When you’re admitted to an inpatient psychiatric unit on an emergency basis, they make you remove all of your street clothes and wear a hospital johnny and pants until after your admission is complete. You’re not allowed to have any “strings,” whether that be a belt or a scarf or the spiral from a notebook (yes, really). But the pants they give you? Have a drawstring.
I had lots of time to ponder this, among many other issues large and small, through the weekend, seeing as how I learned that particular tidbit through firsthand experience.
Yes, indeed, now I have yet another new experience to add to my ever-growing résumé of hospital experiences: psychiatric inpatient. It’s one of those things that is both shocking and not in the tiniest bit surprising; occurring as the result of a single moment and following many months of buildup; painful in creative new ways and fundamentally therapeutic. It’s one more bodily system that has been negatively impacted by my illness, though I’m still not sure whether to chalk this up as a scar on the brain or on the heart. Both, I imagine.
I’ve just been in so much pain since March, physically and emotionally, every day. There are days in which I’m able to function better, days when I am not wincing and limping, and my overall health has improved greatly from those earliest days… but I have never even remotely approached my pre-March baseline, my basic sense of sturdiness and contentedness that this was a good, happy, productive life and I wouldn’t change much about it. The times when I feel good enough – not perfect, mind you, or pain-free, just anything that is not-outright-bad – are too few and too far between.
One of my college professors used a phrase I’ve always appreciated, for its simple strength of analogy: when describing someone who was fundamentally pretty solid and secure, he would say, “It’s hard to shake her tree.” My tree has, indeed, been shaken, and also transplanted when I wasn’t looking. I feel like I went from being deeply rooted and able to bend with the wind instead of breaking; I always liked picturing one of those enormous, hundred-foot-tall weeping willows, with the outstretched branches and full halo of leaves and trunk bigger than three people could touch hands around, planted in the middle of a field, with its own pond. Now I’m a sapling, and a damaged one, at that – maybe one of the gardeners dropped me on my way to being planted, and a few branches twisted and broke in the process – and while I have been carefully placed in a nice, safe front yard somewhere, I’m still working to send out roots and grow thicker bark. And until that happens, I remain very susceptible to just about any passing breeze… and along came a hurricane.
All summer, I wandered between sad and hurt and angry and bleak, but my physical issues heavily overshadowed the emotional ones. Willem and I had started seeing a therapist together back in May, not because we were having problems – if anything, this has forged us into an even more solid partnership than what we had already built – but because someone had tossed the jigsaw puzzle of our life into a box and shaken it around vigorously. Some of the pieces bent, and some were lost altogether, and as we started to put it all back together we wanted someone kind of peeking in from the outside to make sure we weren’t making any avoidable mistakes in the process. She is very good, an excellent listener and able to very quickly pick up on what sort of approach works best for us. We visited her regularly, and by October were feeling solid enough to drop down to a “call when you’re ready to check in” basis.
Throughout the summer, I was showing signs of depression and a little anxiety, nothing out of the ordinary… that is, if “ordinary” is tugged and ripped and stretched to contain 15-some surgeries, the loss of one’s reproductive system and hair, and so on. I just kept telling myself that of course I was feeling depressed, of course I would have anxiety: who wouldn’t? My friends would tell me that they would be even more worried about me if I didn’t have those sorts of feelings. It’s all part of the recovery, I thought. Just another form of healing that has to happen.
But then, two weeks ago, I was given the rubber-stamp by my wound care doctor and VNA nurse: “You’re as healed as we can make you – the rest, your body will do on its own. Good luck!” And even though I knew it was coming, and it was done in as caring and supportive a manner as possible, it still thwacked me up-side the head once it was official. It was hard to take in, especially since I had already been declared “ready for discharge” once before, only to wind up back in the hospital with more issues three days later.
After a bit, I started to believe that maybe I would be able to avoid any new medical issues for a while, that maybe my old ones were finally starting to, if not resolve, then at least settle into a manageable routine. And then I realized I still felt just awful. I still woke up in pain every single day, I still cried more days than not, I still found myself losing whole days to a vague fog of caring for kids and taking medications and waiting for the chance to take a deep breath that didn’t hurt. And my thoughts got darker and darker, about facing a lifetime of feeling this way and the unfairness of it all and the simple overwhelmingness of the smallest tasks, and I allowed myself to start to feel very alone and isolated and scared, even though I knew I could pick up the phone and call a dozen people who would literally drop everything and run to my side at a moment’s notice. I wouldn’t even need to ask, I would just need to let them know how much I was hurting, and they would be there – even if I were to politely demur and insist that I’d be fine, they didn’t need to bother, don’t worry about me. I let myself forget that my children aren’t placating me or faking it: they really do see me as beautiful and all-knowing and infallible. I let myself forget that my husband has never once expressed the slightest resentment or frustration at how much work I have become, how far below 50% of the family life I have been managing.
