn’t exist. Others were optimistic to an irrational level.
But still, I never thought for a second that I had a mental illness. After all, mental illnesses were meant for other people, not me. I was just a quirky person.
A few months into my role at the psychiatric hospital, I began to notice a shift in my mood. I no longer felt high. I stopped meditating because I saw no point in it. Whereas I once had an infinite amount of patience for the unpredictable actions of the mentally ill whom I served, I started becoming annoyed at the smallest requests. I just…didn’t care anymore: about myself and about other people.
Things reached a head in the fall of that year. One evening, while leading a discussion group with a room full of adult patients, I experienced the worst anxiety attack of my life. I’d sometimes gotten them in the past, but never as severe as that night. For thirty minutes I guided the group in conversation while secretly suffering sheer terror. My hands shook. I thought I was going to pass out. It felt as though I had a pack of wild animals in my chest that was trying to escape. I desperately wanted to cry, but I had to keep it together because I was the only one in the room who was expected to have life all figured out.
The patients were allowed to have problems, but I wasn’t.
With my mind no longer on my side, I left my psych hospital job and went back to my old consulting gig at the start of 2017.
That year turned out to be the worst year of my life.
I started having regular anxiety attacks while sitting quietly in my cubicle. I had difficulty making eye contact with coworkers and clients. During meetings, I kept feeling like I was going to burst out crying.
I knew something wasn’t right, but I assumed it was my physical health. I figured I’d developed a new food intolerance in addition to my intolerances to gluten and dairy. I began tinkering with my diet, systematically cutting out foods and re-adding them one by one to determine the culprit. Despite dozens of diet changes, I couldn’t pinpoint the cause.
2017 bled into 2018. Early in 2018, my body exhausted and my mind overwhelmed, I concluded that my psychiatric symptoms were a result of stress. After all, I’d been pushing myself hard for several years, and I reasoned that I simply needed a break from it all.
With that in mind, I began researching ways that I could travel on the cheap. I’d been saving up money, so I had the means to be out of work for a while. At the advice of a friend, I decided to look into buying an old van and converting it into a camper van that could be used to travel the country. Hundreds of hours of research later, I decided to go for it.
In April 2018 I bought a 1995 Dodge Caravan for $1,800. I quit my job and spent two months converting that old minivan into a tiny camper van despite having no prior construction experience. It was one of the most physically and mentally stimulating things I’d ever done, and it filled me with hope.
I donated most of my possessions, put the rest of my belongings in storage, sold my condo, loaded up my van with supplies, and drove away from Charleston, possibly to never return.
My plan was to live off the grid in the woods so I could rediscover my physical and mental health.
During the first month of my adventure, I camped out in Georgia, stayed at a wilderness retreat in the Florida panhandle, and roughed it at some state parks in Texas.
I was living in the middle of nowhere, exploring the woods during the day and tending fires in the evening. I had no responsibilities except to figure out where I wanted to go next.
While on my journey, I kept waiting for life to return to my tired body and brain, but it just wasn’t. One day I went for a hike and happened upon a beautiful river and sat in solitude next to it for an hour, but I felt no different than I did while driving on the highway the day before. Nothing excited me. Nothing mattered.
I woke up one morning at a campground in Texas and noticed several itchy bumps on my arms and legs. They were similar to ones I got the previous week when I briefly stayed in a cheap hotel in Mississippi to get out of the rain.
Holy crap. My van had bedbugs.
My trip came to a screeching halt. I tore out all the fabric and bedding inside my van and disposed of it in a campground dumpster. I researched bedbug treatments and discovered that although I could get my van sprayed, it would only be effective for a few months, and if I wanted to get rid of the bedbugs permanently I’d need to keep my van in extreme heat for a full day.
With winter beginning to descend on the South, my only option was to get my van sprayed, so I drove to Houston, got a hotel, and made an appointment with an exterminator.
While eating lunch that first day in my hotel room in Houston, I was suddenly overcome with a feeling that something horrible was about to happen. For ten minutes my heart raced, my windpipe felt like it was being compressed, and my whole body shook.
I was having a panic attack.
After it subsided, it felt as though all the chemicals in my brain had fallen out. I couldn’t think straight. My mind seemed empty; my life seemed meaningless. I felt the exact same way I’d occasionally felt during the heart of winter in Pennsylvania.
I quickly acknowledged why my brain had gone haywire: I was back indoors. See, I’d spent nearly every day in the previous month walking around in the sunshine from morning until night, and being back indoors again scrambled my brain chemistry.
I began researching my next move. For starters, I needed to find a warm place to live so I could jumpstart my mood. I figured that I could drive to Florida, hang out there until the spring, leave my van out in the sun to bake when warm weather returned, and then continue on my journey.
That’s when it hit me: My world was shrinking. Every attempt I’d made to combat my failing health merely isolated me more and more to the point where my only option was to live in a camper van in southern Florida.
It was then that I said aloud what I’d been avoiding for years.
“Yeah…I’m probably bipolar.” (note, only a mental health professional can properly diagnose a mental health disorder)
I immediately knew what I needed to do: I needed to drive back to Charleston, find a place to live and make an appointment with a psychiatrist.
It took me more than ten years to acknowledge that I had a psychiatric problem, but once I acknowledged it, I needed less than ten seconds to decide to seek help.
* * *
I met with a highly-regarded psychiatrist earlier this year and was diagnosed with—you guessed it—bipolar II disorder.
“What are your thoughts on medication?” my psychiatrist asked.
“I’m completely in favor of it,” I responded. “In the past two years, I’ve tried literally everything except medication.”
With that, I was prescribed a mood stabilizer starter dose. Although most psychiatric medications require a few weeks to begin taking effect, I noticed improvement within the first week. It was the little things: My mood wasn’t so reactive to the weather, I stopped feeling on edge, and I could think more clearly than I had in years.
I’ve been on medication for three months now, and I’m feeling better than ever. At this point, I couldn’t imagine life without it.
It’s easy for me to look back and wonder why it took me so long to seek professional help. With the perspective of hindsight, the picture is always crystal clear.
What I didn’t realize back then, however, was that it was acceptable for me to have problems. Having come from a middle-class family that valued hard work and loathed complaining, I was of the mindset that problems were for other people and that struggles were mere challenges to be overcome through steadfast determination.
It was only when I allowed myself to be imperfect that I began truly addressing my imperfections.
So where do I go from here?
Well, bipolar disorder isn’t something that’s cured like a rash or a cold; it’s a life-long condition that’s stabilized like high blood pressure or diabetes. Even on medication, I might start down the path of hypomania or depression in the future.
But that’s okay because I’m no longer shouldering the burden on my own. I’ve finally accepted that I don’t have all the answers, and that’s given me permission to find the answers.
And that’s making all the difference.