I had a meltdown of sorts back in April, shortly after I was fired from my job in the IT department of a major university. It was the fourth time I'd been fired from an IT job, dating back to 2000. This led me to an introspective summary of the past few years of my life, which I determined to have been pretty bad but which had then hit rock bottom. I made some threats regarding suicide. Not an actual suicide attempt, but some serious venting about how disgusted I was with myself and my life. My family banded together and, without my consent, attempted to have me committed to a mental hospital.
During the initial interview with a case worker there, I managed to bullshit my way into convincing him that I was well enough to avoid being committed. I made a point that being forceably committed would probably do me more harm than good, and he agreed with me. And so I returned home, depressed to the depths of my soul and unable to come up with anything that might improve my disposition.
Cut forward four months. My life was still in the shitter and I decided I'd had enough. I made two plans: the first involved a bottle of Tylenol, a bottle of vodka and a bathroom floor. The other involved voluntarily committing myself to the same mental hospital I'd narrowly avoided in April. I flipped a coin, deciding that if it landed tails, I'd make haste for the bathroom floor, and if it landed heads, I'd commit myself.
It landed heads.
* * *
That afternoon, accompanied by my father, I returned to the mental hospital, which for the purpose of pseudo-anonymity, I'll call The Farm. It's a very new place, having opened only earlier this year. Entering the lobby, I strode up to the front desk and calmly stated that I'd like to be admitted for my own safety and sanity.
I was promptly whisked away to a barren room by a case worker and evaluated. I told her about my heads-or-tails plan, about my bipolar disorder (type II) and about the seemingly endless period of deep depression I was in. While I was doing this, she filled out some forms and made some notes. Then she told me to wait right there for the time being. She returned about 20 minutes later and guided me back up to the reception area, this time behind the desk and out of view of the lobby. I was made to empty my pockets, surrender my belt and shoelaces, and allow the backpack filled with various clothes and toiletries I'd brought with me (enough for about a week) to be searched. I was also frisked with a hand-held metal detector and told to remove my tragus piercing, but I offhandedly mentioned that doing so wouldn't be possible without forceps and the high possibility of scarring since the captive hoop I wore was pinched closed so tightly, not really expecting them to care and then going to find a pair of forceps. The security guy said there was no need to remove it if such effort was required and that they didn't have any forceps on hand anyway. I was to surrender my wallet, keys, iPod, phone (and charger), cigarettes and lighter, and my meds, which I'd have thought would've been rather key to the therapy process.
While the security guy was doing this, the Farm's front office was running my insurance to see how much they'd cover, which turned out to be about $65 for 50 days (if necessary), leaving an out-of-pocket balance of $2,745. After much discussion between the Farm's billing people, myself and my father, and about how poor we were, the Farm decided, rather benevolently, to write me off and allow me to stay for free, for however long it took for me to get well, because I was clearly in serious danger.
I said goodbye to my dad and was led to the second floor of the building and checked into the adult psychiatric ward. My bag was searched again and its contents inventoried. All the bathroom stuff was spirited away into a locked storage area, where I could access it by getting one of the nurses to retrieve it for me when I needed it for bathing. They wouldn't let me have my razor, though, but that was acceptable to me since I normally shave only about every fourth or fifth day (my facial hair grows in slowly), and I was told that the typical turnaround time for most patients was three to five days.
My bag haphazardly repacked, it and I were taken to a dorm-style room with two beds, each slightly smaller than twin size. All the furniture in the room was molded to the floor, and none of it was really high enough to jump off of. The door handles on the door to the room and to its bathroom were of a design that supported no weight at all and the doors were hinged up and down their entire lengths, leaving no gaps, presumably to prevent suicide by hanging. The furniture, all wooden, had no sharp edges and wouldn't move no matter how hard they were bumped or pushed on. The room's solitary window, overlooking a tiny courtyard that I later found out was used for patients' daily exercise, was a two-paned affair with a set of horizontal blinds set between the two panes; they could be opened or closed only by a console of sorts at the nurses' station. The ceiling was about fifteen feet high and featured nothing you could tie anything to, should you somehow manage to even reach it.
Even the bathroom was absolutely self-harm proof. The toilet was of a construction surely meant for use by statues; the only moving part was the seat and the bowl was extremely dense porcelain. It could be flushed by the press of a button set into the wall, rather than the standard lever, and when flushed, a loud roar filled the room as an extremely strong rush of water whirred through the commode and down the drain in literally about a second. In the shower, there was no showerhead; rather, there was a spigot set exactly six feet above the ground. Next to it was a button. Pressing this button turned on the water, which was on a 60-second timer. When the time expired, the water stopped, requiring another press of the button. A typical shower for me consisted of about eight button-presses. The shower was also conspicuous in the fact that it had no temperature control; pressing the button, a meager stream of warm but not hot water came out.
