Loosening the Grip of Mental Illness
Five years ago, just as I was expecting to put my life in gear, I slipped out of touch with reality. I had just graduated college in Washington, D.C., published an account of my long struggle with an eating disorder and returned to San Diego, California—the place where my battle with anorexia began. I was staying with my dad, who was dividing his time between San Diego and Bethesda, MD, where my mom lived.
My dreams of seeing my book, “Sick,
” turn into a Hollywood film never panned out. Instead, I experienced troubling hallucinations over the crushes I’d fictionalized in my memoir. When they didn’t respond to my advances, I obsessed over healing treatments like Epsom salt floating, colon hydrotherapy, massage therapy and saunas to make myself more spiritually pure and more wanted.
My behavior revealed all the classic symptoms of psychosis. I withdrew into a world of my own in which I felt surrounded by threats. I lashed out at family and friends on social media. At home, I insisted that my dad take down mirrors, paintings and artwork. I also asked him to fire the cleaning people, whom I accused of stealing. At the same time, I restricted my eating and lost weight.
My worsening condition went unchecked because my dad didn’t know how to get me help. I was an adult in my mid-20s with a long history of rejecting therapists and Western medicine. If I didn’t agree to treatment voluntarily, I could only be forced to go if I posed a threat to myself or those around me. My dad couldn’t bring himself to commit me against my will to a hospital. Instead, he tried to connect with me on my terms—running out to buy me food and accompanying me on long, silent walks on the beach.
The crisis that was building in San Diego broke in Bethesda in the fall of 2015. My mom talked me into returning to Washington to regroup. Within a day or two of my arrival, I couldn’t stop taking enemas and drinking sparkling water. My parents found me in the middle of the night mumbling and incoherent in my bedroom.
My dad called 911, bringing a crisis team to our front door. When I agreed to go to the hospital, the police followed their protocol and drove me to the emergency room in handcuffs. The doctors said that the changes in my body chemistry due to overdosing on water could have killed me. My mom held me as I suffered a seizure before being wheeled up to the intensive care unit.
This catastrophe led to the diagnosis that I had psychosis in addition to my eating disorder. I experienced two eight-week hospitalizations to stabilize my weight. I measured up in pounds, but my well-being did not improve. Rejecting outpatient support, I decided to go off the meds.
My psychosis got deeper than ever by the fall of 2017. I stopped communicating with my parents except via sticky notes. Then I called the police to report that I felt unsafe living at home. This episode led my parents to call a professional interventionist, who packed me up, and took me to a treatment center in South Florida.
A Different Approach
I had to lose complete control in order to confront my demons and regain my life. I resisted in the beginning and was hospitalized yet again. But the treatment center won me over with an approach that put the primary focus on managing my psychosis rather than measuring my eating and weight. This strategy was so different from anything I’d ever experienced, and it worked.
Loosening the grip of mental illness took a full year. No one flipped a switch. The transition from the world inside my head to the world outside was not only difficult but also fragile. Each step forward—from full-time residential treatment to a supervised transitional living to outpatient care—triggered fears, doubts and setbacks.
But three powerful forces kept me on the path toward recovery:
I overcame my deep suspicion of meds because I felt them work. The antipsychotic drug that I didn’t want to take silenced the voices in my head and balanced my emotional state. It took time to find the right mix since I also had to be treated for anxiety and depression. But in the end, I was able to step up and take responsibility for staying on my meds because I knew they were making a difference.
Connecting with the treatment staff
. I was able to bond with a psychiatrist and several therapists for the first time because they treated me with respect. The psychiatrist bumped fists with me whenever I went to his office. My residential therapist walked for hours with me as I talked through my most personal thoughts. He was instrumental in helping repair my relationship with my advisor so that I could complete my master’s degree. My family therapist also helped me realize how incredibly supportive my parents had been throughout my years of illness.
Interacting with peers
. The treatment center filled many of my days and evenings with support groups, some of which were with other clients and others community-based. These sessions helped me break down the barriers that had isolated me for years. Little by little, I was able to share my true feelings, get valuable feedback and loosen up my rigid standards. Listening to and reading about other people’s stories, I came to understand that I was never alone.
Loosening the grip of psychosis has made me much more willing to accept and manage my illness. Today, I write about the dark places to avoid them in the future. I also write to break the stigma of psychosis and anorexia. Because of my treatment, I’ve made the cause of mental wellness a lifestyle, and that is something I’m very grateful for.
Laura Susanne Yochelson is a summa cum laude graduate of American University and recently received a Master of Science in health promotion management. Recently, Laura spent a life-changing year in mental health treatment. She has written about her recovery experience in the blogs of Lifeskills South Florida, NAMI and The AU Eagle.
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