I Lost My Mind at Age 16
An excerpt from author Jaime Lowe's new book 'MENTAL: Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind.'
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The following has been excerpted from MENTAL: Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind by Jaime Lowe. Published by arrangement with Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2017 by Jaime Lowe.
I was admitted to UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute on September 8, 1993. The discharge summary, a document that noted my progress from beginning to end, said that I had been suffering from increased paranoia and a lack of sleep, and that I had been hallucinating "people from the past." The report included my parents' interpretation of my erratic behavior the previous two months, which they described as increased "irritability, lability, and 'bossiness' with family members."
Some time before the Night of the Hospital, I had filled out a questionnaire called the "Child Behavior Checklist for Ages 4–18." It was meant to be filled out by a parent, but I found it and filled it out myself. When the survey asked for an explanation in academic performance and why a "child is not being taught," I answered, "Because my father controls me." I listed "death" as an obsession, "cats" as a fear, and under the question of whether I ate or drank things that were not considered food, I wrote yes with the examples of "tequila and cigarettes." The 40th question of the survey asked for a description of the "voices that aren't there." My response was "But they are there."
Toward the end of the 113 questions, the survey asked for descriptions of any strange ideas, and for that I wrote "to kill everyone except for me and one other person." I was a mass murderer. I was Adam Lanza. Based on my answers, I seemed violent, vindictive, delusional, illogical, reckless, troubled, addicted; reading these answers years later, it's hard to believe I ever wrote them on a piece of paper. It's possible I was answering hyperbolically, playing into the absurdity of the questionnaire. I don't know; my intake report included a detailed account of auditory hallucinations and fears of the end of the world. It doesn't seem impossible that in my mind state I would have welcomed a worldwide do‑over, an Adam and Eve scenario in which I got to start from scratch with everything. On the other hand, the fantasy fit perfectly with my line of thinking—the world was ending, I was tapped to start over with a fresh new society—a revolution and an apocalypse in one. On a personal scale, that's what hospitalization was to me, a quick shake of the Etch A Sketch to start over with a blank palette, me at the circular controls.
I entered NPI sedated but quickly began talking rapidly and incoherently. According to the report, I was not lucid. I was oriented to time but not place. And I was certain that my parents were not my parents, but agents impersonating my parents, on a mission to follow, watch, and record my phone calls—to monitor my behavior. I was assigned to Dr. Mark DeAntonio. He said later that when I was admitted, "Your state was altered; you couldn't function in that state on any level." He asked my parents about me. They said I was a top student at University High and that I had close friends, that I was confident, ambitious, creative, and generally engaged but that I hadn't been lately.
Dr. DeAntonio rocked in his office chair and twirled tufts of his hair, leaving horned curlicues jutting this way and that. He wore thick‑soled motorcycle boots, faded black jeans, a collared shirt hastily tucked in, and earrings in his right ear. He had piercing blue eyes, like ice. He looked more punk than psychiatrist. His eyes squinted quizzically without hesitation. He had some of the mannerisms of a patient—tics and oddities—but he was, in fact, the head of adolescent psychiatry. We met and he asked me about my backpack, which I had a death grip on. I carried it with me everywhere—to group, to doorways, to the lounge, to the dining area. He asked me what was in it. I would not reveal its contents; I would not crack under pressure. Dr. DeAntonio looked cool but he was still one of them, the head of them, maybe the most heinous and evil of them?
Within days of my admittance, Dr. DeAntonio diagnosed me as manic depressive, the term used then for bipolar disorder. He said I was a classic case. I was one of the 44 million Americans who experience mental illness in any given year and one of the 5.7 million people diagnosed as bipolar.
He met with my parents for a family meeting. They described a period two years ago in 1991 that included "multiple psychosocial stressors." My older brother, Matt, had moved to Berkeley. I had started a new high school. They talked about the noticeable changes that happened gradually the summer before. My mom mentioned my behavior in Maine—I had been argumentative, intense, obsessed with the loons. I remember plunging into the cold water of Potash Cove on Lake Thompson and swimming through the still waters, communing with the fowl.