The whole room and bathroom practically screamed "don't hurt yourself!"
* * *
After depositing my things in my room, I was taken into the "open" room, where a group therapy session was in progress. Here I was introduced to the twelve or so other patients in the ward as well as the nurses and "specialists" (basically orderlies with degrees in therapy). That first session, I mostly just observed and didn't participate.
After therapy, I was taken to meet the doctor on duty. After explaining the problems I was having with Effexor, he immediately told me I should no longer take it, and put me on Prozac instead, as he said it was ideal for an immediate switch from a drug like Effexor because it counteracted the severe withdrawal symptoms that coming off Effexor produces. After telling him about my extreme anxiety and panic attacks, I was put on three daily doses of Xanax, 1 mg each, instead of the Klonopin I had been taking to treat them. I was also put on Ambien, the drug I was addicted to from 2002 to 2006, on a single dose a night to combat my insomnia. (When I was discharged later I had a prescription for it; when I filled it, I gave it to my dad and told him to give me one pill a night if I asked for it but to otherwise keep the bottle well-hidden, lest I become prone to abusing it again.) I was also issued a 14 mg/day nicotine patch, as smoking wasn't allowed anywhere near the building. It wasn't a very good replacement for smoking but it did reasonably well in combating the cravings. The only drug I was to continue taking from before I was admitted was Lamictal, to handle my bipolar disorder.
Afterwards, I went back into the open room and talked a little, mostly about why I was there, and fielded some questions from Troy, the specialist on duty. Most of the other patients were in their forties and fifties, with the exception of a 27-year-old woman who had been brought in during the height of an extremely manic episode the day before and had spent most of the day I'd been admitted in the quiet room. I'll call her Mary. She was friendly, but spoke somewhat oddly, which I later learned was because of the Haldol and Seroquel (both strong antipsychotic drugs) she was being forced to take due to the manner of her admittance. She had bipolar disorder type I and was, as it turned out, very Christian. As she was the only other patient close to my age, I talked to her most for the first couple of days, although a lot of the time I didn't understand what she was saying because she was still a little schizophasic from the meds. I should make it clear here that in a place such as the Farm, where everyone was wrapped up in their own problems, making friends is very important due to the mutual support it can bring. I chatted cordially with some of the older patients, mostly alcoholics in detox and deeply suicidal people who had been abused in various ways for their entire lives, trying desperately to validate their existences.
The following day, after being awakened at 6:00am to have two vials of blood drawn and my vital signs checked, I got dressed and returned to the common room, where the others were also assembling after having been awakened in the same manner (minus the blood extraction; that's a first-day thing only). We milled about, watching the news on a large HD television, while waking up and being given our meds. We were then led downstairs to the cafeteria, where a breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon and biscuits awaited us. It was fairly typical hospital fare.
After breakfast, it was back upstairs for the "A.M. goals" group, where everyone was given a sheet of paper onto which they were to write a single goal for the day and three steps they would take to achieve that goal before bedtime, then read them aloud. Most goals were pretty simple: "feel better", "be discharged soon" and so forth. My first goal was something along the lines of "feel better". The rest of the day consisted of more half-hour/45-minute support group meetings which everyone attended, broken up by a 30-minute exercise period outside in the courtyard, which was completely concrete (other than a few park benches and some low shrubbery) and also had fifteen-foot high walls. The only exit from the courtyard was back through the door it was entered. There was also a daily Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I attended one the first day, just out of curiosity, as I'm not (and never have been) an alcoholic, but I found it a little too sappy and too religious for my tastes, so I didn't attend another. The support group routine was also broken by lunch at 11:30am, an "activities" group, which was more or less just emotion/confidence-building markers-and-colored-pencils kind of thing, then dinner at 5:30pm. After that was the curiously-named "process" group, where we discussed the progress (rather than any particular process) of fulfilling our daily goals. This group was led by a social worker rather than a nurse or specialist. Sprinkled in between all this were brief periods during which the patients were allowed to use the phone, some breaks, more meds distribution, the "P.M. goals" group and finally bedtime at 10:00pm.
This routine was repeated to the letter every day I was there.
