Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

To Answer Some Questions …

Quite a few readers have been writing with questions regarding my hospitalization. For awhile, I was writing private email to those who wrote, telling you the highlights (or perhaps I should refer to them as “lowlights”?) of those events that have transpired over the previous 100 days. I will tell you a little bit about what i’ve been experiencing, and answer any questions that you might have in comments or in email, depending upon the nature of the question. This particular issue is a topic that I will be exploring more on this blog, so it seems fitting that I say something about it publically (I have written approximately 80,000 words about it in the past 100 days on my private blog, so there’s plenty of available material for me to draw from).

In early August, on the anniversary of the beginning of the fourth year of my ongoing fruitless job search, I attempted suicide via overdose on vicodin mixed with vodka. As with everything else I had tried, I failed at suicide, too — obviously, or I wouldn’t be writing this missive to you now. However, after staying in the ER for four days, I did end up in a state psychiatric institute against my will and was diagnosed with a very rapidly cycling bipolar I disorder — it was cycling on average three times per day. It was so bad that I typically had no idea how I felt or what I thought about anything, and it was incredibly difficult to concentrate on even the simplest of things.

For those of you who don’t know, bipolar disorder, or “manic-depression”, is a mood disorder where one’s emotions are not congruent with a particular situation. For example, a person with bipolar disorder often overreacts with depression or, as I refer to it, with despair, at the slightest provocation, or sometimes with no trigger at all. The same can be said for happiness and exuberance. Basically, a person with bipolar disorder can and often will roller-coaster wildly from one extreme emotion to another, and these moods can also be entirely inappropriate to the situation.

The main goals of the state psychiatric institute where I am staying are to get the patient stabilized using drug therapy, individual and group therapy, good nutrition and a rigid sleep schedule. For example, when I came in, I had only gotten 2-4 hours of sleep per night since sometime in November 2005, and I had not been eating much. Further, I had never received any sort of psychiatric care or medications in my life. Needless to say, this last factor represented quite an enigma to the psychiatrists here, who typically see patients who are “veterans” of the mental health system, some of whom probably know nearly as much about human psychology as the shrinks do. How did I manage to get so far without coming to the attention of the mental health system? They asked again and again. Was I aware that I had something wrong with me?

Even though I am (fortunately) receiving free medical care at the state psychiatric institute, I agreed to help “pay my way” by volunteering to be a guinea pig in several suicide research projects, the most terrifying of which required having spinal fluid collected from my spinal column via a lumbar puncture (a “spinal tap”).This spinal fluid is being analyzed for metabolites from a variety of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine and GABA.

Neurotransmitters are biochemical messengers in the brain and elsewhere in the body that help to perpetuate (or muffle) electrical transmissions in the nervous system. When the body breaks down these neurotransmitter molecules, the smaller pieces are known as “metabolites”. Monitoring specific metabolites provides a fuzzy snapshot as to how the brain is (or is not) functioning, and thus, it is a good beginning for further research.

In addition to the lumbar puncture, I also underwent a lot of psychological testing that was stressful beyond words, and I was also a guinea pig for medical students, residents and psychiatrists who were practicing their interviewing techniques on real patients.

During my time here, I continued to pay all my personal bills and rent for my apartment, which of course, drained my bank account and added considerably to my stress levels. I also found someone to care for my birds, someone whom I thought was qualified because she is a veterinary technician. However, while I was incarcerated here, she came in to my apartment one morning and found one of my beloved parrots, dead.

Not only is one required to possess a USDA permit to hold this species of parrot, but I had owned these birds’ parents when I lived in Seattle and I had raised these particular parrots from the day they hatched. In captivity, these birds live to be approximately 30-35 years of age, but this individual was only 6 years old. To say the least, this loss nearly killed me. The institute would not release me, and did not show much sympathy in my situation, and so I fell into a deep and paralyzing despair where I was so distraught that I was catatonic at times and I couldn’t eat or drink for many days. I was almost sent back to the ER due to medical health concerns.