Everything is a symptom in retrospect. I remember the rock that made a deep region shallow. I would swim out to where I could stand, where the tiny translucent fish would gently bump into my toes. I felt a rush of euphoria, a shock of cold. It wasn't especially weird but coupled with my lightning eyes and odd demeanor and unaccountable fixations, maybe it was. If you were to look at pictures of me that summer, you would have seen a laughing, relaxed rising senior with red curls that would not obey the dictates of a bob cut. I wore old flannel shirts, ripped jeans, and purple Doc Marten boots. I left Maine early that summer. My parents, worried, arranged for Joe, my stepmom's stepfather—a jovial and gracious school bus driver who loved to go dancing—to meet me during my layover at O'Hare in Chicago. I ate lunch with Joe and his girlfriend, Trudy, and we talked about Joe's job and the kids on his school bus. My mom made note of other oddities, like the time I came home with seventeen camera key chains from the Nature Company. I had figured that everyone I knew needed one to keep in the glove compartment, in case of a car accident, obviously. They were meant to record the damages. I was an opinionated person but there was a new edge to my arguments, a passion that felt misplaced. I was journaling a lot. More than your average Indigo Girls–loving teen—my notebooks were covered in expansive and intricate doodles.
My parents explained that there was a clear shift in behavior. I'd always been an intense child, but the choices I was making—the conversations I was having and the way I was functioning—it was off. They described my sleep patterns as a child to Dr. DeAntonio. I was a precocious insomniac. After my parents' separation, when I was eighteen months old, I had night terrors regularly. In our first apartment on Almayo Avenue in West Los Angeles, our downstairs neighbor would pound a broom into her ceiling with each squall of hysteria. I grew up with sleeplessness, and night wandering stuck with me. My mom taught me to try to sleep. "Picture the waves," she would say. "Think about the ocean, the waves go in and they go out." As she soothed, I would breathe in and breathe out, matching the waves rolling in and out with visions in my head.
My medical records noted two major traumas: my parents' divorce. And, when I was thirteen, I had been molested by a stranger at knifepoint. We were a verbal family, well versed in psychological discourse, but we didn't talk about the attack much. Immediately after it, I went to see a therapist named Dr. G. My family referred to the sexual assault as "the incident," which simply meant we never used the phrase the incident again. In retrospect, the attack was connected with the breakdowns that followed, but at the time it was hard for me to see—and the psychiatric community favored genetic implications of mental illness over environmental issues. This thinking has evolved over the past couple of decades to incorporate both environmental and genetic factors, but it's a complicated and controversial determination to make. Is mental illness a result of nature or nurture? How many of these diseases are caused by experienced trauma, how many by a genetic lottery? How many by a combination of both?
Dr. DeAntonio asked for a family history. My parents told him that the only link to mental illness was with my maternal grandfather, Irving Tannenbaum, a barrel of a man who died with all his hair and all his teeth at age eighty‑nine. He was a Teamster and spent most of his career dropping off kegs of Budweiser to local bars and liquor stores in West Los Angeles. He was surrounded by four chirping and loquacious ladies, his wife and three daughters, for most of his life, which left him inside himself. Irving would read mystery books in his striped brown velour chair; he had a gruff demeanor that belied an occasional inner twinkle. Two years before my hospitalization he had been hospitalized at NPI as well after a late‑onset depressive episode. (We were the family that NPIed together!) After months of Howard Hughes–esque behavior—he refused to shower, cut his hair, clip his nails, or emerge from his bedroom—he was given Prozac, a transformative medication that took his personality from completely dysfunctional to congenial. He shed his gruff exterior and we all wondered at the time: What if Grandpa had been medicated earlier? He was the only clear link, substantiated by his family—a niece who committed suicide via a stab wound to the chest and siblings who were all on varying points of the spectrum. The niece's husband, an anesthesiologist at UCLA, thought his wife was an undiagnosed bipolar person. It never occurred to us that Grandpa's grumpiness was treatable; he was sane by comparison to his relatives, who were all estranged anyway.
