Out of Darkness After a Mental Health Crisis: Kelli Davis
Warning: This post contains descriptions of self-harm and thoughts of suicide.
Kelli Davis, of Lowell, Arkansas, remembers a time when she felt “a definite arrogance” about her chances of developing metastatic breast cancer. She had been diagnosed and treated twice, with stage I disease in 2009 when she was 26, and in 2013, with stage IIIc, at age 31.
“I believed that people who had metastatic breast cancer must just not be vigilant about their health. I was like, ‘I’m not that person,’” says Kelli.
Both times, she focused on getting through treatment and returning to her regular life. She didn’t feel anxious or depressed. “My mental health was not impacted,” she says.
In November 2014, she developed a cough. Her oncologist recommended a scan, to rule out lung metastases. The cough turned out to be from an upper respiratory infection, but the scan showed metastases in her bones. Kelli, then 32, had stage IV breast cancer.
Kelli spoke with LBBC contributing writer Robin Warshaw about how that diagnosis led to a mental health crisis and how she got through it.
Robin: How did you react when you found out you had metastatic disease?
Kelli: I became obsessed with finding people who were long-term survivors. I felt like the next person I heard about who was 10 years out from a stage IV diagnosis would give me the courage to live my life again.
It was really just my mind failing me. I would not sleep. I stayed up all hours of the night, online, searching for long-term survivors.
Robin: How were you functioning in daily life?
Kelli: I made a valiant effort to resume normal activities and go to work. I would get up in the morning and do the afternoon in the office. That became increasingly difficult. I couldn’t concentrate or focus on my job. It got worse and worse.
I was put on a clinical trial and the cancer responded within 2 weeks. You would think that would be a blessing. In fact, it made me worse. I was thinking, “There’s no way this is actually working and it’s not going to work very long.” I would go to work even less. I couldn’t plan for the next weekend. I would literally see myself on my deathbed.
Robin: Did you talk with your oncology team about what you were feeling?
Kelli: About 6 weeks after diagnosis I asked my doctor for something to help me sleep and he gave me Ambien (zolpidem). I realized how quickly that could make you numb to the world around you. I enjoyed sleeping because I didn’t have to think about this terrifying reality anymore. I started to abuse the Ambien. I would wake up, just barely enough to remember this is my fate, and take a bite of another Ambien.
When I said I had anxiety, my oncologist and staff gave me Xanax (alprazolam). I said I also had bone pain, which wasn’t severe, they gave me Percocet (oxycodone). I said “I have crazy anxiety” and was given Ativan (lorazepam).
I would use all those meds and try to figure out how I could find the right prescription for a life without cancer. That’s what I was doing. I wasn’t physically addicted to them; it was more like a crutch I needed at that time.
Robin: Did your negative thoughts continue?
Kelli: I eventually moved my bedroom downstairs to the basement. I covered the windows with blankets. I hated the light because it meant daytime, responsibility, taking a shower, going to work. I would set an alarm for every 15 minutes in the middle of the night, just so I could relish it still being dark outside. That told me there was something wrong with me. I didn’t know what was happening, but it was not a normal way to function.
I would do things to injure myself so I could justify staying in bed. One time it was icy outside and I thought, “What if I sustained a fall on the ice?” I was at work and had a heavy music box on my desk. I grabbed it and beat myself around the waist with it, around my buttocks and my thighs, to make it look like I had fallen.
When my husband came to pick me up, I showed him and said, “I can’t stay up and help you this weekend because I fell.” I didn’t care that he was mad. I remember feeling this overwhelming sense of relief that I got to stay in my safe space all weekend long.
That’s really a symptom of a broken mind. I can’t imagine doing something like that now. It’s a terrifying thought.
Robin: Did your depression get worse?
Kelli: A couple months in, I spent 2 weeks in my bed. I stopped showering. The thought of getting out of bed made me vomit every morning. I kept thinking, “I don’t want to die, I just don’t want to live this life. I want to live somebody else’s life.”
Eventually I ran out of all those pills. Insurance was not going to pay for any more. I had used up all my sick time, I was going to lose my job, the phone was ringing like crazy, I didn’t want to leave the bed. I was petrified of all those things that were pressing on me.
I looked over at a gun in my closet. I had my phone in my hand and I thought, “I have two choices. I can call and get help, or I can end it all.” My fingers dialed 911 and I said I didn’t want to live anymore. I knew that I couldn’t explain everything that was happening in a short phone call. I called my oncology clinic, too. They called the local authorities, to hasten things along because they realized there was something seriously wrong with me.
