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Driving and Mental Illness November 22, 2010

Posted by Crazy Mermaid in Medication, Mental Hospital, mental illness.
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When I first began driving, I was a teenage girl living in Kihei, Maui, Hawaii. My dad was Project Manager for a mid-sized construction company named Red-Samm/General, a joint venture between two fairly large construction companies.  He was in charge of putting together a seven mile long sewer line through downtown Kihei.  In fact, I tell my friends that if they’re staying in Kihei and flush the toilet, they can thank my dad.

In those days, my dad came home from an extremely stressful job and started  “driving school for Kathy”. Things were different in those days.  There was no Driver’s Ed on Maui.

After working late, he drank a few beers and then threw me the car keys, saying “Let’s go”.  I climbed behind the wheel of a manual four wheel drive Jeep pickup truck, and he climbed in the passenger seat. As I learned where the gas and more to the point brakes were on that manual transmission, he sat in the passenger seat, holding on for dear life.  Anyone who has ever sat in that passenger seat can tell you it’s no picnic.  Around the Island we drove (it’s a 50 mile trip around the whole thing), driving on two lane roads out in the country lanes.

As I got older, I learned to drive other vehicles, eventually even owning a few of my own. Like my father, I taught my two boys how to drive (with the help of Driver’s Ed).  I became comfortable (and so did they) in my role as Driver Instructor.

During my career as both an owner of a mid-sized commercial general contracting firm and project manager of commercial buildings, I learned to operate heavy construction equipment, including (bull) dozers, backhoes, dump trucks, and skidders (used for logging operations).  My dad, also a project engineer but for sitework subcontractors until we went into business together, taught me how to operate all of these and more.

If there was any driving to do, I did it. I never let anyone drive if I could help it.

All that changed when I entered Fairfax Mental Hospital.

The initial dose of Lithium (900 mg) knocked me on my ass. I had major coordination problems, including doing what my husband calls the “lithium shuffle” up and down the locked down hallways of the psychiatric ward – where those of us who were involuntarily committed were housed.  I lost my sense of coordination, developed the typical side effects of massive doses of lithium, and lost my desire to drive anywhere.

As the Lithium gave way to Geodon and subsequently ,when Geodon failed to work, Risperdol, I continued to be uncomfortable driving.  In fact, when I got behind the wheel of the car on those rare occasions when I absolutely had to, I had trouble telling how far I was from the car in front of me. I couldn’t tell where the end of the car began.  I had trouble finding the gas and more importantly the brakes.  When I had to go to the local hospital where my gynecologist’s office is, I hit the gas instead of the break when I parked the car. It scared me so badly that I refused to drive myself anywhere for quite some time.

The Risperdol made things better as far as my coordination went, but still I avoided driving at all costs unless I absolutely had to. I felt much safer with someone else being behind the wheel.  I had neither the focus nor physical coordination to drive and I knew it.

Recently, with the switch from Risperdol to Geodon, I finally, two and a half years after my hospitalization, began to feel that I could actually be comfortable driving.  Yesterday, I am proud to say, I volunteered to drive my husband and I to the local Home Depot.  It was the first time in 2 ½ years that he had been in the passenger seat with me.

Everyone around me has been very patient with me, giving me the emotional support I needed to get to this stage.  But I am learning the joys of driving again, albeit slowly and cautiously.  It feels good.

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Comments»

1. Cherrie Herrin-Michehl, MA, LMHC - November 23, 2010

Congratulations for another step in the healing journey! It reminds me of all the things and tasks we take for granted, such as driving.

2. Jennifer - November 25, 2010

Good for you! I’m glad you have made such progress and are able to drive. I know how hard it is to overcome obstacles caused by mental illness. And thank you for your post about NAMI. I’m very involved with NAMI where I live, and not enough people know about what a wonderful organization it is.


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