Artist Statement:

I was born and raised near Duluth, MN. I completed my undergraduate studies in English and sociology at the public liberal arts campus of the University of Minnesota in Morris. I spent six years at Purdue University teaching and taking graduate courses in sociology and English. Currently, I live in Detroit Lakes, MN where I am an Adjunct Lecturer in English composition at a local college.

 

Into the Psych Ward

Eric C. Johnson

 

When I was growing up, I always thought that being mentally ill was what happened to someone else. My high school French teacher would be out of the classroom for three weeks recovering from severe episodes of bipolar disorder in a Duluth, MN psychiatric ward. One of my best friends from high school also struggled with mental illness in his teenage years. Mental illness was always in the background of my hometown as many residents dedicated their working lives to taking care of the severely developmentally disabled and severely mentally ill at one of the state’s mental hospitals. For me, mental illness did not become a personal issue until the spring of 2000.


While I was a graduate student at Purdue University during the spring of 2000, I went to see an endocrinologist about a relatively minor thyroid condition. I told the doctor that I had been suffering from insomnia. I recounted one night where I was tossing and turning and images kept rapidly flashing in my mind and it felt like a bolt of electricity had zapped across the middle of my brain. I felt restless and very anxious about teaching. My father was dying and I was ending a three-year relationship. My doctor thought that I was possibly just under a lot of stress and so she gave me a sample of the anti-depressant Paxil.

I really hated the idea of trying an anti-depressant, but I gave Paxil a try anyway. After being on Paxil for a week or so, my mind started racing really fast. I was unable to concentrate on anything for very long. I was teaching one day and my students could not understand me because I was speaking so rapidly and incoherently. I had to sit down because I was getting very dizzy and it felt like my head was literally going to fall off. Some of my students graciously asked me if there was anything they could do for me, and so one of them went to get me a glass of water. A lot of noise or static was infiltrating my brain. My emotions were often volatile; I could be listening to someone in class who would say something that was not too humorous but I would laugh uproariously to no end and then my mood could quickly downshift to a low point and I would cry like a little child seemingly for no reason. Going without sleep for days finally caught up with me. I felt like I could not settle down no matter how much I exercised or tried to relax. I wanted to climb the walls.


One night I went to the emergency room, and the doctor thought I was dealing only with anxiety, so he gave me some Xanax and let me go. It was not until my second trip to the ER on the same night that I finally told the doctor to send me somewhere for an evaluation because I did not know what was going on. So after asking me what I was studying, the doctor had an ambulance drive me over to a psychiatric ward in the middle of the night through a severe Indiana thunderstorm.

 

The in-take technician at the psychiatric ward asked me several questions. And I answered them in a way that kind of revealed that I had been self-diagnosing myself with bipolar disorder, but I also was not sure if I was schizophrenic. I told the technician that I usually felt more down in the fall and the winter and more euphoric and high in the spring and summer. Soon in the morning, I was escorted into an office where a slender Palestinian psychiatrist looked over my in-take papers, asked me a few questions, and then quickly diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. With great professional urgency, he asked me, “Why haven’t you gotten any help if you have been having symptoms for several years?” I replied with something like “Well, my family always thought that getting psychological help reveals some kind of weakness.” The doctor prescribed for me 10 mg of the anti-manic agent Zyprexa, and so I left his office and joined the other patients in the lounge area.


This psychiatric ward had a fairly regimented schedule. In the morning after breakfast, the occupational therapists led some physical exercises and all of the nurses and patients had a meeting together about setting personal goals for recovery and assigning chores such as cleaning up the lounge or arts and crafts area. Then we would go into the activity room for some word games before lunch. After lunch the director of the ward held a group therapy session, after therapy came arts and crafts followed by free time until dinner. In the evening, the patients hung out in the lounge and played cards, dice, and scrabble.

