I was going to kill myself. I just needed to figure out where.

 
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Julie Whitehead

Julie Whitehead

By Julie Whitehead
Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

BRANDON, Miss. -- I drove around Brandon for three hours with my husband’s .38 pistol beside me and my clothes packed.

I planned to check into a hotel and be done with it.

Where was I going to go?

Will I commit suicide when I get there?

“You can’t just run off and kill yourself,” pleaded Jesse, a friend I had on the phone as I drove.

“It’s better than doing it at home,” I responded.

“But trying to kill yourself won’t solve your problems,” Jesse reasoned. “You need to stop thinking like that.”

“I can’t stand it anymore, Jesse,” I said. “I just need to know where to go.”

“Go on to Starkville if you want,” he urged. “Look up some of your old professors and wander around and see how it’s changed if that’s what you want.  But come back to Bob and your kids when you’re done. They need you.”

“No, they don’t,” I lamented. “They’ve suffered enough. Bob can find someone who can be better to him, and the kids can have a mom who’s not sick in the head.”

“Will you listen to yourself?  That’s not true,” Jesse insisted. “Go on up there and clear your head but come back afterwards.  Promise me you will.”

I promised.

I got to Highway 25 going north then decided what I wanted to do was go home and go to sleep.  

I walked back into the house carrying the gun.

I had lied to my husband Bob that I was going to a church meeting so it would take him longer to miss me and I would be further out of town.

“How did it go?” Bob asked, turning from the computer as I came in.  

 I walked up to him and handed him the gun. “You’ve got to do something with this,” I said. 

He looked at it, then stared at me perplexed.

I started sobbing.“I was going to run off and commit suicide, and you need to do something with that gun so I won’t actually go through with it again.”

“What’s going on?” he said, stunned.

I broke down crying. I told him about my drive around town and how I finally decided I couldn’t just leave him and the kids in the lurch like that. I ended it again with a plea for him to do something with the gun so I wouldn’t find it again.

He said he would and urged me to go on to bed, and we’d call my counselor Amy the next morning.

That was in March 2006.

What was going to happen?

My mental illness didn’t sneak up on me one day out of the blue. I had several depressive episodes throughout my life and had received medication treatment and counseling on and off. What was missing from the picture were my episodes of mania, such as my final semester of graduate school in 1992 at Mississippi State where I held down three jobs, took classes and juggled an active social life.

Who goes to the doctor for being too happy?

The Monday after my three-hour drive around Brandon, I arrived for an appointment at a hospital. It was an appointment like any other medical appointment — only I didn’t know what was coming next. Bob went with me per my counselor Amy’s recommendation so he could report what symptoms he had seen. We filled out paperwork and then went to see a counselor.

We were sent back to the waiting room.

After a while, the counselor called us back again. She had conferred with the doctor, and they felt that it was best I be admitted to the hospital immediately.

I was stunned.

“I thought I was talking to you to see if I needed to be evaluated by a psychiatrist,” I managed to say.

She said that the treatment team had agreed I needed to see a psychiatrist, but also felt it would be best for me to see him in an inpatient setting. I looked at Bob, who also seemed shocked.

Was I ready to go to the hospital? she asked. No, I replied. I didn’t have anything packed or have any idea what to do to get ready. I did not know I was being evaluated for hospitalization, I reiterated.

She gave Bob a list of items to pack for me. I needed to go into the hospital right now, she insisted. Bob could bring me whatever I needed later on that day.

I started crying. What was going to happen?

I had hardly ever been treated at a hospital except for having my children, three girls then ages 10, 7 and 1. Bob sought to console me as best he could, saying he would get his mom to help with the kids and that everything would be fine. He had me write a list of what I wanted him to pack, and I wrote another list of people he needed to call and let know I was going to be out of pocket for a few days—my editors, my parents.

After a while, the counselor returned with a handout explaining the rules of the ward and releases for me to sign.

We filled out all the paperwork. Then Bob and I followed the counselor to the door separating the ward from the rest of the hospital. I had my picture taken for identification purposes.

Bob and I had a minute to say goodbye. He hugged me and told me he loved me. I started crying again. Then he left me.

I crossed to the other side to be locked away for protection from myself.

I cried as I walked down the hall and I didn’t stop for hours. The intake nurse just let me cry as my blood pressure and vital signs were taken. Did I have high blood pressure? she asked.  No, I told her. I found out later that my blood pressure reading was 160/133, largely from the stress of the situation.

When she left, I sat alone in the room and wept.

Building a new life from scratch

I had gotten into something I wasn’t easily going to get out of. I resolved to be the perfect patient so I could get out as soon as possible to get back to my life. I would do everything I was told and let them know I was no longer a danger of any kind.

And that’s exactly what I did.

That initial stay was about five days. For the first 24 hours, I was on suicide watch, then I went to regular inpatient status. I attended group counseling, individual counseling and other ward activities with the rest of the patients.

I was released with medication and a diagnosis of major depression.

After another suicide attempt two months later where I ran away from home and went missing for 24 hours, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, based on my history and my current symptoms.  I had been in counseling for nine months for what I thought was postpartum depression complicated by the events surrounding landfall of Hurricane Katrina

I was wrong.

I was 35 years old when I was diagnosed. I had an active freelance journalism career, a family, a house and a first-place award from the Mississippi Press Association for a series of stories I did for the Mississippi Business Journal on up-and-coming political movers and shakers in Mississippi. But I was so sick and so wrung out that I had to give up that life and start building another one practically from scratch.

It wasn’t easy.

My counselor Amy moved from a private practice to counseling at a drug-rehab facility, and it took two more tries for me to find a counselor with the right kind of rapport and ability to help me out of the hell I had created for myself. 

I was hospitalized once a year for the next five years for suicidal ideations. My psychiatrist and I went through what felt like an entire pharmacy’s worth of medications to stabilize me and allow me to live a somewhat normal life, changing medications as some seemed to work for a while and stop, while others caused side effects that necessitated changing to drugs that weren’t so damaging.

So I understand the fears of people who walk into a doctor’s office for help and leave with a devastating diagnosis. I know what it’s like to not know what the future looks like for yourself because you don’t understand what is happening in your brain.

But I also want to say that hope does exist, even in the face of such fear.  I’m living proof, as are many other people living with similar conditions. Help is out there.

 This story was produced by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that seeks to hold public officials accountable and empower citizens in their communities.