This week we present two more stories about people who need help to deal with mental health.
Part 1: Comedian Zack Stovall reevaluates his past battles with his mother in light of a new diagnosis.
Zack Stovall is a writer, producer, cartoonist, and comedian. He currently produces the Story Collider and has performed stand-up and sketch comedy across the South, Midwest, and New York. Zack has written for St. Louis Magazine and Vulture, and is the author of a collection of cartoons, 'Fancy Things.' He currently lives in New York City with his wife, Rebekah, and their goldendoodle, Newman. Zack tweets as @zstovall and lost most of his hair sometime in 2009.
Part 2: Audrey Kearns' big opportunity to appear as a panelist at a "nerd-convention" turns disastrous when she has an unexpected reaction to a new antidepressant.
Audrey Kearns is a writer, actor and producer. She majored in both theatre and political science at the University of Florida. The political science degree was to make her mother happy because her mother thought that living as an actor would be god-awful. She was right. Audrey is the founder and editor-in-chief of the influential pop culture website, Geek Girl Authority. She hosts and produces the podcasts Geeky Fun Time, Kneel Before Aud and 5 Truths and a Lie. She is a Los Angeles producer and host of The Story Collider. She also wrote, produced and performed in the successful one-person comedy Obsessively Okay which somehow managed to combine her battles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder with her love for Star Trek cosplay. If that's not nerdy enough for you, then just ask her to show you the two separate inhalers she carries with her at all times
Part 1: Zack Stovall
So I’m eight years old at Dale’s Donuts. I’m with my friend and his dad. His dad looks at his watch and he begins scrambling because he's got to get me home by noon. I had spent the night with them earlier.
He starts rushing and we’re trying to delay and he stops me and he goes, “Zack, I’m not scared of your dad,” who happens to be six-foot-five, 300 pounds, former marine police officer. “I’m not scared of your dad. I’m scared of your mom.”
My mom was really interesting. Throughout my childhood, I'd be playing baseball games and you'd be able to pick her out because there was a small perimeter around her in the stands. She would yell things, like most parents do at their kids, but instead of ‘woo’ or ‘yay’ or general support, she would get very specific. She’d be like, “Widen your stance,” “Shoulder width,” “Extend your arms,” “Lock your elbows,” “No,” “Why,” “Swing,” “No, no, no. Why?”
I like to think that I missed out on a couple of All-Star games because of that but, really, I wasn’t that good.
Mom and I had a really interesting relationship. She worked nights a lot at the beginning. She works for the post office and she has the night shift for the first little while. One morning, she had come home early and my brother and I woke up. We decided to we wanted to go get some cereal, and we’re going to go get the top-shelf stuff, Golden Grahams.
Being kids and it being on the top shelf, we decided we were not going to just get a stool or anything to go climb up. We would jump up, open the door, jump up again and grab the cereal, jump up a third time to slam it shut. This is an indelicate maneuver, obviously.
So we obviously wake up my mom and instead of coming out and just saying, “Hey, stop it. I've been working all night,” she comes out and just starts screaming, opening the doors of the cabinets and slamming them shut, saying something along the lines of, “This is what it sounds like,” just screaming at the top of her lungs, opening and shutting and slamming. It sounded like the band Stomp if they were falling down a flight of stairs, but they're supposed to love you.
It was, in a word, terrifying. My little brother, I remember, didn’t finish his cereal because of that.
But I think the most interesting thing about growing up with my mom was definitely the elementary school talent shows.
So I’m from a small town. You might have heard of it. It’s called Arkansas. Our school town shows were like big deals. You know those stereotypical Southern dads who are like, “My boy is going to play football,” “My boy is going to play quarterback,” and, “My boy is going to love beer,” my mom was kind of like that only it was, “My son is going to sing,” “My son is going to sing in public,” “My son is going to sing contemporary Christian rock songs.” Guys, I was not good.
And we’re talking about bangers only, the hits. Steven Curtis Chapman, DC Talk, Jars of Clay, the Christian version of a boy band - 4Him. The hits. I would do this every year and every year I would object strenuously.
I would say, “No, I don't want to do this anymore.”
And she’d say, “No, you have to. You're so good.”
I'd be like, “No, I’m not.”
And she’d be like, “You have to.”
