When It Is Not Mental Illness
The Fourth House
By – Sheri de Grom
An estimate by the National Institute of Mental Health states, “One of every four homes in the United States is affected by a serious mental illness.” The five major categories of mental illness are: anxiety disorders, mood disorders—including depression and bipolar disorder—schizophrenia, dementia and eating disorders.
I hadn’t thought much about this statistic until I was driving home from work one evening and started counting the number of houses I passed. In a short drive of no more than thirty minutes I passed seventeen homes where someone with one of the five above- mentioned diseases lived.
“One out of four” struck me harder as I pulled into our driveway and recognized we were a number four.
I’m beginning this feature series, “The Fourth House,” to bring you the story of how my husband, Tom, and I continue to fight for treatment and survival against his brutal disease of bipolar disorder.
I don’t need anyone to tell me that upwards of 90% of all marriages fail wherein one partner is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Tom and I love each other unconditionally and we will not allow his disease to make us a statistic. From the night we met until the day we wed, neither of us doubted our love for the other. Twenty-seven plus years later, I can’t imagine having made another choice.
We’re currently in the midst of an unproductive struggle to receive medical treatment for Tom, although we have full-pay insurance. I want to scream, “Can no one hear us?”
Mental illness can strike anyone! It knows no age limits, economic status, race, creed, or color boundaries. During the course of a year, more than 54 million Americans are affected by one or more mental disorders.
Those of you who follow my blog are aware that Tom is bipolar. However, this condition does not preclude him from succumbing to other conditions and diseases, such as his diabetes (caused by one of his psychiatric medications) and heart complications. These diseases require constant monitoring.
Unfortunately, in seeking treatment for these other conditions, we have been forced to fight—and are still fighting—the worst kind of stigma staining an individual within the medical community itself. Physicians turn their backs on the medical needs of the mentally ill. Have doctors forgotten their Hippocratic Oath?
Last month, while struggling hourly for an appointment with a neurologist for Tom, I read articles detailing how bipolar patients die on average a decade earlier than their non-afflicted counterparts. The reporting institutions are well-respected on an international level and include: JAMA Psychiatry, Mental Health America, psychcentral.com/news, and kevinmd.com. What caught my attention immediately is that exhaustive controlled studies reveal individuals with bipolar disorder are less likely to receive the medical attention needed to address their non-psychiatric needs.
Tom has me for an advocate. Unfortunately, 92% of the mentally ill don’t have an advocate to fight on their behalf. Their battle for care is endless.
Two weeks before Christmas, 2012, Tom came down with a terrible sinus infection. Since he’s been susceptible to these infections for years, we know the first line of defense is to make an appointment with our otolaryngologist. Fortunately, this young physician is immune to the mental illness stigma. He’s also amazingly dedicated to medicine in general and his patients in particular. We also believe the man is younger than most of Tom’s socks, but that’s another story. Nevertheless, this doctor did everything within his power to bring Tom relief.
Five treatments and seven rounds of antibiotics later, Tom still suffered from blinding migraines. The same migraines that started before Christmas had followed us into late spring and he still had no relief.
The young doctor referred Tom to a neurologist and at first we were impressed with the doctor’s skill set and his thoughts regarding a treatment plan. He expressed concern that Tom’s big toe’s raised when he tweaked the bottom of each foot. He also asked that we bring photos of Tom to his office that was a close up of Tom’s face. The doctor believed the right side of Tom’s face sagged. But, as you might imagine, Tom is not your normal off-the-shelf patient.
The neurologist wrote several prescriptions, asked Tom to have several lab tests completed along with two CAT scans. Tom cannot have an MRI due to his pacemaker.
I asked for an explanation about why the doctor was concerned about Tom’s big toe on each foot raised as a reflex. The doctor told me he would discuss this at our next appointment.
The days crawled by until time for us to return to the neurologist’s office. We were convinced we’d finally have an answer to what was happening to make Tom feel so bad. We deserved to know.
We returned to the neurologist’s office two weeks later believing we’d receive a complete treatment plan and—at long last—we’d have a diagnosis of what was happening with Tom’s body. He was getting weaker each day. He was also sleeping as much as possible to escape the pain and his appetite was gone. I knew more was going on than just a migraine.
We waited for what seemed like forever before being ushered into an examination room. Finally the doctor arrived but what did he mean he couldn’t help Tom. He’d told us at the previous appointment that he’d explain what he was testing for and why. I asked the doctor why he couldn’t explain to us why Tom’s neurological responses weren’t normal but he wasn’t going to pursue the specific problem.
While the neurologist was writing more prescriptions, he said, “You’ll find all of the information you need on the internet. The doc tore the prescriptions from his pad, handed them to me and said, “Make an appointment for Tom in six months.”
We were stunned. This wasn’t medical treatment. We still had no answers and Tom didn’t want to exist on pain pills. Again the medical community had turned its back on us. Our quest for proper neurological treatment for Tom will appear under the title of a ‘Fourth House’ in the future.
Please join me for my continuing series, The Fourth House.
Previous blogs I now identify as a part of THE FOURTH HOUSE series: