Every year around mid-November, I tend to think back and reflect on a defining period of time in my adolescence. And for as long as I’ve had this blog, I’ve written something about it, annually. When I was 17, I voluntarily admitted myself to a psychiatric unit. I envisioned I’d be there for a day or two; in the end I was there for 3 weeks, with everything quickly no longer becoming my choice. It was both good and bad that I went voluntarily – On one hand, I didn’t resent anyone else for making that decision, and I may have made some things easier for calling that shot so early-on in my downward spiral. Specifically, I could have been walking around in a mild/moderate psychosis for a long time without giving off any glaring red flags, which could have been much more damaging in the long run, led to me slipping back into that state easier and more frequently as the years went by. On the other hand, I couldn’t forgive myself for the longest time, and I blamed that traumatic experience on being just the start of all problems and struggles that came after it. If I hadn’t gone to the hospital, everything would have been different, I thought. If I hadn’t gone to the hospital, I wouldn’t have lost my mind, I thought. Now though, 19 years later, I don’t think those things anymore. Instead, I think that I was an incredibly self-aware teenager, and I acted out of self-preservation.
When i was in the hospital, it was expected that I keep up with my schoolwork, or at the very least, try. In Humanities class, we were just starting to read The Handmaid’s Tale. Instead of my school-issued book arriving for me to read, a copy was sent from the Central Public Library, which made me immediately suspicious. I was paranoid that we were being force-fed, brainwashed, and doped, and every little detail just added fire to that flame-in-my-brain. I started reading it anyway, but I didn’t get far. On pages 3 and 4, phrases such as,
“A window, two white curtains. …When the windown is partly open – it only opens partly…” “I know why there is no glass, in front of the watercolor picture of blue irises, and why the window only opens partly and why the glass in it is shatterproof.”
really freaked me out!! All I could think about were the parallels. The decor in my own hospital room, the panic and the dystopian surrealism of it all. This part especially has always stayed with me:
“It isn’t running away they’re afraid of. We wouldn’t get far. It’s those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge.”
I’m pretty sure I did eventually finish the book. But I dropped the class. I dropped a bunch of classes when I got back to school, out of necessity. In order to graduate and have as little stress as possible while doing so. In order to try to put some of my mental health issues behind me and to look forward to college…
My spouse and I just finished watching The Handmaid’s Tale, up through season 2. So depressing and distressing. Just a really jarring portrait of where we could end up, some of it hitting way too close to home – not so much on a personal level, but in a collective consciousness kind of way. Hauntingly horrifying.
I got the book out of the library again – my local branch this time, not the Central Public Library… Gonna attempt to re-read it.
Here’s what I wrote in the past, on the topic of being hospitalized:
2013: Continuing to work through a specific trauma
2014: That specific trauma is still there
2015: That specific trauma is no longer a big deal
2016: Anniversaries, traumas, deaths, and name-change
2017: As that specific trauma dissipates further…
Back in November, I lamented about not being able to find much writing out there that really portrays what can go on in someone’s head while they are in the middle of a psychotic episode. In the past few weeks, two such books sorta fell into my lap, so I want to mention them!
My spouse picked up a book called Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind from the library last weekend. They pointed it out to me, like, eh? You’ll want to read this! This weekend, I was super sick, and I binge read it in 2 days, while trying to stay warm on the couch. It was compelling for so many different reasons, one major one being that I could relate to so much of it. The author, Jaime Lowe, was also hospitalized for a good chunk of her senior year of high school, and she also just took the pills without much reflection for years and years. Like, it’s something that is a thing now. (Although, for me, it was Depakote, and not Lithium.) She had another manic / psychotic episode when she tried to get off Lithium at age 25. I successfully(?) did get off all my pills in my early 20s, and that was my new normal for a long time, until I had 2 subsequent manic / psychotic episodes in my 30s. She had to switch off of Lithium because it was killing her kidneys, and she had a really hard time stomaching Depakoke, but she finally did get through it.
Having to switch sent her on a spiritual journey to learn about Lithium as not just a psychotropic drug but as an element, super common in nature. Which made the book encompass much more than just her mental health trajectory. The best thing about it though, was how thoroughly and deeply she gets back into that headspace of being so completely out of her mind. The slightest suggestion toward a minuscule thing could send her on an all-day (or longer) journey to do and/or be that thing. She devastated every aspect of her life that second time around. I was surprised by the fact that everyone around her wanted to keep her out of the hospital for a second time because she was no longer an adolescent and the adult ward was apparently to be avoided at all costs. As a result, she was in that state much longer – days, weeks… I was brought to the hospital like, BAM! So fast my head didn’t get a chance to spin out too far too fast with too many repercussions.
