Recovery from the “Beast”: Rocky, but Possible

By Joe DiGiovanni … The memory seems surreal to me now: One Sunday in the winter of 2011, I sat on my bed filling out a formal separation request online. The act would have shattered almost 21 years of marriage. The “beast” of my mental illness appeared to have finally broken me down. Luckily, my wife and I don’t give up that easily. Despite a long, challenging road, we have proven recovery is possible.

My family doctor first diagnosed my illness as depression in 1998, but it didn’t get chronic until 1999. I tried a combination of antidepressants, several weeks of therapy and some recovery self-help (using the book “Feeling Good,” by Dr. David D. Burns). I didn’t stick with treatment for long though, and soon my wife noticed my symptoms had swung to mania.

I stayed in denial until one pivotal night when an argument with my wife — with my young sons present — escalated to the point of my wife threatening separation. That proved enough to break through the walls my mania had erected; I soon sought treatment again.

Lack of treatment triggers mania

Early in 2002, I was diagnosed with Bipolar 2 Disorder. My specialist put me on herbal supplements, which helped recovery a little while. Then I went on a four-month deployment as a Coast Guard contractor. The separation from my family and lack of treatment triggered another manic cycle.

I went to the Veterans Administration hospital, where a doctor prescribed a different med that treat seizures, nerve pain and bipolar. It helped, but my decision to take a job with the Air Force in December 2003 contributed most to my improved mood. After moving, however, I made a grave mistake by not renewing my prescription. Things went well until 2008, when multiple changes at work and a missed promotion occurred.

I gradually slipped into depression subtle enough that nobody around me noticed. By 2010, after I had been taking sick days about every three or four weeks, my wife noticed and asked if I was depressed. I denied it. In October 2010, I heard an officer in our unit recount his story of planning his own suicide, only to be saved by another officer. This prompted me to seek care again.

From nightmare to recovery

The St. Louis VA staff prescribed meds for depression, despite my bipolar history. After a wonderful Christmas, I swung into a strong manic phase in January six years ago. The next three months took such a dreadful turn that my wife and I threatened separation at least five times. On the Sunday I mentioned in the beginning, as I was preparing to lector at Mass, the turning point occurred when my wife told me she wanted to help get things right again.

Still, the path back was a rocky one. A VA psychiatrist diagnosed me as having Bipolar 1 Disorder and sent me to a psychiatric ward — a living nightmare. My wife came to get me after four hours.

We explored private-care options and discovered St Anthony’s Medical Center in the St. Louis, Mo., area. I self-referred at SAMC on March 6, 2011. At last I got the right combination of medicine and therapy! After three weeks with SAMC and another eight months with a psychologist, I was back to feeling “well” — and have been there ever since.

So, yes, recovery is possible!

(Joe DiGiovanni is a lead systems engineer and NAMIWalks St. Louis team captain who lives in Belleville, Ill.)