Recently, I attended a talk given by Barbara Lipska, "the neuroscientist who lost her mind." A few years ago, Lipska started exhibiting symptoms of schizophrenia (coincidentally the disease she studied) after she developed multiple brain tumors. During this period of madness, she had intense paranoia and rejected her family’s efforts to help her get well, snapping at them and insinuating that they were trying to harm or kill her. In one instance she exploded at her toddler grandson after he bumped into her. Miraculously, Lipska survived the brain tumors, and has since returned to her neurotypical state of functioning.
My experience with mental illness is not as linear as Lipska’s. I flirted with disordered eating for a few years in early high school, and ultimately developed anorexia my senior year. After that, it didn’t take long for my loved ones to notice that I had a problem. When all of my friends left campus for our 40-minute lunch break, a privilege only afforded to seniors, I went to the gym. I became frantic and explosive towards people I cared about. Thinking I might have celiac disease because of some embarrassing digestive issues I was experiencing, my mom set up an appointment with a nutritionist. After a quick assessment, the doctor handed me a pamphlet that read “Does My Friend Have An Eating Disorder?” A few months later, I started outpatient treatment in Boston, where I went to college. Every Friday morning I walked to Boston Children’s Hospital to see my therapist. Every day, little by little, she helped me loosen the grip I had around my neck. After a year and a half with her, I felt like I could breathe again. I still had a messy relationship with food, but it wasn’t the only thing I could think about. All was comparatively well—I made it through a semester abroad without taking too many steps back, and I felt like I was done with therapy, done with being mentally ill.
Then I lost all of my friends. When I returned home from studying abroad, my friends had moved on with their lives without me. Nothing particularly traumatic happened—no one was bullying me, no one directly said I was no longer allowed to be part of their friend group. But returning home and finding every stone overturned shook me deeply. The monster from whose grip I’d worked so hard to free myself crawled out from the broken floorboard I’d stuffed it into, and within months I was back under its spell.
For roughly nine months after that, my anxiety was so bad it often kept me from leaving the house. I stopped going to parties and social events because I was afraid everyone I talked to would know I was crazy. This was during the 2016 primary election season, and I threw myself into organizing for Bernie Sanders as a distraction from my diminishing sense of self. All of my waking hours were spent in panic mode. I remember telling my therapist that I felt like a goldfish trapped in a leaky plastic bag, watching the water spurt out the sides, counting down the moments until I ran out of water and suffocated. My therapist helped me get a prescription for Zoloft, a mild antidepressant used mainly for anxiety.
Around that same time, I met Jeremy. He entered my life in an ordinary way (Tinder), but he was nothing short of extraordinary. He was nothing like any of the other people I’d dated. He was a cook at a fancy restaurant in Cambridge. He didn’t go to college because he didn’t want to be burdened by debt, or anything else for that matter, including relationships. I found out early on that he planned to move back to Portland in four months, which was convenient because I was going to study abroad in Iceland then too. Our love was light and sweet and temporary, but that didn’t bother me. I was happy for the first time in an eternity, and the fact that he was nothing like the person I’d always pictured myself with didn’t matter.
I still look back on those first few months with Jeremy and Zoloft as some of the happiest of my life. Bleak, bitter winter had given way to spring, and even at the time I could tell that feeling the sun’s warmth on my face was an obvious metaphor. I imagined myself a crocus, tenderly poking through the soil after being buried for months. I quit the political organizing groups to make time for long, ambling walks through the park by Jeremy’s apartment, for woozy nights drinking wine together on the porch late into the night. The changes to my attitude were palpable; over the course of a month or two, I’d transformed from a frenetic bundle of nerves to a blissed out and carefree version of myself I’d never known before. I thought to myself, This is how I am supposed to feel. This is how normal people feel.
By July, I was considering moving to the West Coast after I graduated from college the following spring. I had myself convinced it had nothing to do with the fact that my boyfriend was moving there and everything to do with a self-inflicted delusion that I belonged on the West Coast. That was partially true—I’d always wanted to try living there, and there was never a better time to move than now. Every so often the question of whether my relationship was really fulfilling enough to warrant a cross-country move would float to the surface, and I’d immediately think to myself, “Of course it is, you’re happy and happiness is all that matters,” and push the thought back down where it came from. I never once had the “good” kind of anxious thoughts, the ones that made me ask myself, “Is this what I really want? Am I growing? Am I learning? Am I being challenged?” because I was in a mental state that didn’t allow me to do so. I had finally freed myself from the straitjacket of anxiety and my conscious thought wouldn’t let me feel that kind of doubt. I was the opposite of anxious and I mistook it for satisfaction.
