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It Took Me 8 Years to Get the Mental Health Help I Needed

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Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

I found myself in a stark white room, itchy from the pilled fabric chair. Sitting next to me was a man in a hospital gown, attempting to pick off and eat the chipped linoleum. I glanced down at my right thigh, embarrassed and disillusioned by the foot-long bandage. This was rock bottom. I was committed to a mental health institution for a 72-hour suicide watch.

Fresh-faced and hopeful, I moved to the sunshine state when I was 18, not even enough time for my graduation cap to reach the ground. I was following my sister and bad relationship number two. Not incredibly motivated, it was my goal to attempt community college and eventually become a neonatal nurse. Or at least that’s what my ill-advised, post-high school crash course suggested. To no one’s surprise, my relationship imploded. I struggled to complete or begin to understand my courses, eventually not even mustering the effort to attend at all. Loneliness slowly crept into every crevice of my being. I sat in my room feeding on self-pity and peanut butter sandwiches, the broke college student’s delicacy. One night, attempting to crawl out of my isolation, I tagged along with my sister’s friend group. This is when I met my new sidekick, alcohol. A self-proclaimed “straight edge,” I gulped down a solo cup of bright red, vodka punch with no reservations. My anxieties melted along with the floor, and I picked my head up for once in months. This is what I needed to get by.

My new vice provided three new personalities. One was brave and bubbly, a convivial character. The other was savagely ugly, mean and out of control. The last was sad, blubbering and excruciatingly depressed.

Nights would begin wild and fun and would end up with someone, usually my unfortunate sister, literally scraping me off the pavement. This cycle is both addictive and nonsensical; a fickle friend providing euphoria. Except that euphoria is false, and you find yourself trying to jump out of a moving car, praying you might meet your end. Then you add in your history of good old self-mutilation. Yep, I was a “cutter.” A cutter believing that the relief of liquor would soften the jagged edges. Until one night, intoxicated and inconsolable, I locked myself in my room and called on my trusty, secret razor blade.

Cut (literally) to the ER, wherein I was fireman carried inside. My sister held my hand while she simultaneously sunk and passed out overseeing the wound. I had also inconvenienced the on-call doctor’s schedule. She stitched me up in disdain and annoyance while I constantly apologized for my foolishness. “Why would you do something like this?” she asked. I sheepishly muttered, “I’m really not sure, ma’am,” as if formal speech would soften the blow. “This is going to take me forever,” she hawed at the medical assistant, rolling her eyes. I laid for a while in a hospital bed, watching sitcoms like I hadn’t just royally made a life-altering mistake. In the early morning, a nurse stood over me with a clipboard of papers. Sweetly but matter-of-fact, she informed me, “We have to take you for some more evaluations, so we’re transferring you to another facility. Just for a short while, it’s standard procedure.” I was loaded up in an ambulance, completely unknowing I would enter a whole different kind of hell.

“Miss, your sister’s on the phone!” the receptionist yelled, sitting behind thick clinical office glass. I picked up what looked like a 1980s, long cord telephone from the other side and quickly explained my confusion, anxiously asking when she could be here to take me home. “They told me to bring you some clothes, I’m on my way right now,” my sister said, allowing me the tiniest sense of relief. I was sitting in my hospital gown of shame, watching other disheveled patients filter in and out. Surely, they would ask me a couple questions, have me sign off on paperwork and I’d be on my way. But my sister arrived with a plastic bag of leggings and a sweatshirt and was directed to leave. As I saw her worried face through the square window of the door, I turned back to the receptionist, “But she needs to know what time I can go home, so she can wait or come back for me!” “You’re not going home today, sweetie,” she declared.

As I stood shocked in a full-body rush of absolute panic, I was ushered into a small office down the hall. A woman sat behind her desk, kindly urging me to sit down. “You’re probably very scared at what’s going on right now. You’re wondering what’s going to happen next?” I gulped, eyes welling with tears, “I didn’t understand that I couldn’t go home.” She was kind and talked slowly with her hands clasped. “Because of your self-inflicted injury, we’re required to keep you for 72 hours, on suicide watch.” My mind went black; 72 whole hours? I was backed into a corner with my only line of defense, “I wasn’t trying to kill myself.” I found myself standing in a tiled bathroom with a female nurse. I was required to undress with only my underwear allowed to remain. I folded my arms over my chest, shaking uncontrollably, as the nurse documented every single scar on my body. In my early teens, my upper thighs were my designated cutting spot. Easy to hide, easy access. As she noted my dirty little secrets on a diagram, she shook her head, “Oh honey, why would you do this?”

