Posted in Anxiety, Bipolar, bpd, coping, Depression, mental health, OCD, PTSD, stigma

Stories from the Mental Hospital

**all names changed for privacy reasons

Two years ago, I graduated from a residential mental health facility. Yes, I lived in a psych ward for a few months (average stays were anywhere from 1-4 months). It doesn’t mean I was or am currently dangerous. It wasn’t legally required or forced on me. I was sick enough that I qualified for admission, and it was an incredible opportunity to make leaps and bounds in my mental health recovery. The hospital I stayed in (Rogers Memorial Hospital) is one of the best mental hospitals in the country. There were patients from all over the country and even some from other parts of the world. There was an intense screening process to determine if you qualified for admission. Then I was put on a waiting list and waited for a bed to open up for me.

So… why did I qualify? I struggle with 8 mental illnesses on a daily basis, including borderline personality disorder, type 1 bipolar, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and complex post-traumatic stress disorder. I was sick. Monthly visits to my psychiatrist and weekly therapy visits weren’t enough. I was on some medication, but it wasn’t the right concoction yet.  For 18 months or so leading up to my residential stay, I was in the ER at least twice a month for self-harm or active suicidal thoughts and was admitted to stay in an acute psych ward at least once a month. I was constantly suicidal and had attempted to take my life over 100 times by that point. There are multiple times I would have died had the police not broken into my apartment, or a friend had not physically held me back.  I wasn’t a danger to anybody else, but I was a grave danger to myself.

So one Friday afternoon, I got the call from Rogers that a bed would be available for me the following Wednesday. I was sent a detailed packing list, outlining the restrictions on what I could bring (the unit I stayed on was extremely self-harm and suicide-proof, so things like drawstrings in pants and spiral bound notebooks weren’t allowed). Naturally, I did my best to live it up for the next few days before I was “locked up” in the hospital. I ate so much junk food, stayed up late binging on Netflix, saw my friends one last time, ran around outside at 3am during a thunderstorm… you get the idea. Before I knew it, Wednesday had arrived and I was off on the adventure of a lifetime.

I was amazed at how massive the campus was when we pulled up to the hospital. I had been picturing a typical hospital, tall with lots of windows, not a lot of outdoor space. What I found was much nicer. There were half a dozen beautiful buildings. Gardens filled with statues and flowers sprawled out between the buildings, and you could see multiple gazebos poking up behind the bushes. We walked through the main doors and filled out some paperwork, then loaded my luggage into a van that would take me across campus to the FOCUS center where I’d be living. Yep, the grounds were so big we took a van to the building I’d be calling home.

I will never forget pulling into the FOCUS parking lot. My favorite building I’d seen so far on campus was the one we stopped in front of. We dragged my luggage through the front doors and into the office just inside. I met some of the staff and started my paperwork and assessments, which took about 2 hours to complete! My fellow patients were all very friendly and introduced themselves, telling me it was going to be okay. And with that, life in the mental hospital began.

At FOCUS, they just push you in head first. There was very little leeway given and they kept a strict, rigorous schedule that you were expected to follow, or you would be promptly kicked out (believe me, it happened). Each morning we’d start with mindfulness, then either art or “gym” before attending dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) with our therapist. After lunch, we had cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with our behavioral specialist (BS). We received plenty of homework in both therapy classes that kept us busy until dinner. Once a week we had a spirituality class and a nutrition class. Our evenings were filled with more homework time, as well as weekly activities like open gym, open art, going to the YMCA, or a trip to Target (to pick up snacks, clothes, anything we needed). We also met 1-on-1 with our therapist, BS, and the head psychiatrist every week. There were also sessions with our family every week or so, to keep our loved ones up to date on our progress and educate them on how to support us when we were discharged. We were given free time before bed and on the weekends. We could vote on activities we’d like to do on the weekends (go to a bookstore, an ice cream shop, a playground, etc) and went to the YMCA on Saturdays and Sundays.  To say we were busy was an understatement.

