Andrea Madden remembers the bottom vividly: apartment in total disarray; sleeping on the couch for days at a time; motivation so sapped, she couldn’t muster the energy to take a shower. She was largely cut off from social interaction.
It was 2015, and the Chicago-area native was in debt, on food stamps, and unemployed. “I didn’t care about living. I wasn’t committing suicide, but I wasn’t actively living.”
The path to that moment stretched back years. She recalls being diagnosed with depression and going on meds at age 10, but with no real sense for how or why. Her junior and senior high school days brought the troubles and trials many teens experience. “Junior high was awful.”
College also presented ups and downs. During her sophomore year, she was diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and by her junior year she started rebelling against the status quo, dying her hair red, getting body piercings, and partying excessively.
“I don’t know how much of that was related to my mental illness or how much of it was just related to being tired of being like everybody else. I just wanted to lean into the abnormality that I felt.”In her senior year, things became even more intense. “I couldn’t handle the emotions that were inside me. It was too much. I didn’t know how to get it out. It was like I was choking.” To release that pain, she used scissors to cut her arms. “It was immediate release. A, because I could focus on something else, and B, it was like I had released all this pain that was inside of me.”
The description she shares of her mental health treatment reflects an equally unsettled track. Her medications took a harsh physical toll, in some instances keeping her up for days, other times leaving her exhausted. In college this often limited her ability to concentrate and function well in class. After entering the working world, frequent bouts of oversleeping and late arrivals to the office translated into rapid job turnover. Along with the fatigue came weight fluctuations, going from super thin to nearly one hundred pounds over her norm. And there were major disruptions in her personal interactions: Ties with family and friends were strained; her relationship with her boyfriend she described as extremely unhealthy. Perhaps most significantly, the combination of failed medication management, outpatient therapy stuck at an impasse, and repeated stays in short-term treatment programs shattered her faith in mental health professionals.“I didn’t trust doctors anymore.”
Nearly dying after driving under a trailer truck on the highway after falling asleep at the wheel proved a turning point. “My mom sat me down and talked about residential treatment centers.”
They reviewed three programs across the country, one of which was Riggs, which she chose based on the sense she got when she toured the Center. The forested grounds and brick buildings reminded her of her college campus. “It felt like it was where I needed to be.”
But after her mother departed and Madden faced the prospect of her first night alone in Stockbridge, a different sentiment set in: “I had never been to a place like this before. It was completely foreign to me.”
For Madden, life at Riggs was going to be about finding the middle of that emotional spectrum.
When she saw her therapist for the first time, the session was fundamentally different from any she’d had before: In that meeting “I had to lead, I had to open the discussion. I didn’t realize that’s how it worked. My entire life I was forced in therapy. Not here.”
From the start, she made it a point to join activities such as the patient-led Community Events Board, which is instrumental in organizing events such as off-campus outings.“I felt like getting involved would be helpful. It was my first taste of examined living” a term Riggs uses to describe the process of reflecting on the meaning of behaviors, choices, and interactions with one another in open, non-punitive ways.
As her time at Riggs progressed, so did Madden. Initially staying at the Inn, the primary residence where patients receive the highest level of treatment and services, she transitioned to the Lavan program, where patients live in an apartment setting in which they share responsibilities such as shopping and cooking and further develop social skills needed after leaving Riggs.
That’s not to say the Riggs experience was easy or always to her liking. She had disagreements with some staff members and described the “Task” process—which is a patient-led group that attempts to identify, clarify, and resolve individual and group conflict or alienation through communication with relevant parties—as feeling to her more like unwanted scrutiny than helpful.
Ten and a half months after arriving at Riggs, Madden discharged on her 32nd birthday. The transition was bittersweet: leaving an environment and a routine she had come to know, while going out into the world with strength and confidence.
Specifically, she attributes two key aspects of her present life to what she learned at Riggs.
The first is the power to deal with adversity such as the deaths of close friends and family members that came in rapid succession, going sober after years of denying she had a problem with alcohol, and finding steady employment.
The second is the drive to explore and pursue her passions. A long-time lover of cats, she has expanded her diverse assortment of pets to now include two cats, two fish, a guinea pig, and a hedgehog. She has also studied the Japanese energy healing technique reiki and is considering developing her involvement with that in more depth.
In thinking about her life before and after Riggs, Madden sums it up succinctly: “It was a 180-degree change from the girl who was lying on the couch in the same clothes for two weeks because the thought of walking three feet to go take a shower was exhausting. I am not that person anymore.”
Editor’s note: The privacy of current and former patients is of paramount importance to the Austen Riggs Center, which strictly adheres to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. The subject of this article has given permission for us to disclose the personal details that this story contains.