Friday, May 1, 2015

Abilified: My mental health journey

My father, for as long as I’ve known him, has been one to make up his own song lyrics, or create nonsense noise to entertain himself. I once listened from another room, in hilarity and wonderment, as the man in his sixties meowed an entire made up tune, completely absorbed in his own amusement.

When his children were small, Dad used our juvenility to his advantage, getting us to join in on the singing of silly songs. Driving to preschool, he and I would improvise verses to the song from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, “There are many ways to say I love you.”

"There's the TICKLING way to say I love you," we would sing, followed by a squeal from me as he reached back to my car seat to poke a wiggling finger in my rib cage.

When Fred Rogers died in 2003, the news was slipped to me after school.

I gasped, and my mom’s eyes darted to catch mine, as she screwed up her face in sympathy.

“We didn’t tell you earlier,” she said. “We thought it might ruin your day.”

It’s always been obvious that I inherited my father’s silliness, his outgoing nature, his patience with the eccentricities of others. It would be one of the things that would draw people to me as I grew older, allow me to lead the pack in uncomfortable situations, easing tensions.

It would also be the thing that would mask the deep, ongoing struggles of cynicism and darkness of my twenties, making it that much harder for people to believe that I had a real problem.


When depression first crept into my life, I didn’t recognize it as such, perhaps because I assumed that ugly label, “depression,” was reserved for another crowd. Reading a (not particularly moving) novel during my senior year in high school, I noticed it strange that I had to set it down, for the tears suddenly coming out of my eyes.

It was my second year in a new school, and I found myself feeling more like it was my very first day, every day. I had few friends, and loneliness and cynicism were creeping into my bloodstream. As the solitary crying became a pattern, the fear of what was happening to me became too much, and I gave my tears an audience. My dad held me as I wept, unable to express words at what I was feeling. I would always be his baby girl, but this was too literal a translation, an oversized, 17-year-old baby in her father’s lap.

My parents gave me practical suggestions: Maybe join a club. Why not attend a football game? But I wasn’t brave enough to blaze a social trail, when I felt like my classmates weren’t eagerly waiting to greet me.

In reaching out to my parents, I abated my woe of being in total seclusion, but the stress and wear of feeling like a perpetual new kid in school continued to rag my edges. Within months, I developed painful skin lesions that the doctors ultimately deemed anomalistic, but which I am convinced were the result of extreme and continuous emotional stress.

When granted a clean bill of health, I marched back to my previously dreaded school counting my blessings and the friends I did have, even if previously I considered them acquaintances. I realized college was just over the horizon, and set out to make the best of the end of the academic year.

With pluck, I maneuvered my way through potentially disheartening situations. Having no one to ask to the Sadie Hawkins dance, I took my brother with me. I ignored the fact that I didn’t have enough close male friends to ask even one to go with me, and focused instead on the humor of my solution. We took a photo at home before leaving for the event; in it, my brother pretended to scowl, disgusted at the prospect of having to take his sister to a dance.

All this daring resolve would make me stronger, but it built deeply ingrained defense mechanisms, creating a sometimes nasty crust around me, which I am still trying to shove off.


The summer between high school and college was treacherous, as I began to doubt my lifelong Christian faith for the first time in my life. As if the depression and cynicism of the previous year weren’t enough, now my trust in a loving heavenly Father figure started to fall from beneath my feet, sending me into a tailspin of terror.

Unable to shoulder all the worry on my own, I reluctantly reached out to some youth mentors at church to let – limited – air out of my anxious wheels running on overdrive, on overthink. My youth minister came over unannounced, likely afraid that I might harm myself, to talk. I told her about some of my feelings of guilt, how I didn’t know where to direct my help for others.

I had registered as a social work major, but that didn’t feel like enough. My parents were looking to buy four and five bedroom houses, and I wondered why we had so much while so many elsewhere in the world had nothing. I went along on these real estate outings, though inwardly protesting the purchase, because I was too uncomfortable to stay home alone, with my own troubled head.

