By: Laura Susanne Yochelson

This is my story about coming to grips with a mental disorder at Lifeskills South Florida, a residential treatment center in Florida. I had a long and painful journey, marked by many false starts. Over the past year, however, I have found my way out of a very dark place. The dark place is hard to describe. It involves much more than jumbled thoughts. My illness has always had a destructive physical side, anorexia, which consumed most of my young adulthood. The relationship between the mental and the physical remains a mystery that I have not figured out.

How it Began

I got to the dark place in middle school when my family relocated from Bethesda, Maryland, to San Diego, California. Bouncing back and forth between the East and West coasts for about 15 years, I succeeded academically but withdrew socially as I struggled with chronic weight loss. My parents sent me to one mental health professional after another. I failed to connect with any of them, rejecting both talk therapy and medication. A reckoning was inevitable. It started with several psychotic episodes in southern California. These fueled a series of crisis that eventually led me to Lifeskills South Florida.

The first crisis occurred in the fall of 2015, when I just turned 26. My own thinking tricked me into becoming addicted to an enema kit that altered my body chemistry. My pacing and water drinking woke my mother up at 1:00 am. My dad called 911, and I ended up in the emergency room at a hospital in Bethesda. There I suffered a seizure and almost died because of low sodium. The psychiatrist who examined me said I had psychosis.

Things got worse following my release from the hospital. The return of my longstanding weight problems led my parents to pressure me into a two-month stay in the eating disorder program in Baltimore. I resisted, using my cell phone and laptop to ask most of the people whom I knew to rescue me. That got me in trouble, so I decided to follow the rules. I met with a merry-go-round of psychiatrists. Their carb-heavy 2,000 calories-per-day food plan got me to my target weight, but their approach denied my natural health values and they had no follow-up plan for my well-being.

I then took another wrong turn by going to a diet specialist at the recommendation of a friend. His grain-free way of eating did not prevent me from losing weight and getting depressed. A further setback followed at a treatment facility for eating disorders in Utah, where I had a bad meltdown soon after I arrived. Dad flew out to pick me up while making a desperate but successful effort to get me admitted to a mental hospital in Baltimore with an eating disorder program.

I spent two unhappy months there, disgusted by but complying with their force-feeding. After my release, I met periodically with a psychiatrist at their outpatient affiliate. She adjusted my meds, but I stuck with my agenda of getting off them altogether. I met with her solely to allow her to monitor my gradual dropping off the anti-psychotic drug Abilify.

Meanwhile, I caught an unexpected lifeline over the summer of 2016 when I reached out to my undergraduate advisor from college. She directed the health promotion program and in 2012 awarded me a degree with highest honors. She had always been incredibly supportive, encouraging me to write my memoir after college and even cutting me slack after receiving my off-the-wall messages from previous treatment centers. When I expressed interest in the master’s health promotion management program at the university, she found me a place and I jumped at the opportunity.

Although the fall 2016 semester in graduate school went well, my college lifelines began to slip away as soon as I went off Abilify in January 2017. I lost weight, always an early indicator that I was headed for trouble. My professors expressed concern over my decreasing academic performance. I failed to complete an online course in nutrition education methods. Neither of the two internships that I tried over the summer of 2017 worked out. My efforts to come up with a topic for a master’s thesis fell short.

The unraveling picked up speed at home. Living on the third floor of my parents’ townhouse, I stopped walking outside and spent practically all my time in the bath or on the bed with my foam rollers. I wrote nasty things about my family, copying the faculty at school, and got the police to come to the house. My parents hired a social worker to try to communicate with me. At her suggestion, they paid a specialist to fly with me to Fort Lauderdale Airport in December 2017, and the Lifeskills staff picked me up there.

Lifeskills South Florida is Different

I did not realize it at the time, but Lifeskills South Florida marked a pivotal turning point. I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at the gated campus in a modest neighborhood in Deerfield Beach.  No one alerted me that I would be one of dozens of clients in a program that treated adults for drug and alcohol addiction as well as mental issues. I also didn’t know that Lifeskills followed a strategy that gave increasing autonomy to those who made progress until they were ready to move out on their own.

By instinct, I immediately pushed the “resist treatment” button that I had hit so many times in the past. I yelled at my psychiatrist, Dr. Bober, my therapist Ostin and the Director of Nursing, Myrlande. When they refused to order the colonic I demanded, I threw a tantrum that led Lifeskills to send me to the psychiatric ward of a nearby hospital.

Arriving by police car at the hospital, I originally thought they were going to treat me for something physical, even cancer. Instead, I was injected with Invega Sustena to address my psychotic symptoms. I complained that I did not want it and wrote notes to the psychiatrist about people I wanted to come pick me up, but Mom and Dad insisted that I had stay the course at Lifeskills when I was released from the hospital. Surprisingly, my last days at the hospital were okay; I felt safe and socialized well with other patients.

