About the Author: Anne C Woodlen (Part IV)


Out on pass, I collapsed psychologically and took an overdose.  When I failed to return to the hospital on time, the doctor said I probably was out partying and not to try to find me.  She left me alone to die.  I lay unconscious for nineteen hours, then roused enough to call 911.  I was ambulanced to the ER where I crashed.  While I was being transferred to the ICU and put on life support, the doctor—oblivious to all things—was on the psych unit signing my technical discharge. 

I spent a month on life support.  There was no expectation that I would survive.  I had overdosed on an antidepressant (what else?) that had a therapeutic blood level of 100.  My blood level was 1800.  Common medical belief is that you do not survive that.  One of my sisters tried to have my life support system disconnected but God, in a major preemptive move, kept it going.

I regained consciousness and, on Christmas Eve, I was transferred from the ICU to a medical unit where I was too weak to cut my meat, brush my teeth or raise my voice.  After about a week, I was transferred back to Dr. Ghaly and the psychiatric unit, where I lingered for six months—two months for treatment, and four months because they couldn’t find any place to which to discharge me.  Consequent to lithium poisoning and twenty-eight years of taking antidepressants, I had developed multiple medical ailments and nobody would deal with both the psychiatric and the medical problems. 

I had acquired autoimmune diseases:  fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue immune deficiency syndrome, celiac disease and dermatitis herpetiformis.  I had Syndrome X, which is a combination of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.  I had arthritis, obstructive sleep apnea, an intestinal yeast infection, a rare kidney disease (nephrogenic diabetes insipidus), and some other stuff.  There were about fifteen diagnosed illnesses and I never could remember them all at the same time.  And, of course, I had bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorder (the latter being peculiar to Central New York, which only gets ten days of sunshine during the winter).

I also had drug reactions.  Occasionally, drug side effects would be properly identified, the suspect drug would be discontinued and a new drug would be started.  More often, the drug side effect would be misdiagnosed as a new illness and a new drug would be prescribed.  Thereafter, I would develop side effects to the new drug, which would also be diagnosed as a new illness, and so on and on.  Of course, at the time I did not recognize this sequence of events for what it was.  Suffice it to say that I was sick and getting sicker.

My family did not come to visit me and I could no longer drive far enough to visit them.  I had only one friend and she was very dependent.  My social activities were almost exclusively events organized by various agencies for the benefit of “psychiatric patients.”  I no longer could get out of bed on Sunday morning to go to church, so I became estranged from the congregation to which I had belonged for twenty years.  My only solace was my mother, who faithfully called me every week.  (We were both too sick to travel.)

Total darkness was encroaching upon my soul.  I was alone and most of the time wanted to die.  My life had become a tortured journey of ambulances, IV’s, emergency rooms, catheters, and inpatient psychiatry, which was easily the cruelest part of the picture.  I was shipped from one medical specialist to another.  The good ones said they couldn’t figure out what was wrong.  The bad ones said it was in my head and sent me back to psychiatry, where the referral had come from in the first place.

On April 23, 2001, it all came to an end.  Back on inpatient psychiatry, I called Dr. Ghaly and Dr. Cohen to have breakfast with me.  I told them that I was taking physicians prescribing pharmaceuticals out of the middle of my life.  Henceforth, decisions would be made directly between me and God.  If God wanted me to live, he’d find a way to make it happen.  If he wanted me dead, I was prepared to meet him on his terms. 

I told Dr. Ghaly and Dr. Cohen that it was their job to affirm that I was of sound mind when making this decision.  They so affirmed.  I stopped taking all my medications (except the Ativan, which I still needed for insomnia) and then I went home, expecting to die.

I now had a home health aide, a hospital bed, medically prescribed air conditioners, and a refrigerator beside my bed.  (I kept dehydrating from the kidney disease and was too sick to make it from the bedroom to the kitchen to get liquids.)  I was using a wheelchair, which was a major problem because my apartment building was not wheelchair accessible.  So, in the summer of 2001, I moved into a geriatric center where most of my neighbors were in the Assisted Living Program.  At the age of 54, I was the youngest person in the building.  My life was over and I knew it.  I was dying.  (To be continued)

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About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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