I braced myself for homesickness at college, but raced to that new place, ready to run from the scary thoughts I accustomed with home.

The coed life proved to be a welcome, shining light. I had grown used to moving cross-country for my father’s job while growing up, so making new friends was a breeze in the bustle of dormitory life. The homesickness I expected never met me, and for the first time in my life, I was…popular? Baffled, I started to question who I was, given so many years of feeling like my confident personality had to remain shrouded.

I hated schoolwork at times, thanks to my endemic procrastination, but giggled with girlfriends, gossiped about crushes, and buzzed through a quick four years from one cup of coffee to the next.
As senior year edged near, the bubble of my college campus began to wear thin. The soap started to slip toward the bottom of the sphere, threatening to pop the cocoon that had protected me for three years.

When, in the summer of 2006, people started to joke about June 6 (06-06-06) being the possible end of the world, it frightened me more than it should have, in my fragile state. With talk on the news of global warming, and some circles making apocalyptic parallels to inclement weather, I became superstitious and paranoid.

The date passed, and the world did not end, but panic lived on in me. I kept all of it to myself, feeling physically rigid, as if no comfort were around any corner, no matter how many I turned. It helped to have my friends near as I returned to school, but underneath the surface, I was continuing to secretly change, becoming more fearful, more uncertain, more uncomfortable.

I started to worry about my every move. I worried about where people went after they died. I worried about my own eternal fate, and grew tic-like in the silent prayers I uttered half-heartedly throughout each day, hoping somehow I was fending off the devil and what dark things he might be trying to wreak on my heart.

I didn’t know my role, anywhere, except perhaps as student-toward-diploma, and every step I took was riddled with uncertainty.

Somehow amidst my burgeoning madness I told myself, with graduation weeks away, that I would not become depressed when school ended. I was convinced I would be fine emotionally, as if my resolve not to feel down were enough.

I did OK for a while at my plan, though I spent my evenings after work becoming more internal, brooding for a light and airy life missed. The bathtub became my new hangout, where I would draw a hot tap and steam in the soupy water several nights after work, and even during the Super Bowl, an event that until then I never would have missed.

Depression was continuing in my life, unrecognized, unlabeled, undiagnosed. I simply thought I was riding the freedom wave of being able to do what I wanted with my time, after years of slaving over assigned essays and readings.

By the time spring rolled around, a new kind of thought had started to enter my mind.

Out of nowhere, I would think nasty phrases that would never actually escape my lips, even if incensed to the point of justifiably doing so. For no reason, I would think things like “Rot in hell” toward people who encountered my path. I couldn’t help but have these thoughts. They didn’t match the sentiments of my heart, yet they kept popping up.

And they scared the hell out of me. I legitimately wondered if I was possessed by a demon – at times it seemed the only logical explanation for such inexplicable thought patterns.

As time went on, the thoughts got worse. I would think, “Well, these thoughts are horrible, but at least I haven’t had any of them directed toward my best friends, or my family.” Then, in thinking such, I would automatically think an uncharacteristic thought toward one of those people, furthering me into my self hatred, confusion, and fear of this faceless, uninvited monster inside me.

After several months answering phones as a receptionist, the lack of a challenge reached its unbearable limit inside me, and I submitted myself to a social work master’s program the day the application was due.

Already victim to unwanted thoughts of hatred and harm toward others (I would come to find, years later in therapy, that these are known as “intrusive thoughts” and are quite common), studying social work proved to be fuel on my terrified fire. The last place I needed to be on Monday mornings was in a classroom where bleeding hearts shared stories of clients and their burdened lives.

One day in particular, when suicide was the focus of discussion in class, I fled home in a panic. I walked in the door in tears, nearly hyperventilating. My brother held me while his wife got me a glass of water, and I sat down and told them between heaving breaths what had happened, how I couldn’t bear to listen to the stories being shared at school. What I didn’t tell them was that I had run that day not because I simply felt bad for the people who had lost their lives and those left behind; I had reached a new level of darkness, that made the possibility of ending things no longer unfeasible.


