Thinking about trauma

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…


That specific trauma is no longer a big deal

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.


Continuing to work through a specific trauma

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.