A mental illness journey: Clinging to hope after hitting personal rock bottom
Rock bottom, looking back, came 11 days after the Green Bay Packers lost to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC championship game.
My life, along with my family’s fabric, had slowly unraveled for months, spiraling into the abyss of mental illness. We had every reason to be happy in the fall of 2014. I was in my first season on the Packers beat, a dream job. My wife, Kelly, and I had three healthy, amazing boys. Each day was vibrant.
Depression doesn’t need permission to disrupt. It can strike when you least expect. That fall, Kelly had what can only be described as a mental breakdown. What followed was a routine of suicide attempts and psychiatric hospitalizations, each flailing treatment an unsuccessful solution. It felt like the illness was always one step ahead, no matter what we did.
Then in late January 2015, rock bottom.
I sat beside my wife’s hospital bed for hours, listening to her breathe through oxygen tubes, holding her hand, unsure she’d ever wake up after overdosing. At 8:30 in the morning Jan. 29 — I’ll never forget the day or time — I left the room as doctors revived her. I’d held it together until then. In the hallway, I cried a cry unlike any before or since, all the terror and panic and sorrow escaping my lungs at once.
It took a long time to pick up the pieces after that. Even now, there are microscopic fragments, like the shard remnants after shattering a glass. No matter how many times you sweep, you fear the floor is never like it was before. You can find a speck weeks, even months, later. For a while, my wife and I considered sharing our story once the time was right, once we could look in the rear-view mirror and safely say we’re out of the woods. Now, I realize that time will never come. My wife today is the healthiest she’s been in years, able to feel things such as joy and peace, emotions that coldly abandoned her for what felt like eternity. We know tomorrow could be different.
There is no cure for mental disease. Only treatment.
Regardless, we’re finally sharing our story this Oct. 10, recognized around the world for mental health awareness, because we believe it can help. I remember reading journalist Chris Jones’ introspection – “Some days, you just want to kill yourself” – and gleaning some hope. His journey illuminated me.
Before Kelly was diagnosed bipolar, borderline personality disorder, severe depression and severe anxiety, there were many things I did not know. There’s a great deal of ignorance about mental health in our society. A stigma. People are dying because of it. My wife was almost one of them.
We’ve learned not to be ashamed of mental illness. We’ve learned it’s a disease like any other, only manifesting itself differently. We’ve learned we’re not alone. It’s important for anyone afflicted with mental illness — and especially those who love someone struggling — to realize there is strength in numbers. With a wonderful support system, my family survives and thrives.
We’ve lifted ourselves up from rock bottom.
There were precursors. Signs suggesting Kelly’s mental health was slipping. For months, she would mention suicide in passing. It never seemed serious. Kelly believes now it was a kernel in the back of her mind, the seed of a thought, growing over time.
Then we woke up one morning in November 2014, and everything changed. Her personality was warped. The light was out. Her eyes were open, brain functioning, but Kelly was absent.
“I felt empty and hopeless,” Kelly says. “I had very little, actual emotion, because I was so deep into it that I got to where the sadness wasn’t even there anymore, and it was just nothingness. I felt like I was useless. I felt like I was broken, and nobody was going to be able to fix me. There was no frustration, there was no sadness, there was no joy. It’s hard to imagine for somebody who’s healthy, but I literally felt nothing. I was an empty shell.
“And because of that, I just didn’t see the point. I felt like it wasn’t ever going to get better.”
Kelly attempted suicide twice that first day, taking a dull razor to her wrists. Looking back, it was a cry for help. One of the things I’ve learned from doctors along this path is there are suicide attempts designed to seek attention, and those designed for death. These were meant for attention.
The attempts seeking death would come.
After her second attempt, it was clear Kelly had lost control. She checked into Bellin Health Psychiatric Center in Green Bay, her first of what have been many inpatient admissions. The visits allowed her to get intensive treatment from doctors as they adjusted medications, but the greatest advantage was simply having a place to stay safe when being home becomes a death trap.
At the time, our three children were all under the age of 3. Because of the demanding football season, they spent the next eight weeks with grandparents in Indiana. Kelly joined them after being released, but her demons persisted.
I thought rock bottom might be in December that year. Boarding a plane in Atlanta, heading for a Packers game at Tampa Bay, I saw two missed calls from my mother-in-law. When she answered my unassuming return call, her voice cracked. Kelly had sneaked into her medicine, washing down one bottle of Ambien and one of Xanax.
“I remember very few of the attempts,” Kelly says. “The main one was at my parents’ house, and I literally felt like I was possessed. I didn’t even really feel sad, I just did it. I told them I was going to bed, I went to the cabinet to take my medicine, and I took everything.
“I remember at some point, after my parents went to sleep, writing a suicide note and going to get alcohol. And I remember waking up in a psych ward, bed ridden.”
By this point, the helplessness began to set in. I realized there was no quick fix. Life as we knew it was changed, permanently.
