Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Talking openly about mental illness

By Cathy DeDe, Chronicle Managing Editor

Everything came apart — or maybe together — for Erica Fenton of Glens Falls in 2014.

She suffers from bipolar disorder that she says she was masking with a serious addiction to alcohol and prescription benzodiazepines. She says her husband Joe finally threatened to leave and take their then-nine-year-old daughter Grace with him.

“I tried to commit suicide,” Erica says was her response. “I drank a bottle of vodka and took 56 Xanax.”

Fortunately, she says someone found her and brought her to Glens Falls Hospital, where she spent a week detoxing. “That was physically the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced,” Ms. Fenton says now.

“From there, it was to Four Winds (in Saratoga) for inpatient treatment, then outpatient, a Saratoga rehab program by St. Peter’s Hospital called SPARC, and therapy”— a full year of supported treatment.

Ms. Fenton is one of 14 local and guest writers who will share their stories in Shades of Blue, a staged reading that aims to de-stigmatize mental illness, on Saturday, May 28, at the Wood Theater in Glens Falls. Logan Luce Fisher produces and directs the event.

Ms. Fenton was living a life of extremes. “I couldn’t remember a time I wasn’t sad or very, very, very happy. I never felt calm. I was such a good hider and manipulator.”

A nurse at the time — she’s since left that high-stress job for sales — Ms. Fenton says, “I could go all day at work, taking care of other people, and then just go home and cry all night. Other times, I would be in a mania state. I was a risk taker.”

She said she’d started drinking when Grace was four years old. “I’d take a shot of Jack (Daniels) before going to the grocery store.” Out with friends? “I’d pre-game at home with a six-pack.” Her blood alcohol content when she tried to commit suicide was an astronomical 2.0, she recalls.

Depression & rage

Fellow Shades of Blue cast member Joy Kaczmarek, also of Glens Falls, said she struggled with juvenile onset depression.

“I was always introverted and shy to start with, and then I just shriveled up. I was always really sad, I was unhappy with school, I started losing friends. I’d be sad and withdrawn, but then, I’d have these violent outbursts.

“I took everything very much to heart, always, and then I’d just blow up. That’s what depression is. It’s a lot about rage and not being able to express it.”

Ms. Kaczmarek says it took three years for herself or her family to recognize this was a health problem and send her to a therapist when she was 16.

At 18, a student at Skidmore, she says she started taking medications. “I remember the fog lifting and just how amazing that felt.”

Then, adjusting for side effects, she says they switched her medication to Prozac. “That had a neurotoxic effect,” she says. “It knocked me into a mania that lasted two or three weeks. You’re so deluded. You’re not sleeping — and then you crash. You wake up and, oh my God, what have I done? It’s a little Jekyll and Hyde-ish.”

She says she lived like that, up and down, for years, adjusting medications that didn’t quite work. “I spent years in my mom’s arms, on the couch crying, as I transitioned from one med to the next.”

Twice, living in Los Angeles, she says she attempted suicide. “It took about three years for my family, for me to start believing it wasn’t an accident. We weren’t talking then. We all just glossed over it.”
Meds & coping mechanisms

Ms. Fenton recalls, “Everything that happened threw me for a loop.

“Now I have new coping mechanisms. I learned to meditate, and to be very vocal — like, this talking is very healing for me. Deep breathing is a big one, and learning to turn your thinking around very fast.”

She takes medicines: An anti-depressant, an anti-psychotic and a mood stabilizer. “I take those religiously. I can’t go back to that place again. If I did, I’d be dead.”

Ms. Kaczmarek, too, points to meditation and breathing, to cope, alongside medications that work.

“I don’t go back into the narrative of all my sugar intake. I go to bed at the same time every day.”

She says she also switched to a cognitive behavioral therapist. “For the first time, I was sitting in the room with a person, looking at what can I do with this, rather than trying to understand why I have this. Why doesn’t matter.”

Ms. Fenton says, “The most amazing part of my life — at 36, I finally feel good.”

Ms. Kaczmarek says, “I spent a lot of my 20s and 30s being sure — I didn’t think I’d make it to 30. I’ll be 48 in June. I thought I had no control over my own patterns, or anything. Every day now, it feels like gravy.”

Ms. Fenton is mindful of the impact on her family. “I know I did ask for help, and I asked my husband, why didn’t you help? And Joe was, ‘I didn’t know how.’”

Now, she says, “It’s been like marrying Joe all over again. I give him all the credit in the world. He’s my biggest cheerleader”

She adds, “My mom says she thought, if she just loved me enough I’d stop.”

It is with a note of compassion she describes their hopelessness at the time.

“The most embarrassing part is the alcohol,” she adds. “People shy away. I lost a lot of friends.”

She says that with daughter Grace, “we talk about it a lot. She says now, the best thing about mommy being better is I am present, really here with them.”

Ms. Kaczmarek says, “I learned I had to talk to people about what happens,” starting with her family. One of seven children, “I started to feel like a real energy drain. I hated being that person in the family. Things are great now, because I insisted on talking about it. This is a family disease.”

Still, “you replay the story over and over in your head,” Ms. Fenton says. “If I’m a little sad, will I fall into a depression? If I’m too happy, what’s that?”

“People ask me all the time, ‘are you okay? Have you been sleeping?’” Ms. Kaczmarek laughs. “I’m fine!”

Ms. Fenton says the message is, “If I could perform at my job and my life as an alcoholic depressed manic woman, look what I can do now! I’m so happy. I feel so good to live.”

“You learn to be merciful to yourself,” Ms. Kaczmarek says. “Look at everything you did when you were so under it.

“Now, I’m the captain of my life. The negative things in my head, that I tell myself, I wouldn’t say that to anyone else, so why do that to myself?”

She says, “I know a lot of people in this town who don’t know about this. They think I’m such a nice, friendly person, and that’s true, but it’s a hard one. People get discouraged on their own journeys. I want them to know there’s hope. Sometimes you have to dig really deep to get up in the morning, but the struggle is worth it.”

Ms. Fenton says, “I am passionate to bring awareness. We need to put faces to this disease, for people to hear our stories, see our story of survival, and know that you can do it.”

She adds, “Part of me is terrified to see how people who don’t know, react.”

“I have some terrible guilt, but there is hope,” she says. “I tell my daughter, all the time: You can make terrible mistakes. You get back up — swinging.”

Erica Fenton (left) and Joy Kaczmarek, both of Glens Falls, have successfully fought mental illness. They will share their stories in a theatrical event at the Wood Theater on May 28 that aims to “put a face” on mental illness and destigmatize those who suffer from it and their families.
Erica Fenton (left) and Joy Kaczmarek, both of Glens Falls, have successfully fought mental illness. They will share their stories in a theatrical event at the Wood Theater on May 28 that aims to “put a face” on mental illness and destigmatize those who suffer from it and their families.

Copyright © 2016 Lone Oak Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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