What I Learned After Spending Christmas in a Psych Ward

What I Learned After Spending Christmas in a Psych Ward

This holiday season, while many will be celebrating with cocktails and carols, parties and presents, some might find themselves in the same place I was nine years ago on Christmas Day: a psych ward. If it happens to you, or maybe you’re reading this and you know someone who may go through a similar scenario this year, here are some things to remember.

 

Don’t blame yourself.

Things happen which are beyond our control. Pointing the finger at yourself only makes the initial stage of recovery more challenging. Instead, point your finger three months down the road and remind yourself that it takes time to heal from a psychiatric trauma, and that is just what you intend to do.

 

It will get better.

A new year is a new start. Be sure to carve out at least a tiny chunk of time each day just for you to do something you enjoy. Go to a yoga class, meet a friend for coffee, or read a book in bed. You are important and it’s okay to remind yourself that you need attention too. Always putting the needs of others before your own and ignoring self-care can be detrimental to your mental health.

You’re not the only person this has happened to, even though it may feel this way at the time. Sometimes a stint in a psych ward is just the prescription we need to reset our recovery.

 

Go easy on yourself.

The transition back to “normal” life will be hard. Take lots of warm baths, soaking in the luxury not afforded in the psych ward. Read books that nourish your soul. Write in your journal until you begin to understand your journey. Someday you may want to share it so that others don’t feel so alone.

 

It’s going to be okay.

The first Christmas after {aka the first post-hospitalization anniversary} will be the toughest. All the feelings will come back. Don’t push them away, because that’ll only prolong the experience. Just let them come. There will probably be tears. There will definitely be sadness for the Christmas that wasn’t. But try not to dwell on what was lost, and focus instead on what was gained. Do your best to pull out the camera and take some pictures. Chances are, you don’t have many, if any, from the year before.

 

Know that this doesn’t define you.

If anything, the experience has made you stronger, more compassionate, and maybe it has paved the way for you to find your voice as an advocate. The truth about living with a mental illness is that once you’re diagnosed, it’s yours to live with for the rest of your life. It’s yours to manage, to curse, to medicate, and in time, it’s yours to appreciate.

There is no erasing a mental health condition. Therein lies both the beauty and the beast. The beast launches us up to heights we never thought possible, then hurls us crashing to the ground with a flick of his wrist and an, “I told you so, sucka.” But the beauty lifts us up and helps us lick our wounds, teaching us we are more than our diagnosis and we have important work to do.

 

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My Last Visit to the Psych Ward

last-visit-psych-ward

 5 weeks after my fourth and most recent hospitalization: May 21, 2010
 

I shuffled into the day room, sticky soles of my grippy hospital socks licking the cold linoleum floor. Everyone mingled in this spacious room, the brightest spot in the house that we were living in for the time being. Sanity had begun to return to my foggy brain. Finally. There was such relief with being able to recognize a thought, rather than being led by a force hidden, so far beyond my control. For two days I had been aimlessly wandering the long, dank halls of the psych ward. Incoherent and lost. The perfect pharmaceutical cocktail was starting to even me out. And I was counting the hours until I’d be released to the care of my husband. I was desperate to see my son.

I noticed that the flowering plant on the counter of the open nurse’s station had withstood my incessant plucking, as it still had about a dozen blooms, by some miracle.

“She loves me. She loves me not. She loves me.” I debated, pulling at the tender petals of a flower I had stolen late into the night on my evening of admittance. “I know it’s going to be a girl. But what will she name it?” I mused to myself out loud, lost in the psychosis which my pregnancy had spun me into.

Later that night, or maybe it was the following morning, one of the nurses tried to get me to eat. “You need to eat something, sweetheart. For the baby. Here, try this,” she urged, shaking the small box of Apple Jacks she had brought from the kitchen down the hall. We were in my sterile little patient room, a desk between us. She sat in a chair across from me, attempting to coax me into taking a few bites, as I sat in another chair, shaking, sweaty and weak from exhaustion. A small container of milk was ripped open on one side to form a drinking spout, but hadn’t been touched. I felt a little like Alice in Wonderland, staring at the items in front of me labeled “Eat Me” and “Drink Me.”

I may have taken a few bites, a sip of milk, but my mind told me she was trying to poison me. I made sure not to eat or drink too much, for fear of never waking up.

