I slowly open my eyes as an older gentleman begins to shine his little light to check my pupils. I am drowsy, and confused. The gentleman asked me if I knew what hospital I was in and I replied “Jefferson”. He said no you are in Sewickley. This might seem minor but for those that do not know where these 2 hospitals are located, they are an hour away from each other. I looked at the foot of the bed and saw my sister and brother in law watching on. I had attempted suicide the night before and failed. This began a 2 year period which I call the fog. A period in which I struggled to find a direction and didn’t even know who to trust to ask. I’d end up back in the hospital for suicide attempts 4 more times in the next 5 months and a total of 6 attempts in 2 years. That’s when the process began. I want to discuss the things I wish I knew then that I know now and how important it is for anyone newly diagnosed with a mental illness to know this same information.
After my family left I was assigned a sitter in my inpatient room until a room on the psychiatric unit became available. As I laid their in the bed I became angry. I was angry that I failed. Angry that I’d have to face family and friends. Angry that I’d have to explain this to my employer. I had no desire to be in that hospital. I just attempted suicide the night before and I wanted to walk out the next day as if nothing had happened. But I couldn’t, fortunately I wasn’t allowed by law to leave the hospital. It wasn’t very long before they were able to find me an open bed in the psychiatric unit and I was moved to a bed on that floor. Gone was the sitter but I’m now locked on a unit with 19 other patients with varying types of mental health issues. There were those with a drug addiction, alcoholics, and other much harsher diagnosis. I was the biggest misfit in what was like the island of misfit toys. I tried to end my life. Everyone else was trying to clean their life up or because they needed special treatment. I didn’t know who to talk to. Went to meals and sat alone for the first few days. And as the days went by the more the resentment grew. I was being held against my will, no one will tell me what the plan is and how I’m going to be helped.
I learned quickly that the doctors want to see you out and participating and not sheltering in your room. So I attending group meetings, NA and AA sessions and anything else that was a group activity. I wanted to put on a show for the doctors so I could get out quicker. I’d see the doctor for maybe 5 min per day. There wasn’t a discussion of how I’m adapting or if there was anything I wanted to discuss. The therapists on the unit while trained were overwhelmed by the ratio of patient to staff. The most I would get from a staff therapist each day was do you want to hurt yourself, do you have plans to hurt yourself or anyone else, are you taking your meds and are you attending groups. Then each morning we’d be asked what our goal was for the day and rate our mood. At the end of each night we’d be asked to report on progress toward our goal and our mood. It was the same day after day. Therapy sessions were generalized because the differences in diagnosis and often were read straight from a book. I couldn’t grasp how this was going to benefit anyone.
The unit itself was what I call a typical psychiatric unit with no carpeting any where but the tv room. You were given one pillow, a thin single mattress, a sheet and an blanket. I’m 6’4 and it wasn’t pleasant or easy to sleep on those beds. You’d get your door opened every few hours during the night for a bed check. Then around 4am you’d be awoken for vitals to be taken. I’m not sure how they expected anyone to get real quality sleep. The meals were bland and small. You were given a snack at night which consisted of a sandwich with one piece of meat, a piece of cheese and a bag of chips. No caffeine, no chocolate and for those who smoked no cigarettes. This is what I was facing every day for 10 days.
Looking back on this stay I now understand why things are done the way they are and some of the things I should have asked and in my opinion shouldn’t have had to ask about. I understand why they strip you down when it comes to food. They don’t want anything like chocolate or beverages with caffeine interfering with your sleep or even your medications. They want your body to be at baseline when they begin to introduce new medications.
Therapy sessions are generalized because there is a difference between the needs of each person as well as their learning capacity. Things need to be simplified. Staff therapists don’t have the time to spend more than 10 min with you because there are so few of them to deal with the needs of 20 patients. I couldn’t explain why doctors only manage to talk with patients for 5 min or so each day. I could only assume they were helping patients that may have just come into the hospital like I had or they had their own practice.
Faith is the Radar that sees through the Fog. — Claire tenBoom
There are so many things that as a new person to a mental health diagnosis that you need to prepare yourself to ask even if its after you leave the hospital. While I was in the hospital I was never educated on how to talk to people about my suicide attempt. I was never taught that it may take in some cases 4-6 weeks for psych meds to reach full therapeutic levels. I was never even educated on what my medications were designed to do for me. I never knew I could speak up for myself if something didn’t feel right. I was given an appointment date for my first therapy session, not a session with a psychiatrist. The therapy session was weeks away and I was handed a card with a number on it to call if I was having problems before I was able to see the therapist. Another thing to keep in mind is that while someone with a more severe mental illness is in the same unit as you they may actually go home sooner than you because it all depends on the insurance you have. I sat in with the psychiatrist and case worker and the psychiatrist said he wanted to keep me one more night. The case worker informed the psychiatrist that he would have to call the insurance company to get approval for one more night. The psychiatrist looked at me and said he can go home today then. It’s not just the severity of your illness but also the ugly side of things like insurance that will determine the length of treatment you receive.
Having said all this let me say that Hospitals do a tremendous job with what they have to work with. They are understaffed and underfunded. Their teaching methods are archaic. But the Hospital is not their to CURE you. The hospital is a triage unit. They are there to get you stabilized. People go into the hospital because they believe that when you go to the hospital your going to be treated and cured. That’s not the case with a mental illness. The hospital stay isn’t the beginning of the end of this journey it’s the end of the beginning. You’ve started your journey. The medications you are prescribed in the hospital may not be the same medications your taking 3 months from now.
The only thing that can be controlled in this process is your participation. The only way you are going to make progress is by talking openly and honestly with your therapist. The only way through the mental health fog is by taking control. You must do the research, you must ask questions, you must advocate for yourself and you must not be afraid to find a new therapist or psychiatrist if the ones you have are not meshing with your needs.
You will be your greatest ally in this journey. There will be plenty of online groups that will be there to support you. But ultimately success is determined by your willingness to go the extra mile. You can’t be more than you are today if your not willing to do more than you already are. There will be frustration, their will be a feeling of being lost. You will see things work for others but not you. We are all unique in our diagnosis and we will all be unique in our recoveries. Your desire is the gasoline that keeps the car moving forward. Just remember no matter how frustrated you may get and no matter how alone you may feel; you are NEVER alone. YOU MATTER!