Returning to Lifeskills, I got a fresh start. Dr. Bober, the Medical Director, thought I was like a different person. Now, because I was stabilized, I was able to relate to him and to the routine of full-time residential treatment. My parents mailed me the things I wanted from home including salt lamps, clay pots, and essential oils. They also purchased an ozone disinfector since I was very sensitive to the smoking habits of those around me.

The schedule at Lifeskills was highly structured. I took part is multiple support groups every day and met regularly with Ostin and Dr. Bober, as well as Myrlande. I got fifteen minutes of phone time in the afternoon or evening and no use of my cell phone or laptop computer, except on special occasions.

Dr. Bober put me on Lithium to ease the anxiety of my transition. Then he added Propranolol because of the tremor I developed from the Lithium. I learned that meds involve balancing, but I had confidence in the judgment of my psychiatrist, who always made a point of bumping fists with me. I took in stride his diagnosis of chronic mental disorder. I had been hearing voices on and off for many years. The same mind that got me A’s in school sometimes veered into delusions. But Dr. Bober said my disorder could be managed with the right mix of meds and support along with my determination. I believed him.

My therapist, Ostin, also won my confidence. It meant a lot to me that he read my memoir about my battle with anorexia starting at age 13. Twice a week, we walked in the parking lot and around the South Florida property for almost an hour. He encouraged me to pursue yoga when I expressed interest and he supported my passion for holistic health. I thought he was skilled at practicing mindfulness exercises with me and this is part of what made him an effective therapist. He also helped me move beyond judging others. Socializing with others did not always come easy, but I learned that a lot of people were going through situations similar to mine.

My parents raised my allowance in residential treatment, so I could do masks and facials with inexpensive cream and coconut oil. They also supported acupuncture and waxing appointments, which I scheduled via the therapist’s phone. These creature comforts, together with the natural and organic supplements recommended by Myrlande, helped me deal both with my homesickness and with my struggles with constipation.

I stepped down from residential treatment to partial hospitalization, or PHP, in May.  This meant moving to supervised transitional living at Osceola House in Delray Beach, 25 minutes north of the Lifeskills main treatment center. Osceola was actually a collection of furnished bungalows with two or three bedrooms. The staff ferried us in a van back to Deerfield Beach for five full days per week of group work and therapy. We were on our own in the evenings and over the weekend, but our reliance on the staff for transportation kept us on a short leash.

Although I handled the transition to PHP well, except for an overnight in the hospital due to prolonged constipation, the next phase of treatment pushed me beyond my limits. I found the prospect of cutting back to nine hours of treatment in intensive outpatient care (IOP) overwhelming. As a result, I went through a period of binge eating. When I shared suicidal thoughts with the staff of Osceola House, they had no choice but to accompany me to the hospital. The psychiatrist added Prozac, Abilify, and Trazadone during my three days there. The new meds brought me out of my slump.

Things turned around when I returned to Osceola House to resume IOP. I practiced yoga at a nearby yoga school, developed friendships within that community and decided to pursue yoga teaching as a career option. I was able to break out of a deep pattern of social isolation with the support that I received from my family, my new therapist Danielle, and Osceola House staff. I expressed myself more openly in IOP groups on body image and relationships while also participating actively in the Delray chapter of a national support group, Codependents Anonymous.

In addition, my advisor helped me get back on track at the university.  I had reached out to her when I was still in residential treatment. She enabled me to re-enroll in the health promotion management master’s program, where I completed a nutrition course and wrote a 10-page paper based on interviews of yoga instructors in South Florida.

Mom and Dad helped me lease an affordable car, giving me more freedom to move around. I started exploring the local area and found businesses that interested me. There was definitely a community in South Florida on holistic health and writing that I was eager to get involved with.

Moving Forward

As I prepare to move out of transitional living to my own apartment, I look back on my treatment in Florida and realize that the most important step towards becoming independent is that I have learned to accept where I am now. I have moved beyond some of my sensitivity and become more comfortable in my own skin. I had a breakthrough establishing relationships with Ostin, Dr. Bober, Danielle and others, and I decided that medication can be helpful.

Since finishing the intensive outpatient program around Thanksgiving, I meet with Danielle weekly and I see Dr. Bober monthly. Today, I recognize the value of therapy and medication. I am more confident in my life path and much more self-aware. I have greatly increased my skills interacting with other people while staying true to my values. I plan on obtaining my master’s degree in the spring of 2019 and continue to pursue yoga both personally and professionally.

Help is Available

If you or a loved one is suffering from a mental health disorder or substance use disorder, Lifeskills South Florida can help.  Our team of professionals use evidence-based modalities to help promote recovery, resiliency, and self-determination while addressing the challenges each client faces.  Call us today at 866-321-9430 or complete our contact form for more information.  Lifeskills South Florida is the place where second chances become new beginnings.