PSYCHIATRY LET ME DOWN – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My father was a well-known psychoanalyst and psychiatrist. My mother was a psychologist. I was like the shoemaker’s kids who goes without shoes. I was not well-served by the psychiatric profession. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. I was just born too early, ahead of the scientific curve. Solutions to my problems and my family’s problems were discovered decades after I needed them.

I was a delightful and outgoing child in some ways. But in others, I was anxious, fearful and timid. I developed learning problems in first grade. I had nervous ‘ticks’ and non-diagnosable ‘stomach problems’. In later years, my psychiatrists told me I was the poster child for childhood depression. I was practically jumping up and down and screaming that I was depressed, but in the 1950’s and 1960’s, no one understood children could even be depressed.

Me at around five or six years old

I was put into therapy. My therapist got pregnant and left. That went well.

With my childhood symptoms today, I’d have been on medication from the age of five or six. My life would have been totally different – much easier and certainly much better.

I got ‘sick’ in college. I got symptoms that looked like a hyper-active thyroid, but the tests didn’t confirm that diagnosis. So I was in limbo. For three years during college, I had a rapid pulse, palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness and extreme fatigue. I was barely functional. To meet me you’d never know anything was wrong. I put on a very good front when I was with other people.

Years later my psychiatrists figured out that I was having a severe depression which adversely affected my thyroid (not uncommon), But at the time, no one knew this was a ‘thing’. The medical doctors all said the problem was ‘in my head’. They were right. But the shrinks didn’t know how to deal with it. The medication I would need was not invented for decades.

Me during my difficult college years

So at 19 or 20, I went to another therapist. After a short while she dismissed me. There was very little going on in my life except sleeping, my struggle to get school work done and hanging out with my parents at home. She said I wasn’t bringing her enough ‘material’ from my life for her to work with. Basically, she was telling me that I was too dysfunctional for her to help me! There’s something very wrong here. And my parents accepted this state of affairs.

In the late 1970’s and into the 1980’s, when I was in my late twenties and into my thirties, my therapist told me that I was ‘chronically depressed’. Low grade depression, but depression none the less. At the time, medication was only used for life threatening depressions because the medications had such horrific side effects. The only tool psychiatrists had to deal with ‘chronic depression’, was talk therapy. That only took me so far.

It wasn’t until 1989, when I was 40, that Prozac came onto the market as the first anti-depressant for the general public. I had no overt side effects (the drug may have been responsible for my weight gain over the next few years). I became a different person and my life changed dramatically. All for the better. My anxieties were gone, my confidence and self-esteem were up, my ability to assert myself got a huge boost, my outlook was more positive and upbeat, and on and on. My life would have been totally different if I’d had Prozac — even ten years earlier, let alone twenty or thirty years sooner.

Me in 1989

Then there was my husband, Larry. He would periodically, or more accurately, cyclically, devolve into a less and less rational and more and more volatile, aggressive, paranoid and hostile state. Larry was in therapy. His therapist considered him deeply neurotic. There was still little known about the genetic, physiological mental diseases. Even though Larry’s dad had been diagnosed as bipolar, the therapist didn’t think Larry was bipolar too.

We went into marriage counseling. We spent time discussing what I was doing to bring on Larry’s unpredictable fits of rage and periods of sullenness. I knew I wasn’t perfect, but I also knew I wasn’t the problem. I could do something one day, like leaving dirty dishes in the sink, and he’d be understanding. The next day, the same event proved to him I didn’t care about him and was a terrible, inconsiderate wife. And there would be a major scene. Once he threw a pot at me.

Larry and me a few months before we were married

Thirteen years after we were married, in 1987, Larry was finally diagnosed as bipolar. Years later, psychiatrists told me that Larry’s behavior was then considered classic manic-depressive behavior. He would have been diagnosed immediately, at this later time. A tremendous amount has been learned about Bipolar Disorder in the last twenty or so years.

In reality, Larry’s bipolar diagnosis and medication regimen wasn’t the ‘cure’ for Larry that Prozac had been for me. Like many other manic-depressives, Larry refused to stay on his meds. The behavior problems recurred when he stopped taking Lithium which happened every year or two.

Larry in 1987

Now it’s my son’s turn. He clearly had ADHD from his birth in 1980. Except no one in his New York City private schools seemed to know about the problem — or how to deal with it. David was seen as a ‘behavior problem’. He spent a lot of time sitting in the hallway so he wouldn’t disrupt the class.

David at seven

In 1990, when he was ten, David was diagnosed with ADHD. He was put on Ritalin, the only medication available at the time. It worked very well but had terrible side effects. We had to stop using the drug altogether. There wouldn’t be drugs to help him effectively until he was in his thirties.

