A few weeks ago, one of my close family members suffered what I can most simply describe as a mental breakdown. I can honestly say that it was one of the scariest things that I’ve ever observed in my life. To provide some context, this family member is one of the smartest and most capable people I know, he is a high-functioning executive, and he is pretty much the last person who I would expect to go through something like this.
Over the course of a week, we noticed him making grandiose and strange statements, including some Facebook posts that were odd and very out-of-character. We initially shrugged off most of this behavior as just some post-holiday quirkiness and stress. And then one night things escalated when he started saying things that were completely illogical – for instance, he claimed that he was a wizard. From there, things got much worse and the next morning he started talking to people who were not physically there, including talking at the sky in an effort to communicate with distant family members. It was then that he was taken to emergency care.
While I was not there, I’m told that he reacted very poorly to medical staff and had to be physically restrained and given a sedative. A security guard was placed at the door to his hospital room. Following a CT scan and numerous blood tests, the doctors could find no physical reason for his behavior. He was eventually released the same day with a diagnosis of sleep exhaustion and delirium. By the next day, he was back to himself (albeit quite embarrassed and very confused to hear the events and explanations of his behavior over the past few days).
He received follow-up care from his primary care physician, a sleep specialist, and a psychiatrist. We came to find out that he had been operating on very minimal sleep, and had endured very, very high amounts of personal and work stress over a span of approximately one month. While he is still following up with several doctors to ensure we are not missing anything, at this time we believe that the incredible weight of his mental stress caused this episode. He is setting up weekly appointments with a psychologist to regularly talk through his stressors.
This experience was eye-opening to me. It was very, very confusing. Although in retrospect we can see that he gave us some warning signs, it seemed in the moment that his episode came on very suddenly. It was absolutely shocking to observe someone I love behave in such an uncharacteristic manner, and I really felt at that time that I had lost him. I remember sobbing on that day in a conference room in my office because of my fear that my girls would never know him the way I did (and the way I know him is so, so, so great).
I guess I’m still trying to sort this experience out in my mind. I admit that I am still very concerned for him, and I hope that we’re not missing something and that we’re getting him good treatment. I also wanted to share this experience because when it happened, I couldn’t find many personal accounts and it made the entire experience feel that much more surreal and scary.
Most importantly, going through this experience made me incredibly frustrated because I felt an unfair stigma tied to mental health issues. I will admit that even writing this post is very difficult because I feel that stigma, and although I hope that sharing this story with all of you will help us to understand and support those dealing with mental health issues, I definitely feel vulnerable as I type this. I also worry that I’ve used the wrong terminology, or poorly characterized or explained what my family experienced; if I’ve done that, I apologize and acknowledge my incomplete knowledge in this area. It would also be great to hear from some of you who have personal stories of your own.
To close the loop on my own story, I earlier stated that this mental break happened to one of the most amazing, smart and stable people that I know. And my feeling is that, if it can happen to him, it can happen to any one of us. This amazing person was dealing with a lot – too much really – and he wasn’t talking about it enough. Let’s talk more.