How I'm Trying to Overcome the Shame I Feel for My Mental Health Hospitalization
I never thought it could happen to me. I’m not “crazy.” I live with bipolar disorder and depression, but I’m medication compliant, and I see both a psychologist and a psychiatrist. I am successful, educated and pretty high-functioning. So, how is it that I found myself standing in the emergency room, tears welling up in my eyes as I told the intake nurse I needed to talk to someone about checking into the mental health unit (MHU)?
The weeks leading up to this moment were pretty tough. I’m in a job in which I’m working far more hours than I feel are necessary or warranted. A month before, I was in a car accident that totaled my car. Four weeks later, I had a brand-new car that I totaled when I clipped another car and went off the road, rolling over a few times and absolutely destroying the nearly brand-new car. I walked away from both accidents, but this didn’t feel like a victory. In fact, the night of my second accident, I was done. I wanted to go to sleep and never wake up again. I lay there on my bed, completely numbed out to the world, ready to die with my method on the bed. It would be nice and “easy,” involving no external self-harm, the kind that made me nauseous.
That’s when my wife walked in.
“Nope,” she said, taking my method away. “Nope, we’re not doing this.” She didn’t trust me to be alone with it. She told me to go to sleep or go to the hospital — those were my two choices. I chose sleep because I couldn’t fathom going to the hospital. I thought maybe, just maybe, I would feel better in the morning.
I woke up and felt worse than ever. My wife had to leave early for work, so I was left by myself to get myself together, go rent a car and get to work. But my thoughts kept straying back to the suicide method. My wife was gone. There was no one to stop me except me. I held it in my hand again, this time considering my options, when the image of my 3-year-old daughter popped into my head. Of her, more than 3 — 4, 5, 10, 20. Birthdays, graduations, weddings — things I would miss. And I didn’t want to miss any of it. But I didn’t want to be in pain anymore. So I called up a family member who works nearby my house and told them I needed to go to the hospital. She thought it was because of the accident — and in a way, I guess it was. But when I told her I was going to the mental health unit, she stopped, patted me on the knee, and said, “It’s OK. I’m proud of you for asking for help.”
I wasn’t proud of me. I was completely ashamed. How had I let myself get this far down? And as I stood there in front of the intake nurse, tears welling in my eyes, she said something to me that I’ll never forget: “I’m glad you came in.” I didn’t know it or feel it at the time, but she was giving me the hope I needed at that moment — she was being hopeful for me because I couldn’t be.
After speaking with the social worker on duty, it was recommended I be admitted to the mental health unit at the hospital for at least a few days. I was utterly devastated. I mean, I know intellectually that it’s nothing to be ashamed of — if you were having kidney failure, you wouldn’t be embarrassed to get admitted to the hospital, y’know? But when it comes to mental health, the stigma is there. You’re “a crazy.” You’re one of the inmates from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Most of all, you’re broken. And a broken mind is not like a broken leg — you can’t just slap a cast on it and make things OK.
I ultimately spent five days in the MHU. During that time, I spoke to counselors, changed my meds, got an appointment with a psychiatrist closer to my hometown and worked through a lot of the guilt I was feeling. I met people who were going through the same thing I was going through (a common gallows-humor question was, “So, what’re you in for?”). But through visits from my wife and my parents, the same feelings of guilt and shame remained. I was, and am, ashamed of myself for having put them through that ordeal, that worry.
How do you overcome that shame? It’s not easy. In our world, we’re encouraged to be our best selves, but what about if we aren’t capable of doing that? Are we considered “less?” But one thing I’ve found that helps is listening to my support network. Yes, I was hospitalized for suicidal depression. Yes, I tried taking my own life. But it’s not because I’m bad or shameful. It’s because there’s something wrong in my head, and I needed to be evaluated for it. There is nothing — nothing — shameful about having a disorder you can’t control.
The way I’ve begun to think of it is like my friend who has Crohn’s disease. She can’t control it. She needs medicine to help her overcome it. And sometimes, it has landed her in the hospital. There is no shame in that — nor should there be. Similarly, I can’t control my depression. I can try to mitigate it, take medicine to help alleviate it, take steps such as changing my exercise and dietary habits, read and meditate more to center myself. But ultimately, my hospitalization was to correct something that was making me feel bad. And that’s not shameful — that’s what hospitals are there for. I may never fully overcome feeling that shame, but every day, I try to remind myself this is an illness no different from any other, and we should never feel ashamed for things beyond our control.
Photo by Ryan Holloway on Unsplash