On the second day, there were a few new patients admitted. One of them was a fiftyish woman who I'll call Nancy. She immediately brightened up the room with her presence; I couldn't figure out why, at first, such a cheerful and sunny person had committed herself to a mental hospital. Getting to know her (it was hard not to and she was a real social butterfly), I learned it was because she was so devoted to her family that she was neglecting her own needs and had only just recognized it, so her goals were mostly self-esteem and guilt-freeing stuff. She had a lot of issues with guilt, most of which were groundless and more the fault of her family than herself. She wanted to learn to live for herself, which I found admirable although I have no experience with nuclear family environments other than my own, which was largely spent in solitude and therefore not quite as nuclear as hers. (Later, on one of the visitation days, I met her daughter, who was 21 and absolutely beautiful, and of whom Nancy was fiercely proud although they struck sparks from time to time. Verbatim exchange between Nancy and I after visitation that day was over: "Your daughter is really beautiful," I told her. "I know, isn't she a hottie?! I'm so proud of her, she's doing really well in her life." Nancy fairly twinkled with pride.)
Visitation days came every other day except on weekends, so my dad came to visit me three times during my stay there. We mostly just made small talk, but it was a refreshing break from the monotony of the daily schedule. And at the end of each visit, he actually hugged me. He'd never done that before, as far as I can recall. I think my being at the Farm finally convinced him that I was really sick and not just sullen, that I wouldn't just snap out of it someday.
* * *
On Friday, during a lull between group therapy sessions, I suddenly started crying. I couldn't stop. The specialists were worrying over me at once, wanting to know what was up. It took me several minutes to calm down enough to tell them: apparently the therapy was working, because I told them that for the first time in my entire life, I didn't want to die. I want to live. I want to make something of myself, anything really, as long as it's something other than a sick, wretched and miserable waste of breath that had been my life up to that point. I was allowed to go to my room to calm down further and once there I started crying again and didn't stop for at least an hour. It felt extremely liberating, not only because I hadn't been able to cry at all for years due to various meds, but also because my life suddenly had a purpose. (Though what that purpose is remains to be seen—but it will be something, I guarantee it.) Troy, the specialist I mentioned earlier, eventually came in to talk to me and see how I was doing. I was still weepy at that point but managed to have a voice-cracking conversation with him. I asked him if he'd ever seen anyone have a revelation, or realization, or whatever it was that I'd had before. He said that he had, rather frequently in fact, and that it almost always turned out very positively.
From that point on, my group therapy goals were to remain positive, cheerful (me!) and free of thoughts of suicide. I used my revelation to try to help others remain positive, if they needed proof that it was indeed possible to climb out of the holes they found themselves in. In that respect I was almost acting as a specialist myself; sometimes the specialists themselves as well as the social workers referred to me as a good example of the effects of group therapy.
During the remaining three days I was at the Farm, I mostly talked to Nancy, who was always cheerful and upbeat despite her problems. We even exchanged contact info to keep in touch after we were discharged.
And discharged I was, today at 3:00pm. Before I left, I interrupted an activity group session to say goodbye to the other patients. Nancy of course gave me a big hug and said how happy she was for me. I wished her good luck with the rest of her stay at the Farm and said I'd be in touch.
That was pretty much the whole of my experience at the Farm. It was very different from the mental hospitals you see in movies or on TV. It isn't scary or spooky, or populated by evil nurses. There's a lot of teary eyes and sad stories. I left with a very positive attitude, which I intend to keep and maintain at all costs, because, after all, if you can't look at yourself and your own life and see at least a little good, then why look at all? Get help. It's out there and if you think you might need it even a little, it's probably a good idea to look into the possibility of going out and finding it. While it's definitely true that the endless routine and high security of mental hospitals can be a little off-putting, you get used to it quickly, and it isn't really worrysome because you're surrounded by people who are there to help you.
I cannot recommend this kind of treatment enough to those troubled enough to even think they might need it. Go for it! You've got nothing to lose but your misery.
Because of all the goal-setting and confidence-building I went through, I have plans to find a new job (maybe in a new field), to go back to school, to learn to play a piano, to exercise instead of feeling like a marshmallow all the time and best of all, to live life to the fullest of my ability.
Granted, my results are probably atypical, and for some people it might take multiple stays at places like the Farm before the inner light bulb goes on. The key is to keep trying. The realization that other people have problems worse than one's own is a powerful and sobering thing. It made me understand that things can change, even if they seem unchangeable. That said, I urge you to never give up. You can heal from anything; all you have to do is want to, and the rest will take care of itself. How you want to heal is of course up to you, but believe me, there's nothing wrong with locking yourself up for a few days and being surrounded by help and concern. Good luck in whatever you choose in that regard. You will eventually feel better. Believe it!