A Decade Of Darkness: Surviving Mental Illness

Today, we celebrate our independence. We celebrate our autonomy as a sovereign nation to make our own decisions and chart our own destiny. The United States has evolved into a magnificent country where our freedoms are of paramount importance.

This is the first true Independence Day for me in over a decade. This is the first fourth of July that I’m not looking over my shoulder wondering when the next tsunami of depression will hit me. I have gained back my real freedom; I am mentally healthy.

On January 5, 2006, I was enjoying a leisurely horseback ride on the beach of Nevis only to wake up a week later in my childhood bedroom of my parents’ home in New York. Dazed and confused, I called for my Mom.

“How did I get here?” I asked.

“You had a bad horse accident last week. How are you feeling?” she asked.

And so, my journey began – my decade of darkness…….

There are no real words to accurately describe the physical pain of a broken neck (my C2 was broken one millimeter to the left of the late, beloved Christopher Reeves, which is the only reason why I can still walk and talk) and four broken ribs. The pain would come like a person smashing my neck or left side with a baseball bat. Out of nowhere, I’d get hit and need to breathe through the pain. For months, I never knew when, how hard, or for how long. Given my yoga background, I knew how to breathe through the pain and was able to manage it without medication.

Then the Severe Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) made my physical injuries seem like a walk in the park. For weeks after the accident, I couldn’t remember my last name. I couldn’t recognize more than 70% of the contacts in my phone. I couldn’t control my emotions at all. I had absolutely no filter. It didn’t matter if the thought was positive or negative, a compliment or a criticism, an insult or a loving comment – if it was in my brain, it came out of my mouth. Needless to say, all my relationships became very unstable. The majority of my professional relationships simply ended because I couldn’t remember them.

I couldn’t read, because of the eye injuries, but even after that stabilized months later, I still couldn’t comprehend what I was reading. Just like having a few glasses of wine and experiencing life more amplified, this state became my new reality. A sentimental commercial on TV led to a pool of tears and a cute commercial led to a barrel of laughs. I went from being a successful executive to being completely dependent on those around me to keep me safe and secure.

I was an avid yogi for six years and a certified Bikram yoga teacher for two years – it was my greatest passion for health and fitness and I was immersed in the community. When I didn’t show up for regular classes, I received many calls. This community not only helped me get back into class, they also helped me with nutritional advice to support my healing. All of my nutritional knowledge left when my feet left the stirrups. I integrated yoga and nutrition into a conventional rehabilitation program at the RUSK Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, took no pharmaceuticals and healed in record time. It usually takes 5-7 years for all cognitive impairments to heal from Severe TBI. I was released from RUSK just six months after admittance.

Being the consummate driven A-type New Yorker, I smiled walking out of rehab and thought, “Yeah, Kirkie! You did it! You killed it!” I never felt so proud of myself - graduating with highest honors from High School; graduating from Emory University; receiving a scholarship to Cardozo Law School; spearheading the marketing for the high-tech law practice at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy; being the youngest appointed diplomat in the history of the Israeli Government to North America; landing my first listing (a penthouse in South Beach) within 60 days of starting my luxury residential real estate career – NOTHING and I mean NOTHING compared to the accomplishment and joy I felt walking out of the #2 rehabilitation hospital for brain injury in just six months! I did it!

With my health back I was able to start working on my career. I had lost my entire business and corresponding residence, but I was completely OK with that. I could have been paralyzed. I could have lost my life. But I was alive and kicking and SO grateful for my recovery. I happily started to rebuild.

This was the first half of my year in 2006. Life took on a whole new meaning and perspective after that. When a person survives a near death accident, sustains significant injuries, loses her business and residence, and needs to start all over again from ground zero at age 34 – things change. Everything changes.

But at the stage in life when most professionals are busy building their careers, finding a mate, and building a family, I was busy surviving. Surviving depressions. Despite my cognitive impairments healing in record time, the TBI shifted the biochemistry of my brain and as a result, I started suffering with cyclical depressions. Given my miraculous recovery, there was no way I was going to take a pharmaceutical. I knew the homeopathic solution was just around the corner. I just had to find it.

I’m the survivor of five suicidal depressions. This isn’t the type of depression where something bad happens and you naturally feel down for a few days or weeks. These are the type of depressions where you’re in bed, unable to eat or drink, sleeping your days and nights away, because life has become so dark. A condition where the only reason to get out of bed is to relieve yourself of the physical pain of needing a bathroom. Where you can’t pull yourself out of bed to get to work, see friends, nothing....