One evening I sat down next to a well mannered, genteel woman in her eighties who was in for depression. I soon discovered that she had spent much of her life living in Minnesota on the Iron Range. Her late husband had been a surgeon in Hibbing, MN and she had been a drama teacher. She told me she recovered from alcoholism at a hospital in Duluth, MN. She grew up around New York City and was the daughter of a long forgotten popular early to mid twentieth century author. She recalled meeting Sinclair Lewis at one of her father’s literary parties. When I told her I had grown up near Moose Lake, MN, she seemed kind of sad because it brought back memories of one of her sons who had come home from prep school out East one year with such a severe manic episode that he did not recognize his own mother. She said that she and her husband had no choice but to send him to the state hospital in Moose Lake. At the time I was in the ward, she told me her son was living on his own and working at a hotel in the Twin Cities.

 

A twentyish female patient charged into the lounge one evening and declared that she was a Jehovah’s Witness. She was wearing a green velvet bunny suit, was sucking on a pacifier, and was clutching a teddy bear. Many of the patients were climbing the walls because they could not smoke, so they were sucking on nicorette inhalers. During one occupational therapy session, I sat across from this fortyish man with dark curly hair and a beard whose wife always brought him clean suits to wear on the ward instead of the hospital scrubs that many of the patients wore. I learned that he had ADHD and bipolar disorder and had gotten in trouble with the law in Kentucky and, despite this, worked the assembly line at a local truck trailer manufacturing plant. He kind of gave me grief for having to pay taxes to support Purdue University. A quiet short gray-haired guy in his 50s kept asking me if I would like to run for mayor in his hometown of Crawfordsville, IN. And this middle-aged woman was always concerned that she would not be able to finish her surgical technology degree at the local community college unless she got better soon. She also told me how her son had fallen in love with Burlington, VT and wanted to attend the University of Vermont there.

 

Before bedtime on the ward, the nurses dispensed the medications. So now I was going to see if this new drug called Zyprexa would help alleviate my symptoms. With the exception of lithium, all of the other drugs used to treat bipolar disorder are not uniquely designed to diminish the symptoms of bipolar disorder. So doctors must rely on anti-seizure drugs, anti-depressants, and drugs for schizophrenia that have been scientifically shown to improve bipolar disorder too. Zyprexa acts like a horse tranquilizer, quickly stopping mania in its tracks for many patients. Soon after taking the pill, I felt like a kaleidoscope was in my mind flashing images that went from being rapid to slow and finally even disappearing. Within an hour, I was very sleepy and probably slept better than I had in months. The next morning I was very groggy and probably felt like I had had a hangover from the medication. The extreme sedation gradually wore off as my body adjusted to the drug. Zyprexa also stimulates your appetite and can make you feel hungry all the time no matter how much you eat. So the nurses warned me to control my hunger pains and exercise unless I wanted to gain lots of weight.

 

Since I did not tell anybody that I was in the hospital, I did not get any visitors during our free hours. So I decided to call my parents. I was dreading calling them because my father was dying of kidney failure, and I did not want to upset them. But I felt I had no choice but to break the news. When I told my father about my diagnosis, he did not believe me and told me I was perfectly okay. It was like no son of his was ever going to be mentally ill. After I got off the phone, I was devastated by my father’s lack of support. I talked to a social worker and told her about the problem with my father and she said she would be more than willing to call my family and talk to them about it. After thinking about it, I decided that I would send my parents a book on bipolar disorder and explain to them that I had a chronic brain disorder that caused severe fluctuations in moods from the highest peaks to the lowest valleys. I was not crazy; I was just more emotionally vulnerable and volatile.

 

After about one week, my doctor released me from the hospital. One of the nurses from the ward escorted me to the main exit and told me in her west-central rural Indiana twang that: “I hope the next time we see you is in Wal-Mart.” And back out into the real world I was with a new way to understand and interpret my thoughts and emotions, unaware that I would return to the hospital two more times in the near future.

 

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