The Special Ed departments of his public schools tried to help him deal with his ADHD, but with little success. It was still a new and unchartered illness. It wasn’t till he went to college that he began to learn to control his problems. He went to Landmark College, which is for kids with special needs and disabilities. They actually understood ADHD and helped David.

Landmark gave David tools to cope with his behavior issues. Above all, it gave him confidence and a history of successes instead of endless failures. He learned how to modify his behavior and work around his ADHD. He also learned how to maximize his productivity. This was the beginning of David’s ability to function in school and in life. The medications he has been on for the past four or five years have also helped tremendously.

David in the Landmark years

David is now a successful financial professional. He is in good control of his behavior and is in a wonderful, committed relationship. If he’d had the medication and the skills to deal with his ADHD from kindergarten on, he would have been spared a lot of pain, struggle, failure and ego deflation.

Over all, my family and I were all born decades too soon to be well served by the psychiatric profession. David and I are doing well now, so the story has a happy ending. But it was a tough beginning and middle!

12 thoughts on “PSYCHIATRY LET ME DOWN – BY ELLIN CURLEY

  1. I always wonder if the drugs they have now were available when my father was young, would it have made him a person? He would never go for therapy. He had multiple suicide attempts over the years and he would lie to the shrinks until they let him go. But he never had any interest in changing, at least none that any of saw. Would he have taken the drugs if they were available? I somehow doubt it. He was always too smart to get help.

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    • Some people just resist any help. They don’t want to think there is anything wrong with them, or they don’t want to make the effort to change. Some just don’t care that they are hurting others. But your dad was suicidal, which means he was in a lot of pain. If he was that tortured, he might have accepted medication. But there’s no guarantee that medication will always work or work well for everyone.

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      • I don’t know. He rejected every attempt to help him. He would spend a few sessions proving he was smarter than the shrink … and they they’d let him go. They knew the game he was playing. If you don’t want help, you can’t get it.

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    • It’s a shame how many generations of people had to go without the simple drugs and treatments we have now for so many mental illnesses. It’s just frustrating when the changes come in your lifetime, just not quite soon enough. But I’m grateful that I’ll have had at least half my life with medication for myself and for my son.

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  2. I’m pretty sure I had ADHD. I spent time with my desk in the hallway in elementary school and had a hard time sitting still and paying attention. I always wanted to do things and move.
    My education may have been so much better also. But in the old days I was just a disruptive child.

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    • All childhood issues were treated the same way. You were punished or banned from the classroom if you were disrupting the class in any way. You’d have thought that someone would have come up with a more creative solution for all these ‘difficult’ children over the years. Being punitive never works for behavior problems.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Garry. I feel like I’ve survived a lot, and so has my family. But we never stopped trying to find solutions to our problems. We tried anything that was out there that might have helped. We took David to an allergist and found out that he had a large amount of yeast in his system, which contributes to hyperactivity. So we put him on yeast reducing medication and it actually helped a bit!

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  3. Ellin when I saw the picture of you on the pony it rang a bell. When I was about 5 or 6 a man came to our door and offered to take my picture on the pony. My mother was a little put off by it and wanted to tell him to “go fly a kite”, but I wanted that picture of me on a pony so she went ahead with it. I still have that picture and you can see I look a little guilty. I did know she wasn’t pleased but I still have that picture and I remember that moment in time.
    Leslie

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  4. Fortunately the progress continues into mental health, the various conditions and their boundaries/overlaps etc. I have had several labels put on me over the years, and my parents both had forms of depression; my mother had borderline personality disorder, which wasn’t ever heard of (or at least not offered as a diagnosis). She underwent horrible misdiagnosis and being put on medicines like thorazine, which obviously were wrong for her. She abhorred therapy after her experiences, and it took me, in my 20s when I finally started insisting on getting help for myself, to change her mind enough that she at least took an anti-depressant (a mild one). I take Zoloft regularly with trazodone to help with my chronic insomnia. Prozac was too strong and I didn’t care for how I felt using it. Wellbutrin, Cymbalta and many others have been tried on me over the years, but it’s always back to Zoloft. I feel very blessed to live in this time when mental illness has stopped being a stigma and is being researched and new treatments and therapies introduced as understanding grows. Those of us who lived through the 50s, 60s and 70s with mental illness of one sort or another should be thanked because we really helped pave the way.

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  5. hello Ellin.. im from Philippines. Seven years ago i was brought to hospital because of nervous attack and my family sent me to psychiatrist. Doctor finding is i have depression and I’m taking up to now medicine (olanzpine) as a lifetime medicine. I’m sad because i have to take meds in my entire life. Does depression has a cure that i wont drink meds anymore? or do i have to accept that meds is with me until the end? hoping for your response?

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