Luann Simpson woke up in the hospital with her doctor standing over her. “Look what you’ve done to your family,” he told her.
“All I could think was, ‘Look what I’ve done to myself,’ ” recalls Simpson.
At the dangerous cross-section of borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder and depression, Simpson would get “kicked into a mania,” going on rabid spending sprees and rationalizing even the most lavish expenditures.
That time her doctor reprimanded her, she had overdosed on anti-anxiety medication. The same risk-taking state of mind that saw her dropping $30,000 on a sports car also blinded her to the risks of the pills designed to help her. She took 30 doses of Xanax, in addition to decongestant medication and daily antidepressants, and ended up in the hospital, not for the first time.
She later characterized the overdose as “an ambivalent suicide attempt, perhaps.” But because of her disorders, Simpson said, that was the only way she could communicate that she needed help.
In struggling with mental illness, Simpson is far from unique.
One in four Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness within their lifetime, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and each year, fewer than a third of adults and less than half of children in that population get the assistance they need. Patients must navigate a sometimes complex system to pay for and regularly access mental health services, systems which in turn are hobbled by limited funding and resources. Even with dedicated treatment, a patient’s own mind may be the biggest hurdle.
Starting in her 20s, Simpson spent almost two decades in and out of hospitals as she tried 50 medications in different combinations. Her path traversed failed relationships, multiple relapses and damaging side effects from some of the successive medications.
In therapy sessions, Simpson grew sullen and silent, then lashed out, rapidly deteriorating and ultimately alienating her therapist at the time.
“Her depression was profound,” said Margaret Moore, a therapist who counseled Simpson at her private practice. “All that silence — I thought it came from her depression. ... She was one of the sickest people I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know at the time.”
Simpson started seeing Dr. Joseph Bergs, a psychiatrist at Wheaton Franciscan All-Saints hospital in Racine, who said Simpson “was a disaster.”
According to Bergs, Simpson couldn’t distinguish between a legitimate impulse like buying a new car versus radically irrational behavior like purchasing three Cadillacs, then morgtaging her condominium to buy more.
She lost track of which emotions were truly hers, and which came from the disorders.
Tiny ideas took root, dug in.
Simpson slowly obsessed over specific fears. She imagined being trapped inside a car that was flipped upside down and submerged in water. She bought herself a device designed to shatter the
windows and escape, then she bought one for most of her close friends and relatives. She bought puppies, then gave them away, believing she was “liberating” the animals from the confines of their pet-shop cages.
To Simpson, it seemed normal.
“She had it rationalized in her head,” explained Bergs.
The worst part, said Simpson, is that once a person reaches that point, it’s almost impossible to ask for help.
After all, said Simpson, when you get to a point where you don’t understand that you’re sick — why stop?
Monday: Read the rest of Simpson’s story. After 11 years, therapist Margaret Moore heard from Simpson again and, with some anxiety, agreed to meet.