"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
November 21, 2014
Fighting the Good Fight against Symptoms (Part 1)
by Sarah Hancock

Last month, I was at a work meeting held at a church building. I knew I was the only person who was not only familiar with the building but who also held the key to let others in. Eight people RSVP’d, yet only four eager participants showed.

As I sat in that classroom, my boss giving the presentation on our free Family Support Specialist course, I kept seeing people out of the corner of my eye arrive, park and walk toward the building. Imagine my dread when after excusing myself for yet another time to let someone in the building, there was no one there waiting for me.

I say dread because a small part of me knew that I my symptoms flared. I want to face it.

It wasn’t until, while taking a Friday evening stroll down a deserted beach with my husband, that I realized things were off. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being watched. I worked hard to focus on the fine sand between my toes, the roll of the waves and my honey’s strong hand with its gentle grip.

There were moments during the walk where I would have sworn that someone was literally breathing down my neck. Logically I knew I wasn’t taking a walk with a child in a carrier, nor did I have someone duct taped to my shoulder.

I just had to remind myself to focus on that small flock of nocturnal birds my husband kept pointing out. In unison, they darted back in forth to avoid each stretching wave and then scurried as a mass after the retreating wave to find sand crabs.

All my energy and concentration focusing on that flock of birds still couldn’t shake the feeling that we were being watched by an attacker waiting to pounce on us as those birds pecked up the unsuspecting crabs. After shining my 300-lumen mental flashlight in all directions, lighting up many a beachfront mansion, it dawned on me, I was sick — a scary realization.

How could I have come this far — been healthy for so long — and suddenly have my world come crashing down around me? How could I stand by and just watch my miraculous life dissolve into psychosis and paranoia? How could I go back to the hospital?

The thought of going through the 12-year process of finding the right meds seemed to shoot me with an increasing amount of adrenaline. It was as though some secret part of my mind desperately fought to prove that not only was I was not sick, but I could keep the same pace and schedule to which I was already committed. I could continue to live my life normally. Anxiety gripped me.

Through the ensuing week I kept going to work, kept all my appointments, all my lecture assignments. I did it all. For Monday-Wednesday of that week, I did it well. But I did not stop and take the necessary time to care for myself, determined instead to prove to myself and others that I wasn’t sick.

Instead I watched from what seemed like the sidelines as my personal hygiene and sanity sank to depths that haven’t been approached in more than five years. It got to the point that I was wearing earplugs at work every day so that I could filter out the chatter, allowing myself to stop hearing the comments from others in the office about how my work was slipping.

When Friday finally arrived I snapped, and it all happened at work. I screamed. I cried. I blamed others. I was nauseated. I walked away from the office wondering if I had a job on Monday (my paranoia didn’t help). Gratefully I work for an employer who’s supportive to those of us who live with mental illness. (Working for the National Alliance on Mental Illness has many other, less obvious perks as well.)

Finally, I recognized that unless I took my foot off life’s gas pedal, the engine would keep revving without any coolant, cracking the engine block. I knew that I needed to sleep in order to stave off the mania. I just didn’t know how to fall asleep.

One can only stare at a snoring spouse for so long, feeling wide awake and unable to lie still. It felt like I had 20 years’ worth of caffeine products coursing through my veins. I lasted in bed for about three hours, fighting the urge to get up and clean my house, maybe scrub both bathrooms with a toothbrush and then take on the kitchen.

But I knew that if I got up out of that bed and followed my instinct, my house would be spotless but my mania would escalate.

My husband woke up about two in the morning, asking why I was tapping my fingers on his pillow in rapid succession. He’s never really seen me manic during our three years of marriage.

I’ve been so healthy that the idea of having a wife with a chronic mental illness is not something that’s been on the forefront of his mind. In fact, part of me wonders if he really understood what he was getting into.

Quite frankly, those five healthy years passed quickly — I didn’t really give it much thought either. I just took my meds, got enough sleep and kept my life at a fast-paced clip. Any flare-ups I’d had only lasted for 4-12 hours, nothing like that week’s unraveling. Part of me wondered if somehow I’d jinxed myself by giving that keynote speech for the fall fundraiser about how well I was doing.

I got up and paced a bit till my husband fell asleep again and then crawled back into bed. I was determined to sleep, but I wasn’t tired. In fact, I felt refreshed and energetic.

It didn’t matter that I hadn’t slept for 36 hours. At this point, cleaning the house sounded appealing. Finally I had the energy to do it (and believe me, it needed to be done). I knew that I could clean out the refrigerator, scrub down the stove and still have energy to take on two bathrooms with a vengeful toothbrush. I bet I could have even reorganized several closets.

I almost did it. Almost. I knew that if I caved to my desire for a clean house, it would only feed the mania, causing further mental unraveling. If I didn’t rein it in, I could easily be up three or four more days — longer, even. (But usually by that point, I would have already checked myself into a hospital.)

If I didn’t get to sleep soon, I was likely to jeopardize not only my personal health, but my interpersonal relationships with my family and coworkers. Manic behavior could jeopardize my jobs. I might lose my career and have a difficult time re-entering the workforce. From there? Well my life would just unravel. I had to stop it. But how?

Tune in next time to see if and how I did it. I know I’m leaving you hanging; that’s one of the joys of writing — knowing your readers can’t wait to find out the resolution.

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About Sarah Hancock

Sarah Price Hancock, a graduate of San Diego State University's rehabilitation counseling Masters of Science program with a certificate psychiatric rehabilitation.

Having embarked on her own journey with a mental health diagnosis, she is passionate about psychiatric recovery. She enjoys working as a lector for universities, training upcoming mental health professionals. Sarah also enjoys sharing insights with peers working to strengthen their "recovery toolbox." With proper support, Sarah knows psychiatric recovery isnít just possible ó itís probable.

Born and raised in San Diego, California, Sarah served a Spanish-speaking and ASL mission for the LDS Church in the Texas Dallas Mission. She was graduated from Ricks College and BYU. Sarah currently resides in San Diego and inherited four amazing children when she married the man of her dreams in 2011. She loves writing, public speaking, ceramics, jewelry-making and kite-flying ó not necessarily in that order.

NAMI San Diego's Fall Keynote Address: Living in Recovery with Schizoaffective Disorder

Having recently moved into a new ward, she currently serves as a visiting teacher.

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