The PTSD Highway

 

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Freewriting Exercise at the 2015 Catamaran Writing Conference’s

Creative Nonfiction Workshop

As my husband Craig drives our daughters on Highway One in a rented cobalt blue Nissan Pathfinder, I spot the Holman Highway exit. My stomach drops, then sours. The fresh ling cod sandwich I ate half an hour ago at the Sea Harvest Restaurant is not sitting well. 

In the backseat the girls chatter nonstop with high-pitched, tween voices. The novelty of riding in a new car excites them, and they’ve begged us to buy the fancy SUV – we said no. Perhaps the “new car smell” contains a chemical that makes them even more hyper than usual. Who knows? It’s not affecting our collie Lucy who’s resting in the rear storage space. She’s in a rare moment of calm, tired after the brisk walk I gave our puppy in the Sea Harvest’s parking lot back at Moss Landing. 

When Craig takes the Holman Highway exit, no one notices the waves of terror that strike through my soul. A silent tsunami. I keep my panic deep inside, a learned behavior, and not a healthy one by any means.

It has only been two years since I was on this road headed for the psychiatric unit at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, also known as C.H.O.M.P. 

As we pass the majestic Monterey Pines lining each side of the highway, vivid memories of my despair surface. My hands grow cold and shaky, and I feel nauseous and dizzy. I take a deep breath.

And again.

I pull out my tiny, $15.00 bottle of homeopathic Rescue Remedy from my purse. I quickly squirt a few drops of it under my tongue. No one notices my doing this – I’m fast. The tincture helps me somewhat, but the effect is very subtle.

Still, it’s better than nothing.

I first admitted myself to C.H.O.M.P. when I was thirty-eight-years-old. I returned there four more times for my treatment-resistant bipolar depression and suicidal ideation. While “suicidal ideation” doesn’t quite have the ring to it that “suicide attempt” does, I came close to taking my own life. Very, very close. And to this day it’s a miracle that I didn’t use my bathrobe belt to take me out of this world.

C.H.O.M.P. is where I pleaded for electroconvulsive therapy after my father died. I requested ECT yet again after attempting to taper off lithium. For my second round of ECT the psychiatrist and I agreed that I’d switch from unilateral to the much more intense bilateral form, and I have no regrets about doing any of it. It helped me, and my side effects were minimal. I can even still remember being born. 

Once released from the hospital, I commuted to C.H.O.M.P. many, many times for the outpatient ECT treatments I was informed I’d need to stay out of the suicidal ideation zone. I left my small children at 4:30 a.m. in order to make the 6:00 a.m. appointment time. 

I drove back and forth to these treatments by myself. (Just to be clear – doing that wasn’t ethical/legal in any way, shape or form, nor do I ever recommend that to anyone. The explanation behind my decision is explained at length in my book.)

 

 

 

Today I look out the car window and see nothing but pines; it’s a landscape fitting for a postcard. This area is so spectacular that classic films such as “Play Misty for Me” with Clint Eastwood and “The Sandpiper” with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were filmed here. This town is a destination point for honeymooners from every corner of the globe.

No one would guess that past the dense forest are ugly buildings housing the hopeless. The sterile, stuffy units are devoid of the beauty found just beyond their windowless rooms. 

I believe that places can activate our good or bad memories. While driving on the Holman Highway on this warm August day, little do I know that I’m on my way to a writing conference that will change my life for the better. Participating at this event will shift the traumatic memory of the Holman Highway into a mixture of horrible and good.

To my total non-ECT shock, I’m about to enjoy one of the happiest weekends of my life. The conference won’t erase my C.H.O.M.P. past – nothing short of a lobotomy or death could do that, but now this road is no longer solely reminiscent of a nightmare. It now holds better memories to offset my bipolar depression and suicidal ideation. And for that I’m grateful.

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Dyane’s memoir Birth of a New Brain – Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder with a foreword by Dr. Walker Karraa (Transformed by Postpartum Depression: Women’s Stories of Trauma and Growth) will be published by Post Hill Press in 2016. Because Dyane isn’t going to screw up her 2nd book deal like she did with the first one!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just When Life’s Getting Better, Here Comes Death!

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Recently the incredible Marie Abanga, a friend of mine, joked that my WordPress tags section could make a blog post of its own. And she’s right! A lot is going on, which is reflected in the tags. Too much is going on. 

I hesitated to write about these recent events for fear that I’ll hurt someone’s feelings, but all the parties involved don’t read my blog. 

Just before I attended the Catamaran Writers Conference on August 12, my husband received alarming news. His close family member had been admitted to the hospital for severe jaundice/dehydration. I immediately knew the cause for this ER admission: full-blown alcoholism.

