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The Words I Heard in the Mental Hospital That Changed the Way I View Mental Illness

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Editor's Note

The name used in this piece has been changed to protect the person’s privacy.

On a Friday in October two years ago, I was curled up in the back seat of a car, sticky tear trails decorating my face as I watched trees with orange and yellow leaves rush past my window. I was on my way to a mental hospital.

During that long car ride, all I could picture was what I’d seen in movies — white walls, barred windows, syringes, lab coats, cuffed chairs… I was terrified. I thought I was going to be locked up, and I didn’t know if I would ever be let out.

But then the car pulled into a parking lot, and I looked up. It wasn’t the prison I was expecting. It was an amiable building surrounded by green grass – the kind of grass that makes you want to lay down and watch the clouds. It wasn’t anything like the movies.

I learned a lot from my three-week stay in the hospital, but I want to talk about one specific moment from my time there. It was a moment that changed the way I see the world and mental illness.

One day, during a group therapy session, I started to feel an overwhelming sense of guilt. It was a particularly vulnerable session – people were being very honest about their struggles. One girl talked about how her dad had been sexually abusing her since she was 2 years old. Another girl talked about her broken family situation, about how her stepdad had Monday night poker parties and one too many drunken men had wandered into her room. A boy talked about how his parents had kicked him out of the house and how he was practically homeless.

As they spoke, I felt guilt slowly surrounding me until it was all I could see. Hearing their stories made me wonder why I was in the same room with them – I didn’t have a story like that. My life looked great from the outside. I had parents who loved me, I went to a top school and got good grades, I had faithful friends and a huge support system. Nothing bad had happened in my life. So why was I sitting in that room? Why did I end up in a mental hospital? I felt like I didn’t deserve to feel the way I did because my life was too good for me to be depressed, too good for me to be suicidal.

The group leader noticed that I seemed upset and asked what was bothering me. I decided to be honest and explained the guilt I was feeling. The rest of the group responded kindly, but there is one answer I remember clearly to this day.

One boy, Jake, looked at me and said I didn’t need to feel guilty. When he was in rehab, he explained, the people there would compare what kinds of drugs they had done to qualify themselves. He said that they had gotten it wrong – someone hooked on marijuana could have just as bad and difficult of an addiction as someone hooked on heroin.

His next words built a permanent home in my memories, and that night, I wrote them down. He said:

“It doesn’t matter what happened to make you feel this way – what matters is that you do feel this way, and that you deserve as much help as anyone else. All of us here (in the hospital) have had different experiences, different kinds of crap to deal with – but we all ended up in the same place, and we all ended up feeling the same way. That’s what matters. Because we are all here and we are all going to get through this together.”

He probably doesn’t remember what he said that day, but I will never forget it. His words completely shifted the way I had viewed my mental illness. I realized I didn’t have to feel guilty for my depression, and I understood the importance of connecting with the people around me who, although they had different experiences, knew what it was like.

If you are experiencing guilt for having a mental illness, I hope Jake’s words can help you like they did me. No one with a mental illness should have to feel like they don’t deserve help. Even if your life looks perfect on the outside, that doesn’t mean you can’t be struggling on the inside. I hope you can believe this and aren’t afraid to reach out for help, because you do deserve it.

Getty Images photo via Pablo_K

Originally published: March 5, 2018
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