When My Psychologist Said the Psychiatric Hospital Would Ruin My Life
I felt very, very tired, even though I’d been asleep for a week. My eyelids were heavy, and the room seemed dim. I couldn’t move; my body was rigid and sore. But I realized instantly that I was in a hospital, and I was glad.
“You’re in St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital!” cried my mother. She was sitting next to my bed. I tried to turn my head toward her but my neck felt stiff and my wrists were tied to the bedrails.
OK, I thought, this is what you get for attempting to die by suicide. Of course they’re going to tie you to the bed; they think you’ll try to kill yourself again the first chance you get.
I tried to choke a few words past the ventilator jammed into my mouth and scratching down my raw throat. It pressed painfully against my jaw and made it even more difficult to move my head. Every atom of me ached; for injections, IVs, three bouts of dialysis and bloodwork, needles had been stuck up and down my body. My arms were a spectacular patchwork of green and purple. I bruise easily under normal conditions; after a week in a coma, I looked like I’d been hit by a truck.
“You’re in St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital!” my mother repeated.
I heard you the first time, I thought peevishly; say something else, I can’t talk. I hazily noticed she was holding one of my restrained hands. My aunt, sitting on the other side of my bed, squeezed the other. I turned toward her and felt two catheters tugging at my nether parts. The thicker tube was discharging black sludge; my bowels were processing the charcoal the doctors had pumped into me to absorb some of the medications I’d swallowed.
Was I glad to be alive? I thought so. It felt good to be in the hospital, to have so many people concerned with my survival and well-being. Being tied to a bed meant they understood how desperate I was, how awful I felt, which I hadn’t been able to convey. Depression makes it hard to concentrate, to think, and if you can’t think straight, you can’t communicate. Nobody understood how much pain I was in. Not my mother. Not my friends. Not my colleagues. Not my therapist, Dr. Incompetent.
For months, I’d been plummeting into a depression ever more profound. I hated my job and feared I would never find my true calling. I was exhausted of dating, became convinced I would never meet someone to love and respect. I stopped eating. I slept 18 hours a day. I didn’t go to work. On the days I managed to get out of bed, I went to a nearby library and read fat, distracting books: “Gone With the Wind;” “Memoirs of a Geisha.”
I needed help desperately, but my psychologist had convinced my mother not to hospitalize me; if I spent time on the psych ward, said this psychologist, I’d never get another job. I’d never get married. My life would be ruined.
Dr. Incompetent’s last words to my mother, a few days before I was found unconscious and rushed to the ER, were, “Abigail’s out of control.” Neatly placing the blame for my illness on my bad behavior. I was skipping my twice-weekly appointments with her (for which, needless to say, she was still charging me) and not going to work — not even calling in sick.
My mother came in every weekend to spend time with me, which unfortunately wasn’t helping. She would find beautiful heirloom tomatoes at the local grocery store and try to get me excited about them. I love tomatoes, but I was profoundly depressed; I couldn’t get excited about anything. Anhedonia—the inability to feel pleasure—is one of depression’s cruelest symptoms.
I had turned off the ringer on my phone. Every so often I’d check my voicemail, deleting messages from my boss, ranging from annoyed to deeply concerned; my mother, deeply concerned; my therapist, annoyed.
The therapeutic relationship, like any other, depends heavily on the personal chemistry of the two people involved. I always experienced Dr. Incompetent as cold and aloof. I can’t explain why; she often made great efforts to see me, and was in frequent contact with my mother and psychiatrist. But I never felt close or comfortable with her, and many times I felt she completely misread what I was trying to say. She never diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and thus I wasn’t being treated for at least 50 percent of my problems.
After eight years of therapy, I wasn’t getting better. I was getting catastrophically worse. In addition to my diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I was struggling with severe sinusitis and random, inexplicable gastritis. Both conditions are common in trauma survivors. At times I couldn’t keep crackers and ginger ale down. Dehydrated and malnourished, I became severely depressed and suicidal.
I didn’t need a therapist. I needed a thorough assessment, different medications, and close monitoring. I needed a hospital, and Dr. Incompetent committed malpractice by keeping me out of one. Frantic with worry, my mother wanted to hospitalize me. Dr. Incompetent told her hospitalization would ruin my life — I’d never get another job, never get married, never have a “normal” life again.
A psychologist with a doctorate from a reputable university reinforcing the toxic stigma that keeps people from seeking treatment. I had to suffer tremendously to get the help I needed. But I got help, despite Dr. Incompetent’s best efforts.
During months of recovery, both physical and mental, I lost my job but I gained self-respect, stability and hope. After I woke up and my physical condition stabilized, I signed myself into an inpatient psychiatric treatment unit.
It was one of the best experiences of my life: I learned to say “I have manic depression,” rather than “I’m a manic-depressive.” I commiserated with dozens of other people who were grappling with illnesses like mine and getting better. I learned new ways of thinking about my illness and my life.
Going to the hospital didn’t ruin my life. It saved my life. Today I’m thriving. I still haven’t gotten married, but I don’t think that’s because I was hospitalized. I did get other jobs — and also earned two master’s degrees, becoming a social worker and helping dozens of people like me who struggle with mental illness. I’ve contributed articles to several websites, including The Mighty; I’ve spent tons of time with my nieces and nephew, making a significant contribution to their lives.
How do I know this? I took my older niece to a Justin Bieber concert. I am the best aunt in the universe. My life was worth saving.
I couldn’t have accomplished any of this without being hospitalized and treated by competent professionals. Being in a psychiatric ward was an incredibly positive growth experience for me.
I only wish I hadn’t been so afraid to go to the hospital. I wish I’d gone the year before I attempted suicide, when I was also very sick. But better late than never.
Photo by Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash