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When the 'Help' You Seek in Your Darkest Moments Doesn't Heal

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts or have experiences with psychosis, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

I want to preface this post by saying this is the second version of this story. The first time I wrote this I was filled with rage as I wrote each word on the paper. What happens to those of us with critical mental health issues is unacceptable and I hope in this version I can accurately convey the hidden truth only we who have been there would know.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

Psychiatric hospitals are where we all go when we’ve run out of options. These places are for those of us in the most helpless situations and in need of the most care. When you have a mental illness they say “if you feel as if you are a danger to yourself or others, seek immediate help” which usually means the ER. There’s an unspoken or maybe just unheard truth about the hospital in regards to inpatient care for those with mental illnesses. I’ve personally found myself under those qualifying conditions three times and seeking help that led to inpatient stays. During these times I discovered that when you seek this level of help in your darkest moments you do not find loving, healing arms — what you find is a prison with nicer food.

The first time I hospitalized was a manic episode so intense I was hallucinating. Leading up to the big night, I had felt that my wife was trying to kill me in my sleep. Every night before I slept I’d ask her, “Are you going to kill me tonight?” On the fateful night, whenever I would look at my wife’s face all I saw was a demon. She could tell something was wrong so she would reach to comfort me and I would flinch in fear. I knew she was trying to kill me. I was lucky to have enough self-awareness to know that I was hallucinating so I turned away with closed eyes and explained to her what was happening.

After having my eyes closed for a bit I was lured into a false sense of security, so I opened my eyes and saw a piece of blue cardboard we had in the room. Instantly, I started choking. I was now drowning because I was in the ocean and had forgotten how to swim. At this point I said we needed to go to the hospital, so I got up and started getting dressed. I found myself speaking with my wife’s stuffed animals, telling them I’d always treated them so well and they didn’t need to kill me. Which was true, that week I had been particularly careful with them because they were alive and if I treated them wrong they’d kill me. On our way to the hospital, a big rig passed us and I accused my wife of conspiring with the driver to kill me. Once in the hospital, I immediately cowered and recoiled in intense fear at any male-presenting nurse or doctor that came near me as they were a part of the faction lead by my wife to kill me. All the while being unable to communicate that I was overcome with guilt for only suspecting the male-presenting individuals of taking part in the plot to murder me.

The second time I was hospitalized, I saw visions of myself banging my head against a wall viciously enough to draw blood, as if my life depended on it. The visions later evolved into me painting myself with the blood I’d just drawn. These visions idealized hurting myself. I craved the peace the brutality would bring like I craved gods presence that never came. It reminded me of the oak pews I sat in as a child, it was salvation. Everyone’s safety around me depended on my doing this. In the process of fighting this urge I once again found myself feeling guilt. I felt guilty for putting everyone at risk by not doing this simple task of using this wall to beat the shit out of myself. “I’m sorry you guys,” I said. I didn’t explain why I was saying that. I imagine they assumed it was because we were in the hospital dealing with me. They told me it was OK and I cringed because if they only knew how selfish I was.

The third time I went to the hospital actually highlights a really interesting feature of mental illness that is almost never spoken of: memory loss. I vividly remember the first two, but this third hospital visit I had to reach out to my family to have them remind me not just what happened in the hospital but why I even went in in the first place. I went in for something far less dramatic but not any less severe. I just really wanted to kill myself. They call it suicidal ideation for a reason. This isn’t something I wanted to do begrudgingly, though I do not speak for everyone in every situation. Much like with the wall, killing myself was the solution, the salvation. I needed to kill myself, but more so than that I really, really wanted to. So I went to the hospital and asked for help.

I want to preface this next part by saying this: I think the reason no one talks about this stuff on a big platform is fear that people will hear these things and avoid the help they need. Read this carefully: my hospital visits were torture, but I do not regret seeking help a single time. If you are scared of yourself, if you need help, I beg you to go. If not for yourself then your family or your pets or me or anyone or anything. Find any little reason no matter how small, or seemingly insignificant or even embarrassing it feels. Get help, because you are important to the world. Life will get better, if you give it a chance; but it can’t get better if you take away the opportunity for it to do so. I believe in you.

So what happens after you go in and ask for help? For me, the first thing they did was make me take a drug test. They needed to determine if drugs were playing a role in the episode. I’ve never been on drugs during these episodes so I’m not sure what happens if you are; but I know that you do eventually end up in the same in patient facility, as I met people who were self-admitted drug addicts there for rehab.

One my second visit (when I wanted to bash my head into a wall) because I was describing wanting to commit violence, I was not allowed to pee alone. So they gave me one of those weirdly shaped white pee containers. They said to me, in a room of at least three people, you can pee facing us or pee facing the wall. So I chose the wall. I immediately regretted this decision. The violent visions had started to recede, but now that I was near the weapon of my desire I felt a rush of emotion. I had goosebumps, I was in fight-or-flight. I’m peeing in a room of people (something I struggle with) and all I can think about is “it’s right there, glory, salvation, everything good in the world less than a foot away.” All I had to do was just do it. No one could have stopped me, they were too far. Luckily, I had just enough strength to fight; but upon looking back, every time, I become enraged at that staff. Why would you let me put myself that close to danger? Why would you give me the choice to do that. I’ve never understood because they take away so many of your freedoms, control so much of your life in these places. Yet they allowed me this liberty that could’ve led to my own destruction.

