80 new beds, 80 more lives

(For those who inquired, this is the text of the speech I gave at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new unit at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute.)

I remember the first conversation I had with someone about my mental health. I was seventeen, too young at the time to understand that it was actually my mental health and not some character flaw that made it impossible to tackle the simplest of problems. My life was filled with the normal stress that a senior in high school endures — papers, tests, acne, ill-fitting bras — but my reaction to that stress was to panic. Everything felt completely out of control, so I stopped eating to prove that I could control something.

That’ll show me!

Eventually that self-inflicted starvation turned into binging and purging, and I was smart enough to know that I didn’t want to continue living that way. Smart enough, and well, when you throw up as much as I was throwing up the blood vessels around your eyes start to explode. Good times!

I knew I couldn’t make myself stop. I knew I’d need major help. My mother had started to notice my change in behavior, because she is a mother, and mothers can be four states away from you and notice a change in your mood. I knew I could turn to her. It was my father we would have to convince.

In a parking lot outside an industrial office complex on Union Ave in Memphis, Tennessee, I sat in the passenger seat of a beige Ford Taurus trying to come up with the words to explain to my father why I wanted to talk to a therapist.

“When you’re hungry, you just eat,” my father said to me. “And then when you’re not hungry, you don’t eat.” A few uncomfortable seconds passed before he asked, “Does that not make sense to you?” As if this notion had never occurred to his soon to be valedictorian daughter.

The only thing I could say in return was, “I can’t.”

I can’t.

If there were ever two words to describe what depression feels like.

He let me see that therapist, begrudgingly, and in the next several months I regained most of my ability to see food like a normal human being (“When you’re hungry, you just eat!”)

But then I left home for Utah and started my Freshman year in college. Too tired and stressed by course work to turn to my old habits, I just gained a lot of weight. And called my mother in tears three times a day. She probably remembers it as three times an hour, but let’s just say that I come by my ability to exaggerate naturally.

Every stress sent me into a fit of tears. I couldn’t look at any problem, however big or small, as being anything less than The End of The World. My mother called this my death spiral. For example, I didn’t ace a Calculus test, therefore I would not be able to get a well-paying job and would end up homeless where I would catch pneumonia and die.

The grocery store was out of my favorite kind of cereal: homelessness, pneumonia and death.

This cheery attitude continued into the second semester of my sophomore year when one day the anxiety was so bad that after one too many slammed doors my roommates expressed that they were worried about me. And then, I, valedictorian of high school and winner of several scholarships, decided that I didn’t want to go to class. Ever again. I called my parents to give them the good news.

“Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad. Yeah, do you think you could buy me a plane ticket to go home? This college thing isn’t working out. I’d pay you back but I’m going to be homeless, catch pneumonia, and die.”

According to my dad, here I was pulling this trick again. Isn’t it cute when she pretends that she just can’t buck up and be in a better mood? My mother, one of nine kids and the only one of her siblings who hasn’t been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder (she claims she was adopted, I say Granny Boone got freaky with the mailman. LISTEN, Granny Boone may be dead, but I guarantee you that if she were sitting here she would totally high five me for that one), she kindly reminded my father about my DNA. He knew they were crazy, he just didn’t want to believe this about his own daughter. Hadn’t he raised me better than this?

I often wondered if fathers of diabetics thought the same thing, “Seriously! Why can’t you just regulate your insulin LIKE A NORMAL PERSON.”

I tell you all of this because I write a website about my life and it includes the story of how I spent four days in this very hospital battling postpartum depression. The success of this website can be traced linearly right back to those four days because so many of my readers want to know they are not alone and that they are not freaks. You could say that my father prepared me for the uphill battle it is to destigmatize mental illness.

It goes a little something like this: crazy people are allowed to joke about being crazy. Non-crazy people, not so much.

Because so often any and all of my opinions have been written off as the moronic musings of that woman who spent time in a psych ward. I am that woman who takes crazy people pills. People don’t joke about me being on my period, they joke about me being off of my meds.

Yes, I take medication. I will always take medication. And yet, I run a successful business. I wrote a book that made the New York Times bestseller list. Forbes named me one of the most influential women in media. 1.5 million people follow me on Twitter. And I will stand here and tell you that all of that success was made possible because of those meds. Am I crazy to admit that? It doesn’t matter.

All of that was made possible because one morning in late August of 2004 as my husband was leaving for work I said, “If you go I will not be here when you come back.” Postpartum depression had brought me face to face with suicide, and I had planned to carry it out that day.

Those who work here at UNI know how many patients come through that front door, how many times they have to turn people away because there just isn’t enough room. On that specific day in August 2004 there was only room enough in the locked unit of the hospital. The locked unit where people are so crazy that I am not even allowed to make fun of their crazy, and y’all. I AM CRAZY.

It was scary as hell, but I will tell you this. Had that bed not been available I would not be alive today.

UNI, and more specifically, Dr. Lowry Bushnell, and even more specifically, Prozac, Valium, and Neurontin saved my life. It all started with that available bed.

Last year I got to speak to the audience who had gathered here to witness the groundbreaking on this new unit here at UNI, this unit that provides 80 more life-saving beds, 80! That’s one, two three, four… EIGHTY! So you have to understand the immense hope I feel for so many people as I stand here today outside the completed building, hope for the people whose lives will be saved by those beds.

Congratulations to the community here at UNI for this incredible success. And thank you for making my own success possible.