I was sitting in my psychiatrist’s office recently in a large, oversized chair staring at the slightly crooked pictures on the wall. A boat. A beach. African figures. I could hear the ticking of the clock as I scanned the piles of books and patient records underneath, looking at anything but her face. Tick. Tick. Tick. I knew what she was going to say before she opened her mouth. “You’re going to need a higher level of care.” I can’t say I was surprised, since things had been getting progressively worse, but I still felt the fear jump inside my belly, crawl up to my heart, and then reach up and grab my throat so I could barely breathe. Here we go again. “The mental hospital. The psych ward. The loony bin.” I flashed through my past hospital experiences, some helpful, some downright crummy. I thought of my young kids. How could I be away from my babies for weeks? But then I sighed and thought, “How could I stay with them like this? Depressed, agitated, out of control.”
Moods dip and soar for all of us at times, but for those of us with bipolar disorder, it can feel more like a sudden plummeting into the depths of a fiery volcano or a launching all the way up into another galaxy. At those times, we sometimes need a little help to get back on track. Sometimes therapy and medications can do the trick, and sometimes we need something more. Sometimes we need a higher level of care. Many of us with severe mental health challenges will end up in a hospital setting at one time or another, and you know what? That's okay. There's nothing to be ashamed of. A hospital can be helpful in several ways:
- It can be a safe place to stabilize when your life or moods feel out of whack.
- It's a place where doctors can adjust your meds and keep an eye on exactly how they are affecting you so that they can find a proper dosing and manage any side effects.
- It can be a place to learn coping skills.
- It can be a place to learn life skills.
- And sometimes you just have to be away from your everyday settings to shut down negative thoughts, actions and patterns so you can come back recharged and on a path in the right direction.
Then why does it feel so terrible to be told you have to be hospitalized? Why does it cause so much fear and panic? Stigma, that's why, and television and movie portrayals, like “One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest,” that show only drooling zombies and violent criminals, not mothers and artists and regular people trying to get help.
Don't get me wrong, being in a psychiatric hospital is not easy. Some of the more traditional hospital units can be unpleasant at times. There are people of all levels of sickness. Some may pace nonstop or scream from time to time. It can be jarring at first, but everyone is there for the same reason: to be safe and get treatment.
Every hospital is run differently. None of them are perfect. Some are certainly more bearable than others, but it's not all bad, and if you come out the other side in a better place, or at least pointed in the right direction, then, in my mind, it's worth it. We have to do whatever we have to do to get better, and if that means hospitalization, then do it. Screw the stigma.
Years have passed since my last hospitalization. I may have similar challenges now that led me to this point in the past, but I am entering this hospitalization with a different perspective and some new goals. Feel free to take them and use them on your own healing journey, or make some of your own. It will not be easy, but I know that adhering to these goals will aid in healing and recovery:
Hope. Believing you can get better. This is a tough one, but hope is a key ingredient to the healing process. At first, it may feel forced, but hopefully throughout your stay it will become real and authentic.
Be open. From the beginning. Open with the social workers, case managers, psychiatrists, etc. There is no point in holding back if you want to move forward, even if it feels shameful to discuss. Trust me, they’ve heard it all, and they’re there to help us, but only if we let them. Be open to the treatments. Open to the groups. Just be open.
Attend groups. You may be physically safe just existing in a hospital setting, but if you want to learn coping skills and life skills so that things are better when you get out, you have to go to the groups … All the relevant and hard-hitting groups, not just pet therapy. At least give them a try.
Speak up in groups. You will get information just being there, (if you’re not dissociating or doodling) but by speaking up, you are getting involved and getting more information that will be helpful to you specifically, and will also help others who might be going through something similar but are afraid to talk about it.
Engage. Don’t shut down and isolate. It’s really easy to do that, but you can make a lot more progress just by being around other people. Engage with the other patients. Talk to them. Eat with them. Create with them. Engage with the groups. Engage with life. If you don't engage inside, how will you begin to engage outside?
So, here we go. I'm packed. I’m ready to go where I have to go, and do whatever I have to do, to start to heal and move forward in my life. I hope that by going for treatment, my daughters will not see weakness and feel embarrassed about their “crazy” mom, but instead, I hope that they will see strength and come to realize that it is nothing to be ashamed of. Mommy just went away for a little while to get some help to be a healthier and happier person, and above all else, a better mom for them.