The following is an excerpt from Karen Hill's essay "On Being Crazy," featured in her novel Café Babanussa, posthumously published by HarperCollins Publishers, available on February 2nd, 2016.
I was so sure that they were going to kill me that night that my 18-year-old daughter insisted that I call her from my room on the psych ward throughout the night, every hour on the hour, so she could make sure I was okay. It was December 2008 and she was away doing her first year at university. She cajoled me through my fears and supported me with her love. Only that was supposed to be my job. How did the tables get turned like this?
They're pretending to be busy but they're watching me. I know that they even have cameras in the washrooms and the showers out on the floor, perverts!! Uh-huh! Today they're all wearing colours for the different guys I'm enamoured with, to show their support for one or the other. Purple, red, black, white. The guys, they're always yacking at me and arguing but I can barely hear them. What do they expect; they're all talking at once. Then they get mad 'cause I can't seem to respond to each one individually. I want us all to live together under one roof. Crazy me. The head doctors are constantly trying to hypnotize me with their eyes again. Drain the information out of me. Can't fight against it; they always win.
In my family, the incidence of mental health problems runs high. My mother and her twin sister are both bipolar. On my father's side, one of my aunts was bipolar and two of my cousins are schizophrenic. While some people dispute the idea that mental illness can be hereditary -- and I, too, believe in the importance of social and environmental causes -- you can nonetheless see that the odds were pretty high that someone else in my immediate family might get hit over the head with it, too. The only mitigating factor was that, having witnessed my mom in periods of illness, we already knew something about it and were well aware of the signs.
This first experience of psychosis with delusions and hallucinations was a surreal nightmare.
In 1979 I graduated from university and took off to Europe. Six months later I was 21 and living in Berlin. I was too busy living my adventure to worry about mental illness. I worked under the table cleaning houses, travelling whenever I could. After two years I married the young German man I was living with and got my work permit. I landed an excellent job at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. In the summer of 1984 the institute asked me to attend a conference in West Germany on my own as a member of the Betriebsrat, a kind of internal watchdog for the institute, with something like a union role. This conference brought together Betriebsraten members from across Germany, and it was an honour to be asked to represent my workplace.
My German was very good by then. But when I was wrangled into presenting complicated findings from the week's working meetings, I felt like the lamb led to slaughter. The pressure was intense, and I found myself not sleeping, walking the halls, then tossing and turning in bed and then up pacing again. Underlying all this was an increasingly unhappy relationship with my husband. I was a wreck by end of the week, not able to think straight, totally at a loss. I made a mishmash of presenting the group's findings in front of a crowd of 200 and then collapsed in a sobbing, ranting mess. Someone drove me the three-hour drive back to Berlin because I wasn't fit to get on a plane. From there on in I just got worse. A week later I was going to the doctor's office to get injections of an antipsychotic drug, Haldol, and about three weeks later I was an inmate at the Schlosspark hospital.
This first experience of psychosis with delusions and hallucinations was a surreal nightmare. Emotionally I was petrified -- and soon physically petrified as well, as the side effects of the medications slowed my reflexes and made me feel as if my body was slowly turning to stone. I met with the staff psychiatrist regularly. He was never arrogant or condescending, nor was he intrusive or threatening. Our meetings were always one-on-one, and we usually met in his office, unlike at the hospitals in Toronto when there is almost always a small group of doctors peering at you while you're sitting uncomfortably on your bed. Other meetings at hospitals here in Toronto sometimes took place in small conference rooms, and again there was always more than one doctor present and I always felt intimidated. When I told my psychiatrist in Berlin that I didn't want to go to group therapy, instead of badgering me, he immediately suggested I join a music program instead, and that worked wonders for me.
My brother Larry came to stay in Berlin for a few weeks as soon as he could get there. He saw me at my worst, before I was hospitalized. In November of 1984, my parents came over, and I remember our many walks on grey autumn afternoons through the palace grounds behind the hospital. In December of 1984, after two months and countless visits from friends, I was released. By February 1985, I was in a deep depression, and my brother Dan came to visit and took me swimming almost every day. By the end of his stay several weeks later, I was finally coming to, shaking off the vise of blackness that had me in its grip.
One of the most important pieces about this story is that the German doctors deliberately chose not to diagnose me with anything, despite knowing of my family history of mental illness. Instead, immediately upon my release they embarked upon a plan to have me weaned off the antipsychotics over the course of a year and a half. When I was completely off those drugs I wasn't on any other mood stabilizers or other medication. For the following thirteen years I was drug-free and incident-free.
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