Before Jeff’s first hospitalization, though, I had never been exposed to a problem that I couldn’t fix. By my very nature, I have always been a fixer - an arranger, an executor, a doer. I prided myself on getting things done. There was no way this was going to be any different. I researched the right things to say, I tried to be supportive, encouraging, and understanding with Jeff. Patience was never a virtue I naturally had, so I tried to develop it, which has tested every piece of strength I have in my body at times. I thought Jeff would come out of the hospital refreshed with a new outlook on life. I thought being in the psych ward with people who were “much worse off” than him would make him come to his senses and appreciate the life we have. I thought he just needed a break to clear his head and he would be ready to move on. I don’t know if I actually believed that or if that was just what I wanted to believe at the time, but the blissful feeling of complete ignorance guided me through the tough times.
Even when Jeff was released from the hospital in Berwyn, we tried to feign hope. And that’s what it was – feigning hope. We went through the motions. He said, “Wow, I’ve learned so much. I never want to go through that again.” I said, “I’m here for you. I’m so glad your back to your old self. Let me know how I can help you.” Before the first incident, he stopped taking some medication a psychiatrist had put him on for his anxiety and depression and we blamed that. He’d never been good at refilling prescriptions, and that is a pretty important prerequisite for any medication you may be taking, especially those that can impact your moods. It was a convenient excuse. I told everyone, “Jeff was on some medication for his anxiety and depression and he messed up his dosages – he should be totally fine now that it is out of his system.” I didn’t say this or use this as a crutch because I was embarrassed. I said this because I wanted a reason. I wanted to give others a reason, because I couldn’t stand the blank stares I received when I didn’t have one. I needed a reason to explain why this was happening, other than the reality of the situation that Jeff was unwell. I desperately longed for that simple fix. A fix that would allow me to admit something other than our life was permanently about to change. I plastered a smile on my face, and I carried on.
It was not the easy road I had hoped for. The smile was still there, but the bags under my eyes started to show. I lost a bunch of weight, which was a welcome since I had been overweight, though it was still an unhealthy side effect. I was running a lot to keep myself sane, so I attributed it to that. I had always been an emotional eater, and I never knew how to identify with people who said they couldn’t eat when they were stressed. A cookie, French fries, pizza, mashed potatoes, whatever…those things ALWAYS made me feel better. Not this time. I would go days without eating because I simply didn’t think about it. Because of the weight loss, people started constantly complimenting me, “You look great!” Already not one for compliments, it was like a small dagger being twisted into my chest. Every time I heard, “You look great,” I wanted to scream, “Then why do I feel so terrible!”
So the weeks went on, and Jeff tried to quickly return to “himself.” It’s laughable looking back and thinking that Jeff got out of the hospital and went straight back to work. He wasn’t even gone five days after his initial hospitalization. We just truly, naively, honestly did not grasp the life altering diagnosis that he had received, or accept it as that. I think that is what seriously derailed his recovery, but I also think it sped up the inevitable. I look back and wonder, “If only I had encouraged him to take FMLA then, to really take a step back and work on his recovery, we wouldn’t be in this mess.” But the logical part of me knows that he needed to have these intermittent experiences to really come to terms with the work that he needed to do to actually get well. And anyone who says that being well isn’t work is plain ignorant.
It was the period between the first and second hospitalizations that alcohol really started to play a major part in the story of Jeff. The cliché, which I even cringe typing because it’s so overused, but accurate nonetheless, “hindsight is 20/20,” screams. I can see instances from the day we met that, at the time, meant nothing, but now mean the world. I didn’t really understand the problem it was becoming. I was still in fix-it mode, and this could still be salvaged. Jeff was also desperately pretending like there was nothing in need of salvaging. Alcohol is a much greater part of this story, so for the sake of this piece of the conversation, I will table that discussion.
Several things occurred between June and August that left me with much cause for concern. He was seeing a therapist, and he was trying to do the work, but per the first psychiatric facility, they felt no need to keep him on medication for any illness. In fact, everyone was still convinced the improper medication schedule was the reason for his episode in the first place. But the night of August 15th, I came home from work and I found Jeff on the couch in a catatonic stare. I tried to talk to him, and he wasn’t making any sense. It was as if he was not there. I had no idea who the person on my couch, cradling themselves and talking nonsense, was. Nothing I said to him seemed to break through, and he drifted in and out of lucid conversation. By the end of the conversation, I knew there simply was no breaking through. I got him into bed, and I stayed up, wondering.
