Mental Health Lock-Ups – the Good, Bad, and Ugly

As many of us with a mental illness knows, there are times when the decision between suicide or seeking help comes to a head. The last time it happened to me was during the summer, five years ago, when I lived in another part of this state. I was alone, as my partner was up north, taking care of his son until school began again. I had fallen into a spiral of depression and drinking heavily and could no longer find the energy to leave my house, go to work, function. I called him in a state of panic. I could not make it through an hour without a drink, as I think I had replaced most of the blood in my system with alcohol and my body was addicted. I knew I needed help. Badly. I didn’t care about my job, our home in the Swamp, anything other than finding a place that would lock me away for a few weeks, where I could feel safe and hopefully “normal” again. Or as normal as one who has bipolar can feel.

My partner was my hero. He went to the ends of the earth to get me a bed in a place not far from where he was living. For those who have never had to go into a Detox/Mental ward, getting a bed can be very difficult. But he found one. He booked my flight. He told me to drink all the way there and had a beer waiting for me when I arrived. That was how bad my system was.

The first few days involved detox, which I remember little of. I slept a lot and that was amazing. I had been a roving insomniac for weeks, wandering around my condo trying to make the craziness in my head stop. What I do recall is being forced to go to meals, and watching the other patients, some much worse off then myself, who could only stare at walls. Luckily, I made a “sane” friend, and we would spend hours watching Bravo while we waited to be moved to another area of the hospital. But the limited freedom we experienced there would change when she and I were transferred upstairs, to another locked ward – the mental health unit.

This is where everything is controlled. When you get meds, when you wake up, sleep, shower, even what you can wear (no tank tops allowed for the women, we could incite the males with lust, as if sex was on any of our minds). And then the countless hours of stupid meetings, where they pushed AA on us, as if it was the drug to replace what we had been using. I could never buy into it. I had no issue with admitting I had a problem. It was the “higher power” bullshit they forced on us, and the meetings. I’m an atheist, and regardless of what they told me my higher power could be, I just couldn’t swallow what they were selling. I had been to meetings before, and mostly found them to be full of annoying men who thought they were pick-up spots, without the alcohol. It was something that I knew would not work for me, though I know it is a saving grace for many people. But I sat through them all, dutifully.

We were all dealing with different issues in the ward. Some of us had alcohol issues, some were coming off of heroin, others a myriad of cocktails they would combine. For some, it was either the ward or a jail cell. For my friend and I, it was a decision we had been free to make. And we all had mental issues, which was the main reason we were there. I liked the tribe I formed with a small group of people, but I hated the group meetings where we were forced to “share” our personal struggles. I hated the busy work, the arts and crafts, the vigilance they kept up in regard to us – no caffeine, no television, no phones (except for the payphone you would use for 10 minutes twice a week).

For the first few days, all I wanted to do was sleep but that was tightly regulated. During one of our initial group meetings, they had us watch a movie and I fell asleep with my head on the table. I was so tired from months of getting little, if any sleep, and all I wanted was to hibernate for weeks. But that was not allowed and they thought something was wrong with me. Is exhaustion wrong?

To be fair, the staff were amazing. Many of them had chosen this profession because either they were battling a disease or had a loved one who was affected. The doctors, on the other hand, were less impressive. We hardly saw them, and when we did, they acted as too many of the shrinks I’ve had in my life – not enough time to spend with you, only wanting to make sure you were taking the medication they had prescribed for your treatment, and not much else. The first week, I was fine. I adapted to the rules and regulations and did everything I was supposed to like a good little patient. But things changed dramatically the second week, and this is where the system failed me.

I was in the shower one morning when I noticed my hands trembling uncontrollably. I was scared. I though perhaps it was the DTs and I would have them forever. But it didn’t feel the same as the shaking I had been going through before I arrived at the hospital. No, this was something entirely different. By mid-afternoon, my entire left arm was shuddering and swinging uncontrollably, and I had to hold it against my body to keep it still. I alerted the staff, who seemed concerned (well, some of them did – the nurse we all hated couldn’t have given a damn). I insisted on seeing the doctor as soon as possible. Something was not right.