In those days, I prayed for one thing: normalcy. Sounds silly now. What, exactly, is normal? I didn’t know, but I grew desperate to get out of the rut. I wanted to wake up in the morning and not wonder if it was the day our lives would be ruined, all our joy forever void.
When the Packers season ended in Seattle, I was thankful for the offseason. I had a big project ahead, rebuilding our lives. My wife and kids returned to Green Bay immediately. I was hopeful it was the start of something new.
The illness only spiraled deeper.
There are lessons we now take for granted. We were so naïve in the beginning. I look back, honestly, and wonder how Kelly is still here.
One of the biggest problems was access to medicine. It’s kept in a lockbox now, and only I have the key. For years, I’ve retrieved morning and bedtime pills each night. Which is just fine. Perhaps nothing is more important than having an accountability partner who not only loves you, but can help keep you safe.
Back in early 2015, the pills were high up in a kitchen cabinet. Far out of reach from our toddler children. Easy for Kelly to grab. A little more than a week after returning from Indiana, her impulsiveness took over. She emptied the pill bottles and went to bed.
My hope was she could sleep it off. Another naivety: I believed the type of medicine she took wasn’t lethal. When she didn’t wake up that evening, I called 911. My parents drove through the night, arriving early in the morning to watch our sleeping kids. I got to the hospital before the sun rose.
Sitting in that dark room lit by monitors, only the sound of her breathing through tubes, I was paralyzed. For hours, I contemplated the worst. I didn’t know how I was going to raise three sons without their mother. I didn’t know how I was going to keep my job, or even my career. Most of all, I didn’t know how I’d cope with the pain of losing my wife.
She woke up, thankfully. I’ll never forget the fear in her eyes. It was then I realized my wife didn’t want to die. She longed for an escape from her disease.
Those were two different goals.
Kelly says she doesn’t remember the suicide attempt that nearly took her. It’s a blessing. What followed were some of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made. I knew these short-term hospitalizations had failed. She needed something much more intensive, and longer. No more bandaging broken limbs.
Against her wishes, I decided to admit her into Rogers Memorial Hospital in Oconomowoc. I still don’t know if it was the right call. For more than three months, Kelly was removed from our home. She didn’t seem markedly better after her release in May. Depression still gripped her most days. Anxiety attacked her constantly. Through that summer and fall, she was still in a hole.
Another hospitalization at Bellin came in October, 2015. After being released, Kelly and the kids spent the rest of football season in Indiana. I began to wonder if a suitable, long-term arrangement was even possible.
Then, one day in January 2016, before the Packers traveled to Washington for a wild-card playoff game, I got a pivotal phone call.
Kelly sounded different. Her tone was lighter, even cheery. She sounded familiar, the girl I’d married not long ago.
“It was kind of like a bright light that I’d been missing for a long time,” Kelly says. “I think that the right medicine just finally kicked in.”
Unlike her mental breakdown, there was no precursor. No signs she was about to start her recovery. Even quicker than she slipped into the abyss, Kelly began finding her way out.
I’d like to say things have been perfect since the calendar flipped to 2016. I’d like to. The truth is, we have our difficult moments. Mental illness is a roller coaster, filled with twists and sharp turns, climbs and steep drops.
Kelly has twice been admitted to Bellin Psychiatric in the past two-and-a-half years. She’s received extensive outpatient therapy. But these are much, much brighter days than before.
It doesn’t just take a village to battle mental health. It takes villages. Plural. We couldn’t do it without loving parents, unbelievably supportive bosses and co-workers, loyal friends, a strong foundation in our church and good doctors. The hardest part of mental illness is finding a proper diagnosis. When you’re just grasping at straws, the helplessness can be overwhelming. We went through several rounds of doctors, each unable to conjure the right treatment and diagnosis.
Kelly believes finding the right medical fit is most important.
“Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself,” she says, “if your doctor or counselor is not a good fit, know that there’s help out there. It’s important to find a doctor who will advocate for you. If you’re in crisis, then get to the psych center, and they’ll get somebody to advocate for you. I think it’s important to talk to family and friends and not keep it to yourself.”
We’re on a bit of a win streak now. Kelly’s last inpatient visit was in July 2017. Fifteen months and counting. We’ve guided our children into school. We’ve watched her brother and my sister get married. All of life’s beautiful moments are as vibrant as ever.
It’s difficult to consider how close we came to missing so much. None of this seemed possible at rock bottom. When you’re struggling with mental illness, each day feels like a year. I could say our lives now are a byproduct of perseverance. We never gave up, never gave in. Kelly is my hero because of that. The truth is, we also got lucky. My wife probably shouldn’t be here, not after so many times approaching the cliff’s edge.
If she can make it back, I think, anyone can. It’s easy to give into despair. Cling to hope instead.
Back then, I prayed constantly for a normal life. I don’t know if that’s what this is – what is normal, exactly? – but I’ve learned one thing: A healthy life is so much better.
Editor's note: If you or someone you know needs information on suicide prevention, here are some online resources: National Suicide Hotline (800-273-8255), NAMI, Brown County NAMI and Project Semicolon.