This is post one of a series on mental health.
About a month and a half ago, I checked myself into an inpatient psychiatric facility. This post is meant to begin a series on mental health and my recent experiences, but to be frank, I’m not sure where to begin. Do I start with my time in the hospital? Do I begin with the months leading up to that decision? Do I start with the suicide attempt five years ago that was a huge factor in deciding to voluntarily commit myself? Any one of those (or a few others) would be a perfectly reasonable starting point, but the choice of where to begin shapes the narrative. Please bear with me since this post (and the following ones) may jump around some as I grapple with my own story.
To begin with, I have always been terrified of psychiatric facilities. Their depiction in fiction is uniformly negative, whether you’re reading Sylvia Plath, the classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or even light fantasy like Christopher Stasheff’s A Wizard in Bedlam. When I was a teenager and first (inaccurately) diagnosed with a mental illness, my parents struggled to figure out how to help. Many of their efforts were not in fact helpful, including threatening to commit me if I didn’t keep my symptoms in check.
But my mental health has suffered a lot in the last year and a half. For the past two and a half years, I’ve been struggling to cope while unmedicated and mostly without therapy or counseling of any kind, because the US healthcare system is a shambles. In January and February of this past year, things worsened dramatically. It was deeply frustrating because my external circumstances were better than they had been in years – I was working full-time at a job that I enjoyed and at which I felt useful, I was in a strong and positive relationship, I had a good support network, a solid living situation, and I was looking forward to getting a cat in the near future. Everything outside me was fine. The only problem was me.
Although I was functional at work, every morning on the drive home, conditions in my brain would gradually worsen. By the time I got home, I was a wreck. I got little sleep because I was up texting or messaging friends and my partner in an effort to keep from harming myself. January and February are always difficult for me, because it was around that time of year about five years ago that I wound up hospitalized for a suicide attempt.
What was most frightening to me was that both of my previous suicide attempts had been impulsive. I’d struggle for days or weeks or months, then wake up one morning and calmly go about trying to end my life. For two months of this year, I went to sleep terrified that I would wake up and act on the flashbacks and fantasies of suicide that constantly intruded on my thoughts.
Finally, one night I was up on the couch, sitting on my hands because I was overwhelmed with dread and I couldn’t take it anymore. I went into the bedroom, woke my partner, and begged him to hold my hand while I called a facility. To his credit, he didn’t hesitate. He held me while I called and set up an intake appointment. In the morning, he packed up all of the knives, pills, and chemicals in the apartment and took them with him so I would be safe during the two hours between him leaving for work and my friend coming to take me to the appointment.
I couldn’t get back to sleep. My friend came, and she held my hand (sometimes literally) through the entire intake process, from the initial interview through the wait to find out whether they had room, whether my insurance would cover hospitalization, whether I was acute enough to warrant hospitalization, up to the point where they took me away.
Writing those words, I’m reminded of a song my cousins used to sing when we were kids. “They’re coming to take me away, ha-ha, they’re coming to take me away. The nice young men in their clean white coats are coming to take me away.”
I was terrified all over again. I didn’t know what to expect. Would I be locked in a room? Would I be forced to take medication I didn’t want? Would I be surrounded by people whose own illness would exacerbate my own? There’s so little representation of mental illness or associated treatment facilities in media, and so much of it is negative and inaccurate.
The big question was this: Would hospitalization make me better, or worse? Figuring that I didn’t have that much farther down to slide, I went.