One year ago today, I went to the psych ward. The featured picture for this essay is the one I posted to instagram on the day I checked myself into the hospital.
Let me tell you the grizzly truth: going to the psych ward is scary. I witnessed someone go through a drug withdrawal. I saw a trauma victim misplaced in the unit. An unstable young man walked directly into my little alcove and my first thought was “I might get assaulted here”. Nothing about this environment feels normal. It’s all sweaty palms and Darren Aronofsky vibes. It is an endurance trial– so many patients and not enough doctors. Hours wind by before someone is assigned to you. And I’m still telling you to go to the hospital if the alternative is killing yourself. Because there is an end to that experience. Whereas, an epilogue exists to my story. Beyond a pair of sliding doors, I returned to my life.
The psych ward at Ohio State is a strange subterranean universe. Everything felt warped. Here I was, just trying to keep my eyes fixated on Moana, rather than the chaos storming my peripheral vision. A few hours later, a woman arrived demading to watch Jack Reacher, starring Tom Cruise. Nobody wanted to watch Jack Reacher. I didn’t even know Jack Reacher was a movie! Anyway, she threw a tantrum and other admittees laughed, and that made this woman grow semi violent. Her wig went askew. I happened to sit right next to her– remaining as still as possible. A lifetime of trauma prepared me well for this, that when life caves into dystopia, I live outside of my body. I leave my body like a car accident I refuse responsibility for, and my soul goes elsewhere. I don’t know where that is, only that it isn’t a place with veins and roots and flesh. My soul ascends to safer ground.
And still, the attendants and nurses and the resident caring for me provided me with the best care they could. The patient care advocates worked really hard to make everyone feel like a human being. They brought patients pillows and food and beverages. Nurses remained calm like flight attendants during turbulence. I’m grateful to these people. Those roles are thankless and exhausting.
I understand how my frank disclosure regarding mental health may be conveyed as instability. I cannot control how you read this. I’m not trying to manage your interpretation of my experience. The epilogue of my harrowing experience to the emergency room includes me talking my way out of that admittance (NOT a normal protocol). I knew my departure hinged on performing normalcy. With steady voice and gumption, I explained how I was depressed, not expressing an intent to harm, that my transition here had been a mistake. I pressed for hours on this, until I was released.
At 1am, I was released. I walked home alone. I fell asleep at 2:00 am, and by 9am — a mere eight hours after being discharged, I was back in my office. My co-workers knew none of what transpired less than 24 hours prior. We are biologically wired to continue, to compartmentalize. This is a mechanism of survival. My performance of normalcy– a continuance of doing my job, paying my bills, stashing my breakdowns away and remaining approachable to the outside world– is not a credit to me but a basic function of people. The basic function of trauma is that what we do not process will possess us.
I worked two jobs throughout the dates between August 30, 2018 to September 26, 2018. I cared for seventy-five young women. I honored my responsibilities. But I reached a point where twenty five years of procrastinating processing wasn’t working anymore. Every crevice of my being became inundated and inflamed with unaddressed pain. It needed a way out. It took me a month from the day I went to the hospital to muster the gumption to do what I needed to do: take three weeks of unpaid medical leave for an intensive outpatient therapy (Which, even with insurance is ungodly expensive). I can’t afford this! I can’t do this! This is so impractical. But you know what is more impractical? Believing I could continue living like a flight risk in my own body. I couldn’t look out onto another parking garage with the fleeting fantasy of hurling my body off of it. Financially, I could not afford to do this. Emotionally, I couldn’t afford not to. The thing about dire straits is that they remind you that people will do anything to stay alive. You should do whatever it takes to stay alive.
So, I attended intensive therapy. Again, I thought– I, a normal woman, am going to this thing with all of these crazy people. I am nothing like them. Let me tell you who the people in intensive therapy are: people pleasers, overachievers, caretakers. They are your medical students and company owners and moms with multiple jobs and good girls who can’t say what they want to say. We are those who take on too much, who believe we have to do it all and not ask for help.
I felt like things weren’t “bad enough” to warrant such extensive treatment. All of this took place because of workplace trauma. Work trauma is a real thing we don’t discuss a lot because we feel like we should be grateful to have a job at all, that it isn’t that big of a deal, but it is. I took these steps because my job at the time was awful, but I needed these steps because I’d survived twenty-five years treading water. I just wanted to swim. Sometimes, you have to ask for a life jacket to learn how to swim. Sometimes, you are so very tired and so very weak, and it isn’t your fault. But, as adults, it is always our responsibility to be our own advocates.
Along my walk to the program, I’d run into acquaintances from my outside life. We’d exchange pleasantries, and they’d ask me why I was on that side of campus. In clumsy words and patchy sentences, I’d cobble together an excuse. Face reddening to a blush, I’d pray for the end of the conversation, to melt into the concrete. I did not want anyone to perceive me as anything other than competent.
Other peoples’ perception of me is not as important as my own wellness. Because I would rather you gossip about me than give my eulogy. I will be the token crazy lady– the problem child– the one who people whisper about her exhibitionist tendenancies, how she does so much for attention. Mental health deserves attention. It is important. And i hope that if you ever feel alone or anxious, you grow bigger than your pride and ask for help. You deserve help. You are only as good as your coping skills so ask for help and build them up.
My life hasn’t changed dramatically in one year but my head space has. I don’t believe IT necessarily gets better, but I have. In the past year, I’ve moved three times and changed jobs. I began a relationship and then that ended. I live in the same city. I look relatively the same. I drive the same car, and even work in the same area. The surface is pretty much the same. But everything is different underneath. Intense feelings still gush through me, but they are the weather. I am the whole sky. I’ve let go of people with my chest rather than my hands, clearing my heart instead of my hands. I am still lonely sometimes, still doubtful and intense and feeling. I’ve learned that the number one person not making space for me in my own life is me. I was desperate for approval, for others to like me, always saying yes but never to myself. Seeking care was one of the first ways I finally said yes to myself.
It’s been a year since I went to the hospital. Three hundred and sixty five days. Some of them passed like a kidney stone, and others made me so grateful I am here. The second part is what is important. I am still here. My name is on email signatures and workout class rosters. It’s not on an epitaph or an obituary. My siblings still have their sister. My best friend still has his person alive and a text away. My mother still has her first born daughter– the one who carries her favorite name. I’m not sorry for how I’ve survived. I’m not sorry if this makes you uncomfortable. Because I am very comfortable with this now. I don’t consider myself a victim or a survivor, a hero or a villain. I consider myself alive.
I live my life out loud because it’s all I know how to do. I write about the prickly things because I only ever heard them in whispers. I’m not trying to be an example here, but I hope this essay decreases the stigma a little. I hope you know that you deserve help. You deserve quality care no matter how “successful” or not you are. No matter how well or poorly you are doing. No matter how happy you seem (look at how happy I look in the picture I posted on the same day I did not want to live). My visit to the psych ward is a data point, one day in my life. I would do it again, honestly. Because it is scary and intense and healing can be costly. But the alternative costs more. You are worth keeping alive. You are worth saving. You are worth writing your own 365 days later and more.