When we met with our therapist and BS privately during the week, we were given personal assignments to further specialize our care. Each patient was given a list of “bans” (harmful behaviors we weren’t allowed to engage in, such as self-harm, ruminating or reassurance seeking) that we tracked in a notebook, and reported to our BS on a daily basis. Our BS assigned us various exposure therapy exercises to complete and track, as well as positive activities that supported our hobbies and passions (I was supposed to do things like watch dance videos or learn new words in sign language). Our therapist gave us writing assignments, like exploring what recovery meant to us, or our ideal perfect day. The BS and therapist also decided what “level” we were on during our stay. The levels determined if we were allowed to do certain things or not, and were based on safety. For at least the first 48 hours of your stay, you were on “safety,” which meant you couldn’t go anywhere without staff supervision, including walking just down the hall for meals. This was so the staff could get to know you, and if you were at risk of trying to hurt yourself/ others or at risk for running away. You would be reverted back to being on “safety” if you ever did become a flight risk or a danger to yourself/ others. While on “safety” you were not allowed to leave campus for the group outings or the YMCA/ Target trips. For most levels, you were asked if you could be safe with scissors before you were allowed to use a pair. The next level up allowed you to go on the outings and go places in the building without staff supervision. As the levels progressed, you would be allowed to walk around campus with other patients and without staff, and eventually you could roam on your own. Everything was completely personalized to our situations and really added a lot to the overall therapeutic experience.

Being in a residential treatment had its ups and downs, and my time there wasn’t without its fun and drama. So here are some of the more prominent memories from my time living at Rogers.

Jim and Lexi were my two closest friends at Rogers, and two years later the three of us are still very close and talk weekly. Jim arrived 2 days before I did, and coincidentally left 2 days before me as well. Lexi arrived and a few weeks after me. Jim and I were in the same small group, and had a wonderful connection from the beginning. He is into card tricks, and since my dad is a professional magician, we had fun bonding over magic. Lexi was quiet at first, but when she warmed up, she, Jim and I were inseparable. Lexi was also in our small group. When the three of us reached a high enough level, we would go on long walks on campus and talk about the drama on the ward, homework, life… anything really. These were genuinely my favorite times during those few months. It was spring, so the air smelled wonderful, flowers were beautiful and birds were singing. We’d hike in the woods on campus, and get lost in each other’s company. Those walks helped me forget that I was living in a hospital. I felt like a typical, stable and accepted person. Sometimes I imagine my walks with them to help me fall asleep at night.

Sky was a lot like me. She was also in my small group, and we instantly bonded over Broadway and American Sign Language. She could put her feet behind her head and make a face and noise as if she were “possessed,” and we liked to joke that she should do that when someone new comes to the unit to scare ’em into thinking living on a psych ward is like in the movies. We never did this, obviously, but it was fun to laugh about.

One time, most of us created personas for everybody and sometimes pretended we were the cast from a sitcom… life on the ward was certainly weird enough to provide material for a TV show. We went for the classic stereotypes… there was the jock, the hippie (me), the nerd, the princess, the thespian, the bad-ass, the southern boy, the surfer dude, the player… you get the gist. Honestly, that helped us get through some of the more intense drama, to pretend it was a sitcom plotline.

Speaking of drama, here’s one of the more dramatic things that happened while living at Rogers:

We were on a group outing one afternoon to a local craft store. Paul had asked earlier in the day if we could stop by a gas station so he could buy more cigarettes. This wasn’t unusual, as we were the only unit that allowed outdoor smoking during certain times, and there were opportunities for the smokers to buy more when they ran out. In this particular instance, the staff said no, we could not stop for cigarettes on this outing. Paul was upset by this, and when he found out there was a drug store right down the strip mall from where the craft store was, he formed a plan with Becca and Rose. Paul was a high enough level that when we were at the craft store, he didn’t have to stay within sight of the staff member like the rest of us did. Becca and Rose picked and end cap that displayed bubbles and purposefully knocked a lot of them over, making a loud ordeal out of the whole thing. This distracted the staffer, and Paul knew he could successfully sneak out of the store and run down to the drug store to get cigarettes. Back in the store, a lady who worked there approached Becca and Rose, making sure everything was okay and chastising them for being so loud. The lady also complained that they weren’t supposed to be carrying large bags in the store (all of us had backpacks that we took pretty much everywhere, that contained all of our skills worksheets and various fidgets and things to help us mentally). Becca seized the chance to fake-freak-out, exclaiming that the backpack was her medical bag because she lived at the mental hospital in the area. The lady quickly backed off and cautiously tried to diffuse the situation by treating Becca like a rabid raccoon or something. It was a very stigmatized situation, but also pretty funny.

