Mental Health—No More Heads in the Sand…..
I have been hospitalized for depression, nervous upsets and bipolar illness about seven (7) times. Each hospitalization was a journey to another place in my development as a human being. It still isn’t easy to talk about after ten years of NOT being hospitalized…
One thing is for sure, I know I’m not alone. I know there are millions of Americans and thousands upon thousands of Black Americans who have a mental illness. It is funny, or not so funny, how other people don’t understand mental illness. They see you and think you can work at a regular job. They don’t know the pain and anguish that goes with being hospitalized and having to take medicine and go to therapy for over 30 years. It all grates on the soul and takes a toll on the spirit, but it also saves the spirit and leads to a path of renewal and survival. There are many, many rewards for taking your head out of the sand and dealing with your issues as a person with some seemingly insurmountable problems that only a therapist can help you work through. There are a lot of people in the world who say to themselves each and every day ``I’m OK, I don’t need a psychiatrist!!’’ Well let me tell you EVERYBODY on the planet can benefit from therapy and many millions of people NEED to be in therapy.
Don’t let someone else’s ideas about a ``stigma’’ stop you from getting the help you need. It seems like only about a month ago that my sister sat with me at a hospital reception area (in West Philadelphia) and tried to convince me for about an hour to sign myself in for that first time evaluative stay. I would have none of it. I wasn’t cooperating because I had bought into the significant and lasting ``stigma’’ that is berried in each American’s head about therapy and getting psychiatric help. Lucky for me my Brother-in-law is a doctor and had just met a Black psychiatrist on a plane ride who ended up being my first psychiatrist. He was a Black psychiatrist who I would be seeing once a week for quite some time and then once every other week. (He ended up being my psychiatrist for about 10 years and he helped me through some of the toughest days of my adult life)…. He diagnosed me with bipolar illness after the first two months. It was hard because he knew about the depression, but it wasn’t until I went off the deep end with laughter that he saw the manifestation of the Manic or (UP) side of the equation. After that he knew about both sides of the coin—the too up and the too down side.
It took years of crying & agony in therapy to work through what I felt was my emotional mistreatment and emotional abuse as a child to come to grips with the fact that my parents did the best they could do and that I had had a very happy and fairly stable childhood for a Black child growing up with the American inner city experience…. What was really the problem was a chemical imbalance that could, thank GOD, be treated with medication and therapy. I have met people in hospital stays who could NOT be helped with medication. I remember having a very sobering feeling at meeting a White gentleman who was like that. I remember feeling like the luckiest person in the world just because there was medicine to treat what was wrong with me—even though it made me gain weight and have some other fairly minor side effects. I can’t begin to tell you how bad I felt for the White gentleman who was losing hope fast because his medicine didn’t seem to be working…
How did it all happen? I remember the long train ride from New York to Philadelphia. My mind was on fire. Burning up with what I would discover in about six months as being bipolar illness. I had lost it all in New York. One day I went to work at my job at TV Guide Magazine and I just couldn’t cope. I couldn’t sit still. I was antsy all day and my Boss, well he knew something was wrong. I took off in the afternoon… I don’t even remember if I ate lunch or not. I left work and walked to Harlem from Midtown Manhattan. I WALKED to 135th street to see my sister. I walked all the way to her apartment building, or what I thought was her apartment building. I went up stairs and knocked on her door. Things looked strange. There was a lady I talked with as I walked through Harlem who I said would have been ``my wife’’. I said this to her, a complete stranger… She looked at me and saw the fire in my eyes and moved away quickly. I knocked on my sister’s door and I had the wrong door. I knocked on another door and it was still not right. I was in the WRONG BUILDING… My mind and my head were almost literally spinning with the heat of depression, anger and the impending mental illness I would struggle with for a generation. I walked back to midtown Manhattan and made it somehow to my small railroad apartment near the Better Days Night spot. I had my roommate, a White man from West Virginia, call my sister and my brother-in-law. I was reeling with instability, anger and depression. It seemed to take them only minutes to get there, but it was more like an hour. I believe they had already been alerted by my boss that something was dreadfully wrong with me that day at work.
Then there was the frantic train ride to Philadelphia. My Mother and my Sister took me to Philadelphia with just the clothing on my back. It must have been the next day. Again I am not sure. We stopped along the way, as the local trains do. I tried to get off the damned train!! Didn’t I realize what that did to these two women who had seen me through all my life until now? They were frightened to death at having this 6’ 4’’ Black man trying to leave them when he was in such a state. Somehow they convinced me to sit down and take it easy until we got back to Philly. I must have been talking some gibberish and laughing a bit also. They must have been wondering what in God’s name had gotten into me. What was wrong with me…
I stayed overnight at my Mother’s house on 49th street in Philly. It was a totally restless night. My sister slept in the bed with me because my Mom and sister were both very afraid I would go off again somewhere. I had terrible dreams. I was up and out of the bed and to the bathroom and frightened out of my mind all night... I was not on medicine yet and had NEVER seen a therapist at that point except one family therapy session with the entire family. I was going mad. Through a process of what seemed like osmosis I had an orgasm, fully dressed and without ANY sexual closeness or manipulation from anyone including myself. Now that was really crazy!! I was almost possessed with some spirit or GOD or Voodoo or some African villager I had never met. What the Hell was going on with me? Only GOD knew! Maybe it was the Devil or something worse. It seemed worse than anything I had ever experienced in my 24 years of life up until that point or really ever since then. I am now 53 and it was the most fearsome & frightening experience I have ever had.
My sister got me to The Hospital (Now Mercy Hospital) in West Philly. Naturally, being totally out of my mind, I didn’t want to sign myself in. My sister, GOD bless her, she sat there and argued and cajoled with me for an hour or two begging me to get the help I needed. I finally signed the papers. She took the time and had the GOD-like patience to see that this was best for me… She did not 302 me or try to sign me in without my permission. My mind continued to race faster than Malcolm X could spit out his words of fire in the 1960’s. I saw some workmen across the street as they fixed the roof on a building. I thought of my Father because he was always fixing buildings and climbing ladders and walking on roofs as a landlord in West Philly…. I wondered where Dad was. I didn’t know. Maybe he just didn’t understand this aspect about his son either. I know that he cared deeply about me, but that he didn’t really know what to do to show that he cared or how to show that caring side of himself… The workmen’s work was not unlike the way Dad and I had probably done a few times before I moved to New York or when I was younger. They gave me some cogenten and some other medication called haldol. I would be taking such medicine for the rest of my life up until right now, this very second, anti-depressants are in my system.
The Hospital ambulance took me from THE HOSPITAL to another facility that dealt solely with mental illness. The word stung me as bad as the disease did. You are now mentally ill. You will never amount to anything. You will be helpless as a jellyfish on a hot stove. You ain’t shit Nigger!! Go to HELL. The voices were not only in my head, but in my thinking as well. We made it to Fairmount Institute and my life began a long journey towards healing and of processing what had happened. I was in group sessions and individual therapy where I talked about my hatreds and my passions and my fears and my paranoid feelings and I took medicine and I grew stronger mentally every day... I also read some books and made some new friends and did some drawings. This all helped cool down and slow down my thinking. In three months I would start a job at TV Guide in Radnor, Pennsylvania... That was the beginning of another journey—one filled with potholes, hills and valleys, rewards, oddities, friends, strange kooky people, and various friendly and not so friendly relations with people of every ethnic stripe. I was thankful to GOD & my family that at least another segment of my life would begin. GOD had other plans for me and other work that would take me into the future. I thought I was going to die, but I didn’t. I had made it through a vortex, but there was more to come.