Jeni's Story - Trigger Warning
My name is Jeni Fitts, I have schizophrenia/schizoaffective disorder (schizophrenia and bipolar mixed) and this is my survival story.
In mid 1994, at 19 years old, I had finished my first year of college. I'd been in a psychotic state for nearly a year, but no one was aware of it (especially not myself). It didn't exhibit itself externally, yet. I was someone who kept my own problems to myself, and I remember there were distractions of a similar nature since my mom was also sick with
agoraphobia, much of the focus was on her. For my parents, work was not going well.
They were part-owners in a medical supply store that made little money. My younger sister was in high school and off and about her own life.
I was in a hypomanic state for most of the first half of 1994 and into the summer. A religious delusion that I was especially chosen by God for great things came with the hypomania, and I took to fasting for prayer in a way that was not healthy or required by my religion. I didn't tell anyone. At the same time - paradoxically - I was also suffering from a
terrifying persecutory delusion started by the event that triggered the psychotic break. I was under a hellish amount of inner turmoil trying to reconcile two false realities at odds with each other as well as to keep what I thought was real from the rest of my family as I always had for as long as I can remember. It created a gargantuan amount of stress. As far as I
was aware, I appeared to be functioning as a "normal" person.
I started my sophomore year in August. I had an Astronomy class on a campus that wasn't close to home, so I had to drive quite a way. It was in that class in early October that the panic attacks began. I'd been late for the first and only time one day, and the professor was less than happy with it. That triggered the first attack. It was horrific. It was the first
outward symptom of mine that might be visible to others. I'd never been through this before, and it undermined my carefully crafted façade. I hoped it was a one-time thing, yet then they spread. They began happening anywhere at any time with no warning.
The hypomania that had been present for the first half of the year slipped away along with the religious delusions. All I had left were the persecutory delusions, primarily that my neighbors were targeting and wanting to hurt me, and as they got worse my anxiety skyrocketed. I said nothing, I was afraid to. I was also afraid not to say anything. I couldn't even agree with myself. I didn't want to admit to being anything less than fine, to myself or anyone. That was until one day a panic attack happened during church - the safest place I had aside from home - and I couldn't hide it any longer.
I asked my parents to leave, in tears. My dad was able to drive me back. After I'd been home, hiding in my room, my mom came home. My pride was defeated, and I admitted to my mom an hour later that I was having panic attacks. Since she had them too, I knew she would understand. I was assigned to a social worker from my family's insurance provider at first. I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. She then assigned a psychiatrist who at first put me only on Xanax. I dropped the Astronomy class, defeated, when after
several times of attempting to return, all I could get myself to do was sit in the campus parking lot. I just could not get out of that car. It was humiliating, I couldn't function as I used to. I felt horrible for the money that was wasted on school as well. Everything I planned for my life was disintegrating. It also went the same for my other classes. One by one, panic attacks came back during each of them in spite of the Xanax. After dropping out of those, my last remaining class was English Lit, my favorite. I somehow managed to stay to
the bitter end, but that was all I could handle. I dropped out of school entirely. It was a death to my pride and my future. I'd been a science major (Astronomy/Astrophysics), but not only was I failing math classes even when I was well, now I couldn't go to school at all. What was I going to become now that I couldn't do these things that anyone could do? I
couldn't even sit in class! What was going to happen to my life? My career? I had none anymore.
As a result, I fell into a deep existential depression. Most of the day I spent alone at home with my paranoid delusions, and as my psychiatrist realized I was getting worse, she put me on antidepressants, and an antipsychotic. Unfortunately, I was allergic to them. Several days after beginning them I suffered severely blurred vision, bizarre hallucinations, and extrapyramidal symptoms (some minor convulsions). My dad came home from work and stayed with me throughout the day it happened. No one we phoned at the hospital could tell us what the hell was going on. My psychiatrist was on vacation, conveniently. We tried to flush the drugs out with Gatorade, it didn't work, and due to the side effects of the meds, I couldn't even pee. Frighteningly, I was also unable to finish a sentence when attempting to
speak. At some points I was not fully conscious. We had no idea what was happening. By evening I'd stopped talking and couldn't stand up without help. My parents decided for me that I needed to go to the hospital. I wasn't getting better, I was getting worse.