Selfish me. My first thought was, “Don’t let him die now. I want to go to this fucking conference! I worked so hard to get this scholarship.”

Add to that, I have issues with alcoholism. Mine are deep-seated, festering pustules full of rage and resentment. My father was an alcoholic. The red wine he guzzled each night turned him into someone I no longer recognized; someone who I feared for good reason. I believe my Dad was desperately trying to crush out the demons caused by his bipolar disorder and the abuse he suffered as a child.

As a result of seeing how alcohol affected my father and our family, I despised alcohol for most of my life. At 37 I received a postpartum bipolar disorder diagnosis. My mental illness was treatment-resistant and at my wit’s end I became an alcoholic, finally understanding to some extent why my father drank.

Red wine and tequila became my daily meals. “Unhappy Meals” without clowns, if you will. I knew I had a serious problem when I switched from evening to daytime drinking, as early as  10:00 a.m. On Monday through Friday I filled a large coffee tumbler with red wine and downed every drop, hating the taste but wanting the buzz of oblivion. I was passively suicidal during those years.

My former psychiatrist, the one who talked behind my back to Craig about how I was such a frustrating patient because no medication was working, the one who complained to me about his hatred of his ex-wife and his myriad problems with his four children, the one who was put on probation for overprescribing meds, wasn’t much help.

Ever since I started drinking heavily, I’ve considered myself an alcoholic. On November 18th, 2013 I gave up alcohol cold-turkey. That was the day I took my first pink-colored Parnate pill, a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) in addition to lithium.

Parnate is known as the “last-resort” medication for bipolar depression; it’s old-school and has been used since the 1950’s. Parnate has been shown to be most effective when used with lithium. There are rules when taking the older MAOI’s which consist of dietary restrictions and no alcohol if you want to avoid having a stroke.

I didn’t want to stroke out, so I stopped the booze.

Parnate and lithium gave me my life back. The dietary sacrifices, the giving up the booze were 1000% worth it.

It occurs to me that in writing about alcoholism, I’ll come across as a hypocrite. Even so, I’m willing to share with you about how flawed I am – I learn from reading about other flawed souls, so I hope this might help one or two of you in some way.

My current psychiatrist Dr. D. has been such a useful sounding board. His specialty is addiction medicine. I didn’t know he had a specialty when I decided to work with him, but of all the specialties he could have, this one would prove to be extremely helpful.

Ironically I learned about Dr. D. at my neighborhood liquor store during a chat with the owner. I was there posting a flyer promoting my “Women with Mood Disorders” support group, and the owner started telling me about his wife who had OCD. He said, “I’ve found her a great shrink!”  As we spoke surrounded by vodka, the owner added emphatically, “Dr. D. helped my wife so much!” and he handed me the psychiatrist’s business card. Even though I still met with my misogynistic psychiatrist, something told me to take that card.

When I met with Dr. D yesterday for my routine appointment, I told him what was happening with my hospitalized family member. He had plenty of insights. Something that stuck in my mind was this: he explained that if both parents are alcoholic, then each child has a 70% chance of becoming alcoholic. I was clueless about that statistic, but it made complete sense. I’m relieved I no longer drink nor does my husband. Our kids have suffered enough hellish shit with my bipolar disorder; they certainly don’t need two alcoholics “raising” them.

Alcoholism, like bipolar disorder, runs in families. My mother-in-law died from it, and I witnessed her death firsthand. I was manic at the time, and I was strangely numb to the grief surrounding me. The hospice team told me how “great” I was dealing with my husband’s grief. It was all a ruse. My mania took away 99% of death’s sting; I only felt bad when I saw my usually stoic husband break down in sobs.

When I was alone in her hospital room, I told my mother-in-law that it was okay to die. Giving someone permission to die was not something I’d have been able to do when I was my usual, deeply depressed self. She passed away shortly after I spoke with her.

Today I’m not manic. I’m raw – I’m susceptible to others’ grief, especially when I sleep with the person who’s grieving. And I’m scared.

I don’t do death “well”. Does anyone?

I’m always worried that I’ll relapse if presented with an extremely tough situation. I haven’t “overcome” bipolar. I’m not a fucking warrior. Far the fuck from it. 

At least I’m a realist. I examine my personal history, I see what happened, and because of what occurred it makes sense why I fear death so much now.

Here are three more examples of my “getting an F in Death”:

When my father died, I was so devastated that I became suicidal. I asked to be hospitalized and Craig threw the girls into the car and drove me to the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula (CHOMP). While there I begged for my first round of ECT. They gave it to me. ECT helped immensely to mitigate my acute suicidal impulses.  While I no longer wished to kill myself, I was still severely depressed. 

