It’s been three years since I spent a little over two weeks in two different behavioral health hospitals. I’m so grateful that I’m farther along on the journey to being healed and whole than I was back then. I’ve been thinking about the advice I’d give to myself and my family members with everything I have learned. I want talking about mental health crises to be normal like recounting a heart attack or any other medical emergency treated.
The first piece of advice I’d give is that if someone has attempted suicide and is in the hospital, it’s not as sudden as it seems. It might seem to family and friends that this person has made a rash decision, but as someone who’s survived an aborted suicide attempt, it’s not a hasty decision. If someone attempts to take their own life, they’ve been thinking about it for a while. I started struggling with suicidal ideation about two years before I attempted it. I was off at college and my roommate would have to hide the family-sized jar of Advil because I felt like I might overdose on it. I’d say that in addition to not being a sudden decision someone arrives at, there’s been a lot of suffering for a long time.
Three years on, I understand what was playing out in my head and heart as I drifted further into depression. I’d struggled with feeling like an outsider since childhood and I always knew something was different. I didn’t act like other girls my age and didn’t have the same interests. I thought there was something wrong with me. I wanted to be like everyone else but no matter how I tried to push and mold myself, I still was different. This continued when I entered the workforce. I couldn’t communicate, dress, or act in ways that pleased the people around me. This led to self-loathing that I felt every minute of every day. I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain any of this until after, but now I understand this is what was happening. I was in so much pain that I just wanted it to stop. I didn’t want to die. I knew it would cause pain to my loved ones and I didn’t want to do anything to hurt them. I just knew that I couldn’t keep living like I had and the only way I out I saw was suicide. Please don’t tell your loved one that they’re being selfish by feeling this way. I was told this and it just made me angry. I thought, “I’m the one in immeasurable amounts of pain, how can they be thinking about themselves?” and “I have to live in my head and body, not them”. I’d recommend asking questions like “Is there anything we can get for you while you’re in the hospital?” or “ Can you tell me what’s causing you pain in your life right now?” or “ How long have you been feeling like this and can you tell me what was going on when these feelings started?”. If they don’t want to talk, just sit.
If you’re worried about their safety, I have to say, they did a good job keeping people together who were experiencing similar crises and needed similar care. During my first hospitalization, they moved me the morning after I got there. I arrived at my new unit crying. I was immediately surrounded by people who were worried about me. I remember one man specifically who was a few inches taller than me. He looked me dead in the eyes and said “If anyone bothers you, let me know”. No one bothered Brandon with the tattoos. I was also surprised at the people who didn’t seem worried about their stay. One gentleman said he’d been admitted by his doctor for not taking his bipolar meds. His wife was on vacation when this happened. I asked if she was going to come back early. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “ She’s on a work trip, she’ll come to get me when she gets back”.
I want to say that for a long time I was afraid people would find out I’d been in the hospital for mental illness. I didn’t want to be laughed at or for people to think I was crazy. If you have someone in your life who goes through a crisis that requires inpatient care, do not joke about it. Avoid making derogatory comments about people who spend time in behavioral health hospitals. All kinds of people end up there for all kinds of reasons. There could be someone who’s self-harmed for the first time, those who are suicidal, those who are in the throws of a manic episode, and those who just couldn’t handle the cruelty of the world at a particular moment. We don’t stay in treatment forever and we live our lives right next to those who have no idea we’ve had this experience. If you don’t have anything kind and supportive to say, don’t say anything. I’m now proud to have survived what I have and grateful for what I learned.
Another piece of advice I think is important is that a partial hospitalization program is important to support someone who’s experienced significant mental health challenges. I was lucky that the insurance I was on covered my PHP program. If you have insurance that will make it affordable, I cannot recommend it enough. It gave me the tools I needed to move to seeing a therapist one day a week and it helped me get my medications straightened out. I also was surrounded by others who had similar struggles to me. I did have a touch of imposter syndrome. I couldn’t figure out how I’d ended up there. I hadn’t experienced any significant trauma. Others who were in my therapy group were combat vets and victims of domestic violence. I kept rehearsing the facts that I’d had a loving childhood, gotten good grades, graduated from college, and had the considerable privilege. Why was I this depressed? It took me a while to understand that comparing suffering is a waste of time. My brain was sick and I needed help, so I belonged there for that season.
In ending this post, I want to encourage those who are struggling with suicidal ideation that life can get better and to ask for help. For those who have a family member in the throes of a mental health crisis, it will be a long road, but it will get better. Time, patience, and love help the journey be easier.
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