A Doctor’s Broken Brain Story
In the first installment of our mental health series, we asked 49 women on what they wish others knew about mental illness. It was a powerful article that helped us understand their unique struggles a little bit better. In this second installment, we will dive deeper as a doctor shares his personal story when his brain failed him.
- How a young and thriving doctor suddenly contracted multiple diseases all at once - ADD, depression, dementia, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia
- The embarrassing and overwhelming symptoms and struggles
- What he discovered as the source of his broken brain
- The identity of this mysterious (and famous) doctor
Here’s his story in his own words:
Learning, thinking and speaking were always easy for me. My brain never failed me. In college, I learned thousands of Chinese characters. In medical school, the intricate patterns and names of our anatomy -- the bones, muscles, organs, vessels, and nerves -- mapped effortlessly into my mind, and the complex pathways of physiology and biochemistry were clear after one lecture and reading my notes.
I ran four miles every day to medical school. I took detailed notes in my classes, able to simultaneously listen to, remember, and write down nearly every word my professor spoke.
At the end of the day I ran back again to my apartment, did yoga for an hour, ate a freshly prepared whole-foods meal, and studied without distraction or loss of focus for three hours every night. Then I crawled into bed, fell peacefully asleep within five minutes, and slept deeply for seven hours.
The next day I got up and did it all over again.
That rhythmic life broke down, as it does for all physicians in training, when I entered the hospital and started pushing my body and mind beyond their limits with regular thirty-six-hour shifts on top of an occasional sixty-hour shift (Friday morning to Monday evening!).
When I went to practice as a small-town family doctor in Idaho, I worked a shortened schedule of only eighty hours a week, seeing thirty patients a day, delivering babies, and working in the emergency room.
From Idaho, I went to work in China for a year, breathing in the coal-soaked, mercury-laden air, before I landed back in Massachusetts, working a crazy schedule of shifts in an inner-city emergency room.
Then suddenly (or so it appeared at the time), my brain broke -- along with the rest of my body.
Sitting with patients, I often couldn’t remember what they had just said, or where I was in eliciting their story. I tried to take careful notes and keep track, but I couldn’t focus on conversations, couldn’t remember anyone’s name. I started taking pictures and writing down personal details about my patients to serve as my peripheral memory so I wouldn’t embarrass myself the next time I spoke to them.
During lectures I had to give as part of my job, I would get lost in the middle of a sentence and had to ask the audience what I had just said. When I read a book, I had to go over passages again and again just to glean any meaning. At night, I read my children bedtime stories but had to robotically mouth the words, because I couldn’t simultaneously read aloud and understand what I read.
Sleep eluded me. Exhausted and bone weary, I would lie down in bed at night and remain sleepless for hours. After finally drifting off, I would wake up the next morning feeling as if I had never slept.
Depression and anxiety, which I had never known before, became constant companions.
At times I felt I couldn’t go on any longer. My capacity for pleasure and laughter faded into a distant memory.
The worse my body felt, the worse my brain functioned. If my stomach was bloated and swollen and I had diarrhea, I couldn’t think or sleep. If my tongue was inflamed or my eyes swollen and red, I became depressed. If my muscles ached and twitched, I couldn’t focus. If I felt bone-weary fatigue, I would forget what I was saying or why I had just walked into a room.
Some doctors said I was depressed and recommended antidepressants. Psychiatrists suggested antianxiety drugs. My family doctor prescribed sleeping medication. A neurologist told me I had ADD and I needed stimulants. Others said I had chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. All I knew was that my brain was broken, my focus gone, my mood depressed, my memory fleeting, and my body wasn’t working.
All at once, I couldn’t pay attention, remember, or experience joy and happiness. It was as if I had suddenly ‘contracted’ three terrible diseases -- attention deficit disorder, depression, and dementia. How could my brain have failed me? The part of me that was the strongest suddenly became the weakest link. What had happened?
What I experienced was extreme and I hid it from the rest of the world, except for a very close friends. I faked it and pulled myself through each day.
But after that summer day in August when my brain broke, weary and fighting brain fog, I began searching for answers.
Piece by piece, cell by cell, body system by body system, I discovered the source of my broken brain. By combing through the literature, consulting with dozens of scientists and doctors, and experimenting with my body and mind, I slowly put myself back together.
It wasn’t one thing that broke my brain. It was everything piled higher and higher until my brain and body couldn’t take anymore. It seemed sudden but was the end of a long series of exposures to toxins, stress, and a strange infection.
The trail led back to mercury poisoning from living in Beijing, China, breathing in raw coal used to heat homes for 10 million people, eating endless tuna-fish sandwiches, and having a mouthful of ‘silver’ or mercury fillings. I was also missing a key gene needed to detoxify all this mercury, which compounded the problem. I found out about this later through careful testing.
Years of sleepless nights delivering babies and working in the emergency room destroyed my body’s rhythms, which I tried to bolster with quadruple expressos, giant-size chocolate chip cookies, and mountains of Chunky Monkey ice cream (I reasoned that was healthy because of the bananas and walnuts!).
Then one late summer day in 1996 I ate or drank something up in a wilderness camp in Maine that infected my gut. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Can you guess who this doctor is?Before I reveal his identity, I’d like to quickly walk you through my “AHA moments”:
- Mental illness can happen to anyone at any age. It doesn't matter if you’re young or brilliant (doctors are not immune, too).
- Breaking the body’s rhythm can break your brain.
- The amazing mind and body connection! Let me quote him here “The worse my body felt, the worse my brain functioned.”
- Diet, lifestyle, environment, and stress play very significant roles in our mental health. Additionally, every decision or choice we make in any of these areas piles up over time that can either make or break us sooner or later. (I freaked out with the tuna sandwiches and silver fillings!)
Okay, the moment of truth…
The doctor we’ve been talking about is none other than Dr. Mark Hyman!
How is he now? He is doing so great! As he mentioned above, he was able to put himself back together. Yes, you read that right.
So, one last “AHA moment” I want to share with you all --- THERE IS HOPE!
Over to you...
What is your biggest takeaway from Dr. Hyman’s story?
Which part resonated with you?
Lastly, share this story of hope with at least one person in your life who you believe will benefit from it.