24 Apr What I learned from my week on the psychiatry ward
In retrospect, of course, I should have seen it coming. I hadn’t been feeling well for months; my appetite and sleep on a steady decline. A persistent feeling of impending doom. Frequent outbursts of panic-fueled crying. The night of March 29th, lying in my bed, inconsolable, wanting to not be here anymore. Waking up the next morning feeling worse. I couldn’t bear to be on this planet for one more second feeling this way. Fantasizing about the narcotics in my night table drawer, left over from surgery. A Google search: how many would I need to just make it all stop?
Just enough sense to know that I needed to go to the emergency room. To tell the triage nurse that I had an exit plan. To tell my husband that I needed to be admitted, that I would hurt myself if I were sent home.
Hours later, I was an in-patient on 4 East, the psychiatric ward of the Jewish General Hospital.
The elevator passes it by on the way to the maternity ward, just one floor up – the place where I had my babies. In previous visits, I’d silently pray the elevator wouldn’t open on the 4th floor. I didn’t want to be in an enclosed space with “those people”. They scared me, with their incoherent mumbling, vacant eyes and shuffling gait. But now I was among them, high on sedatives, terrified of myself, emotional, empty and shuffling too.
The week I spent as a psychiatric patient is mostly a blur. Emotionally wrecked and sluggish from Ativan, there are gaps in my memory. I remember on my first day, feeling as though I was facing a firing squad as I sat in front of a team of 15 psychiatrists, psychologists, interns and students and told them my story, answering questions that felt like accusations. I attended daily art therapy classes and group meetings with my fellow patients, both of which felt unhelpful and uncomfortable. I was chastised by a psychologist when I opted out of the classes one day, accused of thinking I was “above” the other patients. Meal time was sad and silent, served in a run-down common room where a few archaic magazines lined the bookshelves and the television had terrible reception. There were some brief sessions with a psychologist, and another interrogation with a different psychiatrist and his team – this one tougher than the first because he hit on some very deep, very painful shit that left me reeling. At night, I joined the line-up of patients at the nurses’ desk, waiting for the meds that would push me into a dark, drugged, dreamless sleep.
There were some beautiful moments too: when an older woman with dementia was confused about her surroundings, a much younger male patient came to her rescue time and again, reminding her where she was and helping her to the bathroom; when an Orthodox Jewish patient helped a disconsolate young man put on tefillin, and assured him that God was with him; when another patient told me he was proud of his mental illness because it made him stronger; when an incredible student nurse asked to be assigned to my case, sat with me daily and really listened. He gave me hope. He was an angel.
My stay on 4 East was dark and painful, but it was also a source of lessons that will live forever in my heart.
I learned that your true friends become your warriors, armed with coffee and crossword puzzles and the patience to sit quietly by your side when talking is just too much; that there are beautiful souls hiding behind the face of mental illness; that asking for help can save your life; that sometimes you need to plunge into the darkness to find some light.
Because now I have a plan – very different from the one I’d had when I was admitted. Those intimidating team meetings produced a schema to help me move forward. I have new medication and a new perspective from the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy I’ve recently started doing. It’s a hard adjustment, and hard work, but I’m optimistic for the first time in a long time.
And another thing: I wasn’t going to write this blog. I’ve always been authentic and up-front about my mental illness, but being a psychiatric patient felt different. Truth be told, I felt embarrassed and weak. For the first time, I was burdened by the weight of the stigma. But just five days after my discharge, I stood up in front of an audience of 120 women and told my story.
Their support and acceptance gave me the courage to continue sharing and keep the conversation going.
And the more I share, the more I normalize my experience, and the more I realize that I am not defined by my mental illness. It is just a piece of who I am.