Being Better is Hard
My roommate still curled up on the bed: heartbroken and missing her baby. I nestled next to this stranger and hugged her. She leaned into the hug and I think we both felt something intangible in this hug. Two mothers aching to hold their children; we understood this pain too well. I stroked her greasy matted hair delicately breaking up knots and shushing her like rocking a baby to sleep. Through tears and boogers she continued to release the emotions keeping her in bed.
“Do you want to get home to your baby?”
“Then you need to get up, take a shower, turn your underwear inside out, and wear these (I gave her clothes). Come to meals, go to group, draw some pictures, and I can manage to find a way to get you some hot cocoa. But you won’t get home sooner laying on this terrible bed.”
I gave her shampoo, broke off a portion of my deodorant bar, and scooted her to the shower. I guarded the door to assure our male neighbors across the way didn’t peek in. She emerged new.
I felt so clear-minded. So confident. And then the psychiatrist submitted my medication order. They gave me a medication to help with my anxiety, my nightmares and my terrible backache. I spent the rest of my second day in a trance listening to D shout/sing a blues song he made up. I hardly moved from my chair. I tried reading but the words shifted in and out of focus. I slurred in my speech. Staff took more notes. I went to the second group an over-medicated zombie.
When asked about my disposition I replied “I need to see a social worker.” I rubbed my eyes and forehead in hopes my brain might reorganize with the motion. It remained a jumbled mess. I don’t remember dinner that night, although I’m sure it was another gray, fake meat, powdered potatoes concoction. Everyone seemed worried about me. “I’m ok. It’s just this medicine. I don’t feel quite right.”
Evening med call.
Me to nurse “I don’t think these meds are working. I can’t seem to adjust. How long will it take?” The nurse flips through charts and papers. “Oh here’s why. There are two of you with the same last name and first initial. You took the wrong one. We’ll get that fixed by morning. Here’s the medicine for you to sleep.”
Too high to complain I took the pill again. My roommate wanted to talk. My eyes hung heavy and despite the fact she had my pillow I fashioned one from my old scrubs and my bag. To say I crashed is an understatement.
Day 3: After waiting in line for vitals I immediately went to the front desk. “I need to see a social worker. There’s a list on the board why am I not on it?”
“You can’t see a social worker unless you request to.”
“I have requested to see one since I arrived.”
“Did you fill out a form?”
“What form? “
“You should have been given one at intake.”
“I signed a million forms that night. I’m sure it’s in my file. Please look.”
“I am sorry I can’t check that right now. I’ll let you know after breakfast.”
Breakfast: A woman wearing a wolf shirt with long silver hair sits with me. She tells me about the corruption in her neighborhood and the voices that speak to her.
I nervously tap my foot “Why the hell do I not have a social worker yet?”
Me to new lady at the desk: “Hi. Did you guys find my social worker request?”
“I’m sorry we just switched shifts. It’s going to take me a minute to get caught up.”
“While I’m in group can you please check for me?”
“Sure can sweetheart.”
Med window: “How were your vitals this morning?”
“Good. My BP is decreasing but I’m worried about getting the wrong meds. Please check the chart first. My social is…”
“Oh I’m so glad you said something. These were for the other person with your same name. Here are yours. Swallow.”
Group: Blah, blah, blah.
Me: “Hang in there.” Self-talk that’s a strategy. “Hang in there.”
Blonde sliced and diced arm girl: “I am NOT going home today. Do you guys even understand? I am going to be right back here with another gash up my other arm if you make me go home!” She’s been picking her stitches out.
D: “Baby girl you gotta go home. Not everyone has a home to go to.” (Suddenly I’m more invested. I know this feeling).
Veronica begins to sign her story: “My husband locked me in our home for years. I birthed his children and wasn’t even allowed to see them off to school in the morning. I never had a job or money. I had him and those babies. I escaped that man with nowhere to go and for years I didn’t understand why I missed him. I missed him because I missed home. Living in shelters with only my knitting bag made me feel so inadequate. How can I be a person without a home? I may be here because I didn’t know I was a person. Little girl you go home to your mom and dad. They love you. They spoiled you. You cut your arm because you didn’t get your way. Don’t cut the other because someone offered you a chance to make it right and that scares you. Go home and accept love.”