At the suggestion of my brother, I started attending therapy. The night before my first session, I found myself crying in my dad’s lap, like an instant replay of my 17-year-old life.

I wept, trying not to swallow that this was my reality – as if therapy were the worst thing that could happen to me. I would later think that being diagnosed with bipolar disorder would be the worst thing, or that acting on one of my violent impulses would be the worst thing. I could cause myself to worry about anything. It was the ultimate game of one-upmanship with myself, and I was trapped in it, like Jumanji.

My therapy sessions brought up more than I was ready to think about, and I hated sitting there talking about things that scared me, hated being the one needing help. Sometimes I hated my therapist, because I didn’t want to want help, and she was help.

After a few sessions, she suggested I consider anti-depressant medications. With her encouragement and the nudging from a sibling who had taken similar drugs, I made an appointment with an MD and started on an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor).

In a short while I could eat again, finishing a whole meal in one sitting for the first time in several weeks. In a few more, my sleep improved. I could breathe through a day, not feeling like the world was a terribly miserable place. I could enjoy trivial activities, like movies and bowling, without overthinking them, questioning our existentiality and why we would bother with things like bowling.


Even with therapy and drugs, things weren’t all swimming. Alone with my mom one evening, and so distraught I could see no way out, I witnessed a woman who could once comfort any hurt in her daughter at a loss for how to soothe her offspring. She called my brother for help.

I sat on the kitchen floor, the landline phone clutched to my ear, and he prayed for me as I cried, so unable to escape my despair.


As the end of my social work semester neared, my brother helped moderate a discussion between me and my parents, explaining why it was OK for me to leave the program. We wrote pros and cons on a paper plate, and agreed that I would take community college classes to defer my undergraduate loans while I looked for a job instead of continuing the program.


I’m lucky to say I laughed a lot in my twenties. I took vacations, kept friends close, danced, bonded with coworkers. But when I look back on the decade, I view it primarily as a battlefield.

Moods could never be predicted. Tears were restorative, but too close at hand on too many occasions to set me at ease amidst the cathartic release. Moments of elation became less enjoyable, as I lived through them with a dread of the crash that would always, always, follow the day after.

I learned all the best habits – eating right, sleeping on a schedule, holding down a regular job, socializing when I didn’t want to socialize. Running became a nearly obsessive hobby, chasing endorphins to maintain my tenuous sanity.

But the running couldn’t combat the insomnia, the schedules couldn’t stop the mania. My view on the world was still dark, my snap judgments of people laced almost entirely with jealousy.

When I was happy, I was too happy. It was like a hyper lever had been turned to turbocharge and couldn’t be lessened in intensity. When it was switched back, everything went to black, like a carnival ride immediately silenced and darkened, from full motion to depravity.

Phone calls to family were routine; calls of miserable, can’t-shake-the-cynicism tears.

After a blizzard that kept me housebound for several days, I told my brother: “I can’t get a positive thought into my brain.”

I tried my damnedest to practice all my good habits. I discovered writing as a release, and started a blog. I continued therapy, continued popping a pill every day.

All of these actions helped, but I was powerless to the battle raging inside me. I didn’t trust myself to feel any which way, except overly excited or completely in the trenches. When I was somewhere in between, I was never content or even simply bored; a general anxiousness pulsed through me, like the buzz of fluorescent lights in a disconcerting basement.

I tried to relay this to my family and friends. I could sense them growing tired of my phone calls, which caused me to dial less often and in turn grow more fearful. I would scroll through the contacts in my phone, picking the person who might side with me more in a given moment, then reluctantly select one, knowing that I might fall off the edge if I didn’t call someone.

It scared me that no one else seemed to be scared. Everyone believed in me too much. Their solutions were always well-advised, but seemingly too simple for my escalated moments – suggestions of a walk outside, coffee with a friend, a church event. These things helped, yes, but I couldn’t handle the cycle. The supports in my life were looking at moments, and I was looking at my life. Not generally a “big picture” thinker, I couldn’t help but notice my thoughts sometimes veering toward my future with the “S” word, suicide, as the great premature end to my life.

