First part of the story:
Confusing summer continued
The confusing summer continued and it did not get better. I was allowed by the university to rewrite the exam that I failed and I had about two months to prepare for it. I continued working as a research assistant for a professor and I was supposed to be doing my own research since I was a graduate student but this task I found extremely difficult. I felt that a part of my mind which was responsible for creativity evaporated and I could not come up with any ideas myself, I could only follow clearly outlined instructions. I also became very indecisive and for anything that I was going to do, I required a confirmation from another person. Some part of my brain clearly started to malfunction because previously I was able to write academic papers, organize camping trips, participate in a band. Now I could not write even a paragraph about my research, I would just sit and stare at the screen, not able to extract any continuous thoughts from my mind. I was very uncertain of what I should be doing everyday and I would refer to my boyfriend for any decision – ‘what should I do in the evening?’, ‘should I continue with the graduate program?’, ‘should I call my friend to make plans?’.
My boyfriend and my parents could see that I was quite stressed about not having any ideas for research and not being able to decide whether to continue with grad school. Me and my boyfriend took some trips to national parks during the summer in order for me to de-stress, and usually I would really enjoy camping and hiking, but these times it was different. Trips became for me too emotionally overwhelming. A view of a lake from a lookout point would bring me to tears as I would think how meaningless the beauty of this was. We were just pieces of organic tissue clumped together, soon we would cease to exist and none of our experiences mattered. What was the point of having a camping experience if once you no longer exist you will have no memory of it? During the hike several times I had this dissociative experience where I would feel that the event is not happening right now but it was happened already in the past. As if you would watch an old video of your family or someone you know and maybe who was no longer alive. I could not enjoy the moment because I did not feel that I was in the current moment, I felt sadness and nostalgia for a time that had already passed.
All these psychological experiences were on top of the physical symptoms. Since I did not have courses during the summer I did not have to wake up early and there were many days where I could not get out of bed until 2 PM. I experienced extreme fatigue and muscle aches, my body felt very heavy and it was difficult to move around, I often had shortness of breath. My eyelids were swollen and I felt pressure at the top of my head, it was often difficult to look up or look straight. There were also frequent migraines and brain fog. It was as if I was getting detached from my body and my brain – I having difficulty controlling the movements of the body and processing thoughts. My consciousness was clouded and I could not get out of the fog.
I ended up leaving the graduate program as I could not see myself continuing with more courses, exams and a thesis. At the moment when I left I was not very upset about that because in my mind I had an explanation that my symptoms were sort of there as a message that I was not going the right way with my life. I guess my mind was looking for an easy solution or it was trying to make sense of the situation. It’s very difficult for a broken brain to realize its own sickness, especially if its the first time. After I already got diagnosed and connected with many other autoimmune encephalitis patients, I noticed that those who were diagnosed at an older age were more proactive about their health. Before the onset of the symptoms in my early twenties, I have probably visited a doctor only three times since I came to Canada. I saw a dermatologist once about my acne and later on I saw my family doctor twice when I needed some antibiotics. That was really it. I had no knowledge about existence of any diseases except most known ones such as cancer and heart disease, as well as some rare ones like leprosy and plague. The latter ones get mentioned in novels or movies a lot, that’s how I had any information about them. I had no idea that there was such a thing as autoimmune disease, and I had a lot of misconceptions such as thinking that only overweight people could have diabetes.
One evening in October, after I already left my graduate program, I was coming back home from downtown by subway. I was waiting for the train when I sensed oncoming fear. There were other people around me at the station, engaged in conversation, but no one was noticing my existence. I felt that I was not a full person and it became apparent to me that my life was very lonely and meaningless. I had no accomplishments, I failed to complete grad school, I didn’t have any children. It seemed to me that all the others around me could see at that moment that I was not a full individual, and in fact they were thinking that I should not exist at all. I heard the rumbling noise of the oncoming train and I had a sudden urge to jump onto the rails. I managed to get home and called my boyfriend. We agreed to go to ER the next day and to request psychiatric investigation.
Fun with psychiatry starts
Here is the fun part of the story where I tell you about all the psychotropic medications that I tried. You name one and I probably tried it.