A new participant raises his hand: “My job as a parent is to be hard on my kids sometimes. I hate doing it. But I’m sitting here realizing that I don’t allow other people to hold me accountable. I drink too much. I crashed my car with my kids in it because I didn’t care about being accountable. (He weeps) How my children survived I don’t know. But I’m here. I hate my life. My past. My parents. My ex-wife for telling me I had to be this and that. I would have rather died that just listen to them. I would have rather my children die with me than address WHY I’m an alcoholic. Girl I don’t know you, but I think you’re mad at the people telling you it’s time to stop this nonsense and get your head right. That’s not fair to the people who love you. Don’t end up like me.”
The artist: “I try at least once a year to kill myself. I let them shoot electric shocks in my brain so I don’t feel this way. I keep a “mental hospital bag” ready like people do when they are having babies. I’d give anything to be told I can go home and that I don’t need to be too worried. Instead I get sent home when insurance sends a letter and I survive until the next time. I go home to nothing. To no one. And I hang in there until I’m literally broken again. I use all my medical leave at work. My students see my scars and bandages. You are mad because your mom loves you and wants you home? Are you kidding me? GO home. Go shopping. Quit bitching.”
Me: “I need to see a social worker.”
I adjust in my seat: I need to get a case manager to help me find affordable housing. I need a home. OF MY OWN. I need appropriate child support. I need on-going access to a therapist to help me problem solve. I need a child care subsidy. I need to find an affordable daycare. I need to work more jobs and find someone who can watch my child while I’m working nights and weekend shifts. I need money to pay my attorney. I need a backbone. I need to deal with my trauma that swept me up and landed me here. I need a social worker. I need a mom. I need a family. I need meaningful connection. I need someone to give a damn. I need to be home with my son—our bond is a protective factor despite all the statistics working against us. I need to trust healing and love.
Knock: “We need to see you.”
“The social worker will see you now.”
Thank God. The group claps.
I enter the social worker’s office. Four women are crammed into a tiny room. Files stacked in every corner and if one turns around she most likely will knock over someone’s precious pile.
“Hi. I’m here to help you develop your plan for going home. Can you read through this and answer the questionnaire?”
‘Ok. We need to call one person who will help when you go home and confirm there are no firearms. And set up a doctor appointment.”
They make the call.
No firearms. I guess I’m safe now.
“OK can you sign this and then I’ll send a note to your doctor to check on your meds and last vitals. Here’s a copy of the plan and take care.”
“Wait. I needed to talk with you about getting signed up for services and looking into resources.”
“Oh. Did you submit a request?”
“I thought that’s why I am here?”
“Oh no. This is for your discharge plan. I’m not required to discuss resources and such since we are out of area. I suggest when you get home you start googling resources in your area and talk to your local DHS.”
“You’re kidding right? (she writes a note I’m agitated). I thought that was the point. For us to work together to develop a plan of action? Find things I can actually do to feel better and reduce my stress?”
“Have you tried deep breathing?”
“I am sorry. You seem a little triggered.”
TRIGGERED? LIFE IS ONE BIG TRIGGER AND REJECTION AND THE PEOPLE THAT ARE SUPPOSED TO HELP THAT DON’T HAVE CAUSED ME SERIOUS MORAL INJURY AND TRAUMA. I THOUGHT YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO HELP?
“That’s sounds difficult. My role is to coordinate a safe departure from our services. Feel free to request an appointment with your psych to discuss any mental health concerns you have moving forward. The good news is you’ve identified two people willing to be a support to you. Let me walk you back to the day room.”
We get up. My ass hits one of the precariously stacked piles of files and it drops. I keep walking. I don’t care about your piles of paperwork anymore.
The throng of people greet me in the dayroom cheerful I finally saw a social worker. On my last day, nonetheless.
“Guys it didn’t work out. She said I needed to fill out a request for resource guidance and she’s out of area anyways so she can’t be of much help.” I hold back tears.
Now I don’t want to go home. Home is where all the overwhelming problems reside. If I go home I risk not being able to manage the pressures of single parenting, working, child support battles, addressing my demons and the everyday dilemma of having only two shitty choices as options. I’m devastated. I understand blonde arm slice more.
