TIME TO BREAK DOWN"
sank deeply in my bed and then quickly got up. I had to get out of this house. I was a real mess. My nerves
were frayed. Only a few days ago, in despair, I had taken an overdose of pills I had collected and slept close to 36
hours. My Mom suspected something was wrong but let me sleep. I was 22, jobless and very depressed.
Despite all that, feeling extremely helpless, and having
little money, I took a bus to East Orange, New Jersey where I had lived while attending Rutgers in Newark. I had friends
there. I felt loved there. I was also hallucinating and very paranoid.
I found myself going to Upsala College, which was near the apartment I had lived in. I went to
their audio room and listened to "A Day In The Life" by the Beatles and "Nights In White Satin" by the
Moody Blues. Both songs made me bawl and crying was a welcome release. My nerves were so shot and scattered.
I created quite a stir at the library, and the college called the
police who brought me to Greystone Park, a New Jersey state hospital. I had been totally off my meds for a year.
It was 1971. I was really wired and a doctor prescribed Thorazine to bring me down. I did not like the way the
drug numbed my body but I had no say in the matter.
being in the state hospital again. I hated being considered crazy. I thought there was something radically wrong
with me. Every time I broke down and had to be hospitalized I hated myself. I had internalized the stigma and
shame my parents felt in having a son mentally ill.
up spending 14 months in Greystone Park—way too long. Everything is done for you in the hospital which made it
was difficult adjusting to living on my own after my discharge. I relocated to nearby Morristown, since all the friends
I had known in my hometown of West New York had moved away.
mood was extremely dark. Between 1965 and 1972, I had spent a total of two years in state hospitals and psych units.
There seemed no stopping my breakdowns. It was extremely discouraging.
In my darkest moments I barely clung to the promise of the words of King Solomon in the book he wrote in
the Bible, Ecclesiastes. He stated, "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven"
and followed that with the words, there is "A time to break down, and a time to build up.”
These words were pointed out to me first by my Mom. Ecclesiastes was her
favorite book in the bible. It became mine. We both loved the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by the Byrds,
based on the lines from Ecclesiastes.
I believed that down
the road I would gain greater control of my life. I would not continue to break down all the time. There would
be an end to my episodes. I would not give up. My life somehow would mend. As King Solomon said, there
is a time to break down and build up. For years, all I had was that promise.
One thing I did not do was torture myself with the questions, "why did I have to suffer so much?"
or "why me?" There was really no answer to that and these questions would only torment me. So, gratefully,
I did not linger there too long.
Shortly after I was discharged
from Greystone Park, I started feeling hyperactive again and was not sleeping well; but for the first time my rehab counselor
and psychiatrist thought I might be manic-depressive and sent me to a research doctor, who prescribed lithium. That
was a major turning point in my life. Now my illness had a name. It was treatable.
Lithium had only been approved by the FDA for the treatment of manic depression in 1970. It was
the first such drug for the treatment of this disorder. Today there is a wide array of drugs to treat manic depression
(now called bipolar disorder). None of them existed back then. Lithium is commonly used today. In 1972 it
was not, so I was very lucky to find a doctor to prescribe it to me.
Two years later, there was another turning point. A nurse I knew recommended a private doctor who I saw for the
next 12 years.
I never forgot my first visit with him.
Dr. Warren (not his real name) said, "Let us go over the warning signs of a nervous breakdown." He taught
me about the cyclical nature of my illness. He taught me to carefully notice when my sleep patterns changed and I would
go to bed later and wake up earlier.
This was one important
sign I could not ignore. When my sleep patterns changed, I would look for other signs: a surge in self-confidence,
an increase in my energy level, heightened paranoia. In my case, lithium was not totally effective in stopping my manic
episodes. I still had them, they still were scary, but their severity was lessened.
Dr. Warren taught me to "catch" the episodes earlier and earlier. This was very difficult
to do; it was not easy for me to spot the signs. Sometimes friends helped me with this. I would slide gradually
into these episodes, and mania, in the beginning, is a very delicious feeling. I felt on top of the world and felt I
could do anything, and the last thing I wanted to do was listen to anyone’s advice.
Years later I realized the paranoia that accompanied these episodes, causing me to be increasingly
uncomfortable and anxious, was actually a gift. It forced me to take steps quicker before my episodes went out of control.
I would notify Dr. Warren, and he would adjust my medication. Within a few days I would sleep better and become less
anxious. I knew the episode (which usually lasted four months or so) was ending when I suddenly began sleeping an extra
hour or two every night. My doctor then lowered the medication back to my maintenance dose.
During those periods when I was sleeping less I would listen to music over headphones
in my room, so I would not disturb my roommates. This helped occupy my mind and also kept me out of trouble. I
did not want to bring public attention to my manic behavior.
simple freedoms had become very valuable. When you are in a hospital your freedom is taken away. You are told
when to do everything. The simple choice of when to take a walk, eat, and even take a shower is taken away. I
valued my freedom more highly after all those hospitalizations, so I listened to my doctor and took the measures he recommended.
I had lots of help along the way. A psychiatric nurse taught
me to safely channel the excess energy I had during episodes into projects at home. It could be cleaning or straightening
up a closet—anything. My energy could be used positively.
I also found friends I trusted to confide in during the paranoia that accompanied my manic behavior. I
needed assurance I would be okay. I developed a network of such people. I was very cautious of which professionals
to trust. In my experience, some were too quick to recommend hospitalization when I was “not right.”
I avoided calling hotlines for the same reason.
Warren was a godsend: I could directly reach him by phone four times a week. Talking to him briefly defused many
a crisis. He set aside four 50-minute periods every week for his patients just for that purpose.
He taught me to lead as much of a normal existence as possible despite my major
illness. I never forgot his immediate response to my question, “Do I have a right to do things most normal people
do like get married and have children?” Without hesitation, Doctor Warren stated, “You have as much right
Now I have lived successfully with my
illness for 43 years. I have had dozens of episodes. Only a few in the last 24 years have led to a hospitalization.
It is true Dr. Warren taught me the cyclical nature of my illness and I take medication for it, but the words of Solomon helped
me even more: “To every thing there is a season," and there is "A time to break down, and a time to
build up.” I learnt from that promise not be afraid of my illness. There will always be an end to my episodes.
And my faith has only been strengthened by time.