The next day after my incident at the subway station I arrived at the ER. When the nurse at the intake asked me what was wrong I said that I was not sure and started crying. I tried to describe that I thought I was depressed and also my life was meaningless. I did not want to live because we were all going to die anyways and I was afraid that people that I knew were going to die before me. Also I described how I often felt dizzy, fatigued, had difficulty having my eyes open, and no one was helping me. All this time I continued crying and when a psychiatrist arrived to evaluate me he decided that I had to be involuntarily hospitalized.
I was given some antipsychotics, Abilify and Seroquel, in an effort to calm me down. The medication did not work as I had a severe panic attack after my boyfriend left. My cellphone was taken away by the nurses and I was sure that I would never be let out from the hospital. I started to think that my boyfriend placed me there on purpose in order to get rid of me, I was certain that he would never come back to get me and I was being institutionalized for life. These ideas do seem amusing now, after having more experience with the Canadian health care system. There are actually not enough beds now and many people are not able to obtain a hospital stay that they need. There are also not enough psychiatrists. Usually the maximum that they keep you if you are suicidal is three days. Well at that time my mind was in a state of total fear. I was placed in a room with another person who I thought was a man and probably a serial killer. Later on I realized it was an older woman who was very quiet and slept most of the time.
My predictions about institutionalization for life did not come true and I was released after two nights with a referral to a psychiatrist. Opposite to my fears at that time, I now consider myself pretty lucky that I was actually given a hospital stay and a quick referral. I’ve read that many patients in Ontario wait six or nine months for a psychiatrist, which is a very upsetting statistic.
Below I will describe my experiences with the psychiatric treatment, but remember that this is an experience of just one person. Antidepressants and antipsychotics did not work for me personally, but it does not mean that they don’t work for some other people. As I mentioned initially – I was later on diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Encephalitis and also Borderline Personality Disorder. Antidepressants and antipsychotics usually don’t work for these conditions but these diseases are different from depression and schizophrenia. I advise for thorough medical investigation in order to understand the causes of your psychiatric symptoms!
After the first visit, the psychiatrist diagnosed me with major depression and prescribed mirtazapine. My opinion is that she really overlooked all the physical symptoms for some reason and only focused on depression. At that time all that was known was that my TSH levels were normal, my fasting blood glucose levels were within range, and the regular blood test results were OK. As I mentioned, I was also previously diagnosed with chronic gastritis and IBS. No testing for autoimmune conditions was performed, free T3 and T4 levels were not checked, vitamin D levels were also not checked (later on it turned out that they were quite low). As I said, I had very little knowledge of medicine or disease, so I was not aware of medical tests that existed. When my psychiatrist told me that everything health related was verified and that nothing abnormal was found, I believed that they literally checked ‘everything’. Of course now I know that’s not possible because there are hundreds of tests and no doctor will order all of them for you because that is just economically implausible.
I started taking the medication daily and I think I had high hopes for it. I was expecting all my issues to be resolved. I did feel a bit better in the first few weeks and actually the brain fog cleared up a bit, my eyelids became less swollen. I am not a doctor but I think this could be related to the fact that mirtazapine is a strong antihistamine. In a few weeks though I was back at the psychiatrist’s office and Wellbutrin was added to the regimen. The day after I started this drug will be quite memorable for me. It was sort of like going to hell and coming back.
On the second day of starting Wellbutrin I was a bit more energetic at work in the morning. I tried to do my job but by lunch anxiety started to creep in. This time it felt even more severe than before. Coworkers around me conversing with each other. How could they be smiling, easily speaking about some irrelevant topics such as reporting, when we were all going to die. Probably not at the given moment, but in general, it was going to happen, and how then could anything else matter? I also felt extreme fear of isolation – everyone was connected to each other but me. I could not engage in conversation, I had nothing to add, and my speech was paralyzed by anxiety. I couldn’t sit still, I felt agitated. I went down to the food court and that’s when I saw them. The old women. The food court area was filled with them. They were slowly dragging their bodies in uncertain directions, they had no where to go. I don’t know how for they had been there, but it could have been months. I know why they didn’t want to go home – at home, in the silence, it was ultimate loneliness. They came out, looking for humans, for someone to at least acknowledge their existence, but no one was noticing. They were looking at me with pleading gazes – ‘please, help us die’ – was their cry for help. They did not speak these words out loud, but I knew that is what they were asking for. I felt extreme emotional pain, I couldn’t stand looking at them. Why were people walking past them and not noticing them? They were being forced to exist here, in this underground concrete place, with no sunlight and no way out. I had to run back upstairs, I could not tolerate watching these women. It was better at my computer desk, the screen was familiar, there were windows around the floor. The fear lessened but still something was wrong. Awfully wrong. Why were all those women there, why had I never seen them before? Where was this emotional pain coming from?