Then one year I just snap. I go, “No, I’m not doing it this year.” She finally convinces me to do it but I say, “If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it on my terms,” which is a very bold thing for a fourth grader to say. I drew a line on the sand. No more contemporary Christian rock songs.
The problem, fourth graders don’t have any taste. They have no taste. There's no Pitchfork Magazine within those classic bookmobile flyers. They don’t exist. The only think I cared about were superhero movies and eating meals designed for adults. That’s all I cared about.
But I was in luck. Fourth grade, a superhero movie had come out. Batman Forever came out. It came out and everybody knew what it was. It had a soundtrack and everything. So I decided to sing, on my own volition, fourth grade, Seal’s Kiss from a Rose. You never realize how sexually graphic the song Kiss from a Rose is until it’s sung at you poorly by a morbidly obese fourth grader in an ill-fitting vest.
For those of you who don’t remember, the lyrics go something like this. It’s like, “Baby…”
Sir, you are just a baby like eight years ago.
“I compare you to a kiss by a rose on the grave.”
What does that even mean? Are you getting molested by an undertaker? Whoa!
“Ooh, the more I get of you, the stranger it feels.”
This is already extremely strange.
“But now that your rose is in bloom…”
This round boy is talking about vaginas.
“A light hits the gloom on the grave. Dadada.”
My small-town church elders all gathered to figure out whether they were going to run us out on a rail or just burn our house down. Men were screaming and women were crying and children were puking and all were denying the existence of God.
So I waddle off stage and my mom is back there because, of course, she forced her way back stage.
She goes, “Zack, you did such a great job. You're the best. Everyone loved it. I love you so much. Way to go.” Completely untethered from the reality of what had just occurred.
And that continued, that sort of distance from what was actually going on versus what she was saying was going on.
A few years ago, I got a call from my dad and he said, “Son, your mom’s cheese has finally slid off the cracker,” which, like most Arkansas phrases, sounds like it has a long proud history but has never existed before.
“Son, your mom’s cheese has finally slid off the cracker. She moved out three months ago and she's been living with her parents, your grandparents.”
I didn’t know what to think. None of us did. We would try to reason with her. We tried to talk to her. We’d call her. She’d answer the phone and seems like everything was normal. And we tried to say, “Hey, what’s going on? Is there something wrong? My dad certainly isn’t blameless in any problems that you guys would have in your relationship,” and she would just push us away to the point where she would hang up as she was screaming at us.
She would completely distance herself from what was going on to the point that when… my dad wasn’t one for ultimatums, but what he did say was when she took half of their retirement savings in order to buy her own house, he said, “This is effectively the end of our marriage,” and he told her that.
So he went to the bank to sign over the paperwork and then she's walking in, he's walking out visibly upset. She looked at him and she goes, “What’s wrong?” Completely untethered from the reality we were seeing.
She would also create stories that put herself as the victim always. One Christmas, fairly recently, we went over to her house and we spent eight hours with her that day. Then we went to go leave and see my great aunts on my dad’s side, great aunt and great uncle. She got so incensed, so mad she drove 45 minutes to where I was staying with my brother and she took all of our gifts that we had gotten her for Christmas and threw them in the front yard in the rain and said she never wanted to see us again. Completely untethered.
After that my brother and I started talking. His wife is a psychologist, M.D., and she told us about something called borderline personality disorder. She gave me four books on it. I read them all and they described my mom to a T.
It’s a disorder. It’s not like depression. And not to generalize about depression but where there's a chemical imbalance where you can take medication and sort of weather that. This is conditional therapy that they have to be willing to take.
It’s extremely high functioning so it’s extremely hard to diagnose. My mom was able to hold down a job for years. She would always say the right things sometimes and then she would always come down with the worst things also.
It’s always very contradictory. She would say stuff like, “I can’t be selfish,” “I hate myself,” “You don’t know how much I love you,” “I don't want to see you anymore.” And this contradiction would cause us to have to set up what books about borderline personality disorder would tell you are boundaries. You have to establish rules for people, for your loved ones to interact with.
In order to interact with them, they have to abide by these rules. And when they don’t, you have to keep them at bay, otherwise it’s a symptom called caretaking where you will actually start to exhibit those behavior just to avoid those behaviors in another person, and it will begin to manifest as a personality disorder of your own.
