Mental Illness, Misdiagnosis, and Forgiveness

February 17, 2011

About a year ago, I had a terrible, two-week anxiety attack. My eyelids twitched constantly, I couldn’t sleep without serious pharmaceutical assistance, and—in lieu of a heartbeat—cold-winged butterflies beat around in my chest.

At first, I wasn’t sure what had triggered my anxiety. I’d experienced one similar episode about six months earlier, after starting a new job (I didn’t work for nine months after John’s hospitalization) and having a confrontation with a woman at one of my Twelve Step meetings. I chalked that experience up to nerves around the new job and a fear of conflict, and I didn’t think too much about it after the anxiety went away.

The second time it happened, though, I had to dig a little deeper to figure out what was really going on. And the truth was, I was still traumatized by the fact that my husband had been misdiagnosed after all my efforts to communicate what was happening with his psychiatrist.

The worst night of my life, in fact, occurred two days after said psychiatrist—Dr. Black—decreased John’s dose of Risperdal, and then proceeded to tell him that she “wasn’t that concerned” as his psychosis escalated and I pleaded with him to return to the hospital.

After my husband went back to the hospital, I was furious. I had trusted his psychiatrist. I had assumed that, because she had much more experience with mental illness than I did, she knew what she was doing when she ignored my calls and input.

I had, of course, assumed wrong.

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The Last “Crazy Class”

June 19, 2010

Back in February, I had a really terrible bout of anxiety. For two weeks, my eyelids twitched so badly that I could see my veins jumping when I looked in the mirror. My stomach ran cold, my heart beat fast, and I was sleeping very poorly.

The anxiety was triggered by an interaction I had with someone at a Twelve Step meeting–I’ve been in recovery for food addiction for nearly 11 years–who pretty much told me that I acted like I “owned” the meeting and needed to back off. The woman in question is very direct, very confident, and–to be honest–a little controlling. Her words threw me into a tailspin of self-doubt: Was I too controlling? Was I trying to impose my will on the group? Did I need to back off?

For two weeks, I fixated on these questions, trying to figure out why this whole thing was affecting me so deeply. And then, on the fifteenth day, it became clear: My reaction wasn’t so much about this particular woman or the things she’d said to me; it was about the fact that she, like the doctor who misdiagnosed my husband after his first hospitalization, had made me feel like I was doing something wrong when I knew, I knew!, that I wasn’t.

Dr. Black thought John was anxious and depressed. When I tried to tell her about his psychotic symptoms, she dismissed them. She told John that he needed some space from me, that we were “making each other nervous,” and that the hospital doctors were the ones who’d gotten his diagnosis wrong. When she cut back his dose of the antipsychotic drug Risperdal and he became delusional again, she told him over the phone that she “wasn’t that concerned.” He ended up back in the hospital again the very next day.

I knew what was happening, I knew he wasn’t well, and yet the fact that she was a doctor had made me doubt my own instincts. As a result of listening to her, my life–and my husband’s life–skidded further off the rails.

Once I realized what was at the root of my anxiety–this intense ball of anger and self-doubt and fear–I decided that I needed to get some support from people who knew what it was like to suffer through a loved one’s mental illness. A couple of people had mentioned NAMI to me, but until I had that anxiety attack, I didn’t feel like I needed to go.

Now, having just completed the 12-week Family-to-Family class*, I’m sorry I didn’t go sooner. Not only did I meet people who understood the hell my husband and I had gone through, but I learned that the things that had happened to him–and the way I had responded to them–were very typical. And I now have an arsenal of knowledge to draw upon should we be forced to deal with a psychotic crisis ever again.

The biggest thing I got from the class, though, was an intense feeling of gratitude. Because, my God!, could things have been worse.

John has accepted the fact that he has a mental illness. He sees a psychiatrist and takes medication and has kept his highly responsible, high-paying job. From everything I heard from my classmates, John is the exception and not the rule.

My anxiety has lifted, and I’m pleased to report that the intense anger I felt toward Dr. Black for the last year and a half has disappeared.

*I stayed late at work and went directly to the class every Thursday evening. When a co-worker of mine asked why I was working late, I mentioned that I was taking a class. He asked me what it was about, and I vaguely told him it was a psychology class. Seeing that I was uncomfortable–and being a bit of a jerk–he asked me what specifically we were studying, so I told him it was a class on mental illness. Of course, he then started referring to it as “the crazy class”–and hence the title of this post.