With my friend recently checking herself into a psychiatric center for severe depression and suicidal thoughts, I cannot help but think of my own experience in the hospital so long ago.

It will be 15 years ago on August 5th.  How could I have known that in less than one month the terrorist attack now known as 9/11 would have occurred?  I wonder what I would have felt and thought about it had I not just been released from the hospital.

Since it was so long ago and no, it does not come to mind often, I have had the luxury of time to think about my time spent there.  It does surprise me that if I were given a choice, I would not choose to take away that experience unless, of course, the lowest time of my life were taken away with it.

I am not saying it was pleasant because it was not.  Or that it wasn't terrifying going through the process just to check myself in, as that was the hardest part of the entire ordeal.  I watched my then boyfriend/now husband of perhaps two years cry because he did not want to leave me there.  After we received the tour, the conditions of the psychiatric floor really were not the best, but they were adequate.  He was the one who had begged me that this was the right thing to do, but now he could not bear to leave me.

It did take a lot of courage to tell him that this was what I needed, I had no other choice.  He finally left, and slowly my experience began.

I know I felt a tremendous amount of anxiety, but as I got into the uncomfortable, thin mattress with the even thinner blanket and bed spread, I finally felt a tiny bit of peace.  Some of the weight had been lifted off of my shoulders.  I no longer had to worry about work the next day which is what started my downward spiral and I was convinced was the whole reason I was suicidal.

The reason I would not take the experience back started the next day, when I began meeting other patients.  I was surprised to find that most of them were friendly.  They approached me without fear, asked about me (in a similar way as being in jail I would imagine, "so what are you in for?") and treated me as an insider, a comrade, giving me the whole run down of the place and the rules.  Most importantly - how to get around those rules.

Still being so depressed, I did not care one ounce about any rules or how to get around them, but being around people who I no longer had to pretend I was okay was such a relief.

I had recently been diagnosed with as having bipolar disorder, and had virtually no knowledge about the manic side of it.   Later I realized I had been in the hospital with quite a few manic people, or at least those were the ones that stood out to me and that I enjoyed being around (isn't that always the case?  Everyone likes being around the happy, manic people?)

At breakfast, I started being asked so many times if I had a coffee restriction.  I thought it was such an odd question and I had absolutely no idea.  They asked if I would order them coffee for breakfast, so I ended up ordering several cups and gave them away.  Even knowing what I know now, would I really have told them no?

It was a true crash course in the different behaviors of mental illness, and I was constantly struck by activity and the stories the other patients had to tell.  If not to me, then I heard them telling nurses or doctors, not in confidentiality of course.

I will never forget those people, their stories or their behaviors.  I will not forget the man who made me laugh, but also had recent stories to share that I had no idea happened to people.  He had been manic, wrote so many bad checks that the police were searching for him, lived in Dallas and had bought a tractor, then flew to Cancun.  He was married but went by himself, and while he was alone in his hotel room, in another country, he crashed, and crashed hard, falling into a deep depression.  That was my first lesson on the danger of unchecked mania and depression.  It was a powerful story and one I will never forget.  And of course...."Really?  You bought a TRACTOR?"  "Yep", with a big grin.

We met every night as a group, and for a few night s in a row, it was impossible for anyone to talk.  One woman was incredibly agitated that for whatever reason, the kitchen was on lockdown in the evenings except for after we took our medication.  Some medications had to be taken with food, of course.  I do not think I was even aware there was a kitchen until the first time she brought it up.  I was still in own little world, with stimuli entering here and there.

The group leader (there were several) tried more than once to explain the situation, but the explanation fell on deaf ears and the same protest would start again, with the leader growing frustrated, yet in a controlled way.  What we ever really talked about, I have no idea.

At one group meeting, a man who never talked and always kept his head down suddenly had another man in scrubs standing behind him and following him everywhere.  Someone told me that he had made a suicide attempt and I was so sad, but it also scared me.  I am unsure what the fear was about.

They did eventually make me talk.  I was very agitated myself.  I had been there for 24 hours and had still not seen a doctor.  I was taking the same medication that did not help.  It was before bed, in the evening, and my back was to the door.  My grand introduction to the group started with my complaint that I had not seen a doctor and verbalizing my frustration with that.  All eyes suddenly looked up and behind me, so I turned around.  At that very moment, my new doctor had decided to walk up behind me, while I was complaining about him, to see me for the first time.  I was so humiliated and certain he was not going to help me now.

I did get better though.  Not back to my normal self, not out of my debilitating state, but I was no longer obsessively thinking about suicide and that in itself was a major miracle.

I still think about the people I met, their experiences and what I observed.  There are many, many more I have not mentioned.  Each one has been a lesson in some form or fashion.  The person who could no longer take Lithium, was absolutely fine, but was a business owner and could not afford taking any risk of not being stable trying to find a new medication, so he checked himself in until he found a new one.  I thought so highly of him, taking his illness so seriously.  I still think that of him and have not forgotten him.

So many important observations and lessons about my own mental illness that life has not otherwise taught me.  I can read about them on the internet, doctors can tell me, but how would I have been able to actually observe so many people and the actual behaviors all at one time?  Seeing it firsthand is so much more powerful than anything I could possibly read or someone could tell me.

No, I would not choose to take away those lessons.  If it meant taking away the months of the worst time of my life then of course, yes - please take all of it!  But it was the right place to be for me at the right time, and as a bonus, learned so much that I still think about today.


Lynn said...

Sunflower, thanks for commenting on my blog. I lost track of you and now am going to catch up on your blog. I always enjoyed your writing.

Kansas Sunflower said...

I am so, so sorry about your friend, Lynn. I keep thinking about the comments people left on the article you posted...ugh. I have missed you! I could not get into my blog for quite awhile - user error. : ) Take care!!

AZ Larsens said...

This is such a great post, I appreciate your insight into what it's like being inpatient. I've been on the other side as I used to be a social worker visiting patients in the hospital and often wondered how they felt. Some checked themselves in, others were there against their will.
And I have family members who are diagnosed bipolar so although I try to empathize, as they often tell me, I can never really know how it feels to walk in their shoes. I enjoy reading your posts.

Kansas Sunflower said...

Hi AZ! : ) That is so fascinating!! I would love to see things from your point of view as well - cognitive to everything around you. I was only able to capture snippets here and there because of my state of mind. I hope you know that your empathy meant so, so much to every patient you met.

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