by Amy Martin
(A story I wrote for ‘Stories That Heal’, a music, storytelling and community wellbeing project focused on mental health, trauma and recovery through lifting local stories and musical expressions in Benzie County.)
The first time I was in the psych hospital, I learned a handful of things:
1.) If you steal a plastic spoon during breakfast, you can wedge it into the shower button to give yourself more time to wash than the miserably short set time.
2.) If you bond over warm beverages with one of the cafeteria workers, she’ll bring you her special tea from home instead of leaving you to suffer through the diluted Gordon Food Service swill they taught as tea.
3.) If you’re overly enthusiastic about the art therapy sessions, they force you to talk less because they’re just grateful someone is finally using up the crayon nubs, faded construction paper, and dried up glue.
4.) A lot of many medical professionals don’t know shit about type 1 diabetes.
5.) Being diagnosed as bipolar can be relieving.
Before I revisit some of these lessons, I suppose I ought to tell you what landed me in the psych hospital in the first place—mania. Well, technically the major depressive drop-off following mania. Of course at the time I did not know what mania was. I just knew I felt different—I felt high on life. I felt good: the colors brighter, flavors enhanced, songs shouted, “brilliant” thoughts rapidly racing out of my mouth. I danced everywhere I went. I thought I had finally found true happiness, ignoring the negative, dangerous behaviors I was engaged in.
Those behaviors? Being easily distracted at work, forgetting to take my insulin, not sleeping, extreme spending sprees without being able to afford it, promiscuity, impulsive unfaithfulness, reckless driving, risky choices, binge drinking. And when I say binge drinking, I mean gallons of beer a night. Literal gallons. I’ll let you do the math there.
The day I was admitted to the hospital, I woke up in bed that morning next to someone who wasn’t my (now ex) husband. We hadn’t slept together, or even kissed, but at the pace my life was unraveling we might as well have. I looked at my cellphone for the time, realizing I had maybe had my eyes shut for two hours—which is two hours more than I would’ve gotten had I accepted the bump of coke offered to me earlier in the night. I had an abundance of texts, both from my husband and the person I had cheated on him with, both of them angry yet worried about me. I stumbled out of the room, received some judging looks from the others in the house still up and rolling, and made my way to my car. When I got home I threw back a glass of red wine for breakfast, bracing myself for the big confrontation with my husband, but he had already headed to work.
I felt sluggish, as if I was moving in slow motion. Everything started to look grey as I crawled into bed. I no longer felt high on life, I felt smothered by it. It was as if a light had suddenly switched, and my mind was alone in the dark. I couldn’t even fathom moving from the bedroom, much less eating. It took no time at all for the guilt to weigh down on me, and realize I no longer wanted to exist anymore. I wanted to die, and I developed a plan.
Fortunately, my then-husband came home, noticed how odd I was acting and forced it out of me. Forced everything out of me, including the affair I was having with someone I didn’t even care about. It shattered him, and after dropping me off at the ER (and making sure my family knew I was there) he took off. He didn’t just leave town, he left the state. I felt so guilty and confused and unsupported. I knew there was something wrong with me, I just didn’t know what the hell it was. And to not have him, my best friend, there to help me figure it out was devastating.
One of my brothers lived in the same city as we did, and he and his girlfriend rushed to the ER immediately. My brother gave me the longest, hardest hug I’ve ever experienced, his strong voice shaking while whispering how much he loved me. My memory of it is all a blur, but my mom must’ve flown down the highway all 150 miles of her trip, because it felt like she was there in no time. At this point I had been awake nearly 24 hours and all I knew is I didn’t want to exist, but I didn’t want to die and let my family down. The ER nurse came in and told us they had found me an open bed at the psych hospital, and we migrated there.
On the drive from the emergency room to psych hospital, I stared out the window and couldn’t help notice how grungy and grimy it looked outside. It was late fall, so the fallen leaves had lost all of their vibrant color and were rotting, smeared, and staining the streets. I couldn’t help but compare them to the “sins” I committed, staining what was once a good life. I felt akin to Lady Macbeth, certain my life would never be cleaned of this spot.
Admission into the psych hospital was traumatic in and of itself. My mom sat there and heard me admit all of the travesties I had committed, and I was certain I was breaking her heart. I then had to say goodbye and they took me into a sterile white room where they made me strip down and took all of my belongings—phone, jewelry, clothes—everything. I awkwardly slipped into a gown and scratchy hospital socks with grips on the bottom, and was guided into my room where my new roommate was sleeping. Too tired to be anxious about my situation, I collapsed into bed, resting my head on the lumpy pillow and pulling the thin sheet up around my shoulders. I fell asleep almost instantly.