When the ambulance came, I walked out in a nightgown and a pair of jeans. At the hospital, they spent about 6 hours trying to figure out what to do. There was a bed in a psychiatric hospital that mainly treats drug addiction. I think they knew I didn’t have a physical addiction to the meds, but they knew they needed to get me out of that situation to regain my footing.
I was not able to sign my name. I couldn’t talk. I remember being so nervous, I just paced the room back and forth. It was 3 or 4 days before I could say anything.
Robin: What happened during the 2 weeks you were in the psychiatric hospital?
Kelli: They didn’t give me any withdrawal medicine because I wasn’t addicted to medicines I was prescribed. What I was addicted to was this nasty negative talk track and this rumination that I was experiencing over and over again.
We had group sessions where people would talk about why they were there and what their goals were. A nurse asked me if I had anything to add. I finally said, “I have stage IV breast cancer and that means I’m going to die.” People weren’t afraid or grossed out by me at all. They responded in a positive way, genuinely encouraging me about things I was saying. And I thought, “Maybe my life does have value.” I opened up. I started to eat again. I also had a break from my cellphone. That was a powerful piece in regaining my footing.
Little by little, I was able to see myself living a year from then. After leaving the hospital I was on an antidepressant for the next 2 years.
What helped me more than anything was trying to figure out how to help the metastatic breast cancer community. I knew that mets wasn’t getting much attention or research funding. I learned about Metavivor, an organization that funds metastatic research, and thought, “I need to do something special for them like a gala or a masquerade ball.” Then it hit me — the Metsquerade!
Robin: You and Lisa Quinn, who also was diagnosed with stage IV disease, planned the first Metsquerade for April 2016 in Springdale, Arkansas. How did you make that happen?
Kelli: We didn’t have any guarantee that we’d make a dime. We had to book a big venue and put everything on credit cards.
We partnered with a local news station that told our stories on TV and gave us a media sponsorship. Walmart, where I worked at the time, was a sponsor. Lisa lived in Springdale her whole life and received lots of support from the local community. Her husband, Patrick, a real estate agent, had the network and marketing abilities to make the event a success. We raised $137,000 — which blew my mind. We held it again in 2017 and 2018, and have raised almost $900,000. All proceeds go to Metavivor for research.
Since then, Metsquerades have popped up in eight other locations around the country. We created a guide for how to do it and also started the Meta-ribbon challenge, a fundraiser for Metavivor using your story and a website we create for you. I travel and speak about metastatic breast cancer, do advocacy for organizations, including LBBC, and am writing a book.
Robin: What do you do to care for yourself?
Kelli: I’m on Faslodex (fulvestrant) and Ibrance (palbociclib). I clean houses and work for an organizing company, making extra money because I’m on disability now, divorced and dating a great guy, Greg. I don’t think about cancer on a daily basis. When I think about cancer, it’s about cancer as a cause, not about my breast cancer.
While in the hospital, I learned mindfulness. Focusing on, “Can you not think about mets for 10 seconds? Can you picture yourself here in this moment?” and “Can you think about what fall leaves smell like?” Those were things I had cut myself off from in the land of depression. I didn’t want to experience joy at all.
Allowing myself to feel those things again was so healing. At first, I thought mindfulness was hokey and absurd. But the power of intention [mindful thought] doesn’t mean I’m going to intend myself out of a terminal cancer diagnosis. It’s making the most of this moment.
Robin: What advice do you have for others about dealing with mental and emotional distress after diagnosis?
Kelli: You are entitled to your feelings, no matter how they range. A metastatic breast cancer diagnosis is life-altering. You are experiencing a grief cycle that will take time.
Find a good psychologist whom you trust. I saw one in the psychiatric institution and afterwards — and still do today. It has proven invaluable. A growing number of oncology clinics are including comprehensive emotional care in-house. Don’t be afraid of using supportive meds but be mindful of overmedication.
Be wary of isolation. There are amazing online and in-person support groups that will understand like no others. They have been my lifeline.
If you are feeling hopeless and helpless and think you are in danger of hurting yourself, LBBC strongly encourages you to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/) at (800) 273-8255. This hotline provides free and confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
This article was supported by the Grant or Cooperative Agreement Number 1 U58 DP005403, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Department of Health and Human Services.