Whenever we got back from a trip where we could buy stuff, the staff checked our purchases (and sometimes our bags), to make sure everything was safe to be on the unit. Cigarettes had to be kept in the nurse’s office and smokers had to ask get one during specific smoke times. Our rooms were searched daily, so Paul decided to turn in his cigarettes he had snuck away to buy, with his thought process being “there’s nothing they can do about it now!” Naturally, the staff were not pleased. At all. They took the pack and refused to give them back. Paul became upset, and got into a heated debate with the staff because the cigarettes were his property, and if he wanted a cigarette during the smoke break, he should be allowed to have one since he spent his money on it. During this heated debate, Lucy needed one of her “as needed” medications, and also went into the nurse’s office to ask for her pill. The staff were trying to deal with Paul’s outbreak, and asked Lucy to come back later. This made Lucy upset, because she needed her medication and didn’t like being denied because of Paul (only one person was allowed in the nurse’s office at a time). An explosive argument broke out and one of the staffers moved the rest of us into another room to keep prying eyes away and simply to get us away from the situation. We all sat awkwardly in the room across from the nurse’s office, still able to hear the muffled shouts of Paul and Lucy. A handful of us were emotionally upset at this point, feeling triggered by the argument and screaming. No one really said a word. Then we heard a loud bang from outside the door (Paul had punched the wall) and that sent 2 or 3 of us into genuine panic attacks. The staff were busy trying to deal with Paul and Lucy, and so there weren’t staffers around to help us with our panic attacks. It was intense, to say the least. There was drywall missing from the wall, and Paul’s had was the size of a baseball… literally. Things were intense for the next few days on the unit.

There were other “classic Hollywood” things that happened, like the police were called when one of my roommates tried to run away, or when a patient had been hiding his medications under his tongue and stock piling them to snort in the bathroom (so we were moved to a different unit for the evening while the police searched everything). But honestly, it wasn’t like the movies for the most part. We played card games, watched TV, did our homework, took our sedation meds early in the evening so we could get super out of it and have “drunken” conversations late at night.

There was one weekend where Rose had her senior prom that night. Unlike most of the residents, she lived in the area, and her high school was close by. She was given permission to leave that night for prom, but she had to get ready on the unit. Some of us girls helped her shop for her dress online (we could get mail while living on the unit). The day of prom, all of us girls piled into one of the 3 single-stall bathrooms on the unit (which was totally not allowed) to help her get ready. Thankfully we had two female staffers working that night who let us do it. There was a no-touching rule on the unit, normally we couldn’t do anything from painting each others nails to giving hugs… absolutely no contact (touching leads to feelings, and feelings lead to relationships, and we were there to get healthy, and relationships would distract us from that goal). That night we were “permitted” to help Rose do her hair, make-up and nails (I say that with quotation marks because we definitely would have gotten in trouble if any of the higher up staffers found out). We listened to music (on our old school iPod touchs because no phones or electronics with cameras were allowed so we all bought old iPods without cameras) and all of us girls dressed fancy to support Rose. Us girls were very close, we loved to sit in the hallway and have chat circles and talk about boys, life on the outside, our families and friends, and the current gossip on the unit.

There was a Wii that was shared between the 3 floors of our building. Whenever my floor got it (which was more often than not), most of the my fellow patients and I would hold Wii tournaments. There was a whiteboard in the room that had the Wii, and we’d create brackets and go head to head in bowling or tennis. We’d blast “Panic! At the Disco” and eat chips and rice crispy treats (there was always an excess of them in the cafeteria. If you would have walked in that room, you wouldn’t have been able to tell we were all severely mentally ill. We were just normal 20 somethings playing Wii on a Sunday night.