She’s been in hiding since group. She emerges to the dayroom with her cut reopened and bleeding. She’s used a stolen pen to re-inflict the wound. The rooms are searched and the residents stay in the dayroom while the search for contraband continues. People look nervous. I suddenly recall searches when I worked in jail. This is almost exactly the same. Staff tear our rooms apart and sift through our belongings under the assumption it’s not only their right but a necessary component for our healing. People who’ve constantly dealt with broken boundaries somehow needed this. We sit under the watchful gaze of cameras as two staff observe us while we wait to re-enter our rooms. Staff pull us aside to “confidential locations” to question us about the contraband: Who has it? Where did it come from? Snitches get stitches. No one says a word.
I’m called to see my doctor who feels confident I ‘m ready to go home. I tell her about my experience with the social worker. She sighs in dismay: Thanks for hanging in there. She asks me about the observations staff has made over the last few days. I tell her those notes are designed to create a perception that is not an appropriate reality. “They need training and better practices to gauge the wellness of the participants. In three days I have not seen the sun outside of a dingy small window. My only choice to see the sun is if I am a smoker. I’ve been given the wrong medication and was almost given it again. I lacked clothing, was subject to a strip search within view of a patient, I signed papers I basically wasn’t allowed to read, I was sexually harassed, watched while I “slept,” given high doses of sleeping medication, forced to participate in groups with staff unable to develop therapeutic dialogue, I ended up running my own “groups” in the dayroom discussing how therapeutic coping strategies can be applied to actual life practice, encouraging patients to “just try” the tools and see if in a few weeks anything changes. I provided resources to patients to explore when they return home, I watched another patient have a visit specifically to get him on Medicaid, and I tolerated the containment of the most foul smells in a supposedly high class mental health facility. Being here made me realize if this is the highest standard I completely feel crushed for those in others. I slept on a cot designed for inmates and wore less clothing than an actual inmate. Explain this to me doc? Before I go home help me understand this?”
“Sure. But let’s talk about your overdose first.”
“Wait what? My overdose? That never happened. I drove myself to the ER because I was feeling suicidal and it’s best practice at that point when you have no support to reach out for medical assistance.”
“That’s not what the hospital told us. You overdosed on aspirin and alcohol. See. Right here.”
“Can you show me the toxicology report on that? I’m deathly allergic to aspirin. I’ve been taking some new meds and slowly overtime they had been making me feel really weird. I compare the feeling to being hit repeatedly by a Mack truck and miraculously walking away. I really feel like this episode is tied to the wrong chemicals in my brain being treated by the wrong medication as suicidal feelings are a side effect. Where is the report that I OD’ed? How did the hospital confirm this? Do you have that report?”
She starts eyeing me suspiciously. Like I am clearly crazy enough to have no recollection of overdosing. I can tell she is reconsidering sending me home. She keeps flipping pages and searching for the reports I am requesting. None are in my file. “I’ll have to check with the intake. This should all be here. I’ll get back to you.”
She escorts me back to the day room. She is looking for papers that don’t exist. I never took pills. I didn’t drink. No such thing occurred. I JUST FELT TERRIBLE. I felt like I was running for my life, racing to the point of exhaustion from this terrific monster about to consume me whole. I ran and ran and ran in a thick, gray fog until my body literally possessed no ability to move one foot in front of the other. And when the fog lifted at the conclusion of my sprint I discovered I had not moved an inch. Stuck in the same spot with the same danger present; I lacked the ability to run. I lay motionless for the monster to devour. Depression does that.
I participated in groups overhearing staff whispering they can’t find my OD report. I can’t go home with an incomplete file. Blonde girl is still flailing as she is asked to pack and wait for her parents. She screams and puts on an excellent “I am still crazy show.” My ride sits in the parking lot for hours hoping for me to walk out the door.
I’m barraged with questions from patients. They ask for my number and address: I make an excuse that when I am on the outside I’ll be needing to get all that information squared away. They can write their stuff down for me. I’m offered tea and affirmations while I stare at the clock. I’m hours past the dismissal time. My ride surely will have left. It’s not like he wanted to pick me up anyway. I guess I’ll catch a cab. I start pondering how to call a cab. How long will take? How much will it cost?