The second book I’m reading with a portrayal of a breakdown is called The Petting Zoo, by Jim Carroll (of The Basketball Diaries fame). He wrote this book in 2010, and according to the forward by Patti Smith, he died at his desk while writing. He had finished it at the time of his death, but it was still in the editing process. A few people had their hands in trying to edit as close to Jim’s style as possible. It’s fiction. It’s hard for me to get through (probably largely because it’s fiction – I almost always gravitate toward non-fiction and memoir). The book opens with the main character, Billy, in the midst of a manic frenzy. I didn’t know the book would be about that at all – nothing about that on the back cover summary – I bought it on a whim from a record store that was going out of business. So it was interesting to get thrown into that unexpectedly, but I gotta say it felt lacking in… something.
Billy has some kind of crisis over an art opening at the MET and how what he saw of this one artist affects how he’s approaching his art for his own upcoming show. He careens off down the steps, on his own, into the Central Park Zoo, more specifically a side spectacle, an outdated petting zoo. From there, he flees down the street, in his tuxedo and fancy shoes, to a building that reminds him of an Aztec temple. He then hits his head and his eye on branches or something and starts shouting something about a knife. He has a momentary black-out and the cops pick him up. At which point he comes back to reality, and that’s it. Although the aftermath ends up taking longer, red tape and everything. He has to stay overnight in a mental ward, which is just kind of looked at as a novelty, a curiosity, a stop-over.
In conclusion, real life is zanier (or at least more compelling to me) than fiction.
Every year around this time, I revisit the first time I was hospitalized, which was Veteran’s Day weekend in 1999. It used to feel like the worst thing that ever happened to me. And, in terms of fallout, I still think that it was – it just no longer feels that way.
Two years after this hospitalization, I wrote an essay for a class, including every little thing I could remember about the experience. A few months ago, I gave that document to my therapist to read over. I didn’t necessarily want to delve into it or have her probe me about it. I just wanted for her to have read it. And she really only said one thing: “There were always questions about whether you had been in a psychotic state or not. This definitely shows that you were.” And, strangely, I was satisfied with that. As if I could lay to rest whether I needed to be there or not. For the most part…
I’m currently giving my most recent hospitalization (from 6 months ago) the same treatment, as best as I can remember. I’m up to 2,500 words so far, and only about 15% done. I don’t have any plans for it other than just something that I want to do for myself. We’ll see. I feel like there’s not much writing out there that really portrays what can go on in someone’s head while they are in the middle of psychosis. (If anyone has any recommendations, let me know!) That does not mean I have lofty goals for where I could take this writing; it’s just a motivating factor, something that pushes me to try to capture it as best as I can.
Here are the other posts I have made, yearly:
Continuing to work through a specific trauma – Four years ago, I wrote about how I finally gained access to the medical records from my hospital stay, and how I started to process things differently with the help of my therapist.
That specific trauma is still there – Three years ago, I wrote about finally bringing that record into therapy and how it felt to have her go through it. I was starting to realize that maybe I didn’t need to pick it all apart; maybe my perspective was shifting naturally, over time.
That specific trauma is no longer a big deal – Two years ago, I wrote about how much time has changed things, and it no longer felt like a big deal. The fact that I had been hospitalized again, that year, surprisingly helped me find ways to heal, rather than adding more baggage onto the feeling of it.
Anniversaries, traumas, deaths, and name change – Then last year, I wrote about how other things were going on, and I really didn’t have the space or time to reflect. Which was perfectly fine. Between the election results, working on getting my name legally changed, and other emotional markers, it just didn’t come up.
This year, I am thinking about it, but it is more in terms of “one of the times I was hospitalized,” rather than, “a traumatic event – the worst thing that ever happened to me,” etc.
I’ve been thinking of all the little occurrences that go into the bigger story. Like, for example, in that state, my mind was so malleable and adaptable that it seemed like, theoretically, anything could be true and just as easily, not true all at once. Which is one of the reasons I avoided watching any TV. (There were two TVs on the unit – one played music and had legalese constantly scrolling, in both Spanish and English – like a “know your rights” kind of thing. The other TV had a remote and listing of channels, and we could watch whatever we wanted, 24/7.) At one point I did sit down, and there was a documentary on about pineapples. (Er, rather I’m sure the documentary was on something more broad, but I saw the pineapple part. I started yelling about the unlikelihood about these pineapples growing. Don’t pineapples grow on trees like sensible fruits? What were these miniature pineapples growing up from fronds in the dirt?! A patient who knew-all immediately matched the intensity I was spewing, and argued for the realness of these pineapples.