Sometimes when people are sick, they need to stay in the hospital. If you have a heart attack or a stroke, you stay in the hospital. Our brains are sick, so we stayed in a hospital. We’re not people you need to fear. You can be our friend. The people I met while living at Rogers are all people worthy and deserving of friends… not people who need to be shunned and shut away. We don’t need to hide because of who we are, and you don’t need to hide from us. Living in a psychiatric hospital comes with a heavy stigma, and believe me, I’ve endured a lot solely because of I lived there. It isn’t like Hollywood, so please stop treating it like it is.

 

Posted in coping, mental health, OCD, PTSD, stigma

How to Say Goodbye

Before I start, no this isn’t a suicide note. Just wanted to make that clear to keep anyone from a freak-out.

This past week and a halfish I’ve found myself in the midst of my biggest relapse I’ve experienced. Generally, I write about insightful things on the blog, hoping to break the stigma one blog post at a time. I’ll be honest, I had a depressed “realization” that the stigma hasn’t diminished, it’s only morphed to fit in with today’s society. I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle. Logically I know it’s not a losing battle, just an uphill one. A long, near-right-angle uphill battle. Okay, yeah, I’m depressed. And I’ve got a lot going on. So I’m selfish this blog post… I’ll figure out how to make this mind dump into something worth reading… maybe… hopefully… eventually… I’m going to use the excuse that this is showing people what it’s like to be in my mind. If I come up with something better later, I will. But for now that flimsy excuse I don’t even believe myself will stand. Time to shout into the emptiness that is the www.

So I have a lot going on in my head right now. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about the two biggest things. Actual legal reasons. I know. It sounds pathetic even to me.

One thing I am at liberty to talk about is the loss of my childhood home. I spent most of my life in that house, and in the past month, my parents moved. Being the home I grew up in I have a lot of good memories. And bad ones. Casualties of growing up. I’m terrified of saying goodbye to my closet. It was my play place as a kid. I have tried for a half an hour to put into words what a special place it was for me. I lined the walls with pictures I drew of my invisible friends, I created a console for the inside of a spaceship and traveled all around the universe (I wanted to be an astronaut scientist with seven kids when I was growing up). I would read, color, let my creativity run wild. I hung a flashlight from the hanger-hanging-pole thingy. I had my favorite stuffed animals, a pillow, blankets… on more than one occasion I happily fell asleep.  When I lived with my friend’s family during my senior year of high school, my closet was a corner of the storage room off my bedroom. When I found myself in states of great distress, I didn’t curl up in a ball under my covers. I grabbed my favorite blanket and my Winnie the Pooh I’ve had since I was 2 and curled up in a ball on the storage room’s cement floor. When I had my own apartment for the first time, I set up my large collection of stuffed animals, beloved blankets, and 400 page Disney coloring book accompanied by 200 crayons in a nifty little nook at the bottom of my closet. Even now, at nearly 22 years young, I still hide in the bottom of my closet whenever there’s a big storm or a tornado warning… or when I’m really upset. Like this morning. My parents have completely moved out of the house and they have a buyer for it. How am I supposed to say goodbye to my closet?!? I have no time, and I’m panicking… big time. I’m always trying to find reasons and tangible evidence in the physical realm to help explain what’s going on inside my head (my pal John Green touches on it beautifully in one of his latest videos). WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO ME WHEN I LOSE MY CHILDHOOD HOME? WHAT IF I NEED TO PROCESS SOMETHING AND THE PHYSICAL PLACE IS GONE?!? Yep. Only slightly freaking out. And I’m putting all this pressure myself to say the perfect goodbye to a stupid house. Yeah. Mixed feelings.