Once they’d determined that I was not on drugs, they began the long process of getting me placed in an inpatient facility. In my first two visits I was transported about five minutes away in the back of a locked cop car. In my third I was transported by an ambulance, which seems to be the more consistent experience. In this instance they did not tell me where I was going, only the name of the facility. I laid, strapped to a gurney, in the back of that ambulance for about 50 minutes. I did not find out what city I was in until the fifth day of my stay there, the last. Once you’re there they have you see a doctor who asks you all the same questions you’ve been asked over and over. Each time I would explain it, I felt “crazier,” I felt more depressed, I felt more embarrassed. There was no comforting words, this was a transaction.

In my first two experiences they made me get naked behind a screen and checked my clothes. If there was anything you could use to hurt yourself they would either cut it out (with permission) or keep it and give you paper clothes. You know those bibs they give you at the dentist? It’s basically the same material used for these paper clothes. These bits of blue paper were not suitable clothing.

On my third visit they had taken my clothes away completely besides my underwear and I was in a gown so that process wasn’t needed. I spoke with someone I know who has bipolar about their experience with this. They told me that the facility they went to made them strip down completely naked and stand there while they took stock of their tattoos and scars and the like. They described it as a strip search. Eventually you’re assigned your room (with or without roommate depending on the facility) and the program begins. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks. My first visit I could get snacks whenever I wanted. My third they had a limited amount of snacks. Once I asked if I could have a sandwich, cheap bread, and a slice of ham or turkey. They said, “I’ve only got one left and I don’t want to give it away yet.” So I walked away and went to sleep hungry.

If you haven’t noticed the similarities between the first and second visits they were actually at the same facility; but I had wildly different experiences. The first one was relatively not that bad compared to the second and third but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t bad. Essentially they added a medication to my regimen the first day, then waited four days to see what would happen. The emotional agony of being away from my wife and my cats was horrible. I slept horribly. A nurse comes into your room every 15 minutes to check on you, and I mean every 15 minutes. At some point, probably the night of day two, I was clear-minded and ready to go. I spoke with my doctor. He admitted I was doing quite well but would not let me go. When you’re having a crisis, being in these places feels good and therapeutic; but once you’re of sound mind and you’re still trapped the lizard brain kicks in. I hated being there so much. It made me sad to be cut off from the world, I felt embarrassed that I was still there even though I felt I was good. Eventually though, I did get out.

Three days later I was back in the hospital. It was determined I had a bad reaction to the medication my doctor had put me on during the previous stay. This time was a little different. They informed me because I had come back so soon, I had to go to the locked ward. No more TV, someone ripped it off the wall. No more roaming or access to food when I wanted it. The way this site worked was there were three doctors. During the week they’d all come in at some point in the morning and they’d make whatever changes they saw fit. During the weekend though, one doctor was on call and made all the changes, even if they weren’t your doctor. That weekend my doctor wasn’t on call. He took a look at me and decided to change my medication. One of these medications had previously given me body tremors. One of the rights that you do retain in these places is the right to refuse meds. I pleaded with the doctor that my history shows this won’t work for me; but he ignored me. So I refused the medication. Ironically we later found out the medication he left me on was what caused the first visit. The nurse in charge of distributing meds decided that I was scum for refusing my meds and treated me as so. So I was trapped behind a locked door, couldn’t see my wife or cats, and now I’m unmedicated because they wouldn’t medicate me correctly; and this nurse was attacking me verbally.

I won’t tell you what she said but know I made a formal complaint against her when I left, and I hope she never gets to work as a nurse again. For about a day and a half she attacked me until finally I caved. I took the medication and the tremors started. I told my nurse what was happening, explaining I can’t sleep like this, and she said she would “put it in my chart.” The only solace I had was that my doctor would come on Monday and he would fix this. That was the light at the end of the tunnel that got me through all this. My doctor came and immediately fixed my meds. I asked him if I could get out as soon as I felt better, but he said that was a bad idea. He said the reason I was back in the hospital was because I was too weak. He said that I could not be trusted in the world. My castle crumbled and I was defeated. All the hope I had built up that had been holding me through the torturous tremors and beginnings of a mixed episode made the hit hurt that much more. I felt shattered. Well, if I can’t get out, can I at least be outside of the locked ward? He said “no” because there weren’t any available rooms. Alright, fair enough. He left and a little while later we got a new inmate.

Long story short, I was standing in the hallway and this individual assaulted me. I let the nurses know and they sedated them. They asked me if I wanted to be moved out of the locked ward for safety. I accepted and suddenly there was an available room outside even though I’d been told there wasn’t, and that’s why I was in a position to be assaulted.

I’ve presented the facts and how they made me feel. I guarantee you this, I’ve talked to many people with bipolar disorder who have gone through these places. Everyone has had a bad experience in a place meant to protect and heal us. Changes need to be made that fix these places. When you have a mental illness, when you’re in a crisis, your first thought is not to get help. In a lot of cases, the mental illness actually makes you not want to get help, it protects itself. It’s already so difficult to get us to get help when we need it most. Having the places that are supposed to help be so toxic and harmful is a great reason for someone to not go. In those moments we exist on an unevenly balanced scale between seeking help and just dealing with it ourselves. It takes a pound of gold to encourage us to get help but only a grain of sand to not seek it.

I leave you with a proclamation and a poem “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye:

“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, You must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth.”

A prisoner in heaven is the same as a free man in hell. 

Photo by Vinicius “amnx” Amano on Unsplash

Originally published: November 22, 2021
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