“Damn it, Kirk, get up, get out, and get to work! You have nothing to complain about! You’re the grandchild of Holocaust survivors – your family went through far worse than you! How dare you even think of staying home! GET UP AND GET OUT NOW!” – I’d scream to myself. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t. Through the years of increasingly darker depressions, that scream went to a normal decibel; then it went to a whisper; then it disappeared entirely. As that scream faded, I fell deeper and deeper into the vortex of darkness…..

These were the type of depressions that I suffered with for a decade. I was able to alleviate them through raw food cleanses, but they always came back and came back with a vengeance. My last depression was during the summer of 2015, when I showed up at my parents’ home, announced, “I give up”, headed to their guest room and collapsed. I spent that summer in bed at an all-time low:

Nothing and no one mattered anymore. The only relief I could possibly conceive of was leaving the planet. There was no good. There was no love. There was no light. It was a dark, living hell which I needed to get out of and the ONLY way out was to check out!

The summer of 2015 was the darkest period of my life. It was pitch black and my parents were terrified. I needed acute inpatient care and they found me the right place, The Refuge – A Healing Place in Ocala, FL. This recovery center believes that all mental illness and addiction is caused by trauma. Traumatic experiences build on one another in the center of the brain. Unable to be released due to lack of therapy/processing, it causes a short fuse in your brain and you start to suffer.

This culture says – a chemical flaw is a character flaw – so most people keep their inner turmoil to themselves. They either “push through it” or self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping - whatever the chemical or process is that provides them with the best dopamine rush. This starts the cycle of addiction.

I spent 10 weeks at The Refuge and healed. I walked out on Christmas Day, 2015 feeling better than I had since before my accident. But what stayed with me was what I learned there – what I saw and experienced at this treatment center:

Everyone is suffering to some degree. All those happy smiling people you interact with daily – most of them are suffering in silence. Due to the stigma attached to mental illness and addiction, most people go untreated until some massive crisis happens and all too often, it’s too late, because the person is dead (sometimes with a trail of innocent bystanders).

According to the Center for Disease Control, 41,000 Americans die by suicide each year. It’s the tenth leading cause of death amongst adults and the second leading cause of death amongst youngsters ages 10-24. Forty million Americans (18% of the population) are afflicted with an anxiety disorder and I’m sure you’re aware of the drug epidemic sweeping our country now. All you need to do is watch or read the news – there’s something daily covering the opioid crisis, the heroin epidemic, the alcohol issue. Twenty-five percent of the global population will suffer from one form of mental illness or addiction in their lifetime.

We have a problem.

A big problem.

And I’m doing something about it!

The ramifications of mental illness and addiction are so widespread that every single person in the United States has been directly affected. Whether you have suffered yourself or have a close family member, friend or colleague suffering, everyone knows at least one person with a condition. Moreover, it has a severe impact on society. From school and movie theatre shootings to violent person to person attacks and robberies, every aspect of our society is effected by these insidious diseases.

Yet, regardless of all the media surrounding these issues, there is still a stigma. A stigma that says - you’re weak, worthless, and broken if you suffer from any of this. Why is it that people can compassionately talk about a mutual acquaintance who has taken ill with cancer or a stroke, but when it comes to a mental illness there’s no compassion? The brain is an organ, just like the heart and lungs! The brain is the most complex organ in the body, so it makes sense that the medical community continues to learn about its complex functionality and perhaps the complexity of the brain is what creates the fear in society, of not knowing how to address any issues or implement a ‘quick fix’. When it comes to an addiction – it’s hush hush and make sure you don’t tell anyone. I don’t know the origins of why or how this happened, but it’s causing a pandemic – people are not getting the basic care they need.

A CHEMICAL FLAW IS NOT A CHARACTER FLAW!!!

A Decade of Darkness: Surviving Mental Illness, my autobiography, will debut this fall with the launch of my nonprofit, The Live In Light Foundation (LILF) - dedicated to the global destigmatization of mental illness and addiction. Based in Miami, LILF will provide a comprehensive, three-pronged, cross-cultural approach to this pandemic.

We hope you will join us on our mission to destigmatize mental illness and addiction, so that those who are suffering will feel safe enough to come forward and get the care they so desperately need.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank my parents. Not only did they give me life – they saved it! Love You, Mom & Dad!

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