I was taken to the ER late that night. They determined I had an acute dystonic reaction to my meds. Yet it took only 50 mg of Benadryl given intravenously around midnight to suddenly stop everything! I was incredibly relieved, and I could finally go home. But I could no longer take my meds, and had to throw them out. I was unmedicated. No antidepressants,
no antipsychotics. Just Xanax for anxiety. Nothing else.
By November 1994 the depression worsened. It got to the point where I could feel no emotion. Sometimes a sharp pain would break through and maybe I'd shed a tear, but for the most part, I felt nothing. The life I had planned for was gone, as I could do nothing apart from lay on the couch day after day. I no longer had any prospects. As everyone in the
house had either work or school, I was left alone. I didn't speak, I didn't move. I watched talk show after talk show on TV for 8 hours a day, usually in a blanket on the living room couch. Winter was on its way, and darkness grew very long, and it was usually overcast in daytime. No sun. I finally decided to follow my mom's advice and went to see her therapist one
evening. He was a nice man, but as he was still my mom's therapist he assigned me to a subordinate of his, a resident. I'll call this resident Dr. T.
The first few visits with Dr. T were good. I was able to talk about the incident that - harmless or not - had caused me to fall apart a year earlier. It had been a neighbor, and the offense had been of a crude, ambiguously sexual nature. It terrified me. It was definitely aimed at me. But that was all I'd admit to, I said nothing of the outlandish thoughts and
mistaken beliefs that it created. After that appointment, I fell into the position where every subsequent appointment I was less responsive, as careful as Dr. T was with me. I remember doing nothing but hiding behind my long hair and crying for
the entire hour over my loss of freedom and autonomy. There were almost no words, although Dr. T tried to get me to communicate. He asked if I was suicidal, and I would nod "yes", but didn't admit to having any plans. We had an agreement that I wouldn't follow through. What he didn't know is that I had recently stopped eating almost completely. This was not an eating disorder, it wasn't anorexia. I was killing myself, slowly, as I thought I deserved in my compromised mental state. I kept it to myself because I didn't want to be stopped. I lived on liquids (mainly coffee) and about half a cup of rice in the evenings so when my family was home they wouldn't know. By the time I turned 20 in December, I was at or just below 100 pounds, at 5 foot 3" tall. I'd originally been at 118.
Christmas Eve came. We had a surprise gift for my sister from her best friend at the time - a tiny six-week old puppy from her dog's new litter, a little Shih Tzu mix. My mom and I picked him up that evening in secret. He was so tiny he could fit inside my lap. Almost small enough to hold in one hand. When my sister and dad got back from Christmas Eve
services, we gave her the puppy, who she then named Mickey. I had no idea how much of a role he would serve in my recovery. But I hadn't reached rock bottom yet.
That didn't come for two more excruciating months. I was still losing weight and eating nearly nothing, but as time passed and boredom and pain started poking through the emotionlessness, I decided things were dragging on too long. By January 1995 I was close to about 83 pounds. I had some new medications prescribed, and my Xanax had been
replaced by Ativan, a longer-lasting drug, and more reliable as I still had many panic attacks. At this point, I had my first close call with death. One day, almost on a whim - but with the idea that I didn't care much whether I woke up or not (hopefully not) - I took
most of my Ativan along with some prescription medications my mom took and some other sedatives I could find. I swallowed them and went up to my room as I was home alone that day, and then lay down and fell asleep. Before darkness that evening, I woke up. My parents were still at work and my sister was out. My thoughts were slowed and
jumbled. I called my mom's work (although I didn't really know why), and asked for her.
The receptionist told my mom that my words were slurred. I don't remember what happened after that. The next day I found that all medications had been taken out of the kitchen pantry and hidden from me. My psychiatrist quickly put me on Prozac, which was a relatively new antidepressant at the time. I was told it would take up to two weeks to start working. Two weeks is too long, I thought, but I said nothing. I didn't want any more scrutiny
than I was already under. I kept denying suicidal plans to Dr. T if asked. Still determined, I kept refusing food.
