Posted by: Jim Laurie | November 29, 2010

Was I Ever Really Down and Blue?

How did eight mental health care professionals mix it up and diagnose me incorrectly for more than a decade of my battle with mental illness?

In retrospect, it was easy. And boy, did it mess me up from age eighteen until I turned thirty years old. “I’d like to thank to each and every one of my doctors for screwing up,” I told an audience of mental health care professionals a while back – – jokingly of course. After all, that was fair. I played a huge part in my diagnosis and my treatment and I was responsible for the misdiagnosis, too. I wasn’t really giving any of these doctors the “complete picture” – – I misreported my symptoms, my activities and generally my behavior when I wasn’t depressed. I left out a complete “side” of my mental illness.

I couldn’t sleep for nights on end, my brain felt like their were “thought” colliding in them, I obsessed on small details from saving pennies and polishing each one of them to washing my clothing over and over in the washing machine and then there were days I was so exhausted that I slept for fifteen and sixteen hours and just felt like I had a case of the “blahs.” But mostly I told my doctor about sleeping long hours and the fatigue associated with it.

Depression, you’re suffering from depression, Andy,” my doctor told me the year before I went away to college when I was eighteen years old. “It’s common among many adolescents,” he assured me. “Thanks so much,” I thought. “Now I feel completely better,” I wanted to say. “I’ll just live with the depression and just see if it kills me or I kill myself first,” I thought to myself.

That was twenty four years ago. I didn’t really know what the diagnosis of depression meant but I certainly knew how it felt – – and it wasn’t very good to feel the way that I was feeling day in and day out. This was in 1980 and the doctor’s method of treatment was “talk therapy” – – sitting down once or twice a weeks and telling him about my week and how I felt. We’ll get you feeling better before you go off to college,” the good doctor told me. So I visited him twice a week (my mother drove me forty five minutes each way) and it was our secret that I was seeing a therapist.” I remember being hopeful that the “dark feelings” would go away, but they only got worse and worse. I felt like I was the only person on the planet with this “thing called depression” and I remember being frightened. I was “knocked out” and dopey and I cried all of the time. But I had some good moments, too. I felt on top of the world at times and felt invicible. But I never told my therapist about these feelings. I didn’t think those feelings had anything to do with my “condition” or his diagnosis of adolescent depression.

Therapy with the “good doctor,” as I liked to call him, was interrupted when it was time for me to leave the depression inducing suburbs of New Jersey and go away to college in the scenic countryside of Connecticut. I packed up for my freshman year and thought I would leave eighteen years of my feelings behind. But when I arrived on campus, I realized that they had followed me. Was the countryside making me feel worse or better? Worse. (So it wasn’t the suburbs after all!). I immediately sought out help from the mental health program on the campus of my university. The next week I had an appointment with one of the mental health center’s therapists. I was “assigned” to a very young therapist, an attractive woman in her early thirties. She performed a very thorough intake on me during the first session and remained particularly quiet while I answered her questions and provided me with almost no information for a few sessions as far as a diagnosis. Soon she announced some shocking news: I was suffering from adolescent depression. I couldn’t believe that this diagnosis took four or five sessions. We went on to talk about my depression twice a week for my four years at college – – quite a bit of talk therapy. We mostly discussed my childhood and my fears and frustrations. And I remember that we talked quite a bit about my colorful dreams which I kept in a notebook. I had vivid memories of drowning every other night and being chased in the subway every other. Not much more. They were quiet sessions. Since it was the early eighties, what else was there to do for my “depression?” Nobody talked about medication. I suppose talking was the best thing to do for me at the time.

I remember my frustration at making no headway. I also remember my slipping into a darker world – – one of staying up all night (or sometimes a few nights in a row), sleeping for days and being unable to get out of bed, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, sexual promiscuity and overspending. I didn’t speak about all of these symptoms to my therapist and my diagnosis remained: “depression.” I remember it on my invoices which I had to give to my parents every month so that the doctor could be paid her $45 per session.

After graduation in June of 1984, I moved to Manhattan. My first stop was a psychiatrist, who in less than our first fifty minute session again diagnosed me with depression. I remember thinking, “this is great, this diagnosis and label, but can anybody do anything for me and am I ever going to get better?” If you’re familiar with my story – – “Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania,” a chronicle of my battle with mental illness, you’ll know that I continued to see doctors throughout the decade, continued to be misdiagnosed, experimented with medications, got into lots of legal and financial trouble and finally had electroshock therapy and was hospitalized until I finally was stabilized in 1999. And just a note: that’s 20 years of therapists, misdiagnoses, medication experimentation and hopelessness.

In total, I was diagnosed with depression by eight psychotherapists and psychiatrists over a period of thirteen years. Diagnosed wrong. Absolutely wrong. My accurate diagnosis was manic depression or what we call bipolar disorder today. I suffered from rapid cycling manic depression – – it was a roller coaster of euphoric highs and desperate lows – – each morning I would wake up and be surprised by my mood. Some days, I would jump out of bed with a bang (if I had even gone to sleep the night before!), get dressed, drink a few beers, hail a taxi to the airport and choose a destination once I got there – – Acapulco, London, the Caribbean or maybe something just “kind of bland,” like Los Angeles. Those were the highs. But during the lows, I’d sleep for days on end, barely eat and just stay inside my apartment in Manhattan in total darkness. This was the “depression” of my manic depression and it was horrible. These were the days that I prayed for my manic episodes to return, but they didn’t. So, I waited it out until I’d either come to an even keel or “slip” again into an episode.

Almost a decade later, after so much experimentation with medication and finally finding the right combination of drugs, my condition has been stabilized for almost five years. Not that my medication regimen hasn’t been “tweaked” in the last five years – – “we’ve” played with it quite a few times, just to get it perfect. But now the manic episodes have stopped and there’s no depression. I’m leaving an even-keeled life and don’t experience the tremendous “ups” and “downs” of my illness.

In retrospect, there are so many things that I would have done over. I would have spoken more openly and honestly to my doctors about my symptoms. After all, I only sought out mental health care when I was depressed (why would you go see a doctor when you were high and feeling good?). But I still feel comfortable saying that I wish my doctors had asked more questions and moved past the diagnosis of depression when they realized treatment wasn’t working, because it wasn’t working for a reason: misdiagnosis. And I would have read more information about mental illness. I didn’t. I knew very little about my own condition and could have benefited from other people’s accounts of their battles, which is what motivated me to write “Electroboy.”

I don’t wish depression or manic depression on anyone. However, at times I feel somewhat fortunate to have been through some of my experiences, as they gave my life tremendous perspective that I probably would never have seen. But those out of control highs and raging lows – – I never want to go back there again. And I’m hopeful I won’t.

Andy Behrman is the author of “Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania,” a chronicle of his battle with manic depression (bipolar disorder) and maintains a website at The film version of “Electroboy” will go into production in the Fall with Tobey Maguire. He is currently working on the sequel to “Electroboy” and travels across the U.S. and Canada speaking about mental health.



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