I was introduced to a room, complete with a vinyl twin bed and bars on the window. Outside was the common area with a flatscreen TV and community couch in the women’s only ward. I was starting to stink of B.O. because deodorant wasn’t allowed, and neither were bras with underwire. A rail-thin woman with wild, wavy brown hair, cigarette in hand, crept around the door frame. “What are you in for?” She asked me slyly. “Long story,” I replied nonchalantly. She escorted me into the dining hall where we were given a cafeteria-style lunch: a carton of milk, mashed potatoes neatly in a square, some kind of Salisbury steak with once frozen veggies, and a fruit cup. I stared mindlessly at my food. My senses were so overloaded, for once in my life, I was too overwhelmed to eat. The wild-haired woman gave me a brisk nudge, “You have to eat even if you’re not hungry… they’re always watching and will count it against you.” I promptly picked up my dinner roll and pat of butter, eager to heed her warning. My now mental institution sage guide offered me her help if I told her the jest of what landed me there. She looked me dead in the eyes, “‘You’re going to see the psych doctor tomorrow, and this is what you have to tell him if you want to get out of here: ‘I drank too much. It was a mistake. I would never try to kill myself.’” While that statement was true for me, I got the sense that direct verbiage was the key for me to go home.

I was exhausted. More mentally exhausted than I had been in my life. You wouldn’t think starchy sheets and a potentially unpredictable roommate would lull you to sleep, but that’s all I wanted to do. Nurses would shine a flashlight in our face every hour or so to make sure we were safe. Vitals were also taken once a night. The next day, we had group “therapy.” I’m using “therapy” as a very loose term to what was actually practiced. A counselor in a white coat asked us all two questions: “How are you feeling today?” and “Are you hearing voices in your head?” I internally cringed.

Everything that followed was a waiting game, or more like wasting our time on purpose to keep us at bay. I waited in line for yet another nurse to tend to my laceration. She removed the bandage and applied this gelatinous, brown Iodine. I had black and purple bruises from the anesthetic injections; my leg looked like Frankenstein’s leg. “You know,” she started out with a concerned pause, “If you would’ve cut any deeper, you would’ve sliced open major arteries. You have to understand that you could’ve potentially died. You’re too young for that.” I couldn’t stop apologizing to everyone around me who had to take care of me. I didn’t believe I deserved to be apologizing to myself as well.

We were given outside recreation time, which just consisted of a weed-infested blacktop with picnic tables and basketball hoops without nets; all enclosed with prison-like fencing of course. I sat at one of the tables with a group. What else are you supposed to talk about other than your newly admittance and what might be wrong with you? There was a woman next to me, downtrodden and weathered. She outrightly disclosed, “My son just died. I’m sad. I don’t know why I have to be here because of that.” My heart went out to her. Here’s someone flooded with grief, hurting, facing the worst loss life can reap on you, and she’s made to sit in confusion over her understandable dip in any serotonin. Why are we experiencing confinement, punishment and no semblance of individualized therapy? It felt unfair, to say the least.

I waited in line to see the psychiatric doctor most of the day; some man that would hopefully give me a brief consultation and give the powers at be the OK that I could go home. After a quick questionnaire, I regurgitated what I was told by my roommate. He looked at me plainly and said, “You’re not ‘crazy.’ You shouldn’t be here. Just lay off the alcohol and you’ll be fine.” The problem was, there was no suggestion of follow-up or solution. There was no course of action to combat why I was feeling the way I did. The ugly truth behind this whole ordeal; I was enthralled in an affair. An affair that was so irresponsible and personal, that I lost my shit coming home from a party that dark night. As any soap-opera-like crisis goes, I was convinced the third party would never know about this relationship. I was very much planning on cutting and running; I was a coward. A coward who tried so hard not to love a taken man. It was my doing, but I was wracked with enough guilt to drink myself into a dramatic stupor and take action before everything unraveled. I was the biggest fool.

“Baby, what happened?” My father desperately asked when I was allowed to receive phone calls by the nurse’s station. I couldn’t tell him any part of the truth. I couldn’t tell him, especially over the phone, that I was upset over the possible ending of an illicit relationship. “They won’t let me come get you because you’re 18,” he said in a panic. “I’m flying down the second I can.” Some part of me had to finally admit my struggle with self-mutilation; this wasn’t a new occurrence by far. Still to this day, I can’t fully explain the logic behind it. It was a twisted release of pain coupled with an adopted ideology of “You want to hurt me? I can hurt myself better.” When your mom dies of cancer at age 9 and you inevitably fall into the “goth kid” aesthetic in high school, cutting just came with the territory. But now I was 18, trying to search for early adulthood, and had to face my father’s utter disappointment and confusion. I had now hurt everyone around me in an attempt to hurt myself.