After that setback, I suffered several more setbacks in the form of a wide variety of debilitating side effects from the medications. The most alarming side effects were both physically painful and terribly disappointing — they were mostly seriously exaggerated side effects to the therapeutic medications that they gave me, starting with lithium — which gave me a five-day-long vomit-inspiring migraine that no pain medications could relieve. This was followed with depakote, which made me acutely, desperately, eagerly, irrationally, suicidal after I had only reached half of a therapeutic dose.

I guess that the third time is a charm because finally, I am using a group of drugs that might be helping me. I am now using citalopram (celexa), olanzapine (zyprexa) and clonazepam (klonopin) — which appear to be working at least somewhat well, although the dosage must be adjusted for maximal effectiveness (for example, I am currently coming down off a 4-day rapidly-cycling mania, which required large doses of haloperidol and lorazepam to bring under control) — to say the least, that entire experience was most, most unpleasant.

But my medications are not affordable, especially for people in my situation. I am trying to arrange to get some medications for free, but so far that has not been successful. If I have to pay for my drugs out of my own pocket, they will cost in excess $600 per month! This, when I have other, much more pressing money problems, such as rent, to deal with.

Currently, things are getting messy regarding my discharge date. Some people on the treatment team believe that I am not strong enough to be released, especially because I lack a social support system here in NYC, while others on the team think that I don’t want to be released at all because, as they say, “I know a good thing when I see it” (three meals per day, for example). Of course, those team members are conveniently ignoring the fact that I am still paying all my personal bills on deadline and without anyone’s help, even though I haven’t set foot in my apartment nor seen my parrots for 96 consecutive days as of this date. Nonetheless, at this point in time, some of the team want to transfer me to a long-term facility where I could stay for many many months, years, or even for the remainder of my life.

I know this situation sounds preposterous, that I am not really “crazy” at all, and I treated these threats as preposterous until recently when a crisis caused reality to set in like a dark thunderhead, so I delivered my “72 hour letter” to the staff. This “72 hour letter” petitions the courts to either release me or to schedule a court date within 72 hours so I can argue my case. For reasons I don’t understand, my letter was not delivered until today — 72 hours after I’d written it, so my court date is scheduled for next Wednesday. I am presently seeking a lawyer, preferably pro bono who knows how to handle such things.

So I will keep you updated on this ongoing saga, if you are curious.


What happened next?

An original poem inspired by this situation.



  1. #1 John Wilkins
    November 17, 2006

    Grrl, if I had the money, I’d be helping you. All I can do is offer my sympathy and good wishes.

  2. #2 Anon4this
    November 17, 2006

    Whoa… I knew this in outline but not the recent part. Also the petitioning to get out, I can totally understand.

    Scientists often fall afoul of the medical system because they can be both simulaneously articulate and descriptive, yet physically or mentally affected. For ‘regular’ people, incoherency is used to define pain or problems. It’s possible they have never seen anyone quite like you.

    Please keep us all posted. The fact is that many, many people live ‘normal’ lives as bipolar, they just need to be careful about the meds. The idea they want to essentially commit you is preposterous. Maybe they are concerned that some of the contributing issues like unemployment are not resolved.

  3. #3 DRR
    November 17, 2006

    I don’t know what to say except that I wish I could help. I am sorry.

  4. #4 JYB
    November 18, 2006

    Best of luck. My sister also has bipolar disorder and was diagnosed in high school. She had a rough few years but she’s managing quite nicely now. She’s back in school and has good people around her that care. Take care.

  5. #5 certhia
    November 18, 2006

    Hi and my heart goes out to you, and I hope you can come to some sort of compromise whereby you’re getting the tricky biochemistry/brain meds that help with the bipolar storms, AND getting your needs met for being back in familiar surroundings with parrots again–and soon… Being in enough pain to try suicide (and self-neglect) is so wrenching to hear of you, and I wish I could do more from here in Minnesota.
    That said, the facets of Hedwig that you’ve showed your readers over the months– even as you are on the dreadful, staccato roller-coaster ride of meds & interactions–is of such a terrific person that I hate to think of you out of there before you’re truly well enough so we don’t lose you…
    I appreciate your keeping us posted…and wish (yup, and pray) the best for you.

