From the Archives: Brainsick

There may not be a Dana Foundation piece as raw and powerful as “Brainsick: A Physician’s Journey to the Brink,” published in 2002.

Leon E. Rosenberg, M.D., a senior molecular biologist at Princeton (and former dean of the Yale School of Medicine and former head of pharmaceutical research for Bristol-Meyers Squibb), describes his experience with mental illness and attempted suicide in an honest, no-nonsense narrative.

It begins:

More than four years ago—on May 26, 1998, to be exact—I awakened during another restless, dreadful night. The clock read 4:15 a.m., so I closed my eyes and tried to be calm. It didn’t work. I got out of bed. “This must end, today,” I thought. “I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. I can’t teach. I can’t even read or write.”  

After taking a walk around our farm, I brewed coffee for my wife, Diane, and me, and then helped get our 16-year-old daughter, Alexa, off to high school. Diane asked if she should cancel her appointment to go horseback riding. “No,” I said. “I’m a little less depressed, and you can’t just sit around here day after day and take care of me like I’m a baby. By the time I get a haircut, you’ll be back.” 

As soon as she had driven away, I put all the antidepressants and sleeping pills I had into a small satchel, added a full quart bottle of vodka, and headed my car toward Highway 95. I didn’t know where I was going, but it certainly was not to the barber.  As I crossed the bridge into Pennsylvania, I vaguely remember seeing the sign for Highway 32, and I exited. The sun was shimmering on the Delaware River, which only made keeping my eyes on the road more difficult. I saw a sign for New Hope (or was it No Hope?) and drove into town. I wandered up one street and down another until I saw a sign for the Wedgewood Inn.  I had never been there before, but I was too agitated to look further. The Wedgewood it would be. 

The proprietress looked askance at the luggage I carried but showed me to a small room anyway. “This will be fine,” I think I said and closed the door. I sat down on the double bed with its chenille spread and put the pills and the vodka on the bedside table. Slowly, almost ritually, I took one or two pills at a time, washed down with a generous swig of vodka. By the time all the pills and more than half the vodka were gone, I started to feel less wired—even quiet.  As I lay down and sank toward what I believed would be death, I found myself thinking of a relative who had committed suicide this way some years earlier. Perhaps I connected with him because my jumbled brain thought he, and only he, might comprehend what I was doing. 

I woke up 12 hours later with a headache, dizziness, nausea, and hiccups. I stumbled out to my car in the darkness, and called my wife from the cell phone. I remember being so relieved to hear her voice. “We’ve been looking all over for you,” she said, “where are you?” I told her what I had done, where I was, and that I wanted to come home. “Stay right where you are,” she said.

The article emphasizes that there are many treatments for depression and bipolar disorder—antidepressants, lithium, therapy, electroconvulsive treatment—that can work; putting off seeking treatment can be deadly. Unfortunately, finding the treatments that work can take time.

One thing is clear. As Dr. Rosenberg wrote, “It makes no sense to allow stigma, whose underlying premise is that people with mental illness are weak, to cow affected people into being unwilling to be diagnosed. It is time that I and other physicians say so.”

–Johanna Goldberg

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