Another thing I’m trying to say goodbye to is this weird secret addiction I have. And before you start thinking, I can guarantee that you’re wrong. It’s not drugs, it’s not alcohol or porn or anything. It’s something that not only have I never heard of anywhere else, but my therapist who has been in the business for over 20 years has never come across anything like it. It’s the single biggest secret and source of shame in my life and even talking about it this much will have me reeling in shame for weeks. Please, respect my trust and don’t try to guess or judge. Please. It’s something I’ve struggled with since I was in elementary school. And I’ve relapsed. Big time. It’s worse than it’s ever been. I’m disgusted by myself and I don’t know what to do. And I’m so embarrassed and ashamed of this that I can’t talk about it with anyone except around 3 people (before you ask, my therapist is in Europe, just another part of my freak out… her parting advice was to feel my emotions and stop burying them before it killed me… literally). Screaming my panic into my pillow has only gotten me so far… so now I’m screaming into the void.

A week ago I was the mentally the sickest I’ve been in over 2 years. It took waking up friends at 6:30 in the morning to come be with me before my OCD took over and put me in danger. I felt as if I exhausted my local support system with the visits I kept requiring. people to make so I could stay safe and out of the god-forsaken hospital (before you argue with me, read about my worst ER psych experiences here and tell me if you’d ever want to go back when you were in crisis). My head hurts all the time. My room is a mess. My pets miss their playmate. I sat in my new bungee chair for 72 hours straight last week… then slept in my bed for 36. I’m a mess. I haven’t written a blog post in a week. Heck, I have barely written anything in the past two weeks. I just keep turning over how to say goodbye. To my parents’ house, to ghosts in my past, to my secret addiction, to legal battles, to eating disorder therapists rejecting me…

If you actually read all of this I’m genuinely surprised.

 

Posted in Anxiety, Bipolar, bpd, coping, Depression, ED, mental health, OCD

I’m Not Okay – An Explicit Truth

TRIGGER WARNING This article or section, or pages it links to, contains profanity and VIVID IMAGERY about SELF-HARM and SUICIDAL THOUGHTS which may be triggering to those who struggle with suicidal ideation, cutting and other forms of self-harm.

This was written a few days ago. 

“I’ll be okay” …is that what you want me to say? Because I don’t know if I’ll be okay. This morning I was in a really good place and now I want to fucking die.

I have healthcare now but I might lose it in the next year or two and with the ACA possibly being revoked I might not get health insurance back. And without insurance, I can’t afford my medication. And without my medication, I will destabilize and probably kill myself. I don’t cut anymore, but I sure as hell want to. I can’t go to Walgreens without walking past the razors and staring at them, trying to somehow convince myself that I can get by another week without cutting. I’ve tried many alternatives to cutting, like meds, sleep, being with someone, coloring, solitaire, word searches, stuff like that. But nothing comes even close to what cutting did for me. I went to Rogers Memorial Hospital for a two and a half month residential stay and after that, I felt like I just couldn’t cut on principle. I cut because it made my anxiety go away, I wouldn’t shake as much, it gave me lots of endorphins which helped a ton, it was a tangible thing because my sickness is “all in my head” (I use that ironically). Plus it’s hard to worry about anything else when you’re covered in blood. I feel physically sick almost every day from stress. I throw up if I eat too much cuz my stomach hasn’t eaten three meals a day consistently for almost 4 years. I throw up if I’m stressed. I throw up randomly. I’ll start shaking in terror while watching a kids movie. I’ll start shaking when I’m relaxing. I’ll start shaking doing a puzzle. I still exit the freeway and then get back on so I don’t have to cross a bridge. I still cry passing a semi truck. I still can’t drive if it’s windy. My blankets have to be with the tag by my feet or I can’t sleep. My car has to beep twice saying it’s locked or I can’t walk away. My mental health kit items have to be organized exactly right or I can’t move on to another task. Not a day goes by where I don’t think about suicide. I think about it whenever there’s a tree by the road, and I wonder if it’s close enough for me to crash into. I think about it whenever I’m off the ground, even if it’s just the top of the stairs, and I calculate my odds of death if I fell/ jumped. I think about it when I see any sort of rope, belt or other stringy things, and I think about how I could hang myself with it. I think about it when I take my medication at night, and I know exactly what to take to hurt/ kill myself. I don’t always have a specific plan, and I usually have no intent to carry through, but I think about it and I crave it. I still get so depressed that I miss appointments and don’t even bother explaining why. It takes me up to two hours just to get out of bed in the morning because my sleep and nightmares are so bad. I can’t work because of my rapid cycling bipolar and unpredictability as an employee. I’m scared to talk about this with my loved ones out of fear that they’ve had enough and will leave me (THANKS, borderline…). I’m scared to talk about it with my treatment team out of fear that they’ll say “but you have skills and lived at Rogers Memorial Hospital and went through DBT” or judge me for relapsing. I’m scared to talk to strangers because they don’t know me or my story. I get lunch dates to celebrate being X days cut free. I get hugs and Facebook likes for being in recovery. But are there “Get Well Soon” cards or hot meals brought over when I’m depressed? No. If I had a physical illness there would be. But with a mental illness? “Shhhh don’t talk about it like that!” I can’t talk openly about my illness without people giving me weird looks. Well FUCK the stigma, I’m saying it like it is. Having a mental illness is hell. I don’t know if I’ll be okay.