The next thing I remember was my roommate waking me up, asking if I wanted to go to the cafeteria with her for breakfast. It must’ve only been an hour since I had passed out, so I mumbled “no thank you” and rolled over, sleeping into the late afternoon. When I eventually groggily sat up, said roomie popped her head in and warned me, “If you don’t wake up and attend some of the sessions during the day, they’ll keep you here longer.”
The first few days were miserable simply because the doctors and nurses didn’t know how to take care of my diabetes. Completely oblivious to the difference between type one and type two diabetes, they put me on an awful, useless diet. They would often make me wait over an hour after eating to give me insulin, which should be injected before, during, or immediately after a meal. Some of the nurses didn’t know how to administer the insulin pens, which caused my blood sugar to skyrocket. Even when I told them I needed better management, nothing was done. That was another lesson I learned—it’s impossibly hard to heal mentally when your physical health is declining. It wasn’t until my blood sugar was 500 all day (for reference a non diabetic’s is around 100) that they decided I needed help. Apparently legally they couldn’t drive me to the ER, so I had to be transported in an ambulance.
Having not gone outside in days, it was a relief to breathe in fresh air on the brief transition from the psych hospital to the ambulance that evening. I looked up and noticed big, fluffy snowflakes dancing down, falling onto my face. It felt like a cleansing of sorts, a baptism. It was in that moment that I finally started to feel hope.
In the ER they brought my blood sugar down, got the toxins out of my blood stream, and sent me back giving the hospital strict instructions on how to take care of type one diabetes. Sinking into the bed that night I felt a huge sense of relief.
The next couple of days are when healing truly began. I know up to this point of my story, everything has sounded so negative, but let me tell you—I do not regret going to the psych hospital. In fact, I’ve gone back to a few since, and I highly recommend them. Going has saved my life, time and time again.
The healing started when I made friends in the cafeteria. My roommate took me under her wing and brought me into their ragtag gang of misfits. We truly were an odd group, and probably not one that you’d typically see outside of the hospital. All body types, economic statuses, races, religious backgrounds and ages—a pregnant 18 year old trying to kick a drug habit to an 81 year old man insistent that life wasn’t worth living in old age. I became closest to a giant of a man, a schizophrenic who when triggered would need several techs to restrain him, but with a great big heart and a film degree like me. It was nice making friends—I was smiling and laughing again.
The most significant part of my time healing was my diagnoses. It might seem strange to be relieved by being crowned with a serious, life altering illness that I would be forever stuck with—but relief is truly the only word to describe it. To finally have a name for what I was going through, what I had done, and all of the feelings I experienced. Additionally, a diagnosis meant resources and tools to cope.
There were several tools that helped me not only experience healing but truly blossom. One was medication—necessary for me, but perhaps not for everyone. I’m a huge advocate that there should be no shame in taking medicine, but it doesn’t need to be for everyone. I also think it’s important to recognize that medicine is not the end all be all solution. It can take years to find the right “medication cocktail”, and sometimes you have to choose your mental health over a slew of less than fun side effects. Additionally, supplementing it with therapy is something I highly recommend. It is a rough journey, but worth it.
Despite making fun of the art therapy at the beginning of this story, it was incredibly soothing. Making something tangible and getting my feelings out in a creative way was invaluable. Along the lines of creativity I also found strength and healing through writing. We were encouraged to keep a journal everyday, which I did so religiously. When I was younger and my cousin passed away, my dad told me that as a writer, writing was healing, and he was right. My time in the psych hospital only reinforced this.
Yet another tool I found helped me, and continues to help me is acknowledging my physical body. This can mean through movement—dancing, walking, yoga—or by being still and experiencing my breathing. When your body is in a healthy place, it’s easier for your mind to be.
When it was time for me to leave the hospital, I was nervous but ready. I missed the simple things that I knew would only make my healing better. Things like music, fresh air, and preparing my own food (vegetarian options in the hospital just aren’t all that great.)
I signed my discharge papers and walked out into the frigid air. I glanced at the holes on my fingers from the aggressive blood sugar pricks they were giving me, and I observed them as constellations on my fingertips, beautiful battle scars marking my survival. I then looked around and for the first time noticed the blanket of snow covering everything. It was a stark contrast to the grimy moldy leaves coating the streets when I entered the hospital. The snow made everything feel fresh, reborn. I felt renewed, relieved of my sins, and hopeful for a fresh start.