D shouts at the front desk : “Yo, why hasn’t she left yet? She’s got to get home to her baby. Why you guys be taking forever?”
The desk shouts back: “We can’t discharge her until we confirm her overdose.” Did they really just say that out loud?
The patients look at me feeling deceived. “You overdosed? Why didn’t you tell us?”
“Because I didn’t. Someone wrote it on the intake paperwork, I signed it, and thus confirmed it without knowing it was inaccurate. They can’t find the evidence to support or refute the claim. I don’t use. I don’t take pills. I just felt helpless and hopeless. But when the paperwork says something different they have to follow it.” I tap my leg erratically looking up at the clock. How does this happen? A clinical error rewrites my history and assigns me a new identity as an overdosing addict. I hate smoking, I drink little, and yet—this is who I am now. Because a paper decided.
And yet to so many in the day room I am an inspiration. How am I even worthy of such distinction? Each person starts to tell me how I impacted them. The counselor pulled me aside and confessed I provided amazing conversation and ways to help the people in the unit. She encouraged me to get my masters. The clock ticked, the hours passed and I still felt swallowed by concrete walls. They took my vitals again. That darn blood pressure is still high.
I want to be a wall. I want to stand my ground and not waver. Or maybe I want to be that stupid cat: I can ignore people and its part of my charm. I can scoff at others without restraint. And if I’m that cat I can sit in the sun, warming my body, just hanging in there. I need to be a cat.
“Please don’t keep me because of blood pressure. This is a stressful day.” The nurse nods.
D shouts again shaking his fists: “Why ain’t she gone yet?”
The staff ignore him and don’t look up.
“You telling me this nice lady didn’t have to be locked up for three days, almost four, and you still ain’t letting her go home? Lort I don’t know about these places. ‘Supposed to help people but making up lies and losing papers. You lookin’ for something that ain’t real. Call the damn hospital. Ask for the papers. Her ride has probably already done up and left. “
A phone rings and they answer it. I’m asked to grab my things. My roommate awakens when I start taking items from my bag and leaving them for her. I give her two shirts, pants, socks, and a brush. I leave my hair tie with her as I know they won’t let her get one if she loses or breaks hers. I’m not allowed to give her anything but who cares she needs it. We hold one another tight as I beg her to not lose hope. Leave that scumbag for good and get around loving people. I give her a book, my blanket, and the rest of my toiletries.
A Cruella DeVille-esque woman (maybe that’s not fair) greets me at the locked door. She’s wearing a shade of red lipstick that has stained the wrinkles outside her lips and her heels and glasses indicate this woman is high fashion and no-nonsense. She turns page after page in a large binder with my name on it. She asks for signature after signature. We sit for almost an hour just signing things. She hands me a plastic bag with brochures through a yellow toothed, lipstick stained grin. She then hands me a bill for almost six grand. “Thank you for staying with us” (like this was a damn hotel) and ushers me to the exit.
My ride stayed. I didn’t think he would. It was dark already and he’d been there hours. I didn’t know if I was allowed to hug him or not. I shared very little. I still tremble thinking of that ride home: my fear of breaking the silence. How scary it was to return to the real world. I slept alone in the dark empty apartment. I decided being alone in this mess felt tolerable.
I didn’t ever want to talk about my stay in the psych unit. It haunts me and gives me this nervous feeling where a lump forms in throat and my eyes well up in tears I refuse to let fall. After playing with a few medications we did end up finding the right ones and working with the correct diagnosis. I took time to heal quietly and withdrew from most relationships. In order to be ok I needed to learn to face the fear of judgement. So I started talking about it to a few people. I researched the impacts of single parenthood and its causality for depression. I dove into looking for answers for not only myself but for others. I decided to dance in the fire rather than turn to charcoal.
I survived trauma for my entire life in a variety of situations. When triggered I turn into a small child that craves hiding in a closet or under bed until it all goes away. I repeated trauma cycles by not managing them, nor recognizing them, and now I face them with an honest attitude. I spent over a year ashamed I ever stepped foot in psychiatric hospital. What would people think? How will I be judged as mother? Learning to let go and gift myself grace saved me.