  6. #6 Rob Knop
    November 18, 2006

    Good luck. It’s sad when the institutions that are supposed to be part of the solution exacerbate the problem — although it sounds like it was a mixed bag in your case, as some benefit (in terms of eventually finding a mix of meds that seem to be working for now) came out of it.

    I know that people with chronic physical illnesses can get medicare disability coverage; can people with chronic mental illnesses get it?

    My heart goes out to you. It’s hard enough to go through life not succeeding in anything, and being convinced that you’re a failure; it’s even harder when you’ve got a serious illness that most people will mistakenly view as a character flaw rather than as an illness; and it’s even harder than that when you’ve been taken away from your life and you are facing what you are facing now.

    If you don’t have a social support system in NYC, is there anywhere else you might? Having caring family or the like around can be crucial when you’re going through serious health problems.


  7. #7 gladio
    November 18, 2006

    I have no words at all. I have been crying since I first read this. You don’t know me, but your posts, and your birds, have cheered me up at times when I was in dire need of it. I don’t know what to say, except that I’d give much to see you happy and well again.

  8. #8 parrotslave
    November 18, 2006


    Thought you would enjoy this.

    Keeping you away from your parrots for so long is cruel. I hope you get back to them soon.

    *more hugs*

  9. #9 David Harmon
    November 18, 2006

    Ouch, Ouch ouch — I’ve heard an experienced doctor describe “mixed state” (cycling daily or faster) as arguably “the most unpleasant condition possible to a human being”.

    I can definitely feel for your trials in general, and especially with the loss of your bird… the events leading to my last crash (the one that left me unemployed for the last 7+ years) started off with the (natural) death of my beloved rabbit.

    Scientists often fall afoul of the medical system because they can be both simulaneously articulate and descriptive, yet physically or mentally affected.

    Agreed, I’ve run into the same response myself. And yes, mental conditions do qualify for SSI — I’m on SSI and Medicare myself.

    It’s good that you seem to be getting a handle on the medication situation. With respect to the “committment” issue, it sounds like your medical team is pretty divided, and some are frankly full of sh*t. (Trying to tell you what you want???!!) When it comes to court, don’t be afraid to “play them against each other”, calling/quoting your allies to help against the ones who want to commit you.

    You can also remind the doctors, and yourself, that if you commit suicide, there’ll be noone to take care of your parrots….

  10. #10 Becky
    November 18, 2006

    Thank you for sharing your story, and thank you very much for your ongoing, wonderful blog posts; sending best wishes for an agreeable solution and continued improving health!

  11. #11 robin andrea
    November 18, 2006

    Thanks for letting us know how you are and what is going on. I wish there was something we could do to help. I’d like to think that knowing we are here and caring gives you some solace, in some way. Please continue to keep us posted.

    I’ll send you some pics soon.

  12. #12 Carl Manaster
    November 18, 2006

    Thanks for explaining; I had wondered, but didn’t figure it was any of my business. I hope you emerge healthy, happy, and soon.

  13. #13 Neefer
    November 18, 2006

    Sending positive vibes.

    If you ever want to talk about disordered thinking and/or life on drugs to combat mental illness, I’d be happy to listen or share experiences.

  14. #14 Peter Backus
    November 18, 2006

    Thanks for sharing so much with us. I can’t imagine what you’ve gone through. Please know that you have readers who care about you and what you do.

  15. #15 travelgirl
    November 18, 2006

    hang in there, kid! your support system may not always be physically close, but hopefully available to you when you need… :)

  16. #16 llewelly
    November 18, 2006

    … while others on the team think that I don’t want to be released at all since, as they say, “I know a good thing when I see it” (three meals per day). Of course, those team members are conveniently ignoring the fact that I am still paying all my own bills on my own, even though I haven’t set foot in my apartment nor seen my parrots for 96 consecutive days …

    Point out to those doctors that their implication that you are seeking a free lunch is wrong, insulting, and counterproductive. You deserve an apology for that implication.

  17. #17 Ray
    November 18, 2006

    I have read and enjoyed your blog over the last year or so, originally following links here from pharyngula. I hope things work out well for you. Is there anything I can do to help?