I wasn’t sure what would happen next. At that point, I was exhausting myself trying to make sense and plan for an uncertain future. Remember, I’ve always been the fixer. It’s taken me months, though I have finally started to accept that some things are out of my control. I have an intense need to make sense of things, though the logical side of me believes that the world in general is senseless; that rhyme and reason do not exist, and that the world is nothing more than chance. But, maybe it’s human nature, I still see myself forging meanings. I think its self-preservation. I think the lesson I have been given here is learning how to let go. I’m not saying I want to give up, but rather, that I don’t want to hold on to things that aren’t mine to fix.
We woke up on Friday, August 16th, and I found myself in familiar territory as Jeff was still acting erratic. It was the day before his birthday and we were going to go to the Cubs games with our season tickets, and I had rented a boat on the Chicago River for a group of our friends to celebrate. On the outside looking in, we had a pretty great life. But depression doesn’t care if you have the best or worst life – it twists your thoughts and your feelings of self-worth. It eats away at you from the inside, and it’s really hard work hoping it doesn’t break through the surface image you have created of yourself. I was hoping it would be a really positive weekend that would dull that inside ache, but no matter that the sun was shining on a beautiful summer day, it did not feel like a beautiful summer day in Jeff’s head. Being more familiar at this point with depression and anxiety, I wanted to start a conversation immediately to assess the situation. I asked him, “Do you have a plan?” The first time he told me he wanted to throw himself in front of the train (Red Line), but he didn’t want to ruin other people’s commutes, and this time he told me he was thinking about using the knives in the kitchen, which scared me and also made me wonder how I would be able to make sure our house was free of items that Jeff could use to harm himself.
Jeff was very aware of his feelings and did not seem like an immediate threat, so I kept him calm by asking him questions, keeping him in the same room as me, and checking in with him every few minutes to make sure he was not having feelings of harming himself immediately. I also spoke directly and clearly with him what I was going to do. I admit, I didn’t really think this would happen again, so I had not been as diligent as I should in having a safety plan established. I wish I had researched more before it had gotten to this point, but again, I was so naïve and just, dumb, I had no idea what to do or what was right. I did know one thing – I could not take him back to the ER unless he was an immediate threat to his own safety. The help he received at the first hospital was not substantial. These issues were not going to be resolved by a glorified babysitting service that handed out medication at certain hours of the day.
My first step was to call both my boss and Jeff’s boss to say that Jeff would be going back to the hospital. Then I called our parents. Those calls get surprisingly easier the second time around. My second step was to call Jeff’s insurance company to see if they had any recommendations. It was the most frustrating 45 minutes of my life. Everyone I called said the same thing, “Call 9-1-1; Go to the emergency room.” I know that this is a liability issue, but shit, I just wanted some help. The ER was not help. I wanted someone to tell me, “He can go here,” and”This is a good option,” or “We can cover this place.” The insurance company, and I know this is through no fault of their own, didn’t know anything about any of the facilities, what they provided, and could give little help for my predicament. I felt like no one else had ever been through this and there was nowhere to turn.
I got on Yelp. Yes, that Yelp. It was equally deceptive, but a million times more helpful. No one posts on mental health facilities; it seems like a pretty taboo topic. Furthermore, the people who do have usually have bad experiences (that’s why the minute we got out of the hospital this time, I posted the best review I could for the hospital we went to – someone has to give people in my shoes some help!). I saw a posting for Chicago Lakeshore Hospital. It was a mile away, had mediocre reviews, was a psychiatric and substance abuse recovery facility, and I was out of options. I called, figuring there would be no open beds and we would be out of luck, but received some very positive news – they were an open intake facility, meaning we could just walk right it at any time, and they had open beds. So, we put on our shoes and walked to intake.
The intake process was so much quicker and kinder than what I experienced the last go around. We were treated like real people, rather than just another intake. Jeff was upstairs in less than two hours. They had rules, an organized structure every day, all day, and if people did not attend the scheduled therapy meetings and activities, they would not be allowed to socialize or eat in the cafeteria. This meant that everyone needed to be active participants in their own recovery. People had job functions (attendance, readers, leader), could keep snacks and books in their rooms in bins, and the facility placed patients according to their needs in a leveling system so that recovery was not derailed in any way, if say someone was combative or abusive. Jeff had access to counselors at all times, easier access to social worker, and support groups offered. I went home that morning feeling optimistic for the first time in months.
Want to read Jeff's side of the story? http://www.lifeimpaired.com/1/post/2014/01/the-birthday.html