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(Trigger warning: This story discusses suicide. The author’s identity has been concealed at her request.)
An ambulance took me to the hospital emergency department where they put me in a room to be monitored. I knew one thing for sure: I just wanted to sleep—and not wake up.
After spending hours in the ER, a woman walked in who identified herself as the intake coordinator. She asked lots of questions—what medication was I on? (the kind I just swallowed!) What stressors was I dealing with? (too many to name) Was I ever hospitalized for psychiatric reasons before? (no) Did anyone in my immediate family suffer from mental illness? (no) She asked me about sleep—was I sleeping all day or not sleeping at all? Then she asked about sex– had I lost interest or had I been more sexually promiscuous, impulsive? Was I lacking energy or more hyper?`
I was trying to figure out what my answers should be in order not to get committed. Honestly, I just wanted her to shut up, go away, and let me sleep. Finally, it dawned on me: the easiest way to get her to leave was just to voluntarily admit myself. So, I did.
The first thing they did was take away my personal belongings. They had me change into an outfit made of paper. I wasn’t allowed to have visitors or make phone calls for the first 48 hours. Suddenly, I was completely cut off from the world outside.
They brought me up to the locked ward. The first thing they did was take away my personal belongings. They had me change into an outfit made of paper. I wasn’t allowed to have visitors or make phone calls for the first 48 hours. Suddenly, I was completely cut off from the world outside.
Standing there in my crinkly paper ensemble, I took a look around through tired eyes. The ward was painted in soft blues and pinks, with a subdued cheeriness that was mostly lost on everyone there. There were framed pictures on the walls – pictures that looked like former patients painted them during art therapy. It made the whole place feel sad to me, even though it was surely intended to have the opposite effect. There was a pervasive smell of antiseptic mixed with sweat. Some of the patients were too depressed to shower so the smell of body odor lingered just beneath the bleach.
Inside a psych ward
Honestly, I just wanted her to shut up, go away, and let me sleep. Finally, it dawned on me: the easiest way to get her to leave was just to voluntarily admit myself. So, I did.
I noticed most of the patients were in some kind of lounge area across from the nurse’s station. (I soon learned that this would be where I … we … would spend much of our time). The other patients briefly glanced at me with curiosity, but the TV was more appealing. Everyone was sitting around watching Chopped and having conversations. It seemed more like a get together among friends than the psychiatric wards I’d seen in movies. I guess it was those movies that made me think being “locked up” would be terrifying.
…the smell of body odor lingered just beneath the bleach.
At that moment I wasn’t so much scared to be there as I was just deeply exhausted. For the preceding months, my life had been a whirlwind, and the crash into depression left me feeling like I was moving in slow motion, as if through molasses. Pile on all the sleeping pills I had taken and I was just too tired to be afraid.
The first person I met was Andy, a psych tech with long dreads and gentle mannerisms. He knelt next to me and took my blood pressure. He asked why I was there (a funny question, considering…), and when I told him I tried to kill myself he remarked that God must have other plans for me. Then he asked if I was hungry. I had missed dinner, but there were some snacks in the dining area. I ate a bag of chips, went to my room and slept.
The entrance exam
After sleeping for a full day, I was awakened by a social worker and psychiatrist who both seemed to think my brain could process all the information they hurled at me.
The rooms were shared, two to a room. The bathroom door did not lock. In fact, there were no locks on any of the doors. Except for the exit, of course.
The social worker looked like a recent graduate – fresh-faced and naïve – as if her college classes had not quite prepared her for working on a busy psych ward with patients like me. She handed me a packet of stuff that had to be completed by the time I was released. It included an action plan, to help avoid readmission to the hospital. I would create this plan throughout the coming week.
The psychiatrist was a short, little man in a brown suit, about 50 years old. He introduced himself and his name made me think of a character from a comedy film I’d seen. That distracted me and made me laugh a little. He sat alongside my bed and asked what was wrong, why I had tried to kill myself. I told him about how my marriage had fallen apart, how I had been sad for weeks and reached a point of hopelessness, and how I impulsively swallowed that bottle of pills.
The rooms were shared, two to a room. Each room was minimally appointed, with two twin beds, two dressers, a shared closet, and a small shared bathroom with a toilet and a sink. The bathroom door did not lock. In fact, there were no locks on any of the doors. Except for the exit, of course.
The psychiatrist was a short, little man in a brown suit, about 50 years old. He introduced himself and his name made me think of a character from a comedy film I’d seen. That distracted me and made me laugh a little.
My first roommate snored so loudly! The night nurse gave me earplugs, but they did little to deaden the noise. Then I was transferred to a different room with a young girl who was either laughing or crying uncontrollably (I couldn’t always tell which). She stole a pair of my sweatpants and a tee shirt. When the nurses found out, they made her change and wash my clothes for me. We were responsible for doing our laundry. Most of us only had a day or two’s worth of clothes with us and wound up doing laundry a few times during the week.
The ward was cold—we used hospital gowns as robes to keep warm, which just made everyone look even more like “patients.” We could wear sweat pants and leggings, tee shirts, and hoodies, but all had to be without laces. All of the clothes my mother brought me had to be inspected and all the drawstrings removed. Whenever I walked down the hall I had to hold my pants up.