So I made the move. After I graduated college, I packed everything I owned into my RAV4 and drove across the country with Jeremy and one of my closest friends. At first, I hated Portland, and I made sure that everyone around me knew it. Jeremy listened patiently as I vented about how terrible Portland was, but he thought I should give it a chance. I got a new job, found some friends, and before I knew it, Portland had grown on me. After a few months, I fell into a comfortable routine. I felt stable, finally. I felt safe enough to stop taking my antidepressants.
I found a psychiatrist in Portland to help me wean myself off the medication. SSRIs have a reputation for stealing your orgasms, and I was tired of having to concentrate every time I got eaten out. I also felt like over the course of a year and a half I’d developed tools to deal with the things that triggered my anxiety, and I no longer needed a drug to keep me in check. I was certain that my mental illness was behind me. I smiled as I gave the psychiatrist the polished version of my mental health history, and he agreed that I was ready. I quit cold turkey the next day, as per his recommendations.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I stopped the medication I’d been on for a year and a half, but what I experienced was something I could not have predicted. For a week after the last pill was swallowed, I was dizzy and confused all the time. I couldn’t focus. Food was the only thing that cleared the fog, but my appetite had evaporated. I’d tell people that when I turned my head and my body, my senses would stop working for the split second between starting and stopping. It was like momentarily blacking out. It wasn’t pleasant, but it only lasted about a week. Even worse was coming down from a year-and-a-half-long mental vacation.
Soon after the period of dizziness ended, all of the anxiety that my antidepressants had been blocking hit me at once. The emotional floodgates had been opened. It didn't take long for me to realize—to admit to myself—that I was deeply unhappy with my life in Portland. Although, it wasn’t so much a realization as a confrontation of something that was always there, lying dormant, suppressed by my lack of anxiety. The hardest part was accepting that my love for Jeremy had amalgamated with my newfound mental wellness, and I had mistaken one for the other. Let me be clear—the love I felt for him was genuine. But had I not been on Zoloft, unable to feel anxiety and unwilling to feel doubt, I don’t know that I would have made the decision to uproot life as I knew it.
Of course, the anxiety set back in, and the realizations I’d had about the circumstances I’d gotten myself into became unbearable. After a month of wallowing, I resolved to leave my new life and my boyfriend behind and move back home.
It hurts to think that I conflated mental stability with a genuine desire to be with another person. The bliss that washed over me when I met Jeremy was partially the result of finding someone who cared about me, but was also partially due to my serotonin levels being supplemented by a drug. It’s been a few months since I moved back east, and I’ve made a home for myself in New York City, surrounded by familiarity. I’m happier here for more reasons than I can name. But I’m still figuring out how to function as a “normal” person in the wake of five years of mental illness.
At her talk, Barbara Lipska spoke poignantly about how, once the paranoia had subsided, she was ashamed by how she had acted during her mental illness. But her family understood why she acted the way she did, and they were happy she was still alive. She’s in a unique position for a handful of reasons: not many neuroscientists are able to conduct research in which they are the subject. But her situation is also unique in that she fully recovered from a serious mental illness that struck late in life. Lipska was in her 50s when she developed the brain tumors, so she was able to return to a “normal” self that she knew quite well.
For people who develop mental illness in their youth, like myself, recovery looks very different. My mental illness has been with me for most of my adolescence and is inseparable from my development into an adult. In a sense, I don’t know myself without my eating disorder and my anxiety. I am still trying to figure out what my “normal” should look like. I’m still working to identify “good” anxiety versus “bad;” I am asking myself which elements of my personality are healthy and which need to be pathologized.
I’d like to note that I am not opposed to treating mental illness with medication by any means. My experience is mine and mine alone, and I know medication helps (and hurts) plenty of people. I don’t regret taking Zoloft, and I don’t like to think about what would have happened if I hadn’t started taking it. But the fact that I feel stuck between those two realities—crippling anxiety and wool-over-the-eyes bliss—scares me. I don’t know what a happy medium looks like, and I, like many others affected by mental illness at a young age, don’t have a normal to return to. But I think I’m slowly making my way there.
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Elizabeth F. Olson is an editorial intern at BUST. She mostly writes about her experience with mental illness through a feminist lens, and sometimes she writes fiction. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.