I've always thought of my mom’s condition as sort of like this time traveler’s terminal illness. Usually, a terminal illness somebody gets sick. They may last for a year, a few years, but there's a finite amount of time and then that person is gone forever.
My mom has been sort of in and out. After that Christmas, I didn’t talk to her for three years until we ended up seeing each other at my niece’s birthday party, which she then made a scene during and left. But the last ten months have been great.
One of the things about borderline is that it’s very hard to diagnose because the people don’t want to hear it. They'll get very violent and push that away so we've never had an opportunity to even talk about this. The only thing that we have even gotten close to talking about is when I was visiting this summer, my mom looked at me and goes, “Pete Davidson, he's got borderline personality disorder. He made it Saturday Night Live.” And that’s it.
So throughout this entire journey with my mom, I've been asking myself this one question. What’s the difference between somebody with an overt, abject mental illness and somebody who’s just really being a complete and total asshole? I've sort of come to realize that when it’s somebody you love, it doesn’t really matter. You'll take them through whenever they're time traveling in with their disease. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes a light hits the gloom on the grave, and you have to leave your hometown for forever.
Thank you, guys.
Part 2: Audrey Kearns
I catch my husband staring at me a lot a lot. I’m watching TV, he's staring at me. I’m folding laundry, he's staring at me. I’m wearing Dr. Who leggings and a Harry Potter shirt writing on my Star Trek journal, he's staring at me, but that’s fair. It seems creepy but it’s not, because when he stares at me he has the most gentle eyes and a warmth in this smile. When he stares at me, I feel safe, which is a great thing.
It’s a good thing especially because four years ago I woke up in a hospital without any idea of how I got there. If it wasn’t for him and his gentle smile and his radiating safety, I would have lost my mind.
I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression disorder and an anxiety disorder. I'd like to think I’m well rounded. I received my diagnoses in my late 30s and was really excited for real because, after decades of suffering, I now had a name for my hidden monster. And now that I had a name, I could defeat it with my husband. We would defeat it together and he would be the Podrick Payne to my Brienne of Tarth.
Yes, I am a huge geek. It’s an important part of my story because, after I got my mental health trifecta, I had a very nerdy and creative renaissance. I wrote and performed in this one-person show called Obsessively Okay where I outed myself as someone with OCD and as a card-carrying science fiction and fantasy nerd.
I founded an influential pop culture site called Geek Girl Authority. I had several podcasts, I was doing live shows, and I started to go the nerd conventions not only as a fan but as a panelist. Now, I had been going to these nerd conventions already and sitting in the audience with notebooks and a pen at the ready, really excited about it and now, I was on the other side. It was so cool and I felt really accomplished.
But, as I went through my renaissance, I realized that my mental health struggles were not going away. I still got depressed, I still had my compulsions, and I found out that anti-depressants don’t work on me.
But I kept trying to defeat it. I kept trying to defeat it by confiding in my husband and being creative and going to therapy, which is really hard. It’s really hard to make time every week to go talk about how fucked up you are and how you’ll always be fucked up and how you're going to be fucked up for the rest of your life. It’s fucked up. But I did it in hopes that some miracle in science can make it all go away. So when my doctor told me about this new SSRI that was out that was getting positive results, I thought, yes, this is the one.
Now, SSRI stands for Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor. Serotonin is a chemical that your body produces for your brain and your nerve cells to function. The idea behind the pill is it helps ease depression by raising the serotonin levels in your system. So we began the treatment.
It didn’t work so my doctor raised the dosage and we waited. There was still no relief and so we decided together, my doctor and I, to try the maximum dosage, and I started that. And I book a nerd convention as a panelist.
So a few days before the con, I start to feel really fuzzy and, with each subsequent day, I feel weirder. I feel like I’m in a fog and like I’ve smoked weed but there are no laughs and there's definitely no chill.
The morning of the con was worse. I felt like my brain and reality are moving at two different speeds. Since I’m basically high, I’m not making good decisions. I get in my car, I drive to the convention, I go to my panel, I walk on stage and I wake up in a hospital six hours later.
So what I’m going to share about these six hours, I don't remember at all. They've been pieced together by my husband and by my friends who were there.
I was on the panel and I just got up and left, just walked out of the stage. A friend found me in the convention hallway and she thought I went and changed to some cosplay, a costume, because I was wearing a really short skirt. But as she got closer, she realized I wasn’t wearing a short skirt. I was trying to take off my pants.
