The miscarriage in 1977 took me completely by surprise. A series of tests had confirmed there was little chance I would get pregnant. But while I cried for the baby we’d lost, we had already adopted our 12.5 month old son in 1974 and his good nature and laughter reminded us we were “in line” for a baby. That was the plan anyway!
But about a month after my miscarriage I became deeply depressed. I was non-functional to the point that my in-laws came from Pittsburgh to run the house. I was embarrassed that I needed their help. They set up a strict morning routine which I now know was helpful. Every morning, I’d get a wake-up call, shower and dress. After breakfast, my son would get into his little car and off we’d go for a very long walk. I was so tired that a long walk was the last thing I wanted to do. Yet as the days went by I was less tired and my mood subtly improved. My husband’s parents were able to go home and I went back to golfing, gardening, and playing with our son.
Two months later I realized I was getting depressed once again and I hated to go to bed knowing what the next day would bring. I was awake all night waiting for my husband’s alarm to go off. When it did I pleaded with him not to go to work. He called off and then called the doctor I’d been seeing. He gave us the number of a psychiatrist to call and after only a short visit, he said I was suffering from post partum depression and prescribed something to calm me.
With help from friends I got through this bout in only three weeks. I promised my son I wouldn’t get sick anymore. But it was a promise I couldn’t keep. And this next depression was “darker” than the others. I felt fearful about most everything and I had to pretend playing with my son was fun. I hated myself when he’d hug me and tell me he loved me, because I figured he’d sense I didn’t love him like before.
I saw the psychiatrist again and he could see I was worse. He said I should be hospitalized and I was desperate enough to say yes. Once I agreed to be hospitalized, I actually relaxed a little. My husband’s folks had agreed to arrive Sunday and I’d enter the hospital on Monday. Then, the Sunday before I was to go to the hospital, my husband asked if I thought I could handle being alone about three hours so he could take our son and his friend to an Indian Village. He said I could call our neighbor if I needed help. I said I’d be just fine – to have fun!
In the afternoon the doorbell rang and panic set in. Then I saw it was my teaching partner and her baby. I was glad to see her but explained I had trouble conversing – even with good friends, she laughed and said she’d talk for both of us! I was beginning to get a bad headache and was going to tell her I needed to lie down. But instead, she asked if I’d like to hold her baby. She put her gently into my lap. She was a darling little girl and made me think of the little girl who would join our family soon. And then an awful thought hit me and I told my friend I needed to lie down. She took her baby, wished me well at the hospital and was on her way.
I wrote a quick note to my husband that I had taken two sleeping pills but to wake me when they got home so I could fix dinner. And I believe that really was my plan. But I had to hang onto the railing and sit on the steps as I tried to reach the bedroom. I was crying so hard as I reached the landing so I just sat there and sobbed. I could see my pills in the bathroom and crawled and stumbled till I could use the doorframe to stand up. I took two pills and poured a glass of water and took it to the bedroom with me. Sadness and desperation had overcome me.
While holding my friend’s baby a heartbreaking thought had crossed my mind. Monday I would be entering the psychiatric ward – meaning in some way I was mentally ill. I believed there was no way the adoption agency would place a baby with me now. I was sobbing again and took more pills to try to get my mind from working. The next thing I remember was driving and being in the back of our car. My husband was driving and my friend was shaking me and shouting for me to wake up. I don’t remember arriving at the hospital and have no idea if they pumped my stomach.
My first memory was of opening my eyes in a small white room and through a blur, I saw my best friend leaning against the doorway. She looked so sad and I didn’t know how I could ever face her after what I’d done. I closed my eyes tightly. All I thought about was the baby who would never be ours. I had stopped caring about anything else – except for my son and those thoughts brought on fits of crying that left me exhausted.
I was told later that I was in a lock-up unit due to my suicide attempt. No one would believe me it was not a suicide attempt and I became very withdrawn and uncooperative during mandatory group activities. Thankfully, they did not try to force participation but you had to be part of the group even if you chose not to talk. Then one day they were working with clay so I joined to make some dinosaurs for my son. This project was the first step back to my world. I’m delighted that my 37 year-old son still has one of those dinosaurs left!
Once I was home my husband called the adoption agency. He told them of my hospitalization due to an overdose, but that the diagnosis was still post partum depression. He asked the big questions: “Are we still on the list for adoption?” The answer was a cheerful “absolutely!” I then got on the phone and explained the bouts with depression had frightened me and that we wanted to wait nine months (like a normal pregnancy) to be sure I’d not get depressed again. They said that could be arranged and for nine months, I was fine and soon we brought home our six-week-old daughter.
Neighbors had made signs and provided a festive dinner. Lots of pictures were taken and one would be very “telling” about my mood as the day went along. We could see my eyes had become dull while in earlier photos, they were bright and happy. I was rocking this beautiful baby and realized my feelings had gone numb – as if I had no feelings for her. I was desperate! My mind was a mess of darting, sad thoughts. I couldn’t believe I was depressed at such a joyous time.
My husband had put our son to bed and returned for our daughter. We started upstairs when I asked my husband to stop. I told him I was sick again and said we’d have to take our daughter back for her sake. My husband was stunned, then finally said: “The moment we saw our daughter, she was ours and if you aren’t able to care for her at night, I will. We’ll get through this.” And for two weeks, my husband cared for our daughter at night – as I lay awake hating myself for not being there for her.
As a teen, our daughter and her dad had their share of arguments. After one ugly one, she asked, “Why does dad hate me so?” I said he was just angry but that didn’t help so I took the chance that she wouldn’t hate me and told her how her dad cared for her for two weeks when I was unable to. How he refused to give her up! She was noticeably surprised and calmed down.