Coming home still thrust everything in my face: lack of resources, being told to quit my job to qualify for assistance, needing more supports that actually supported rather than nodding and telling me it gets better, and I felt deeply bitter no one prepared me better for this. I needed actual solutions and, God, I needed to feel understood. So I wrote. I prayed. I wrote some more. I learned new prayers. I lit candles in the dark. I read scripture and online quotes. I painted my toes. I slept. I cried. I confessed. I cared about building a purposeful future.
I can close my eyes and smell the grime of that facility, hear the rattling of keys unlocking doors, the walkie talkies going off all night, and feel the shame of standing naked whilst being inspected and know I can prevent that trauma. The psych unit didn’t heal me. It allowed me to press reset. The motivation to never return has sparked a journey for me to manage life differently: to be stronger and demonstrate the fortitude to survive no matter what. I treat taking care of myself like sobriety—my life depends on it. Loved ones tell me I am different now. I take it as the highest compliment. I am very different now.
Poor mental health feels like a prison. It’s a sentence for crimes you may or may not have committed. Sometimes you’re handed the consequences for someone else’s transgressions. And going to prison to “get better” may not serve as the most viable solution. I was locked up—I couldn’t just leave, no one wanted to hear my case other than patients. People recorded notes about me each day reporting on my behavior. I stood accused of attempting to OD when in fact that never happened. I wore paper scrubs and showered in view of others. I slept on a thin mat resting on hard metal. How this facility healed people I can’t really fathom. But it permits escape. It keeps you safe while you deal with the unraveling. Healing happens with sunshine, warm blankets, and good food. What nourished my soul there: recognizing the pain in others and God calling me to having the ability to help in their time of crisis. I received the honor of a chance to practice true empathy and compassion for others in a new capacity.
There’s more to this. I lived with people who absolutely needed to be away from certain populations. D was a predator. It was obvious from Day 1. The blonde girl with the large cut: stole from her parents and abused drugs. She cut herself while high when her parents enforced a safety boundary. So she cut herself to avoid jail time. Going home meant possibly facing charges.
The quiet Asian girl: she sold pills to other college students. She stopped studying when the money rolled in and the school pressed charges and expelled her. She attempted to take her life. Her parents removed her from the program early.
Guilt weighed me down at departure. Some patients knew their stay extended into weeks and months. The guilt hits me when I think of those who went to electroshock therapy sessions. They returned so different, blank, like each time a part of them left. I walked out that door with an entirely new perspective on wellness. I shouldn’t have been there but I’m glad they made the mistake. I tasted the crazy and felt a soothing salve of knowing I wasn’t alone. I’m not crazy… just really, really hurt.
There is a crisis in America. Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain’s suicides made headlines. But taking one’s own life is a rising cause of death in America and we don’t know the names of everyone who succeeded in suicide. Few memorials and cautionary articles circle the internet backed by reputable publishers to help bring awareness. I can’t claim to have solutions but I can empathize and tell you what care looked like for me. I didn’t have the money to visit a resort for self-care—most people don’t. The cost of maintaining a facility of high quality just isn’t a viable option in today’s culture. Mental health, while important, falls to wayside in our deeply divided political climate. School shootings, immigration concerns, Russia, North Korea, gun control etc. I’d argue many of those issues roots themselves in mental health complexities. Nightmares plague me still in regards to how unsafe I was in that institution and how unsafe we are when mental health continues to be a stigmatizing force in our culture.
Not everyone with trauma cuts themselves or threatens violence against others….but those that do….need us to stop judging and get them help before tragedy strikes further.
I feel lucky to have healthy relationships, a doctor that followed up and teamed with my therapist to help me find the best pathway to care, and a supervisor who recognizes my triggers so she can help me rather than shame me. I’m blessed most of my family forgave me for falling off the deep end and patiently letting me heal. My faith comforts me when I worry how others will treat me if they know. I shake the concept my identity lacks credibility due to my brief stay—I am vastly informed by the experience and my soul bears the fruit of an intense wisdom afforded to few.
We have to find ways to be better—not through drugs or Vodka Tuesdays, but through authentically connecting with others. By selflessly offering compassion rather than judgement and holding the heart of another to keep it beating.
Sometimes we don’t have the strength to bear the heartbeat alone.
Looking back several indicators lead me to an absolutely overwhelming heart-space. I feel better. Stressed, but better. Being better is hard.