Nothing sexy about psych wards

People...I’m crazy. I know there are a lot of good reasons for not using that word, but it’s one I self-identify with. The correct term is neuroatypical, which is the polite way of saying my brain functions slightly different to “normal” or neurotypical people. But, personally, I like crazy. It was a word that originated in the late 1500s and meant “full of cracks or flaws” and my brain is nothing if not flawed.

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Today I wanted to talk about an experience I had, that I suppose some people might be curious about. More importantly though, it’s an experience that isn’t often discussed in polite society and, as I’ve said before, not talking about things breeds misinformation and fear.

This is about the time I got admitted to a public hospital psych ward.

It all started with a couple of half-hearted suicide attempts. I say half-hearted because I was later informed by mental health professionals that I wasn’t trying hard enough to kill myself. You have to really want it you see; eyes on the prize!

While, at the time, I was genuinely offended by the fact that they seemed to be telling me I was a quitter, I now realise that it’s a diagnostic tool. If someone is determined to kill themselves, like really do themselves in, they normally do a better job than I did.

We often talk about people who try to commit suicide as attention seekers. Having been in the situation myself, I can say that to a certain extent this is true. I was seeking attention. I was crying out for help. Because I was in so much pain that I needed someone to help me, because each attempt became more and more serious than the last. By the end I’d literally unfriended everyone on social media, attempted to break up my 12 year relationship, alienated my family, and for all intents and purposes was in the process of tying up loose ends so it would be easier to succeed the next time.

After one attempt, I realised that I needed help and called the CAT team. Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t a group of anonymous strangers who bring cats to your house in an attempt to convince you to cheer the fuck up, because aren’t cats great. The Critical Assessment and Treatment team are like mental health paramedics. You call them when you’re in crisis and they come to you and determine what the best course of action is. While this is a really great idea, the execution leaves a little to be desired.

Having finally decided that I didn’t want to die, I looked up the number and called them. The man on the other end of the phone answered and asked how he could help. I took a deep breath, and choking back tears explained,

“I’ve tried to kill myself...I failed...but I want to live and I need help.”

And, I shit you not, the response was,

“Oh...that’s good...but uh, you’ve called the wrong number. You’re not in our area. You need to call the team in your area.”

A little dumbstruck, I asked which was the team for my area. He informed me that he wasn’t sure, but gave me the number of the one he thought was most likely.

This happened...Four. More. Times.

When I eventually got through the right team, the woman (after telling me that my issues clearly stemmed from my relationship choices) told me that I should probably just take myself to hospital. I fucking hate hospitals, and I hadn’t realised that hospital was part of the deal. I just wanted someone to help me. I didn’t want to go and sit in an emergency department full of sick people and end up hooked up to an IV for no fucking reason. She said I could either take myself to hospital or wait for the CAT team to come visit me the next day.

I said I’d wait for the cats.

When the CAT team did rock up, they were two perfectly lovely, older white ladies who complimented my actual cat (appropriate) and then asked me if I had a therapist (which I did, but who was actually part of the reason I was in this position in the first place). So they said I could either take myself to hospital, they could call an ambulance, or I could get a third opinion from a mental health service they could refer me to.

Relevant side note; I’m high functioning. This means that my sense of propriety is in place regardless of how I’m feeling. I’ve literally nursed appendicitis, and burst ovarian cysts through dinner parties and school lectures, because I’d rather be in excruciating pain than have to excuse myself and have people think that I was ill-mannered (or worse, needed to poop). I’m aware of this, so I know that to most people I look pretty fucking normal. I’m open about my mental health issues, and I'm often met with “But you don’t seem depressed!” I know right...part of the crazy is not letting you see how crazy I am!

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And here’s the thing about being crazy; you often deal with imposter syndrome. My first suicide attempts were when I was between 2 and 4 years old. I got diagnosed with severe depression when I was at school. But I still always felt like I'm not crazy enough. Like, there were always people who have it worse, therefore I'm just being weak. My problem isn’t mental illness, it’s that I'm not trying hard enough to not to be shit. So when you’re given options like hospital, ambulance or third opinion...even if you’ve literally got a knife inside your own veins, you take the third opinion because you don’t think that you’re as bad as it can get. You don’t want to waste anyone’s time if it turns out to not be serious. You don’t want the ambulance driver, or the hospital to look at your high functioning, polite face and just see some irritating white girl who’s struggling with body image issues and thinks she can blog about her weekend in the psych ward for lols (...fuck you, this isn’t a blog).

Here’s the thing about psych ward admissions; you’re usually there voluntarily. This means you have to be in a mental space where you can acknowledge how unwell you are and take steps to seek help. Which, hilariously, is almost impossible if you’re fucking crazy. So you need to rely on the people around you; your carers and/or loved ones. This also is pretty flawed, since a psychiatric ward evokes images of padded walls, straight jackets, and people screaming and is therefore not a place someone’s going to be eager to send someone they love. Which incidentally was the unique problem I ran into. My partner is the most wonderful, kind, loving and patient person in the world, but when faced which watching the person they love, and their best friend, fall apart, it became impossible to make the decisions that needed to be made.