She said, “Audrey, what are you doing?”
And I said, “I’m hot. I’m so, so hot I have to get this off of me.”
Then convention personnel showed up, as they should in those kind of situations, and she told them that this was not normal. So they called an ambulance and they called my husband.
In the emergency room, I was agitated, I was uncooperative, I had an elevated heart rate, I had a fever. My husband told the doctor I had been on this new medication and been feeling weird. She dismissed him and she said, “Is your wife a heroin user, meth, opiates?”
He said, “No.”
“Is it possible your wife is a drug user and you just don’t know it?”
“No, I’m telling you it’s this new medication she's on.”
“Well, we’re going to test her for illegal drugs.”
And so, frustrated, he comes back to my bed only to find me in restraints. He was in shock. It’s for my own safety, they said.
Now, I’m sure it’s not pleasant for anybody to be in restraints, but for someone with OCD, like me, having your control taken away from you is absolutely devastating. I was fighting against the restraints trying to get free. My husband would say something to me and I would calm for a moment but then I'd slip away and I'd contort my body and struggle and fight, trying to get out of those restraints.
He demanded that they treat me for my anxiety and they did. They admitted me to the hospital.
Now, while I’m in the hospital getting settled into the hospital room, I become aware for the first time in six hours. I feel like I've been sleeping and I just woke up, except I wake up in a dark room and I have an IV in my arm and there's machines beeping and I see these nurses and I don't know how I got there. I’m so scared. I’m terrified.
Then I see my husband’s back. He turns around and he locks eyes at me and he tilts his head and he smiles.
He says, “There you are.” So he knew, somehow he knew that I was back.
And without that gentle smile ever leaving his face, he comes over to me and he just wraps him in his warmth and he tells me what happened and I am devastated. I am so full of shame.
Then the test results come back. Guess what? I’m not an illegal drug user. The doctors had to concede that my husband was right. You see, while I was in the emergency room, he furiously searched online my symptoms and my medication and he found something called ‘Serotonin Syndrome’. That’s what it was.
Serotonin syndrome is incredibly rare. It’s caused by a buildup of serotonin in your system and my body was really sensitive to the increased dosage.
Now, knowing that and knowing that it’s not my fault did nothing to alleviate the sense of shame that I was feeling. I had been acknowledging in public and to myself that I have a mental health disorder. I had been doing everything. I was a perfect patient, taking all the steps: therapy, mindfulness, medication, creativity, and it wasn’t good enough. I felt like I was being punished for following the rules. I have OCD. I need rules. I enjoy rules.
So even finding out that it explained my agitation, my heart rate, my fever, and my blackout, I still felt horrible. So, from my hospital bed, I make my husband and my stepdaughter a promise not to tell anybody, not my friends, not my family, and I just didn’t want to be judged.
“Did you know Audrey was in the hospital because she has a mental disorder?” “Do you know why Audrey hardly leaves the house and only eats certain foods? It’s because of her mental disorder.” “Do you know why everything in Audrey’s house matches? Mental disorder.”
Well, actually, that last one is because I have taste. I just didn’t want to be defined by it so I retreated and I stopped talking about that all together.
Then a year ago this month, I was at a nerd convention. I was sitting on a panel and someone asked me a direct question about mental health, and I froze. I looked out at the audience and I saw these people there with notebooks and pens at the ready, and I remembered. Oh, that’s what I used to do. They are me. And I knew I had to answer honestly, so I do, the only way I know how. As a nerd.
So speaking in the language of my geeky people, I said, “Fighting a mental health battle is like fighting a dragon, except it’s a dragon that can’t ever be fully vanquished. You can have a quiver full of arrows called therapy, mindfulness, medication, creativity and even with all those arrows you still may not be able to take that flying lizard down. That’s because the harsh reality is that my mental health doesn’t have a neat ending like my favorite stories do.
But that doesn’t mean I stop the work. I can slay my dragon and that’s wonderful and heroic, but it’s going to come back at some point because it is part of me. Instead of crumbling when it does, I have to find the courage to get back up and slay it again,” not Beyoncé slay, although that would be so cool. More like Jon Snow’s slay.
“My life is going to be a series of battles and I’m going to lose one every now and again. The best that I can do is get up and be the best warrior that I can be. Get up, slay and slay again.”