Showering was only allowed at certain times of the day and evening. The nurses had to unlock the shower and they timed how long you were in there. You had about five minutes before a nurse would come and knock. One of the two showers was always cold, so I had to be strategic about getting into the one that had lukewarm water. I was given no-frills baby shampoo for my hair and a scratchy towel. How I longed to be back at my apartment where I could take a twenty-minute shower with hot water and use a shampoo that did not dry out my scalp.
Each mealtime was an event, as we got to choose our meals from a menu that was sent to us each afternoon. It helped me feel that I was at least in control of something. Mealtimes became my way of marking the hours. Breakfast meant I was one morning closer to going home. Lunch signaled that I was halfway through the day, and dinner, that another was almost over. We had to eat with plastic utensils. Knives, even plastic ones, were forbidden. I learned to cut my meat with a plastic spoon and tried to order food that wouldn’t need to be cut. I learned to order more food than I needed. An extra dessert made a great snack before bedtime, and I would carefully label my extras and store them in the communal fridge.
Counting the days
I got the schedule down:
Monday: small group therapy
Tuesday: meet with the psychiatrist
Wednesday: recreation therapy
Thursday: art therapy
Friday: small group therapy
Saturday: meditation and yoga
Sunday: canine therapy
I followed the schedule. I learned chair yoga, I learned how to meditate, and I learned how to make jewelry. Even more, I bowled in the hallway. I pet Dixie, a yellow lab. I learned to make an “action plan.”
Every morning, I took medicine.
And every night.
I felt alone.
I took more meds—to wake up, to go to sleep, to find balance.
Whenever I walked down the hall I had to hold my pants up.
Three days into my stay, my parents came to visit. I’ve seen my father cry three times in his life—this was the third time. I wasn’t sure what to think or feel at that moment.
Turns out that I had one whole week to get my life back together before the insurance company said I had to leave the hospital. I found it interesting that in one week everyone was expected to be miraculously “cured” somehow. For my part, I did want to go home, and I figured out what I needed to say to the doctors and staff so they would release me.
Back in the world, but only just
They sent me to an outpatient program. I hated it. They sent me to a psychiatrist, who would monitor my medication. They sent me to a therapist, who would work through my issues with me. I hated them both.
The new psychiatrist gave me new pills. Two weeks later he gave me different ones. And two weeks after that, new ones still. Every two weeks the doctor would prescribe me new meds that I would try, and every two weeks I’d return to his office, still not well. I was still suicidal, I was still manic, and I was still angry.
Of course, all these pills came with side effects. I gained 20 pounds in two months. Once I almost fell asleep while driving my car. I had panic attacks worrying about the possibility of getting a deadly rash (they warned me that could happen, although it is rare). I couldn’t remember words, an especially painful side effect for a writer. My hands shook, my hair was falling out, and I couldn’t sit still. Some of the medicines felt like they were making everything worse.
It seemed like for every side effect, there was another pill to combat it.
Still not well
I switched to a new therapist and bought new clothes. For hobbies, I took up knitting, and I tried meditating. I tried so many things. And still, I was not well.
I thought about possible ways to kill myself. The Virginia Woolf—a beautiful and endless swim into the ocean. The Sylvia Plath—a nasty but painless head in the oven. The Anne Sexton—a peaceful sleep in the garage with the car running. The David Foster Wallace—an unpredictable noose around the neck. The Ernest Hemingway—a swift and final gunshot to the head.
I composed another suicide note.
When a friend found out, he called my therapist. He called me every day to check on me. A year full of phone calls just to check on me. He kept encouraging me to take the meds, to talk to the doctors, to talk to him.
Finally, a balance
It took a full year to finally find the right combination of medications—two pills for the disease and two more for the side effects. It took a year for me to feel “normal.” It took a year for me to survive myself. And, I suppose, I am still learning how every day.
Bipolar Disorder doesn’t go away—it is always there in the background making noise. Sometimes that noise is a low-level static, but at other times it can be a deafening roar. There are some days I just want to stay in bed, but there are more days when I want to wake up and face the world. Survive and advance, as a close friend says.
And that takes a lot of work – every day.
Every day 123 Americans die by suicide, over approximately 45,000 people a year.
In 2017, the highest suicide rate was among adults between 45 and 54 years of age; the second highest was among older adults (85+). Adolescents and young adults aged 15 to 24 are the third highest.
Mood disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder, are the most common conditions associated with suicide. Up to 50% of patients with bipolar disorder attempt suicide at least once.
I am not a statistic
I am now part of that 50%. But far be it from me to let myself be defined by a statistic. Honestly, I have yet to figure out exactly what defines me. I seem to have a lot of trouble knowing who I am – am I a series of highs and lows? Do I fit somewhere in the middle of these moods? I’m still looking for those answers.
What I do know is that I am a survivor – trying to put the pieces back together, trying to stay alive so that I do not become another statistic. I have had to learn to ride out the ebbs and flows of this disorder and find balance. I have had to learn that the medications do help, and I have had to learn that some days are bad but others are not. Even more, I have had to learn to trust my therapist, and not hesitate to reach out to him. I have had to learn that being honest in therapy helps me get better. I have learned to take one day at a time, sometimes minute by minute. And, I am grateful for every small victory.