Despite having psychotic breaks where I couldn’t tell reality from dreams, screaming hysterically and being incapable of speech, and then hurling verbal abuse like I was auditioning for a part in the Exorcist, I was also having periods of lucidity where I could have rational conversations about how we should tackle this. The periods of lucidity create a false sense of normalcy, like all of this is rough, but it’s okay; she can’t be completely bonkers if she’s somewhat aware of what’s going on.

It took a very close friend to see that I was spiralling further and further, and that if someone didn’t intervene I’d completely break. She made the right calls and got me into a public mental health clinic that definitively said “You need to go to hospital”.

Sitting in the ambulance that day was one of the weirdest experiences of my life. Accurate to my predictions, I had polite conversations with the paramedics about where the best jaffles in the state can be found (the Corio Bay Roadhouse...without a doubt). To the outside world I looked calm, rational and completely out of place sitting in the back of an ambulance. Inside my head I felt like I'd entered a surreal alternate reality, but maybe an alternate reality was the only place where I'd have a break from my own brain. 

The psych ward was surprisingly reminiscent of my days at boarding school, but filled with less teenage girls and more people who I suspect looked forty years older than they actually were. I had to empty my bag and had everything that could possibly kill me confiscated; which taught me that if you’re determined enough, you can kill yourself with pretty much anything. I was left with an empty bag, my wallet, and some pocket lint (which I’m confident I could have choked myself on if I’d really tried).

My partner had to leave me there at this point to go and get me an overnight bag. If you’ve ever had to leave a loved one in hospital, you’ll know what a shitty feeling that is. Fortunately my life saving friend was there to keep me company until my initial assessment. We drank tea and joked about how funny it would be if I got diagnosed with yet another mental illness, and threw around ideas about what the worst diagnoses could possibly be.

Five minutes later and I’d had my initial assessment and, you guessed it, been diagnosed with one of the most marginalised and hated disorders in the mental health community (which is why I’m not mentioning what it is, because I’m not ready to come out yet).

My nurse advised me not to share my new diagnosis with the other staff, since she said there was a good chance they’d treat me differently. Which was...reassuring. After being given life changing information, I was told that I’d now be left to my own devices for the next two days since none of the psychiatrists worked on the weekend. There would be no follow up, no additional therapy, no consultations, just 48 hours alone with my thoughts about what this diagnosis meant for my future.

I spent the next 48 hours mostly in my private room. It had weird maths equations drawn on the walls. There was a mouse that occasionally visited and nibbled at the mouldy toast crust a previous resident had left in the corner. I had my own ensuite (which seems like far too fancy a word for what it was), which consisted of a shower curtain determined to stick itself to me, a mirror made of burnished steel, and hand railings that weren’t railings because you could hang yourself on railings, so they looked like a waterslide designed for cockroaches. There was no toilet roll holder, because presumably you could kill yourself with that. Instead the toilet paper was held in a hole in the wall. The walls contained no pictures, and were painted a colour that beige would look at and go “Oh god, how boring.”  

My room looked out over the courtyard, which sounds kind of pleasant, until I realised that this was where fellow patients congregated to shout at the voices in their heads. Most memorable was the man defending his decision to have sex with his dog to Jesus Christ. I was woken up one evening by shouting as one of the patients escaped by scaling the back fence and ran off into the night.

The communal area contained a television that was perpetually playing The Interview, which everyone continued to laugh at despite having seen it at least twelve times by the end of the weekend (a fact I attribute to Seth Rogen’s natural handsomeness).

Meals were the predictable hospital fare, most of which I couldn’t eat. Since starvation is one of my preferred methods of self-harm, this was fine by me and seemed to go unnoticed by the nurses (presumably because I’m the antithesis of what an anorexic should look like). The tea they provided was Lipton (because they clearly wanted me to kill myself) and the hot water tap sprayed scalding liquid like it was auditioning to be a lawn sprinkler. There was an arts and crafts room, a music room, and a women’s lounge. All of which looked like they were auditioning for parts in horror movies as soon as night fell.

The hours were mercifully broken up by friends who weren’t afraid to visit me. The very few friends who already knew I was crazy didn’t worry about what they said or did in front of me.

Finally Monday arrived and I was summoned for my first session with my treating psychiatrist. I was not fucking prepared. I walked into a room with seven strangers; they weren’t introduced to me. I sat down with a woman whom my partner later nicknamed Kegel-Face after a villain in a comic book. Kegel-Face started by asking me what had brought me here, and I told her the truth. She then asked about my employment status. I explained that I worked as a consultant and my current contract was due to end in a couple of days. This was something I wasn’t too worried about, since I knew I’d get more work and I was kind of welcoming the chance to take some time for self care. Kegel-Face did not agree and proceeded to badger and harass me about my plan for employment.