“I’ll be okay…” I can’t say it.

Posted in coping, diagnosis, mental health, OCD, Uncategorized

Handling a New Diagnosis

Another day, another diagnosis. I’ve been diagnosed with over half a dozen mental illnesses in my lifetime.  A diagnosis can mean many things. For some, it brings hope because they finally have answers. For others, it can bring up feelings of shame or embarrassment. In my experience, it’s a mixture of both. This was definitely true when I received a diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder this week.

Back when I was a patient at Rogers Memorial Hospital, a fair number of my fellow patients had OCD. Before Rogers, I had never been exposed to all the ins and outs of OCD. I knew it was more than cleanliness and order, but beyond that, I wasn’t well versed. As I got to know my fellow residents, more of the interworkings became clear to me. As I watched them learn how to skillfully deal with the disorder, I began to wonder if I had OCD, or at the very least, obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I quickly pushed these thoughts away, not wanting to add another diagnosis to my list of illnesses I have to deal with.

In the months following my stay, these thoughts continued to pester me. I continued to ignore them, and when I was forced to confront any of my compulsions or obsessions, I brushed it off and dismissed it as “oh, I might have tendencies… that’s all.”

Getting a mental illness diagnosis can be scary. The brain is a very vital, but very complicated organ. Because of the stigma surrounding mental health issues, getting diagnosed can stir up feelings of wanting to hide or keep quiet about it. I remember the first diagnosis I every received. I was living with my best friend’s family at the time, and when her mom asked me how my therapy appointment went, I couldn’t even look her in the eye. I was crying, and so scared that they were going to treat me differently or ask me to move out. I felt like I belonged locked away in an insane asylum because I was officially the girl with a personality disorder. When I finally mustered up the courage to tell her, she reacted in the best way possible. She said, “Okay. Thank you for telling me. I’m not judging you. I’m not reacting in shock. We’re not going to kick you out. We’re still okay with you being around our daughter. It’s okay.” That had a profound impact on me. It made me realize that maybe a diagnosis wasn’t the end of the world, but the opportunity to begin a new one. One where I had a better quality of life.

It took finding our that a family member has OCD to make me seriously look at my hunches. I brought it up to my therapist, and she gave me an OCD screening. Screenings look different for every illness, and there are multiple ways to diagnose someone. This screening was 15 pages of questions asking me to rate how much different thoughts and activities were problems for me. It was exhausting to fill out and took me many days to complete. My OCD deals less with cleanliness and order, and more with worrying about harm to myself and others, perfectionism and the everyday thoughts I have. This time around with a new diagnosis, I have a positive attitude and look to the future with hope. Because the actual diagnosis doesn’t change anything going on with me mentally, it just better explains my brain and allows me to get the help I need to build a better life for myself.

With proper medication and therapy, OCD can be managed and allow the patient to go about a more normal life. Lucky for me, I have actually gone through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is a wonderful therapy that helps patients understand their thoughts and feelings that influence behavior. I have a meeting with my psychiatrist next week to discuss medication. I have wonderful support and I’m feeling okay with the diagnosis. I still feel that shame and fear, but I know I’ll make it through.