I have since been back to that food court several times, since it is close to my new work location. I can tell you that it’s quite rare to see an older person there because the food court is located under the office buildings in the financial districts. It’s mostly bank employees there. But that is what our mind is capable of, painting such horrifying images.
I called my psychiatrist after the food court event and was told to stop Wellbutrin. I also scheduled an appointment with her and during my visit I told her in more details about the day with the old women. The old women that were in the food court, in dozens, silently asking me to help them die. On the way back from work that say day I also found apartment buildings with no balconies terrifying. Those apartments must have also had old women trapped in them. They could see the world and life pass them by only through the window. There were no balconies there on purpose, it was so that they could not jump. The society was forcing them to exist, not live but exist, in this abandoned state, they were being mentally tortured.
At this point the psychiatrist saw that this was not just major depression but a psychotic episode. I heard the words schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder. She said it is common to have an onset in your early twenties. I was exhibiting paranoid symptoms, delusional thoughts. All the symptoms matched. There is no medical test do diagnose schizophrenia though, the diagnosis is based on a psychiatric evaluation. I was taken off Wellbutrin and risperidone, which is an antipsychotic, was added to mirtazapine. I do forgive the psychiatrist for this misdiagnosis, but more investigation should have been done after it had become clear that I did not improve on antipsychotics. I also mentioned multiple times my physical symptoms which I have already described – brain fog, eye inflammation, migraines, fatigue, abdominal pain, etc. All these physical symptoms were regarded as separate by the psychiatrist, and not related to the psychiatric symptoms.
Unfortunately a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia or psychotic disorder is a common one for patients with autoimmune encephalitis. I hope me telling this story will bring more awareness of this disease and that autoimmune testing will be considered for psychiatric patients.
As I said, I did not improve with risperidone. Risperidone was then switched to olanzapine and trazadone was added for insomnia. I was still on mirtazapine, now on increased dose. Lorazepam was added for anxiety. Four psychotropic medications in total but I was not doing better. I continued to have panic attacks, mostly they would occur if my boyfriend or my parents did not pick up the phone. Even if it was for five minutes, I would feel completely abandoned and the instant thought was that they are in danger or already dead. There were many times when I arrived at my boyfriend’s office looking for him, making up excuses to the security guards about a relative in the hospital. I would blame him for torturing me and causing me these emotions by not picking up his cell phone and I would become violent. Many times 911 had to be called.
My brain was in constant fear mode and I would say that from reading about and speaking to other people with autoimmune encephalitis, fear is one of the key symptoms. I also continued to have what my psychiatrist called ‘ideas of reference’ – anything that I saw or heard was somehow related to my being, my current life or my future. Hearing some one mentioned their cousin would bring me great emotional pain as I was instantly reminded that my cousin lived in Russia and we were separated by an ocean. The word ‘cousin’ itself would be emotionally painful. A picture of a family on a poster ad would seem to be laughing at me and telling me that I did not deserve to be with other people, I was bound to be alone. There was emotional pain in everything that I saw and heard. I could no longer go into Starbucks because they always had music on and I could not tolerate the sounds. One evening for distraction I tried to watch a movie, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, but I had to stop because the story of Blanche making me more paranoid. I became certain that the movie was about me and there was a message in it specifically for me – the message was that I was not willing to accept that I had gone insane but everyone else around me already knew it and soon I would be locked up in a mental institution.