I did not attempt suicide. I did not plan it, or even give it serious thought. I just spent more and more time thinking harder, unhealthier thoughts, staying up too late, coming more unhinged. It was a perfect storm: a low front of post partum depression meets a high-pressure PTSD system over an ocean of physical scars and ongoing concerns, and it became bigger than I could handle. In an impulsive and poorly thought-out act of self-protection, I flushed most of my medications down the toilet on the night of Tuesday, 11/23. As soon as it was done, my brain sent out an “all-clear” signal, and I immediately went to bed and slept for ten hours straight. I spent last Wednesday alternating between feeling withdrawn and hollowed out, and feeling a low-grade manic need to get a million things done, deal with a dozen things at once, act like the perfectly happy, in-control mother and wife.
By Thursday, that shell cracked, and I sat Willem down to let him know just how not OK I was. We talked, I napped, we ate turkey, then we talked again, and finally decided that I needed to go to the hospital. I needed the chance to tune out, away from the children (more for their sake than mine, because I still draw tremendous comfort from them), to think things through in a way that I had been avoiding ever since I regained consciousness for that first moment on March 16th. I needed to start on an antidepressant, and I needed to be prepared for the potential of oncoming withdrawal symptoms from an abrupt stoppage of high-level opiates. These were not things I felt I could do effectively, or safely, at home.
There are stories, of course; sad ones and sweet ones and, because some part of me is still in here underneath all the rest, funny ones. I won’t share them now, because this has already stretched way too long… here’s hoping at least one of the other Madhouse posters has taken a decidedly lighter approach to the topic. What matters for now is this: I was there for four days. It was not what I expected – and let’s remember, I’m a psychologist, and have worked in several psychiatric institutions, so one might imagine that I would have a better-than-average idea of what to expect – but I was able to find ways to benefit from it, and by the time I walked out of those doors it was without a shred of guilt or regret.
I do feel sorry, for all of those whose weekends were impacted by my decisions – from worry to babysitting to driving all over Massachusetts, my loved ones once again rose to the challenge and then some – but when I say I’m sorry it’s just that: I feel unhappy that they were unhappy or inconvenienced. I continue to feel as much gratitude as ever, and am oddly proud of myself for grabbing the wheel and jerking it to the left long before I hit a wall. Who knows, maybe I never would have hit the wall, or maybe the impact wouldn’t have been all that bad, had I continued in the direction I was moving. It’s impossible to guess, but I decided to take a large and rather oh-my-God sort of action just in case, and am quietly pleased by that. When it comes to the safety and health of my children’s mother, my husband’s wife, my friends’ friend and so on, I would always prefer to err on the side of caution.
And thus it happened that the events of March – really, just one single non-event, the refusal of a doctor to perform an adequate exam or to just listen – have sparked yet another consequence, hurting me and my family and loved ones in a new and unexpected way. Willem told me this weekend that this is all just one more chapter in my life story, and he’s right. I just didn’t realize I was writing an encyclopedia.
Every Wednesday, in this little corner of the Internet, there’s a carnival going on… a little gathering of similarly-titled posts called The Madhouse (…and it was so named long before today’s post). Not everyone plays along every week, but they’re all pretty fabulous anyway…
Sara – yoyu mama
JMLC – Daydreams and Ruminations
Batty – Batty’s Adventures in Spooky Knitting
Barb – Spencer Hill Spinning & Dyeing
G – Not-A-Box
Evil Twin’s Wife – The Glamorous Life of a Hausfrau
Louise – Child of Grace
Allison – Allimonster Speaks
Heather – She Flies With Her Own Wings
Melanie – usually, things happen
Jennifer – Ask Poops, Please
Marcy – Mittentime
Nikki – Land of the Free, Home of the Depressed
And, not yet or not currently on blogs, but perhaps they’ll get there if I ask nicely enough…