We moved to Pennsylvania when our daughter was one year old. As my husband headed off to work, I had to direct the movers while battling depression. Then a next door neighbor showed up and I discovered the friendliness of a small town. The depression ended and I began to read about PMS. I self-diagnosed and collected a box full of articles. I became “the PMS Lady” and shared my information with anyone who asked.
And then came the miracle I’d so often prayed for; only the route it took still stuns me. I was given a phone number for a new PMS clinic in Pittsburgh. I called immediately and was told I was 500+ in line to get in! I told the lady on the phone I was fighting PMS for years and the toll on my four-year-old was unbearable. I said my doctor had sent a letter but she had not seen it. I started to cry and couldn’t stop as I remembered a recent incident when our daughter overheard me tell her dad he should take the kids and run till he found them a normal mother. She was sobbing and slept in bed with us holding my hand tightly. My doctor had mailed a letter to the PMS Center about the incident. At that the woman said I could try calling one of the doctors there and see if he could help me as he had started the clinic.
I called immediately and his secretary put him on the phone. He told me my doctor’s letter had crossed his desk and he was touched by all I’d been through. He said he’d sent my letter to the center and was disappointed I had not been accepted. “How far from Pittsburgh do you live?” I said, “two hours away.” He said, “I’d like to see you. Do you have next Thursday open? I’ll make the appointment for late afternoon.” I told him I’d stay with my parents the night before so he could choose a time good for him.
The following Wednesday evening I called my college roommate. When I told her who I had an appointment with on Thursday, she literally screamed: “How did you get an appointment with him?” I told her the convoluted route I’d taken to the doctor. “Joyce,” she said, “the doctor is retired. He doesn’t see patients anymore! Everyone in Pittsburgh knows him and I’d say his reputation is world-wide!” I told her to stop telling me anymore – that now I was nervous!
When I first met the doctor what I noticed most about him was the kindness in his voice and eyes. As we walked toward his office, he showed me the book he was working on. It was about fighting alcoholism, his current passion. Once in his office, he asked why I thought I had PMS and I told him my story. He asked if I’d be open to another possible diagnosis. I said yes. Then he asked me to be patient with him – that he had a friend at the University of Pittsburgh that he’d like to discuss my case with as this diagnosis was his specialty.
We set up an appointment for the following week and I began to feel I’d been led to a man who could help me more than I had hoped for. The second appointment, he treated me as if I’d been a patient for years. But this time, he asked questions no other psychiatrist had asked before. Many questions seemed unrelated but he continued to take notes. My answers didn’t seem to surprise him, but to verify what he expected to hear.
The final visit my family had been invited to join me. It was then that the doctor explained his diagnosis: bipolar disorder – or manic depression. He explained why he had come to that diagnosis – and his friend from the University of Pittsburgh had agreed – and had written a prescription for lithium for me. He said there was no cure but medication helped control it. I felt our family now had a new way to deal with our lives. I will always think of the doctor with respect and affection.
When we moved to Toledo, Ohio, I made several calls in an effort to find the best psychiatrist I could find. The answer was a doctor in Oregon, OH. He was very pleasant as he took a history of my battle with bipolar disorder and asked questions about drugs I had used. He gave us information on a research program under the direction of another doctor. I’d heard him speak and was impressed. Soon I was signed up and for two years I went to Cleveland every month. But there was little improvement in the two years.
So it was back to the other doctor but just briefly as my husband read about the University of Michigan Prechter Longitudinal Study of Bipolar Disorder. When my husband read the information to me I was very interested. And to my surprise, he had me registered with one of the doctors there. In two weeks, I was depressed once again to meet a doctor for the first time. I felt I’d spent my life giving bad first impressions to doctors.
“Are you Joyce Lewis?” a friendly voice asked. I looked and saw this very young man. I said I was Joyce Lewis and he responded: “Well, I’m your doctor here at the University of Michigan Depression Center and you’re my very first patient.” I remember thinking, “first here or ever?” Then he cheerfully led us through a maze of hallways till we reached the final door. He laughed as we entered an office and said, “I’m so new, I don’t even have an office yet.” He quickly took charge of the session and by the time it was over, I knew I was in good hands. There was something very likeable and trustworthy about him. In a period of three years, my first impression has proven to be accurate in truly life-changing ways.
In 2009, I was finally well enough to file for divorce from my husband of 44 years. I had battled bipolar disorder for 33 of those years and sadly, my husband was a perfectionist and once I became ill, he was supportive for a while but eventually became an angry man – not just with me but our son and daughter and then our six grandchildren. Eventually he told me he preferred me depressed because he had complete control over me. Instead of trying to help me battle depression, he yelled upstairs (where I was in bed crying), “Do you know how much I hate being married to you?” That was the day I realized I hated being married to him. For the first time I realized his nastiness was likely affecting my health.
2009 was an amazing year. I was well in January and February. Then depression set in, in March when I filed for divorce. I called my doctor at the U-M Depression Center, desperate about whether I was strong enough to go through with this. “One day at a time,” he said. He assured me I could do it and added something to help relax me. He said: “I’ll call you tomorrow morning about 10am to see how you slept. Then, you page me in the evening so I’ll know how your day went.” I think I double checked that this was a daily plan!
After three weeks of phone calls I was no longer depressed – in fact, I felt more in control of my life than I had for years. My doctor’s decision to touch base with me while I was depressed I doubt is in any medical journal. And I realize not every doctor could keep up with one patient twice a day – but I’m sure there are more doctors, like my doctor, who would be willing to try. When you’re depressed and feel useless, there’s something powerful about a call from your doctor.