Finally going home was blurry. I remember watching “Twilight: New Moon” on the sticky group couch while my once spirit guide screamed at a nurse about her bulimia diagnosis. I waited in the wings to escape this mental health purgatory, ready to never look back. Immediately going out to dinner was a bad choice. I entered the bathroom to run some water on my face and was jolted with budding PTSD from the fluorescent lights and paper towel dispenser. This wasn’t going to be back to life as usual. I spent the next few weeks hiding under the covers and binging movies. Insomnia finally hit after my first attempt to socialized at, great choice, a bar my sister worked at. Sober, I locked eyes with the same medical assistant from that fatal night. Suddenly cold, clammy and heartbeat racing, I literally ran out of the room in total embarrassment he would recognize me.

Sleep-deprived and just as depressed, I didn’t cut off my secret relationship. In fact, we fell through the rabbit hole even further. Creating a kind of Florence Nightingale dynamic, he convinced me to schedule an appointment with his PCP. He stayed in the room with me while I attempted to described bouts of insomnia and general anxiousness day to day. This doctor might as well just told me to get out. Because, “I don’t know what’s wrong with you,” and, “I’m not the professional to deal with this,” felt just as bad, if not worse. I froze. Sitting on the crunchy hygienic paper, I motioned that it was just time to go. Once again, I was in front of a medical professional who no insight or suggestions of help. Had I just said I saw pink elephants and believed myself to be Adolf Hitler? I promptly left the room without any pleasantries. If I couldn’t get help, I would certainly end up in the same state-run hell hole. I spent the rest of the day eyes clenched, in the fetal position.

Absolutely destitute, I’m sure you can guess I didn’t actively seek help again. My old friend liquor curled up with me and whispered false promises. Back in the booze-filled saddle, I vomited my deteriorating mental health on anyone who would associate with me. I was meeting… him… in seedy motels and friends’ apartments. I remember telling him one night, straight-faced, “You’re going to find me dead one day.” Shortly after, our reality built on a house of cards finally crashed and burned. The third party was told. I couldn’t trust him anymore; not like I truly could this entire time. I felt like a total piece of shit. I dropped out of college and spilled the truth to my friends back home. My sister and I finally packed up everything we could fit into my cherry red Neon. He begged me to stay, and I watched him leaning in the doorway as we drove off, getting smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror.

I wish I could say I got things together shortly after the long return. Alas, I was a slow and stubborn learner, I guess. I repeated the same behaviors, this time surrounding myself with groups of people equally messy and irresponsible. It took years of beating myself up and making a whole lot of excuses and apologies to concretely search for some kind of therapy. I ended up doing online therapy after failed attempts to find local therapists covered under my insurance. This route went swimmingly for my social anxiety, scared of the entire world, baggage. You’re able to write as much as you want when you want, and still receive voice messages so you know you’re talking to an actual human. Not even within a couple weeks, my therapist suggested an anti-anxiety/anti-depressant. Yeah, where am I going to snag that? She suggested, dun dun dun, any PCP or doctor. I drug it out until I was at my gynecology appointment of all places, blaming my mental state on my birth control. “Very common, let’s try medication,” she said while she wrote a few notes into the laptop and asked my pharmacy location. It was that easy.

My life has drastically changed for the better with a small, white pill. I no longer carry my guilt strapped to my back. I can function in society without running away or quitting. I can imbibe casually and responsibly with no suicidal antics or dependency. I’ve learned the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships. The trick alongside pharmaceuticals is finding your niche of hobbies and people. I wouldn’t be thriving today without my support group and my family; especially my sister, whom I put through so much. Keeping up and sustaining your mental health is a never-ending job. Nothing is magic, even when I like to think my medication truly is. It took me eight years to get the help I needed. For many, one year is much too long. While I wish the stigma and crapshoot institutions didn’t exist, we need to remember to keep asking for help without shame. We need to remember to try different avenues until we find an answer conducive to our lives. Your mental health journey is your story, and you don’t have to apologize for it. Wear that scar like a badge of honor representing how far you’ve come.

Photo by Sinitta Leunen on Unsplash

Originally published: September 17, 2021
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