For the first few days of my hospitalization, I was put on Mellaril and Ativan to control the acute mania and psychotic symptoms. They eventually switched me to Loxitane and Ativan, which I was meant to take two or three times a day and at night before bed. My dad, reluctant to accept a bipolar diagnosis, considered a second opinion. He didn't know what bipolar was, what it looked like. He couldn't imagine it was me. My symptoms got worse and I started to show signs of cycling again, at which point my dad consented to the diagnosis and to the treatment.
I was 16, young, at that time, to receive a bipolar diagnosis. The morning after I was driven to the hospital, I was volatile and irritated. The nurses said I was disturbing other patients. So I got a private room with four beds. There were about seven other teenagers in the ward, mostly girls with eating disorders and one boy. There were automatic double‑locked doors next to the on‑call nurses' terminal. Doctors could pass through; we could not. Immediately, I paged through my patient handbook, a small stapled brochure that outlined rights...very few, there were very few rights afforded to me. I explained that I was 16, old enough to drive, old enough to file to become an emancipated minor, old enough to know when certain nurses were trying to kill me.
I demanded to be released; I would be 17 in two months and I was too old not to make my own decisions, too old not to exercise free will. I already had too much responsibility to be stripped of choice. I had a part‑time job wrapping gifts at a boutique owned by pothead lesbians, I was a Red Cross certified babysitter, I had a driver's license, I had been a camp counselor, a volunteer at a shelter for runaway teens, I'd campaigned for three Democratic presidential nominees and attended political rallies to protect a woman's right to choose. I was an autonomous latchkey kid. Here in the ward, I was a danger. I argued aggressively, pushing the point that my residency at this facility was a violation of my constitutional rights, my human rights. "I have been to Amnesty International concerts; this doesn't happen in this country," I said. A nurse politely pointed out, "A minor has no constitutional rights, no amnesty."
I eyed the double doors. I thought of escape.
NPI was a jail. The building was an imposing postwar brick behemoth shaped like a plus sign with wings extending in each geographical direction. The adolescent ward was in the west wing. Looking out the north‑side windows I could see a power generator three stories tall and equally wide. If I looked past the metal grates, past the generator, I could see the bucolic hills of UCLA's campus and imagine the expansive green lawns with freshman students and stacks of books and backpacks full of purpose. Those rolling grass hills were not for us; we were locked in, double‑ locked in—no, triple. Those hills were not real to me anyway, just another movie set, a form of make‑believe to mask an apocalyptic landscape—cratered earth swallowed by thick nefarious lava, a war‑torn battlefield burning on the west side, an army of degenerate zombie serial killers thirsty for brain. Nothing good was happening on the outside. I was fixated on the generator—the pipes intertwined and shined, they were big and boisterous and volatile.
It was a maze of metal, menacing and alive. I watched those pipes like something was going to hatch—a plan, a spirit, a baby, a monster, a baby monster, a zombie serial killer, the Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez himself. The south side of the ward faced an equally awful image: a fenced‑in asphalt volleyball court and recreation area that was wrapped in double‑sided barbed wire. What kind of MacGyver move would it take to escape and save the world? Tuck and roll? A hysterical diversion? Sure. Maybe.
I tried to keep my head in the game by resisting meds, an obvious instrument of mind control. I would spit them out and run. I never made it far. Several nurses would tackle me in the hallway and pin me to the floor. They held my arms and my legs against the antiseptic linoleum. One nurse would peel back the waistband of my pants and stick a hypodermic needle into my left hip. In the needle was a cocktail of sedatives and antipsychotics. Nothing worked immediately. Those meds were appetizers to the medication that they would eventually give me in capsule form. Lithium.
From MENTAL: Lithium, Love and Losing My Mind by Jaime Lowe. Published by arrangement with Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2017 by Jaime Lowe.
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