A few months later, my spouse’s aunt was visiting from Hawaii, and sure enough, she grows pineapples on her property and sure enough, she had pics to prove it. I can now accept it fully.
Around this time, 16 years ago, I voluntarily admitted myself to a psychiatric unit, but then I got stuck there for 19 days without knowing what was going on. The lack of communication was horrendous. I suffered a psychotic break and left with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I accepted this for years, and I internalized that I have a mental illness in some pretty detrimental ways. This has always stayed with me, always felt like something I needed to work through and get past.
Two years ago, I wrote about how I came to finally acquire my medical records from my hospital stay, and how I started to process things differently with the help of my therapist:
Continuing to work through a specific trauma
Last year, I wrote about finally bringing that record into therapy and how it felt to have her go through it. I was starting to realize that maybe I didn’t need to pick it all apart; maybe my perspective was shifting naturally, over time.
That specific trauma is still there
This year, although I’m acknowledging the anniversary, it feels like just the slightest emotional blip on my radar. I talked about it in therapy yesterday. I finally got my hospital records back from my therapist (she had been holding onto them for me for a whole year!) I looked through them again last night – there was always one page I skipped over. It was handwritten by me, explaining what had been going on in my social life that led me to feel like I needed to be hospitalized. I read it and felt OK about it.
Although this seems counter-intuitive, I think it helps that I was hospitalized in January. Where everything went wrong the first time around, everything went right(?) (maybe not right, but it went smoothly) this time around. I can overlay this experience on top of my shitty traumatic experience, and things make more sense.
I resisted the diagnosis of bipolar disorder for a long time, I’d been off all meds for 9 years; I felt relatively stable. When it was re-affirmed that I have bipolar disorder by the psychiatrist I was assigned, (“Once a bipolar, always a bipolar.”) I bristled at that. Actually, I bristled at him in general every step of the way. Appointments with him lasted a mere 2 minutes. He was inflexible and adamant I stay on meds forever. He forgot pertinent information about me. (At one point he told me I needed to stay on meds because I had been hearing voices.) After 6 months, I just stopped making appointments with him. With all his intensity toward me staying on meds, it was surprising how easily he let me just get away. Maybe he didn’t even notice I left.
My therapist helped me find a new psychiatrist; she’s awesome! She’s willing to follow my lead on what I want to do about drugs, and she’s willing to dialogue with me instead of ordering me what to do. I still don’t know what to do about drugs, but at least I have the space to feel supported with whatever I do choose to do. For now, I’m staying on them, but I can’t pinpoint why.
I respect this new psychiatrist. When she (also) told me I fit the criteria for bipolar type I, for the first time in a very long time, I felt like I could accept that. I don’t need to incorporate that in any particular way into my identity; it doesn’t need to mean I view myself differently. Personally, it’s not a core part of who I am. It just is an aspect of me that can just be, and I can leave it at that.
And I can finally integrate the difficult journey toward mental health as parts of myself, rather than things that happened to me.
Around this time (middle of the night), fifteen years ago, I started a game changing series of events by getting my mom to bring me to the hospital, from which I was admitted (voluntarily) to an adolescent psychiatric unit. Once I was actually there, I didn’t want to be there anymore, but a lot of things were changing, and I ended up having to stay for 19 days. I left with a misdiagnosis of bipolar disorder and prescriptions for Depakote (mood stabilizer), Risperdol (antipsychotic), and Wellbutrin (antidepressant). The medications changed a lot over the years… I’m happy to report I’ve been med-free for about 9 years at this point.
Last year, I wrote about how I came to finally acquire my medical records from my hospital stay, and how I started to process things differently with the help of my therapist:
Continuing to work through a specific trauma
This year, I finally brought this massive document in to therapy with me, despite the fact that I was pretty unsure, er maybe more like totally ambivalent, about what I wanted to get out of talking about it (yet again) exactly.
My therapist started reading through the pages out loud, and simultaneously made comments and processed it in her own way. At first this felt tedious (the thing is 210 pages long!) But I also felt intrigued. It was much more helpful for her to tell me about the content than for me to try to go through it myself (which I hadn’t done since first receiving it, last year). I also started to feel yucky and shut-downy. I finally verbalized, “Let’s take a break.” I was worried this therapy session was really going to have a negative lasting impact on me, but, in fact, I felt fine afterward. Maybe I’m more resilient these days than I think.
