I read a post this morning of a woman who was diagnosed as bipolar less than a year ago, and since that day she has been institutionalized a horrendous number of times. I would not wish this on anyone suffering as a bipolar patient. I have been in these places, more times than I wish to recall. Initially, I always think they will be safe zones, where I can find sanity again, or at least the will to re-enter the world that waits beyond the locked ward, but I have never been satisfied by what the places I have been provided for me. And I hope I never have to go back. But I’m not making any bets that I won’t find myself there again.
Perhaps the experience would be different if one could be institutionalized at a spa-like center – the kind they advertise on television and where celebrities go when they need help for whatever transgression they are trying to avoid or when life gets to be too much. But my insurance would never cover a place like that – where one has views of the ocean, a private room with Egyptian cotton sheets and the ability to go outside whenever one wants. The institutions where I have resided have always been sterile wings of hospitals, wards that are almost an afterthought with limited bed space, so just trying to get into one is a battle in and of itself. I have learned the best way to get a bed is to walk into the ER and tell them you are breaking in two. Considering suicide or hurting someone else. That usually gets you a bed, first in the emergency room while they kick a patient out, and then finally in the locked ward where numerous white coats analyze your past history, your thoughts, your words. Staff members monitor your every move as if you are in a prison and there are so many goddamn rules that it is understandable that one often reads of people escaping or checking themselves out, before they have received the help they need.
The mental health industry in this country absolutely sucks. On one end you have the pharmaceutical companies pushing doctors to prescribe their drugs to you – drugs that may be the “new magic pill” (meaning god knows what the repercussions of long-term use could be). So you see your shrink and they give you something with the promise that it may make things better, but we’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, if you grow a third eye or gain 300 pounds, as long as the meds keep you stable, they don’t want you off them. There are the talk therapists, who I once believed made a difference, but I have moved so many times since I was diagnosed, I have lived all over this country, that having to rehash my story over and over again is simply exhausting and I no longer have the desire to share my thoughts or words with these people, as well-meaning as their intentions may be. And then you have the wards. The prisons.
In some I have been forced to wear hospital gowns the entire time I have been locked away. At others, I can wear my own clothing, but I can’t show my arms, my legs, anything that might “excite” another patient. I don’t give a fuck about strange desires of the other patients – I am there for me. If I want to wear a damn tank top, I should be able to. Sex is not something I think about when I am so mentally bruised and I can’t imagine anyone else in that situation would be either. But everyone battles their own demons, which you get snippets of in the unending group therapy sessions, the meetings, the arts and craft days. You eat hospital food, and if you refuse to, you are taken aside, interrogated and eventually force-fed, if it comes to that.
It would absolutely suck to work in one of these places. It is horrifying to be a patient, but the staff, the doctors all look as though they are war-weary or perhaps this was the last place they could find a job. Rarely have I found someone who works there who enjoys it (who the hell would?) and their misery is written all over their faces. Some have been patients themselves who have found their “calling” to be working with those of us in the throes of our disease. Perhaps it helps them deal with their own demons, but I cannot say I have ever worked with any of them who looked excited about their job, or seemed joyous to be there. Maybe they feel they are babysitting adults and that is enough for them.
I know these institutions are meant to help. I know that in the most desperate of times I have willingly gone there, seeking it – almost as if I were Indiana Jones searching for a long-hidden treasure. But they – the doctors and staff – are the ones who dissect us, and as a very private person, I don’t want to share and share and share the way they intend us to. Usually, all I want to do is sleep, as the weeks leading up to my being committed the ability to fall into a slumber at night is a rare occurrence. But they don’t let you do that. There is a schedule to keep (do they think we are all idiots – many of us are highly OCD and already follow our own schedules, so why fuck that up?). There are pages of writing to do to get express the turmoil going on inside of you. But once you put the pencil down – no pens allowed – the papers disappear, all your thoughts disappear until your care worker has had time to scrutinize everything from the words you wrote to the handwriting you used. And then you get it back, like an exam that has been graded, with notes in read about how you have to improve.
Most of the time these places feel like giant failures. To me at least. They keep me safe from myself and the outside world, for the duration I need it for, and I am grateful for that. But all the other busy work, all the other bullshit we have to endure as patients falls flat in my eyes. It does not help. It does little to give me the shock I need to get my brain back to a functioning level. And even if it did, the insurance companies, who keep very close ties on you when you have been put in one of these centers, will end their support of your stay, if they get a hint of improvement in your mental state.
The system fails us, over and over again. I know it is a complicated disease. Hell, I live with it every day and it is not easy – for myself or anyone else in my life. But this country needs to take a serious look at what it offers to those of us who are teetering on the brink of taking the step off the top of the high-rise. It needs to improve it’s game, bring our disease out of the shadows, reduce the stigma attached to it, and let others accept that we will struggle – some days more than others – and we need extra space and time to be able to function.
I don’t know if that will ever happen. I don’t know what solace I can offer to anyone who is facing entering one of these places or already inside. Perhaps this: don’t lose your essence. You might feel completely insane, out-of-whack, on the brink, but who you are, the light inside of you is still there somewhere. It might be just a flicker, but it can always bloom again. Don’t let them take the you that is you. Because they may try and tell you how you should be, how you should act, what you should do to maintain your sanity in an insane world. But the only person who is able to figure out what makes life bearable is you.
It is almost as if I need rehab after I am released from these places – just so I can remember who I am, and not the person they have been telling me to be.
© Sorrow & Kindness