I Am A Woman With A Mental Illness

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Author Traci Foust describes her bumpy ride getting off and on pharmaceutical drugs, and dealing with mental illness as a child and as a single mother.

My mother was 41 when she stopped taking her Lithium. For years she’d struggled with the side effects: weight gain, chronic dehydration, skin rashes. She chose instead to treat her mental illness with herbal supplements, a decision that would prove fatal.

I was 15 when she was diagnosed, and my knowledge of what is now known as bi-polar disorder was that I had a tired mom, a screaming mom, a mom who seemingly never stopped shopping. I quickly learned that medication was the key to stabilizing her erratic moods. A little pill meant the difference between spending a day at Sears buying things we didn’t need with money we didn’t have, or a normal 30-minute trip to the grocery store. It meant waking to cold cereal for breakfast, instead of finding my mother asleep on a tray of burnt cookies.

For me, such beautiful normalcy outweighed any embarrassment of a medicated parent. For my mother, the side effects never offered an even exchange. “My hair is so brittle. I’m a fat ugly cow.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I know this must really suck.” But as far as I was concerned, a chubby mom with bad hair was a small price to pay for one that was now able to get out of bed and drive me to school.

All this lovely ordinary wouldn’t last long. Something else caught my mother’s attention: natural medicine. I was 17 when the New Age movement began in 1989. Fitness of both body and mind was an exciting alternative path to those who felt stuck on the road of “having to take something.” Vitamin stores and healing centers began sprouting up all over our suburban San Francisco town.

This was partly due to the new AIDS cocktail, a colorful mixture of anti-viral/inhibitor drugs and mega vitamins, providing many HIV patients with renewed energy and a few more years of waiting for a cure. If you lived in the Bay Area, chances were you knew someone with AIDS. If you knew someone with AIDS, you knew all about the cocktail, which meant you also knew the limits of conventional medicine.

One evening my mother attended an Herbal Life seminar, and like all things her complicated mind found intriguing (spiders, Jesus), she immersed herself in learning about and ingesting everything with a flower or a rising sun on its label.

Two days before Thanksgiving she complained of chest pains and muscle spasms. The next morning she couldn’t move her neck. By the time her physician read an article about an outbreak of eosinophilia from a tainted batch of genetically modified L-Tryptophan, an amino acid that aids sleep, it was too late. The day after Christmas she died of a brain infection.

In the wake of my mother’s death, and in the middle of getting treated for the anxiety and severe OCD that had plagued me since early childhood, I happily accepted my new prescription of anti-everything medication. Zoloft, Buspar, and Ativan eased my symptoms almost immediately, making it possible for me to stop touching light switches and finish school while holding down a demanding job. Though my three failed marriages weren’t part of that success story, as long as I had my meds, I was able to handle the stresses of being a single mother to four boys. Never would my kids see me face down on a cookie sheet.

While deciding to medicate was easy, sharing that decision was something else entirely. Well-meaning friends would ask, “How do you do it?” To which I would give my standard answer, meant to be as funny as it was serious: “Drugs, man. Lots of drugs.” But not everyone thinks pharmaceuticals are swell.

Once when I was late to work from filling a prescription, my supervisor remarked that the first sign of an addiction was its interference with everyday activities. Even my father warned me not to become “hooked,” noting on several occasions that his stepson only had to take Prozac for a few months. “Until he could handle things on his own.”

Having seen firsthand what psych meds could do, the stigma of taking them seemed to roll right off me. Then I published a memoir about growing up with OCD, and what a big pharma fan my experiences had made me. When my book was released everything in my life fell into place. I began writing a regular mental health column for a popular comedy website. I was interviewed for NPR, Marie Claire, and MSNBC. Almost every day I received emails from people all over the world thanking me for sharing my story. For the first time I was in a healthy relationship, my children had a loving stepfather, a beautiful home, and I had the support of a man who knew about my problems through the stories I told and wrote. All of which were glittered with humor and sarcasm.

“You’re the funniest woman I’ve ever met.” He had never seen me without my meds.

In the midst of this rainbow it was easy to ignore the hate mail criticizing me for promoting medication. A woman at a book signing pointed out that being a writer was not the same as holding a medical degree. A guest on an international radio program called me a pharmaceutical tool because I didn’t have the courage to find an alternative route to healing.

It’s amazing how fast you can forget the good stuff when your child’s room mother stops you in the parking lot of the DMV to let you know her sister died of an overdose of Wellbutrin.

I had been singing the praises of better living through medication for 19 years. Now it was my career, and I was ashamed. What if  I was wrong? I hadn’t had my meds adjusted in over 12 years, longer still since I’d seen a therapist on a regular basis. What if my mother’s death had clouded my judgment about trying something new? What if that radio guest had been right, and I was just weak?

It started with a 10-day juice fast. I lost five pounds and my skin looked awesome. I upped my vitamin intake to include things that promoted mental health: If you like Zoloft you’ll LOVE Sam-E. Slowly, and without the consent of my doctor, I cut back on my medication. Right away the panic attacks started. I tried to manage them with valerian root and herbal teas. I trekked our hilly neighborhood for 30 minutes a day and even joined the Moonwalkers, a group of super healthy, bleach-toothed women who power walked at night with pepper spray and large dogs. When I told them I was weaning myself from medication, I was met with approving smiles and GNC coupons.

Within a month I was down to half my prescribed dosage. I Tweeted and Facebooked all about the new healthy me, reveling in those precious “likes” from people who now approved of my lifestyle. Never mind that I was sleeping only three hours a night or that my concentration was so muddled my editor sent back an essay covered in question marks accompanied by the comment, You OK? By the time I was med-free I had a new obsession with door knobs and the swine flu. I screamed at my boyfriend and children over crumbs and fingerprints and the weather. One night I frantically cleaned my already spotless house, then locked myself in my room to cut my arms and tongue with a razor blade.

What a beautiful analgesic mass approval can be.

One hot night, an argument over a mop ended with me physically attacking my boyfriend. When he grabbed my wrists, trying to get the crazy off of him, I called the police. They assessed the situation. They questioned my crying children. And then they arrested me for domestic violence charges. The promise I had made to myself—about my kids never having to see me in the sorry state I had so often found my own mother—was broken. I’d made a dangerous decision based on an inflated and bruised ego, and my sons got to watch their mother being taken away in handcuffs. If pissing on yourself in a holding cell doesn’t make a girl see how bad she’s fucked up, nothing will.

When I told my new, court appointed therapist I had stopped taking my meds, he was shocked. He had read my book and said the thing he most admired was my ability to not care what others thought. “You tell me you get emails thanking you for sounding off about medication and how great it makes you feel to help someone who’s afraid and ashamed,” he  said. “Either that kind of praise is not enough for you, or you’ve stopped caring about the ones who need your help.”

It’s been almost a year since my arrest. While I still keep steady on the vitamins and green diet, I have come to a conclusion: I am a woman with a mental illness. I will never not need medication. I allowed myself to become blindsided by hiding in a feel good moment, which was stronger than my desire to stay well. And while I’ve never claimed to be a doctor, I think anyone in the medical profession would agree, that’s the behavior of an addict.

Traci Foust holds a degree in American Literature from UCSC. She is the author of Nowhere Near Normal: A Memoir of OCD (Simon and Schuster 2011) Both her fiction and non fiction have appeared in several journals and websites including The Southern Review, Funny or Die, and The Nervous Breakdown. She is currently working on her second memoir, Love and Xanax. Find her on Facebook or her website. She is also a memoir instructor for Hardcore Memoir Workshops.

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