Amanda Tells her Story
My breakdown came the summer after my junior year at college, while I was home in Plattsburgh working a summer job. I spent a night driving across New York State for the wedding of one of my college friends and arrived in Buffalo sleepless but energetic. I danced at the night-before party, I danced for hours at the wedding dinner, I was outgoing and brilliant and felt I could solve all the problems of the world. All with barely any sleep. When I got back to Plattsburgh, I still wasn’t sleeping. When I quit my job, my mother was upset.
I knew something was wrong. I had read Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar. The person in that book is hospitalized for depression after a long period of insomnia. So I knew insomnia could be part of a breakdown. I went to the local hospital and they sent me home. They thought maybe someone had slipped me some Ecstasy at the wedding. But I was sure I was in trouble. When I couldn’t get anyone in my family to take me to another hospital at midnight the next night, I asked the police to help me. They drove me to a different hospital. The intake nurses actually put me in restraints and gave me a shot of Thorazine. Next morning I was given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
I was hospitalized for two weeks. Despite my anger at the intake nurses, who I felt had escalated the situation to a crisis by being too harsh, I feel I was lucky to have a clear-cut diagnosis and a hospital bed. Do you know how long people with mental illness wait for a bed in a hospital? When I was given books to educate myself about bipolar disorder, I went down the list of symptoms and saw that I had them all
How did you feel about your diagnosis?
The diagnosis was spot-on. I was so lucky. The period in the hospital helped me adjust to medication. My mother visited every evening. My mother and dad have supported me through all my ups and downs since then.
I had lived with depression since childhood. But mania is more debilitating. I also have seasonal depression in the winter. A lot of people in northern places have that. But except for one semester right after my first breakdown, I was functional. I finished college, I worked. Then five years after my first break I was trying to switch medications and I had another breakdown. I was working two jobs at the time. I was fired from one, demoted in the other. But now I have my dream job, I own a house, I’ve been able to do everything I want to do. I love biking, and I’ve been able to compete in big races.
Do you tell people you have a mental illness?
Some of my friends know. I feel closer to friends who also have a mental illness. But I don’t tell people where I work.
Are you afraid your employer will discriminate against you?
No. But it’s not her business. It’s like sex– you don’t talk about sex at work. It’s private.
What do you want people to know about mental illness?
For me, it was important to work. Work has been therapeutic. I think it would help a lot of people with mental illnesses. It gives you something to wake up for. It gives you a concrete activity to focus on, even it’s dishwashing. Work is very grounding. I think that sometimes it’s a disservice to give people disability payments that allow them to avoid working.
I also think that sometimes it would be better if mental health professionals had an approach that taught them to be calm, to be patient, to answer questions. They need to be gentle. People, and especially health professionals, need to be more educated about symptoms of mental illness. My mother is a physician’s assistant and she didn’t recognize my illness.