I shoved these thoughts aside with activity, writing, phone call after mindless phone call, to some avail.
At 27, I moved to Los Angeles, to start an internship in my new field (miraculously, I had managed to get into and complete a master’s program in journalism). Once my internship ended, I “made it” in the big city, in the sense that I was pushing paperwork and able to pay my bills.

But the tearful phone calls continued, the constant underlying worry that feeling good now didn’t guarantee feeling good tomorrow, let alone in a few hours. Family and friends occasionally urged me to move back “home,” thinking a familiar landscape would help me, but I knew my battles would follow me no matter where I traveled.

After two years in the city, I met with a psychiatrist to discuss my medications. I told her about my up and down moods, and she suggested a mood stabilizer to pair with my SSRI. I explained my fears about getting on another drug, perhaps being on it indefinitely, but said that ultimately I wanted to feel more stable. Enough was enough.

She put me on a new drug, and within a week I became tearful and despairing. I thought these things were par for the course – I had been in such a state hundreds of times before, so it didn’t occur to me that the drug might be to blame.

And I certainly didn’t want to play trial and error with my meds. I had been through enough, and for crying out loud, shouldn’t a doctor know how to get it right on the first try? With the complicated chemistry of each individual person, the answer to this is unfortunately no. It is one of the most unfair battles heaped on top of the battle with depression itself, salt in the wound.

Feeling uneasy at home alone, I called a dear friend. She immediately invited me over for a sleepover. We drank cocktails, played Pictionary, laughed and talked late into the night. I felt fine. The next day as I was leaving, I became overly stressed out about my job, and as I tried to walk out the door, I wept instead, for several minutes.

I got home and, in an attempt to eat well, started chopping a cucumber.

As tears suddenly streamed once again, the cucumber became blurry. With more force than ever before, I became almost convinced my life would end in suicide. I didn’t think I would kill myself right then – though knife was in hand – nor that week, or month, or year even. But I finally got scared enough that I called the doctor. It was a weekend, so I was directed to the 24 hour hotline. I promised the person who took my call that I would alert some local friends of my delicate situation, asking them to keep their phones on all night.

I called my parents and emailed my family, blood and otherwise, to bring them in the loop.

I felt simultaneously better and worse. Better for not keeping it to myself – I will never cease to be amazed at the power of saying words aloud – though feeling instantly like a different person. In saying the “S” word, finally, to anyone, I had transformed. I was in a new class, and though enveloped with support, I felt the stigma. I felt myself at once separate from those supporting me.

The next day I stepped out of work several times to talk to my psychiatrist’s nurse, and she told me to stop the new drug she had me on immediately. She put me on Abilify, something I had seen in commercials for years.

In a matter of weeks, I was able to send an email to my main support network. It read: “I just got really excited about the parmesan cheese on my spaghetti. I think the Abilify is working.”

Over weeks to come, Abilify, paired with the SSRI I had been on for years, would come to make my moods the most stable they had been since they were more or less naturally during my early teen years. I call it my miracle drug.


On August 11, 2014, my phone rang.

“Are you calling about Robin?” I answered. 

“I’m so sorry,” Mom said. “I know what he meant to you.”

Beloved comedian, troubled for years with alcoholism and silent depression, Robin Williams had asphyxiated himself in his home. I had just read the New York Times headline.

As a child, Robin was my favorite. I watched “Mrs. Doubtfire” over and over. I saw several of his movies in theaters, then later collected them on VHS tape. Inspired by his antics, I told people I wanted to be a comedienne.

After talking about “Mork and Mindy” and “Hook” with my mom, she turned the phone over to my dad, to discuss the real reason they were calling.

Dad made small talk of Robin’s great works for only a minute. He then reminded me that if I ever felt like I was leaning toward the deep end, to make sure that I reached out. For the first time in years, though sobered by the news and smacked once again by the realization that depression and suicide are never removed from our world, I was able to say with some confidence that I would. More so, I felt I wouldn’t have to make the call, as I could feel a stabilization in me that I had craved for years. I mourned that Robin couldn’t feel the same, but I rejoiced in my newfound steadiness.