I missed my father’s memorial service, which is probably the biggest regret of my life apart from all the traumatic, crazy shit I pulled on my little girls and husband during my bipolar episodes.

When my grandmother died a gruesome death from lung cancer, I went into a clinical depression for which I should have been diagnosed/medicated, but no one recognized it at the time.

This happened was when I was 27, ten years before my bipolar diagnosis. When Granny died I felt frozen, hopeless, inhuman. I took time off from my job working as a certified personal trainer and flew with my family to New York. We buried her in upstate New York.

While in New York I remained frozen. I didn’t want to go explore New York City with my family. They didn’t seem nearly as fucked up as I was. I wanted to disappear

When I had my fifteen-year-old American Eskimo Shera euthanized in my arms, I plummeted into an evil darkness within a day. 

Granted, these people who died were hugely significant in my life. My beloved dog Shera was a family member too – she went to my wedding and accompanied us on our honeymoon. She loved me through so many of my depressed-filled years.

What I’m about to write is harsh. Please don’t go off on me in the comments. This particular death by alcoholism enrages me. Our family member has been drinking heavily for years. I don’t know the specifics of the nuclear family dynamics – what I mean by that is I’m ignorant whether or not anyone tried to do an intervention. I have never been close to them. None of them visited/called/contacted me during my 7 hospitalizations.

The last thing I want to do is visit this jaundiced, bloated, tubed-up, dying person in the hospital. I have hospital PTSD from my seven psych unit hospitalizations. Hospital PTSD is an honest-to-God condition, and unless you’ve suffered in this way, it’s hard, if not impossible to understand it. My therapist believes I have it, yet she implored to me during our last session that I need to work through it in this particular case. She suggested that I visit the family member to support my husband, to say goodbye and to be ethical. I’m forcing myself to do it.

If I was still drinking, I’d drink to get through such a thing. If I still took benzodiazepines, I’d have a few. Or smoke pot if that would help me – it doesn’t do a thing except make me tired and relieve nausea.  All I can do to get through this hospital visit is to try anxiety-reduction techniques, use some Rescue Remedy, and inhale essential oils such as lavender & orange, two of my favorites.

And keep the visit short.

 At the Catamaran Conference the renowned poet Ellen Bass read a poem called “Relax” that resonated with me deeply in light of what has just happened in our family.  Bass, the co-author along with Laura Davis of the bestselling The Courage to Heal, wrote something so real. I loved how she recited “Relax” to us in the campus chapel – her rather deadpan tone did her poem justice. You can hear Ellen Bass recite it at the link listed below.

I  joked with a Jewish classmate sitting next to me that the poem should be called “Jewish” instead. (We Jews worry about everything….)

At almost 2000 words, and having been all over the place, I wonder if any of you are still reading this post. It’s more like a novella, but sometimes I can’t stick to the much-more-readable length of 200-400 words. Please forgive me. Brevity is the soul of wit, but I’m not feeling so witty today.

Love to each of you,

Dyane

Visit this link to hear Ellen Bass read “Relax”:

http://www.ellenbass.com/books/like-a-beggar/relax/

Relax

Bad things are going to happen.
Your tomatoes will grow a fungus
and your cat will get run over.
Someone will leave the bag with the ice cream
melting in the car and throw
your blue cashmere sweater in the drier.
Your husband will sleep
with a girl your daughter’s age, her breasts spilling
out of her blouse. Or your wife
will remember she’s a lesbian
and leave you for the woman next door. The other cat–
the one you never really liked–will contract a disease
that requires you to pry open its feverish mouth
every four hours. Your parents will die.
No matter how many vitamins you take,
how much Pilates, you’ll lose your keys,
your hair and your memory. If your daughter
doesn’t plug her heart
into every live socket she passes,
you’ll come home to find your son has emptied
the refrigerator, dragged it to the curb,
and called the used appliance store for a pick up–drug money.
There’s a Buddhist story of a woman chased by a tiger.
When she comes to a cliff, she sees a sturdy vine
and climbs half way down. But there’s also a tiger below.
And two mice–one white, one black–scurry out
and begin to gnaw at the vine. At this point
she notices a wild strawberry growing from a crevice.
She looks up, down, at the mice.
Then she eats the strawberry.
So here’s the view, the breeze, the pulse
in your throat. Your wallet will be stolen, you’ll get fat,
slip on the bathroom tiles of a foreign hotel
and crack your hip. You’ll be lonely.
Oh taste how sweet and tart
the red juice is, how the tiny seeds
crunch between your teeth.