Here’s where the issue lay. Since my husband’s death, I had been on Bensodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin) for a myriad of conditions – panic attacks, acute anxiety, PTSD – you name it, I had it. They calmed me. At one point, a shrink that I had, who I thought was helping me, had me taking 7 Valium a day. In retrospect it was a very unprofessional move on her part. No one should take that many a day. And my body, of course, adjusted to them, needed them. I became dependent on these magic pills.

Yet, when they put me in the ward, they took away my Benzos, cold turkey. Had I understood, as I do now, how risky that was for them and me, I would have fought harder to get back on them. I saw the shrink assigned to us, but he refused to give me anything, even as my arm swung back and forth – I could not control it. In retrospect, I wish I had hit him with it. Perhaps that would have made him see how serious this was. What I didn’t realize at the time was being taken off a very addictive medication abruptly can not only cause what was going on with my limbs, but I could have had seizures, I could have died. And yet…they did not care. It was the “buck it up, buttercup” message. I should have sued them.

It took me six months to get the shaking to stop.  As a writer, I could not use my hands. I could not write and could barely hold anything without using both hands. I was dizzy all the time and when I did return to work, every day I thought I was going to pass out just walking through the building – that was how off my system was. I do not know how I survived it, other than sheer willpower. It would only be several years later, when I found a great psychologist, who understood the acute anxiety and all the other conditions I was dealing with, that I was once again given these magic pills. I do not abuse them, but I also cannot function normally without them.

The ward saved my life. I will always be grateful for that, for the staff who did give a damn about us, for the friends I made through our struggles, and for my partner who, essentially, was my saving grace. Will I commit myself again? I do not know. It will all depend on which way the wind blows, and how far down the rabbit hole I sink. But I am hopeful. I can write again. I can share what happened and I can learn from it. I am not ashamed I had to reach out for help – no one should ever be. Life is exhausting and there are times when, especially if one is dealing with major trauma or a mental illness, it is the safest place to be. But I am wiser now. I would not follow the pack, as I did before. I would stand up for myself and my rights.

Perhaps I was ashamed of what had led me there in the first place that I never questioned the system. It took me a long time to forgive myself, for innumerable things. The forgiveness came in waves – washing away the shame of having to get help, adjusting to real life again without beating myself up because I felt I had let so many people down, healing the relationship I had with my partner after falling to pieces in his absence. My body finally calmed down after almost 9 months. But I will never forget the trauma it went through because of the unsympathetic way in which I was treated. And I hope to god I never have to feel that way again. To lose one’s mind is one thing. To lose control over one’s body is completely different.

And I learned the Swamp has horrid mental health care. Before I took the job down here, I made sure to find a shrink that would prescribe the Benzos that my body and mind need to function. It was not easy. They do not like dispensing them down here. It’s almost akin to the opioid crisis happening in our country. Doctors are wary, which makes sense. But patients, whether it is mental or physical pain, do need medication in order to function, and I will fight tooth and nail to have what I need so I never go through that again.

I do not know how many “success” stories came out of my group in the ward. Forty to sixty percent of people who suffer from addiction combined with a mental illness will relapse. My friend did, but with more frightening substances than when I first met her. But she went back, worked very hard, and is better. Some patients came to the ward and within a day figured out a way to escape and run back to what brought them there initially. Others stayed and tried, but with some people you can just tell they won’t make it.

I am hopeful for myself. I cannot guarantee that one day I will not be back there, though I hope to god I never have to. But that will depend on how I manage my disease. When the darkness comes swooping in and encases my world in black, I do not know if suicide or help is the better answer. Because it is exhausting to get help. It is a cloak of shame to walk through this life knowing, at any moment, everything can change and life is no longer full of birdsong and beautiful sunrises, but rather just a cesspool of negativity and fear. Yet, today I do hear the birdsong. I did enjoy the sunrise. And I hold these moments as precious treasures, because I never know how long they will last.

© Sorrow & Kindness


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