Mentally ill—that’s what I am. It’s a circumstance I have endured, managed, adapted to, coped with, struggled with, suffered from and, yes, even learned from for most of my adult life. But oh, how I hate that label! I hate the stigma surrounding it. I hate being prayed for as someone who is “less fortunate.” (Yes, that really happened.) And I really hate how it makes me feel somehow less than others. So I’ve decided I’m going to start using the term “psych-ick” instead. That’s not psychic as in 1-900-SendMeMoney; rather, it’s short for “psychological ickiness.”
The first 30 years of my psych-ick experience was all about depression. This is no secret to those who know me even casually. For whatever reason, I have always been very open about my distorted state of mind. I’ve often thought that if I had enough money, I would take out a full page ad in the newspaper that said, “I have a psychiatrist. I see a therapist. I take psycho-tropic drugs. I’m a good person.”
Recently I added acute anxiety into the mix. I think I’ve had at least some anxiety symptoms for a long time, but I always just lumped it in with the depression. Then about nine months ago it started getting really, really bad. I eventually began having massive panic attacks and ended up in the hospital–and yes, that means the psych ward.
Oh, the psych ward. Now that’s an experience. Your husband takes you to the door, you walk through, and he goes home. You watch the door close, feeling scared and confused and more than a little angry that you’re there even if you know it’s where you really need to be.
The first thing you do is go to your assigned room and take off all you clothes while a nurse and an aid look to see if you have any injuries anywhere and, I suppose, if you are trying to smuggle something in. No body cavity search, thank goodness. I know they have to document this kind of stuff, but believe me, it’s humiliating. Then they take all your clothes, including the underwear you are wearing and what you brought with you in your suitcase, and wash everything. I’m sure there is a good reason for that, but no one ever clued me in on what it was. Meanwhile, you get to wear one hospital gown in front, one in back, with a breeze up the middle until your wash is done.
For me, the first was the hardest part. The rest of it was tolerable, if somewhat annoying. Someone checks to see where you are every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day. At night, the nurse checks you every 30 minutes to see if you are still breathing. You can’t close the door to your room all the way. The door to the bathroom is like a saloon door—cut off at the bottom and top, giving you only as much privacy as is absolutely necessary. You can have only three books. You have to get someone to come unlock the shower for you. You can’t have any of your own toiletries. You get checked out by a doctor and get your blood taken. You see a psychiatrist and a therapist. The windows really do have bars. During the day there are groups you can attend. If you don’t go to “group,” you have to stay in your room working on your goals, whatever they are. You can’t have any laces for your shoes or drawstrings for your sweats. I wasn’t allowed to have my favorite ugly jacket because it had a zipper. You can have visitors from 6 pm to 7 pm. Then they leave, and you’re trapped because the doors to the outside are locked.
I fully understand the need for all these precautions, but the result is that the psych ward is not very conducive to healing. In all fairness, though, healing isn’t what the psych ward is for. The main purpose is to make sure you’re safe for the short term and get you started with the resources you need to begin the long term healing process.
Now we get to the fruit part. This may sound a bit contradictory, given what I’ve just described, but I actually felt like my stay was a very positive experience. Fortunately, because I was feeling insanely anxious rather than suicidal, I had some emotional reserves to work with. When I first came in I felt pretty uneasy and at a loss as to what I was supposed to be doing. Nobody told me what to expect. Nobody even told me where to go or what to do. I had to keep asking, “What’s next?” In other words, no one acknowledged I was there except when they had to examine me like a specimen in a lab experiment. Talk about feeling insignificant! This situation ignited a deep, compelling urge to do what Christ would do in that circumstance. So I decided the least I could do was to get to know some of the other residents and make sure I spoke to the newbies in their hospital-gown glory. It’s amazing what happens when you get outside of yourself and look for what you can do to ease someone else’s troubles.
Another fruit that came from my stay in the psych ward is this blog. The therapist I met with while in the hospital introduced me to Action Commitment Therapy (ACT). Mainly it is the idea that instead of putting your life on hold until you feel like it is in control, you just go out and live your life by committing to and acting upon valued goals, regardless of your emotional state of mind. Unfortunately, he didn’t know of a therapist in the area who was trained in this kind of therapy. I wrote him a thank you note after I got out of the hospital and gave him my contact information in case he learned of someone who could work with me from an ACT perspective. A couple of months later he contacted me to say that he was no longer with the hospital and, because of that change, there would be no conflict of interest in his working with me if I were interested. I was. As we started working together, he suggested I start writing. I shared with him what I was writing and, after a great deal of encouragement from him, I decided to forget waiting until things were perfect and just jump into life with both feet. So I created this blog and with some, ok, a lot of trepidation put my thoughts out there for everyone to see. It feels kind of like one of those dreams where you’re out in public in just your underwear. Flapping in the breeze in just my undies, metaphorically speaking, will be worth it if someone benefits by reading what I write.
There is another fruit that has sprung from the seeds of my suffering. It is, in fact, the most important one. Because of my experiences, I have learned compassion. I have learned that we seldom know what is going on inside someone else’s head. I have learned that we don’t know what is in a person’s background that directs his or her choices. I have learned to give the other person a break just as I hope they will do for me. I have learned to be more gentle in my judgments.
Above all, I have learned that there is always reason to hope. When I’m in the throes of a depressive episode it seems not only impossible but incomprehensible that there will be, that there can be, anything other than unrelenting darkness. But after 30 years, I have gone up and down so many times that I know, intellectually if not emotionally, that it really does get better–always. Knowing that doesn’t magically draw me out of the black abyss, but it does help me know that if I just keep slogging through the emotional muck and mire I will eventually get to solid ground again where the fruit is sweet and satisfying.
Image credit: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/photo_17693610_white-human-head-with-tree-3d-concept.html’>vicnt / 123RF Stock Photo</a>