Some friends came to visit me in LA, and we spent an entire weekend running around the city. Usually such a rush of constant activity would have me on edge, wanting time to myself, to meditate, to zero in on my anxiety.

During my next med check with my psychiatrist, I told her that I was able to enjoy the whole weekend, not worrying about a crash that would follow its end.

“Less ruminating?” she asked me.

I nodded, in victory. All it took was two milligrams, a sea foam green tablet that could rest on the tip of my pinky finger.  

When Fred Rogers died, my parents hesitated to share the news. When Robin died, the phone rang almost immediately after the news was released. Seven years of phone calls, including one recent and particularly frightening one, had altered the way we all acted. We were forever changed. Some might say for the worse, but I’d argue it’s for the better. In admitting something very scary, but truthful, communication was opened in a way that hadn’t been there before.

For years, I felt like I was screaming at a soundproof wall. People in my life saw a together person, a person with a sensitive heart who occasionally got too withdrawn. All the while I felt more and more powerless, more scared of my future, more pushed down into silence. The help of those around me was well-meaning, but their fear for the worst made talking about it not a possibility. Once moved into conversation – and with the help of an awesome medication – healing was able to begin.

Saying the “S” word (in regards to oneself) is never something one wants to brave, but I’m grateful I was able to say it through a medium other than a suicide note. Ears were opened, and a wound was opened, making room for Abilify and new, fully honest conversations. Where before there was misguided communication, now there is peace. When I pick up the phone these days, it isn’t in scrambling desperation for a voice on the other end to catch me; I’m simply calling to chat.


  1. Thank you for sharing Bailey. You are a BRAVE & BEAUTIFUL person. Your words are very eloquent. I think this could help other people going through this struggle. I am so glad you are in a better place! LOVE YOU! MISS YOU!

    1. thanks, Sar Bear! love you too and so sad I missed you last time I was in C-town!! xoxo

    2. and thanks for fighting the good social worker fight for our society!!!

  2. Bailey- you have something here. I mean you really have something. so much to say here but think I will save it for a phone call this weekend. especially since I hate to text

    1. well i would love to catch up via phone!! :) :)

  3. Wow. I love you. I could have written half the blog about myself but mine has a different end.

  4. Glad I read through this you sure do know how to write well. I'm glad you found a medication that works well. When I moved out to LA way back in 2009 I started taking medication, this SSRI called Sertaline. I started taking it for anxiety since I had panic attacks but found out I had a bunch of depression backed up I didn't know about. In April last year I was having trouble switching my health insurance so I couldn't really get any refills, or maybe I could have had I really tried but I decided to try going off them. Luckily I've been alright, I can still get really emotional. And I guess luckily it's a very busy time in my life. I'm not sure what you're usual methods are for trying to get out of a slump, for me it's always been trying to find something to obsessively focus on, whether it's editing or a story or building stuff. I know when I was on meds it helped my lows and it also pulled down my highs, but it sounds like maybe you found something that's pulling you more towards and equilibrium while keeping your emotions working and not making ya a robot which is what mine felt like it was doing to me. I'm hoping it can continue to help and you can keep focused on making the best out of life out here!

    1. I used the wrong version of you're and now it's too late. I've shamed my family name.

    2. Thanks so much, Kev. Let's grab lunch sometime and talk more! :)

      Per the grammar issue: YOU'RE forgiven. See what I did there?

  5. Bailey....Bailey... Precious Bailey... Thank you for writing, for reaching out, for taking each step on this treacherous journey that life can be. This brings up so much I wish we could chat about til 3am (after watching the sound of music of course)... I just want you to know that even tho seasons/geog are not in our favor-- I. Hear. This. and I. See. YOU, beautiful you!

    1. Thanks so much, sweet Nance. Let's make a date to chat til 3 when I'm home next. <3