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To the Mental Health Professionals Who Didn't Believe in Me

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Maybe you remember me. 

Or I am just one of the thousands of faceless patients to pass through your doors every year?

• What is PTSD?

I spent a great deal of time there during the late 1990’s and then for most of 2011 and 2012. That final admission in February of 2012 was involuntary and lasted until I was transferred to a long-term state run facility in August of 2012. As it turned out, I spent a mere six weeks at the state facility. I kept my shit together and they quickly realized it was an unsuitable and potentially damaging situation. They recognized something you did not: I had a future outside institutionalization. It was a horrible place, but at least they knew enough to set me free.

You treated me like a feral animal and like a feral animal I lashed out.

While in your care I was primarily provided with palliative care, as though my illness was terminal. I was tossed into the quiet room, pinned down and injected with a cocktail of medication more times than I care to recount. I was zapped with 30 plus electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatments, not because they helped, but because they had a sedative effect on me. Each one chipped away at my memory and knocked me off my feet for days. As specialists in mental health care, one would think you knew that mental illness is not terminal and that keeping patients perpetually sedated is not treatment.

In 2013 my family moved out of state because the fear of winding up back at either facility loomed large, logical or otherwise. From my home I could see the bridge whose span leads to the town where your hospital sits. To this day I cannot go through that town without having a panic attack. I see the courthouse where I begged a judge not to order nasogastric feeding and argued against extensions to my involuntary commitment. I see the medical hospital where you sent me for sutures, cat scans, MRIs and other treatments. And then there is your facility itself, set back from a main road, it’s gates like those to hell. It looks bucolic enough from the distance, but beyond the locked doors to the units are the ghosts of my past.

Today I am thriving. Slowly but surely, I am building a life worth living. I went from a shell of a person wandering the halls in a hospital gown to a functioning member of society, a graduate student and soon-to-be employee at a major university. A state run facility had more confidence in my ability to function in the world than yours, a private, well-regarded and highly ranked hospital. And that spurred me on; it encouraged me to keep trying, to keep going and to ultimately work towards finding my place in this world.

It hasn’t been perfect, far from it, but my relapses are fewer and farther between. Whereas a few years ago a relapse would linger for months on end, these days they are infrequent incidents; seemingly simple errs in judgment that I quickly problem solve and recover from. I know where to go and who to see in case of emergency, those facilities and practitioners who have my best interests, my potential and my future in mind.

During the past five years I’ve been working to resolve the indirect trauma I sustained at your facility and others, places designed to keep people safe and help them heal. I was not an easy patient. Nonetheless I deserved kindness, respect and compassion. The lack of these attributes is a fatal flaw in the design of the mental health care system as a whole. Yes, the safety of the patients is of utmost importance, but not at the expense of their dignity. I sat in a bare room, void of any furniture beyond a bed and my belongings stored in a locked closet for weeks at a time. I limited my fluid intake so as to avoid trips to the bathroom because staff was instructed to watch me as I used the toilet and I avoided showers because there was no curtain to ensure privacy. My body was not my own and every single day, multiple times a day, I felt violated, degraded and dehumanized.

Shame on you for not believing in my capacity or the capacity of the thousands of other patients who walk through those doors every year, because I know I am not the only one who was subject to your methods nor are you the only facility that relies upon them. 

There has to be a better way.

The practice of chemical restraints, the punitive use of ECT and institutionalization (as I experienced) are symptoms of a failing system, one that suffers from a lack of research, funding and most of all – a lack of internal comprehension. For all the progress that has been made in mental health care, there is still a long way to go.

I am lucky to have found a skilled clinician who is trained in an evidence-based method that is highly effective for reducing impulsive behaviors. Dialectical behavioral therapy is a cognitive behavioral approach that teaches skills and strategies to help participants develop lives worth living through mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness and emotion regulation. The irony of my situation is that I was first exposed to this type of therapy at your facility, the very one that traumatized me so severely. You had the tools but not the skills to implement them.

At some point during the past five years I made a choice to stop being a victim and to let myself heal. At times it has been a full-time job and I have been fortunate to be able to devote myself to it.

*Note to readers:

Regardless of your diagnosis, there is treatment to help manage the symptoms. Different methods work for different individuals and sometimes different approaches work at different times over the course of one’s illness. Even in the face of utter hopelessness, don’t ever give up.

Thinkstock photo via SusieMarcroft

Originally published: September 9, 2017
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