When a Decline in My Health Helped Suicidal Ideations Creep In
Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.
Part 1: Chronic illness helped suicidal ideations creep in.
“I am at a loss at this point, because I’m aware that thinking this way [suicidal] is wrong and I have a ton to live for, but this is a thought that creeps into my mind that I cannot seem to stop myself from having. It feels like I have no control over it. I am scared and tired and drained.”
I wrote the above in a letter to my primary care doctor on a Sunday in June after a night of fighting myself over whether or not the suicidal ideations I was having were “bad” enough to go to an emergency room. My health has imploded over the last year, even though I have fought my entire life with a primary immunodeficiency (IGG and IGA deficient), it is still much worse at the moment. Literally I have been in and out of long hospital stays every two to three months with no breaks in specialists visits for severe symptoms.
That night of emergency room parking lots along the way home, where I would sit for an hour or two scanning my phone and The Mighty website for what it is like to be admitted to a psychiatric ward, felt like a war from within myself. I wanted help so badly that I wanted to be taken to a room alone and separated from society, but at the same time I read horror stories about being admitted without an advocate and losing your rights. It terrified me.
I waited until I felt like I could go home and feel safe, then the next day I wrote a full letter telling my primary care doctor about it all in a very honest letter through the patient portal. By the next morning I was on my way to an appointment with said doctor, but with an advocate of my own with me. My primary care physician explained that the “circumstantial depression” that my anxiety medicine had previously been able to treat was no longer effective enough, as I was now struggling with “clinical depression,” which he said was the point when you felt like you no longer had control of how you felt. He also repeated that this wasn’t my fault, and that it was likely from my decline in health.
What came next was my doctor admitting me to an inpatient facility. We are in a somewhat rural area, so the local hospital only has 18 beds for the psychiatric section, and will only take those that have already attempted suicide. We found a facility a couple of hours away that stated it was voluntary and I could drive down and be admitted. I was terrified, but relieved to be doing something about the hopelessness inside me.
Part 2: Being middle class and the horror of inpatient facilities for mental health in the U.S.
The beautiful lobby, like a modern hotel, and the polite receptionist that greets you after passing through the glass doors feels inviting. Even following the professional counselor back to the admit rooms felt nicer than most previous medical facility experiences. Telling the counselor the whole truth of the scary uncontrollable suicidal ideations flying through my head even felt good – it felt like giving these thoughts to someone else to hold for a moment.
She had everything set up for a room for me, stood and I was to follow her from the nicely appointed lobby through one set of double doors down a hallway that looked like a nicer section of a hospital. Then we went through the second set of doors and panic began to creep into my chest as my belongings were taken and cataloged and my phone and other electronics locked up.
The loud central patient area with scuffed floors, fluorescent lighting and a large circular nurses’ station was crowded with patients milling around in various states of dress, only discernible by the matching hospital wrist bands, as hospital gowns or scrubs were not required. Others were crouched by the wall of pay phones talking to what sounded like family members, begging for more supplies or visits, akin to the phone time available in a county jail.
The counselor asked for me to sit as I had gone white, the edges of my vision were blurry, my legs were shaking, chest was tight and I was wringing my hands out with anxiety. In the 48 hours before I checked myself out against medical advice, this would be my last interaction with a counselor, or any form of talk therapy.
As I sat waiting for a nurse, a skinny guy in dirty clothes and a wrist band came over to me and pulled up my sleeve to examine a tattoo there and assumed I was also a drug addict being admitted, and I went into a full panic attack. I am a personal space person, but the real issue is that I was unaware this health facility would be mostly filled with drug addicts, largely heroine addicts, which I had no previous experience or interaction with. After that panic attack, a nurse asked, “You’ve never been to a place like this before have you?” No, I had not, and it was terrifying.
Once I was shown my room, met my roommate and explained all the items and changes made to these rooms so as not to provide a way to harm ourselves due to being on Suicide Watch, I took a shower in an open room with a toilet and no shower curtain, but luckily locked doors, then while shaking, I cried myself to sleep. Because in that moment without my family or three children, even though my doctor said it wasn’t my fault that I was having these thoughts, I could only think, “What had I done to end up here?”
I woke at 6:00 a.m. as my roommate left the room and went to the “day room,” because she said the night before as I cried that I will be required to stay longer if I cried too much or isolated myself. I ate what I could of the breakfast they gave me, which they had completely ignored my food allergies, and everyone lined up for “morning meds” in the hallway. This is when addicts from one hall and mental health patients from another hall converge on the nurses’ station as they hand out cups filled with unidentified pills to each patient.
As someone with significant anxiety, being around addicts that were quite tense or anxious themselves as well as only medications that cause surprising side effects, as well as several others with depression, added to my personal anxiety/depression issues. That day will go down as one of the longest days of my life. I met for 10 minutes with my assigned psychiatrist that morning where he suggested increasing my meds and taking me off suicide watch, then joined the groups for as many of the hourly “workshops” as possible to appear as though I was involved. These were mostly about coloring and people sharing their horrendously sad stories for what brought them to this point, however with no guidance for discussion or counseling involved. Picture being in the most depressive mood of your life and being forced to sit and listen to the saddest stories of child, drug or sexual abuse, and the only response is “Who’s next?”
By the end of the second day I had had two asthma attacks, due to a total disregard of the chemical allergen triggers I told the nurses about, and because everyone smokes outside during four breaks and I had wanted to see the sun, but am allergic to smoke and am an asthmatic. The second attack came from the cleaning products used in the facility. At that point, after only being numbed from overmedication, receiving no counseling or therapy of any kind, feeling more isolated and depressed and getting more sick from asthma attacks, I called my doctor and checked out.
There are other options for hospitals, of course; however, this level, from my understanding, is what my insurance will pay for and I can afford. The nicer options that exist, which I did a lot of research into, are quite expensive. I found the option that looked best, especially as it was females only, but it priced out at $49,000 per month with no insurance option, and had a three-month stay requirement.
Two days later, as I sat in my doctor’s office being diagnosed with bronchitis from the asthma attacks and had my depression/anxiety meds increased, we decided that if I need to go to inpatient again that I am to go to the local emergency room and say I do not feel safe from myself, even though I haven’t attempted suicide, and hope to be admitted there, where they know how to deal with my primary immunodeficiency disorder and chemical sensitivities from previous medical admissions. I now have weekly counseling visits set up, along with a psychiatrist, and having some better days mixed with lower days.
Overall, I wish I had known this story prior to going in, but also I believe that finding out firsthand the travesty that is our mental healthcare system in this country was horrifying and needs to be documented.
Note: This is only my experience. My primary doctor was very helpful with my issues, and this was just one facility.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.
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Thinkstock photo via Maria Kuznetsova.