I continued to work full-time but it was becoming extremely difficult. I was having a hard time waking up. My body felt heavy and my eyelids swollen, I felt that the eyelids were being pushed down and I had to put effort into keeping my eyes open. I would often be overcome with panic at my work desk. My hands would become sweaty and breath uneven. I would have an urge to run out to the stairwell as I believed that everyone was observing and judging my emotional state. Olanzapine had also made my thoughts slower and I was not able to code, which was required for my job. It would take me twenty minutes to write a simple loop because I could not retrieve the necessary thinking process. I knew that this task was something that I had done before many times but a link was missing between my memory and actual implementation. I started missing a lot of work because some nights I did not sleep at all or because I was left too exhausted after a panic attack. I had no sick days since I was on a contract, therefore had no benefits, and soon I was let go. The psychiatrist still insisted on further antipsychotic treatment even though I was only getting worse and olanzapine was replaced with latuda.
At that point I saw in front of me only a dark narrowing tunnel and non-existence started to seem more and more appealing. I contacted the euthanasia clinic in Switzerland, Dignitas, and I started to research suicide methods. I ended up buying hibachi grills and a bag of charcoal as from my understanding that is a reliable and practical method, frequently used in Asia. I did once go out in my car in the evening with this equipment and sat for a while in an empty dark parking lot beside a park. My parents and my boyfriend called the police and I was again involuntarily hospitalized. The hospital stay was not very useful as I ended up being there only for one night and all they did was prescribe me clonazepam and told me to see my psychiatrist. The next time I went my mom came with me. With all the antipsychotics and my symptoms worsening I was not very active during my visits, I also did not have any ideas of what I could ask for. My mom on the other hand was much more proactive (makes sense, considering that I was trying to commit suicide), and she demanded MRI tests. She was also frustrated with continuous antipsychotic treatment since I was only becoming more suicidal, and started to do her own research online. By research I mean googling. We are lucky that we can do that nowadays. As an efficient googler and being a mother, so having more interest in my well-being than my psychiatrist, she put all my symptoms together into a more coherent picture. I had weight gain, fatigue and bad skin – those could be symptoms of thyroid disease. I also had abdominal pain and bloating – celiac disease and gluten intolerance came up a lot for those symptoms in google search. My thyroid hormone levels were normal though, we already knew that. Something else came up though – hypothyroid mom website, where many women told their stories of having normal thyroid hormone levels and yet felling awful and depressed. All these women wrote that they had elevated thyroid antibodies, Anti-Tg and Anti-TPO, and were given a diagnosis of autoimmune disease.
I now probably read at least one article on autoimmune disease a day but in 2016 I had no idea that such a condition existed. I thought there was cancer, heart attacks, diabetes and dementia. Well also schizophrenia and depression. Of course also tropical diseases but I was in Canada, so those were irrelevant. I had never heard of a disease where your own immune system produced antibodies that attacked your organs. From what the psychiatrist whom I saw seeing told me – you either had low serotonin levels and were depressed or you have hyperactive dopamine signalling and you have schizophrenia. In her opinion I had both and that’s why I was on antidepressants and antipsychotics. She did say though that there is a 30-30-30 rule in regards to antidepressants – about 30% of patients get out of the depression with medication, 30% improve and then relapse, another 30% don’t notice any positive effects. (Actually it should be 30.3333% for each, should add up to 100, to be exact).
The dopamine hypothesis has not actually been proven – how do we know that everyone who was diagnosed with schizophrenia has too much dopamine? Do we measure it? No. Schizophrenia is diagnosed by a psychiatrist based on a verbal consultation with the patient about their symptoms. Some researchers thing that schizophrenia is actually a number of disease, just the symptoms are similar. There is also a hypothesis that a significant percentage of patients with schizophrenia are cases of autoimmune disease.
So in June 2016 I went for a blood test and results came back positive. I had high levels of Anti-Tg and Anti-TPO antibodies. I had now a diagnosis of autoimmune disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis at that point, and was undiagnosed with schizophrenia. Yes, that can happen, you can be undiagnosed. My psychiatrist said that autoimmune diagnosis changes everything and I was taken off most of the medications, I only kept Sertraline, until October. I also had an appointment with an endocrinologist and he prescribed me Cytomel, which is the manmade version of the thyroid hormone T3. It was prescribed not because I had issues with thyroid hormone levels, my hormones were normal, but it was added in hope to help with fatigue and depression.
From this point on I spent many hours reading about autoimmune diseases and trying to figure out what happened to me. I continue with my story in part 3 and describe how I came to be diagnosed with autoimmune encephalitis.