I used to always think that if I do this one thing, or if I find out these missing pieces, or if I reflect back in a different way, the pain of that experience will be lifted. If I just keep grinding into it and picking away at it, I’ll one day be free. Now I know that this can’t really happen. And I can accept that it was a shitty thing that probably didn’t actually need to happen. It was traumatic. It was so long ago. I can look at it with a completely different perspective by now, but not because of anything I did – that perspective shift happened naturally, over time and with personal growth.
There is so much I could write about. But I actually really only want to write about one thing right now, as it relates to my hospital experience: while I was there, I wore this one particular hoodie constantly. And once I was released, I never wore it again. But there seems to be no way I can get rid of it. I brought the hoodie in to therapy, along with the document, and told her all about it. When the document felt too overwhelming to keep delving into, I told her she should just hold onto it and go through it on her own time. She asked if she could hold on to the hoodie too. I said, “yeah sure.”
The reason I loved the hoodie so much was because the LA Rams were not a team. (I just looked it up, and they were a team from 1946-1994). I worked at a thrift store and picked up this gem at some point. I liked the incongruousness of it. I do not like football.
Fourteen years ago today, I was taken to the emergency room and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for nineteen days. It was by choice – I voluntarily admitted myself, but once I got there, I realized that basically, I was stuck, and things got much much worse for me. Essentially, I went from being in a confused and vaguely depressed state to suffering a full-on paranoid psychotic break from reality, which in retrospect, I believe could have been avoided had I not been there at all. My plan in my head was to go there and sleep and restore my mind and body for a day or two, and then make a plan from there. Their plan was to do what they do, on a medical and legal basis, and this took so long, I was unsure if I was ever going to get to leave. Also, I was a month shy of 18 years old, so I was not yet a consenting adult, and my parents signed everything that needed signing. (On the other hand, I’m relieved I was not yet 18, because that month’s difference was the difference between being on the Adolescent or Adult unit. I am glad I was with people my own age and younger.) This was during my senior year of high school. I went back to school with a (mis)diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and even more of a disconnect from everyone around me. I felt even more isolated, and self-stigmatized than before. I sank into a severe depression. I dropped out of a few of my classes and took a leave of absence from my job. I tried to stay occupied with some art classes at school, but nothing at all interested me. As the summer before college started, things finally did start to lift. I got my driver’s license. I started to hang out with friends a little bit. I felt excited to be moving two hours away and starting college.
This experience has stayed with me as a lasting trauma. In college, I wrote a lengthy personal essay about it, trying to capture every tiny thing I could remember. I was in therapy for a long time after – I was actually doing a lot worse in general after being discharged. I was on a lot of pills and unsure if they were helping. Therapy, at least, was helping. Therapy has been the one thing I’ve done for myself that has made the biggest difference in my adult life. Therapists have taught me how to be a verbal person and communicate with others.
About a year ago, I worked at talking through this experience that still haunts me, in therapy. My therapist was a little hesitant to delve into it – she’s not too big on rehashing the past. But she did help me through it, and encouraged me to talk with my mom about it, in order to dis-spell some long-held beliefs that might have actually been way off. Such as, “it didn’t really affect my mom that much, that I was there.” So I did talk to my mom about it (however difficult that was), and felt myself getting to a new place through doing that.
And then this year (every year around this time, I’m thinking a lot about it again), I decided to gain access to my medical records from back then. I didn’t know how to go about that because the hospital I was at has since been closed, demolished, and rebuilt into a new multipurpose health facility. But I was told my records are somewhere, on microfilm, and I can get them at a fee of $0.75 per page. So I went through the request form and noted I’d like to be informed of the length of the document before it’s sent. Two weeks later, a heavy package arrived, with a bill for $168.10! I thought we were talking about something in the range of 40 pages! This thing is 210 pages, and this bill is much more than I want to pay. (So I did email back and forth, explaining my request was ignored, and I did get the bill knocked down to $100.88 – still way more than I was planning to pay.)
The document itself is largely made up of pages that have no interest to me. And many pages in which I can’t read the person’s handwriting. But, in the process of gleaning as much as I can from it (and skipping over quite a few things that feel triggery, for right now), I’m coming to some kind of new terms with what happened to me, way way back then. And, something is lifting.