National debate on mental illness hits home for Pittsburgh woman

National debate on mental illness hits home for Pittsburgh woman

The recent shootings in Newtown, Conn., have ignited discussion about mental health.

If any good can possibly come out of such a horrific tragedy, perhaps this is it. The country must have an open, unfettered discussion about mental illness, and the media need to educate the public on this issue.

I believe this because I have struggled with mental illness since I was a child, even though I was properly diagnosed only two years ago. It started with post-partum depression when my first son was born in 1990.

When I look back at my early years, I recognize the first signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder. As I get older, I fully understand my hypo-manic, bipolar behavior. I used to spend a lot of my parent’s money, charging their credit card for everything.

As an adult, I was diagnosed with depression, and prescribed anti-depressants. I continued living my life as a normal person, raising my children, but I knew something was different about me. I had many tearful episodes and spending sprees. I bought everything, from clothes to shoes and extravagant jewelry. The bank of Mom and Dad funded my behavior; none of this money I earned. I would yell at people for no apparent reason, and I thought this was normal.

In April 2011, I had an epiphany. I had been on a major spending spree, zipping around department stores like George Jetson in his flying-saucer car, rushing from handbags to shoes to sunglasses to jewelry. In a matter of minutes, I spent $5,000.

The next day, I was enjoying a casual swim, when I suddenly felt like someone hit me in the head with a shovel. I realized this was a manic moment. I met with my psychiatrist and told him what happened. My moods were going from extreme highs to severe lows; clear symptoms of a bipolar condition. I was soon diagnosed as bipolar II, a disorder in which I have full manic episodes and impulsive symptoms, such as spending sprees. I always felt my actions were not exceptional, but I had been misdiagnosed for 14 years.

This past August, I committed myself to a psychiatric hospital for the fourth time in 14 years. I was desperate. I wanted to get better.

I felt severe pain, but why would I feel physical pain if I had a mental illness? Because emotional pain is real. It hurts, and I tried to end it by overdosing on a bottle of Lorazepam, pills used to treat anxiety.

I recently committed myself to the Forbes Regional Hospital psychiatric ward, Seven North. It wasn’t the Ritz, but my stay became a great experience. I was terrified at first. What had I gotten myself into? I met other patients, everyone from alcoholics to heroin addicts, psychotics to the severely depressed. I was terrified of being lumped in with these people, but they ended up being my support system and even my friends.

My doctor changed my medication to mood stabilizers, which also works for bipolar disorder, and this has improved my outlook.

These experiences have taught me that mental illness doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter who you are, how much money you have or where you live. This illness can be a part of your life.

Still, misunderstandings of mental illness persist. I had a friend who sent me an email that read, “Did you know that one out of three people who have had nose jobs have mental illness?”

She knew I had a rhinoplasty when I was a teen. My first response was, “Really? This is what a friend thinks of mental illness? This is what a friend thinks of me?”

This is why we need to educate people that this disease is just like any other illness. There are treatments and medications for it, and you must be willing to be treated. There may not be a cure, but with caring doctors, you can live a good quality life. It could take several years to be properly diagnosed.

Although there were many times I wanted to give up, I always thought of my family. That gave me the strength to survive and persevere.

I have been writing journals since 1992, not just about my mental illness, but about my family’s journey and my husband’s bout with cancer. I believe my journey contains important messages for others. We need to educate, raise funds and make more help available to everybody in this country who needs it. We need more mental health facilities, psychiatrists and therapists.

No one should be turned away or be afraid of seeking help.

(Marcia Greenwald, a Pittsburgh resident who lives part of the year in Florida, is writing a book about struggles with mental illness and its impact on her family.)