As my sister was out most of the time after school while my parents were at work, I was left to take care of the new puppy, Mickey. He was wonderful. The sweetest little dog, he needed me. Me! This was something completely unexpected! The little guy had no idea who I was and didn't care that I was a failure. He would stand on his tiny back legs
and whimper for me to pick him up to lay with me on the couch. Such a sweet little dog who barely knew me had taken to me. He demanded to be played with. If I was sitting on the floor, he would grab my shirt in his tiny jaws and tug and tug until I gave him attention. He did that day after day. He would lie with me on the couch, steal my pillow. Where before I was alone with my agony, now he was with me all the time, needing to be near me, needing to sleep with me, needing me to play with him. I wasn't alone anymore. He was the little icepick taking chips out of the glacier I was frozen in. Still, I was crippled in that glacier, and intense self-hatred ate at me from inside like acid as nothing else changed.
While Mickey was chipping at it from the outside, I had begun to feel some emotions again. I realized I had always been depressed, I could remember most of my life having been in some type of pain. One high school psychology teacher taught that depression was "rage turned inward" and as far as I was concerned he was right. All my life had been rage
suppressed and deferred, not allowed. Even by my own self. Uncomfortably intense was the rage aimed at people who seemed to be aware I was in some sort of agony and yet neglected to help out - my youth pastor, the other students at church, friends at school who knew and could have done something but didn't. Instead I got kicked out of cliques
regularly. People could see that I wasn't normal, but strange behaviors I thought were obvious but may not have been obvious enough. Dressing in all black, intense anger, glowering at everyone, getting into big arguments at home, kicking holes in the wall, hiding in my room when I wasn't at school. Not speaking among my peers in high school, in church, at all. Did anyone notice?
Now it was February 1995. I managed to go to church a few times (I don't know how), but I saw some things changing with the people there. It was weird. They were actually noticing me and acting out of concern for the first time ever. The youth pastor I mentioned before, he actually started communicating in small ways. If the service had already started, and
he was passing by where I sat, I'd get an occasional attendance card dropped in my lap. He would usually write "I'm so happy to see you here today!" and then smile at me while he walked to the pulpit. I was flabbergasted. The last time I'd ever spoken with him had been when I was in junior high. I thought he had forgotten my existence years ago.
There were other people who started noticing too. One friend of my Dad's at church had also gone through a suicidal depression a year or so before - I'll call him H. H was also put on Prozac as I was, and despite having lost nearly everything due to a bankruptcy and other issues, he was better. He was a sweet, grandfatherly type. He would come up to
me after Sunday services and we'd talk about antidepressants (which I didn't much know about) and Prozac in particular.
It helped me. I felt like people were finally starting to care, even though I was still hoping to die. After every time we'd talk, he would give me a big, warm hug and always end by saying "We will get through this!" I felt so undeserving, but I was still grateful he was around.
In spite of it all, I was no better off. In some ways I felt worse because of it. They were tiny lights in a dark void of absence. I was still hellbent on death. I lost track of my weight. I could see all of my ribs. I still didn't eat. Just coffee and the smallest bit of rice for dinner, mainly to comfort my family that yes, I am indeed eating. Don't worry about me, I'm taking in food. They, for all their effort, were faultless regarding my condition at that point, and I hated that I was causing them to suffer. They were doing all they could. I knew my extended family was aware of my situation and worried about me. I was thankful my grandparents hadn't seen me and didn't know what I looked like now.
I was growing more intolerant of life, and began looking for faster ways to end everything. All I could see was death. I furtively eyed the knives in the kitchen, trying to assure myself. "The pain will be momentary, the freedom instant." The thoughts were intrusive and constant, and even as I wanted it, I was horrified at myself. "Is this really what it's come to?" The arguments I had for and against in my head were frenzied. "Starvation isn't working, find a faster way!" I was fortunate it was a Thursday when this all came to a head. Thursdays I saw Dr. T in the evening. In desperation I wrote a note to him. I was ashamed to do it, and I was fully aware it would mean I may have to be hospitalized (which terrified me), but I needed someone. He would be the only one who would know what to do. It was a short note. "There are two parts to me. One wants to live, the other wants to die. Right now, the one that wants to die is stronger. I don't know what to do, but I think that I will die."
I'd scribbled it out before anyone was home from school or work, and that evening at therapy said I needed to mention something. I handed over the note to Dr. T.
I asked him not to read it with me in the room (I felt so much shame it was unbearable). He left and read it and when he came back, asked if I had plans. I nodded yes. He asked "Can I bring your mom into the session now?" I nodded yes again. He explained to her that I was suicidal and worried I would actually follow through with it. My mom, unbelievably calm but probably horrified, spoke with him for a while. I don't remember
what was said even though I was there. But unexpectedly, they were calm about it. I don't remember anymore of that appointment except that I was still hiding behind my hair, my head down, the whole time. Then we drove home.