  18. #18 Lindsay Beyerstein
    November 18, 2006

    GrrlScientist, Alon told me about your ordeal. I’m so sorry.

    Please don’t blame your friend for your beloved parrot’s death, absent some compelling evidence of neglect. Stress can kill parrots and I’m sure that the forced separation took a terrible toll on your intelligent, sensitive pet.

    I’ve been through some similar problems (both with my brain and my birds). If you’d like to chat more, shoot me an email.

    My best wishes for your speedy recovery and your successful court appearance.

  19. #19 PhysioProf
    November 19, 2006

    In relation to your need for pro bono legal representation for your hearing, I think I may be able to refer an attorney who can help, assuming that your hearing will be in New York City. If you are still seeking a referral, could you let me know how I can contact you directly via e-mail?

  20. #20 Michele
    November 19, 2006

    What can I say? I am so sorry to read all of this. I wish you all the best for a speedy recovery and release. I have really enjoyed your blogs, word of the day, pictures and quizzes.

  21. #21 sgent
    November 20, 2006

    As someone who has been there (literally) I wish you everything good and positive.

    Having a chronic illness is neither fun nor easy — and a mental illness for those who are “educated” is often harder to deal with than diabetes or even heart disease would be.

    Good luck, and I hope you are soon a the way to better place.

  22. #22 TankDiveGirl
    November 20, 2006

    Grrl… I know (sortof) your pain. I’m also bipolar, though I have bipolar 2 disorder, as does my father, and his father (who has passed on). I am also obsessive compulsive… If i had a reasonable way to help you, even if it was just helping to take care of your birds, believe me, i would. (I used to keep macaws, and i love all birds)… If you’re ever in dallas and need anything, please let me know… Or if you even just need to talk, you can email me privately if you want.

    I’ll be thinking of you lots!

  23. #23 PhysioProf
    November 20, 2006

    I don’t know if you are still looking for representation for your hearing, but here is the contact information for Mental Hygiene Legal Service, an agency that provides representation in cases like yours.

    Mental Hygiene Legal Service
    First Judicial Department
    60 Madison Avenue – 2nd Floor
    New York, New York 10010

    Marvin Bernstein
    Phone: (212) 779-1734
    Fax: (212) 779-1894

    If you are in an insitution in Manhattan or the Bronx, the above office is the one to call. If you are in another boro, call the following office.

    Mental Hygiene Legal Service
    Second Judicial Department
    170 Old Country Road
    Mineola, New York 11501

    Sidney Hirschfeld
    Phone: (516) 746-4545
    Fax: (516) 746-4372

    Good luck.

  24. #24 Mikael Johansson
    November 21, 2006

    I came here from Abstract Nonsense. I have spent several years getting more or less rid of a very light (i.e. the worst I would get is light hypomania…) mixed state / hypercycling bipolar disorder.

    You have my deepest sympathy, and hopes that your life gets back into order. I am thouroughly happy to read that you are able to find medications that help at all; I know all too well what messes I ended up in until medication and therapy helped me get most of it under control again.

  25. #25 Lab Cat
    November 21, 2006

    I am very sorry to hear about the loss of your parrot. I can imagine that would be devastating, especially as it is out of your control.

    I am thinking of you and hoping everything works out for the best. Hang in there.

    It is also very brave of you to share your story.

    Best wishes and hugs [[[]]]


  26. #26 Amadine
    November 22, 2006

    Dear One, My thoughts are with you. Know you are loved by the JoFor Gang. HUGGLES, as our demonica would say.

    As a person owned and trained by skilled parrots, I know it is sheer hell to be away from them. Deepest sympathies for you loss.

    Again, I am thinking of you…your friend.

  27. #27 Eva
    November 24, 2006

    I’m just catching up on a lot of blog reading and found this. So sorry about your poor parrot! And best of luck to you with finding working and affordable medication. It’s frustrating that money has to be such a big part of health.

  28. #28 CanuckRob
    November 29, 2006

    I wondered what had ahppened to you but never realized it was soemthing like this. I wish I could help in someway but my knowledge of the US medical system is non-existant. Best wishes and I hope some of your US readers can give you some guidance.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.