What Finding a Kindred Spirit Means in Mental Illness Recovery

I can count on two hands the celebrities I met during my first hospitalization in London. However, I can only count on one finger the friends I have made and kept through eight inpatient psychiatric hospitalizations spanning 15 years. It’s no small feat to share with someone you have been in a psychiatric hospital once, let alone eight times.

Articles in the mainstream news, as well as those posted on the internet, would lead you to believe mental illness is becoming more accepted and the general public is more informed. Perhaps, it is true to some extent, but I don’t believe the majority of people in my life are more understanding, accepting or knowledgeable about mental illness or about my multiple diagnoses, even after 20 plus years of fighting the good fight. However, I do receive this knowledge, understanding and acceptance from, M., a person I am proud to call my friend.

Becoming an inpatient is scary, made only more so by the hours spent forgotten in a local hospital ER. Even worse, the time spent in a psychiatric ER where you are kept for hours, possibly overnight in a cinderblock room furnished with a gurney and threadbare blanket. It’ can be ugly. They take everything from you, shoelaces, body jewelry, belts, underwire bras and wedding rings. Nothing is sacred. They take it all without apology and generally with a bad attitude, leaving you stripped, raw and bereft.

On the unit there is no makeup, only hospital issued toothpaste and that lovely institutional combination shampoo/conditioner/body wash. Enjoy eating your mystery meat with a plastic spoon and your roommate who seems to only snore and cry. Enjoy being ignored by staff and being offered only a small fraction of the therapy groups promised. Enjoy being insulted by fellow patients and staff alike on topics ranging from your appearance as to why you were admitted. This, at least, has been my experience.

Don’t be mistaken, being an inpatient is not a vacation or rest. It is an exercise in indignity constantly fraught with tension.

If you are lucky, then you may find a light in the darkness of your day, some friendliness and camaraderie in one or several of your fellow patients. It’s like being in high school. You’re so grateful to have someone to eat your lunch with. The question lay before you all like a long, winding road: “Why are you here?” The choice is up to you whether to answer or not, and what you choose to divulge can either alienate or unite, depending on whether you are speaking to kindred spirits.

I can say without hesitation the relationships formed in that microcosm of life gave me the impetus to keep fighting, hoping these fleeting friendships would someday yield true friends, people who understood me, who could support me and care for me without conditions. After all these years, I am happy to say I have one such friend. We talk about movies, music, TV, cats, our illnesses, medication challenges and the challenge of relating to people who haven’t shared our experiences, even the mundane challenge of life with Facebook.

Although I am grateful for them, I can’t keep going with just my medications, my psychiatrist and my therapist for help. I definitely can’t keep going by repeatedly being hospitalized and repeatedly making the suicidal gestures that land me there. What does have the potential to keep me going is honesty, acceptance and support from my family and friends.

We’re not all 100 percent there yet, but I am lucky to receive those three gifts from my friend M., every time we speak. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Thus, it takes a village to help people with mental illness on their journey toward recovery. They also say every journey begins with a single step. I say, if you’re lucky, it also begins with a true friend by your side.

Image via Thinkstock.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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