Eventually I did decide to lie down and rest on the stiff single bed with the scratchy white sheets in the far corner of the room. No one slept in the other bed in the room. I had my own private room. Good thing, too. I needed to just sleep, to dream off the mania. It had taken two days of the nurses pumping me with antipsychotics until I finally relaxed enough to sleep.

I emerged a day later, after a long, hard sleep, to “meet” the other crazies in the day room. I might have met them a day or two earlier, but my memory was a slice a Swiss cheese when I was manic, so I didn’t remember. Two did stand out, though.

Tony was a big, burly Italian guy who chain-smoked and had the cough to show for it. He was warm and engaging, and I liked him immediately. He made me smile with his obscene jokes, a welcome escape from the situation we had all found ourselves in. Tony was constantly searching for a number in the phone book. When he wasn’t in the smoker’s lounge, he was on the phone pleading with the person on the other end to come pick him up.

Mary had left the day before. She was young like me, and claimed she was also very early pregnant, although I didn’t believe her. Hell, I didn’t even believe I was five weeks along. We had promised to keep in touch, but I knew there was no way I’d live up to my end of that deal. I didn’t like to take hospital memories home. Art therapy projects were an exception. Nothing like a glimpse into a mad mind for old time’s sake. So instead of giving her my number when she wrote down hers for me, I hugged her goodbye, telling her it would be too painful. She understood.

The exercise lady arrived in the afternoons, swooping in to lead the patients in yoga or dance sessions in the day room. She’d turn on 80’s pop music and we’d bop around, forgetting about the frustrations attached to having lost touch with reality. During those moments, everything seemed to disappear and for three minutes I was okay. Hips swayed, eyes closed softly so I could really feel the music. But as quickly as her sessions began, they were over, and we were back to waiting for our next activity to pass the time until we’d see the outside world once again.

Held for forty-eight hours of insanity, twenty-four for the meds to really start kicking in, and another forty-eight and I was good to go. A final meeting with the staff psychiatrist and I was given my ticket out of that joint. It had been my fourth stint in a psych ward, and it was a house of medicine I was hoping not to have to visit again for a very long time, maybe even never.

Ready to get back to my own home, to my family where I’d be nursed back to complete health so I could get back to being the kick-ass mama and wife they loved. This last visit to the psych ward solidified my commitment to staying well. For myself, for my husband and for our son and the unborn baby I was carrying. Not another day would pass without that little salt pill sliding down my throat before bed. My family deserves this promise. And they’ll get it, forever and ever.

last-visit-psych-ward

My support system

I’ve mentioned already in previous posts that my husband, parents, brother and wife,  in-laws and my sister-in-law are all incredibly supportive and loving when it comes to helping me manage my bipolar disorder. They are the people I consider to be on the front lines of my support system. The inner circle.

But there is an additional outside ring to my support system circle. I guess you could call it my secondary support system. But it doesn’t mean that it is any less important than the inner circle. I consider them to be almost equal.

I had a call tonight from an old family friend. He’s actually one of my dad’s best friends from college and he and his wife live fairly close to where I am. He calls and checks in on me from time to time and I feel lucky to have him. He’s in my support system because he knows about my condition and he almost always asks how I’m feeling at some point in our conversations. And I know that if I ever needed help, I could call on him and he would be there. Along with his wife and their kids who I am also close with.

It’s so important to have a strong support system in place, especially when you are dealing with a disease like Bipolar Disorder. Having people who know you inside and out, and who aren’t afraid to ask you, “How have you been feeling? and, “Are you taking your meds?” can seem so simple, yet can mean the difference between life or death for some people.

I have five girlfriends who know my history and I can always talk with them about my struggles. They mean the world to me. They call me out if they notice something is off about my mood. I know that I am very lucky.

Two of these girlfriends even came to visit me in the hospital after I had my son and was hospitalized when he was just five weeks old. They came to a psych ward. The crazy house. They saw me at one of my lowest lows, and yet, they do not think any less of me. I sometimes think that I don’t thank them often enough for their support. I need to work on that.

Be thankful for those people in your life who support you no matter what. Remember that they were there at your low points, and they helped pick you back up. This way you can repay the favor when you notice they could use a little support. Because the road goes both ways.