I had expected everyone to have a meltdown when we got there, or hysterics. Crying, shock. I was so scared they would think they'd all failed me and that I'd made it harder on them. Fortunately, that never happened, not in front of me. I was grateful. I knew it was painful news and I was terrified. I know my parents spoke and then after a while my mom came
to (very gently) tell me she had spoken to my sister about it because they felt she should know - with which I totally agreed. I'd kept my pain a secret over all these long years and to be honest it helped that now it was out and everyone was aware. I thought they had some idea of my intent because of the sudden, frightening weight loss, or the meds I'd
used to "sleep" the month before, but I couldn't have been sure.
I was allowed to remain at home, I think it had been decided it would be better for me that way. Hospitalization could make me worse, too much less in contact with reality given my horror of it. I don't remember anything until my next visit to Dr. T, and I remember being able to look at him in the face for the first time in several months. I remember feeling
something akin to slight happiness. If not happy, at least I felt relieved. It was like an infection which had festered for so long had finally been opened and the rot underneath was out.
It wasn't to be an easy recovery. At that meeting, Dr. T told me he would have to be leaving the next month. After all, he was a resident, and he had been offered a new job. I was devastated. He had a lot of guilt. It was decided that over the month I saw both doctors, Dr. T and his superior, Dr. P, who I'd first seen in November before. I was to transition over to
him. The last appointment in March that I had with Dr. T, he gave me an address where I could write to him for a short while. I did. He wrote a few letters back, and after this I never heard from him again. I stopped sending letters. Wherever he went, where he may be now, I hope life has been good to him. Regardless of how I hated him at times or what he did
to me my leaving at such a crucial time, it had spurred me to think one thing: I have nothing left now, but to live.
It was then that I began eating again. I decided not to go back to school. It was impossible, given my prognosis and my anxiety and panic disorders. I was still overwhelmed by an anxiety disorder and in a psychotic state, but I stuck to my decision to live.
To help me, my Dad, my sister and I would go out for fun. It was usually to book or music stores. We'd also taken to visiting coffeehouses wherever we could find them. I'd survived only on coffee for months but I hadn't stopped loving it. Eating was encouraged and I did - carefully. At this point I didn't want to shock my body with too much, although I did
indulge at any coffeehouse on anything with some chocolate on it. As for the music stores, I'd taken up an obsession with classical music after years of metal and grunge. My sister also introduced me to a lot of great music I'd missed out on while I was incapacitated.
I saw my new therapist Dr. P once a week. However, because of my extreme fearful reaction to him (I ended up rushing out of the office for minutes at a time every visit to stave away panic attacks) he decided I'd come twice a week but split the appointments in half so it would be easier on me. This lasted for fifteen more years until his early death in 2009 at age
54, which was for me profoundly painful. He'd by then become a great friend, a protective mentor and someone who saw me through many adverse times, as well as introducing me to my real self instead of the person I thought I was (and hated).
As the deathly oppression ended in mid 1995, I decided to take up art again, and make that my life's work.
My parents fully supported me, encouraged everything. Art has been one of my biggest coping mechanisms since, and it still helps me today. It wasn't all smooth sailing in the years between now and then. My little friend Mickey died in 2010. It broke my heart. I still have some of his fur, clipped the morning he was taken to the vet to go to sleep. I have lost many loved ones to death or distance, including my sister to both in 2014 of colon cancer. She was only 37. I still suffer from that loss. I always will.
I've also had good experiences. I've never had a best friend, but I met him in 2007, and I married him just last year. I never dreamed that would happen to me! This has been the best thing, by far. I've moved to be with him from the U.S., and I'm working toward citizenship here in Canada. I haven't regretted a minute, even though I get homesick sometimes.
For many, many reasons, I'm glad I didn't die that winter in 1995. I made it through. I know I have a lot of support from the few people I know closely. I hope for those that don't, who still think of death constantly, that a kind word from someone even in passing helps them to survive that day (or night). I can tell you it is worth it. It won't always feel the way
it feels for you right now. Things do change. There is always a way, even if it looks like failure at first. Whatever it takes, if you can make it through the next hour, and then the next, that's all you need to ever do. It's all I was able to do. I'm still here and I'm doing better, 24 years later. It does get better.