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Remember when I said I’m high functioning? How I’ve sat with excruciating pain at polite social gatherings. My high functioning is a coping mechanism, because I don’t like people seeing me cry…”don’t like” is probably an understatement. Having someone see me cry from anguish is the ultimate exercise in vulnerability and to date it’s something only about four people in the world have witnessed.

Kegel-Face, in the space of ten minutes, managed to harass me to the point where I had a complete breakdown in front of this room full of strangers. I was hysterical, struggling to breathe. And I was humiliated beyond belief. Imagine sitting on a toilet, with explosive diarrhoea. Now imagine that seven random strangers walk into your bathroom and watch as you shit uncontrollably. Imagine that for whatever reason, the sheer copious amount of your liquid shit completely destroys the porcelain of the toilet and you're left sitting, in a pile of your own excrement, while people with passive expressions on their faces watch your utter and abject shame as you struggle to stand upright in the slippery faecal mess you've created. That was pretty much how this felt. 

I asked if I could leave, because I felt like I was going to literally die from the loss of control I felt right then. Kegel-Face told me that this wasn’t acceptable, and that they work on a psych ward, they’re used to seeing tears (because it was obviously about their comfort with tears, not mine). She continued to harangue me about my plan for employment until the end of our session. Then advised that I would be prescribed a new medication for this evening’s rounds. Dismissed.

I was traumatised, humiliated, and inconsolable. I went to my room and howled, screaming into the shitty, latex wrapped pillows. I felt paranoid that I couldn’t complain to my partner or my mother, because, well I was still crazy and they’d probably assume that this was typical crazy person talk. I felt so far beyond hope and help, all I could think of was finding a way to end my life then and there. Which was when my paranoid brain realised why they make the psych ward so death-proof; it wasn’t because they wanted to help me, it was because they knew they’d make me feel this helpless. They wanted to trap me in this place, with no way out. I tried to resist the paranoia, but all I could feel was pain.

The next day Kegel-Face discharged me. I was told to go back to seeing my usual therapist, told to look for a job, told to just keep calm and carry on. I was given a new prescription for a new type of antidepressant, and that was it. There was no help to be given. I re-emerged into a world that hadn’t changed, feeling like I was being condemned to go right back to where I’d started. The only thing that saved me at that point was that I no longer had a job to go. I could take the time and space I needed to recover a little, rather than piling on more and more pressure to keep up appearances that I was “fine”. But I still felt crazy. I still felt unable to cope. I still felt like I was balancing on a knife edge and that any moment I’d end up back on the ledge.

All of this was close to a year ago, and I now get treated by a therapist in the private sector, thanks to the advice of a wonderful friend. On the whole, life is looking much brighter. I know it won’t last and I know I’m always at risk of another collapse, but at least now I know there are better places to seek help. All of this knowledge was hard won, however. The trauma and helplessness of that experience will last a long time.

For a while I didn't really want to discuss the specifics of what happened. Mainly because I still felt like I wasn't crazy enough, and that talking about my stay in the psych ward would prompt people to think that I was just wasting public resources. But as time went on, I began to realise that, much like my childhood diagnosis with depression, if more people had talked about their own experiences, mine might have been different. 

It’s important that, as much as is possible for us, we should discuss our experiences surrounding mental health. The more we talk, the more we share our advice and knowledge, the more information is available for people experiencing these things both now and in the future.

I had literally no idea where I was meant to turn, or who could actually help me. I kept thinking that I wasn’t bad enough to justify seeking help. I didn’t know what a nervous breakdown was, or what a psychotic break was. I didn’t know the signs or symptoms. And I didn’t realise that I was literally having both in the lead up to my hospital stay. Neither did my partner, my friends, or my family.

Instead of running campaigns like “Are You OK Day”, we should channel that funding into something like “What to do when someone’s not OK Day”. Because in my darkest moments, I found myself rocking back and forward, sobbing “I’m not okay” hoping, desperately that this was all I had to admit. Hoping that being weak enough to admit that I couldn’t do it on my own was the lowest indignity I had to suffer before I got some support.

I understand the need to encourage empathy and understanding towards mental health, that’s absolutely crucial. But ultimately we need more than just awareness. Mental health issues are still health issues, and people suffering from them are suffering every bit as much as those with visible illnesses. We need more funding, more support and more resources to help treat people who are running out of options.

I hope that this has been unhelpful for everyone reading this. I hope that no one is ever in the position my partner, my friends, and my family were in. I hope that no one ever has the experience I had. But I also know that until we make dramatic improvements to mental health support, there’s going to be a lot more people like me.

 

That is all.

 

You may go now.