Sitting in my wheelchair on the Intensive Care Patient Unit at the DePaul Psychiatric facility, I wept loudly and openly at the sight before me.
“How am I back here?!”
It wasn’t a question.
I lost all sense of whatever decorum and dignity I had left, as I was under the watchful eye of no one, save a video-only closed circuit camera. Besides, I’d only been on the ward for ten minutes. It wasn’t like I’d get out any later if my first day was awful and full of semi-problematic behavior. A fancy way of saying I had nothing to lose. So yes, I wept openly and loudly, slumped and ugly in a wheelchair, because that was what was required for my soul’s digestion of seeing an empty bench, table, and television, next to a window, which was letting in a slant of sun that rested on the tabletop.
I remembered everything about them.
“HOW am I back here!” I wailed, with a building sense of bitterness and resentment at myself and my illness. In such a state, my illness was completely my own fault and personal failing. My brain was filled with lies, and I wasn’t coping well.
That table. The TV it faced. The ray of sun.
Crucifixion and resurrection.
I’d hung myself in this hospital in 2006, at age 19, when I was only 1 month into my illness “presenting”. My neck didn’t break, so I was strangled instead, no air in or out. I was found by a nurse who cut me down just as I was finally slipping away into whiteness. When I landed on the floor with a heartbreaking thump and involuntarily took a breath, I remember not understanding the sounds I made. I sounded like a wolf.
That bench, the one making me cry, was where I sat under 1-to-1 observation for (I’m not even sure how many) days after that first suicide attempt. The staff members who watched me changed every four hours, and we didn’t speak much. I had nothing to say.
I was dead, sitting upright on a bench in front of a table and a television.
That bench was also where I was redeemed; where I realized that I was capable of recovery. After however many days of being on an antipsychotic and two mood stabilizers (prior to that I’d been unmedicated), I started feeling things again and reconnecting to my environment. I was aware of where I was and could process my five senses again.
One morning, at breakfast, a patch of sunlight on my left forearm started to feel warm. I remember it with perfect clarity: I hadn’t felt warmth for six months. Warmth was not something that registered in my brain until that moment.
I realized I was coming back. My suicidality and psychosis weren’t permanent. There was life after diagnosis. Episodes aren’t forever. I kept my forearm exactly where it was to take in as much heat as I could, and began to cry. Fat tears ran down my cheeks and my whole body shook silently. It was relief. It was rebirth. It was forgiveness. It was redemption. My life was safe.
I told the nurse who brought my medication that morning that I thought I was going to get better.
She said, “Of course you are, baby. I could see it in your eyes.”
Flash forward two years to 2008, and I was in DePaul again after a massive failed overdose. I’d had a bad reaction to lithium when the doctor first put me on it, but couldn’t identify (being only 2 years into my illness) what was happening to me. It was a slow, three-month-long descent into suicidality. The worse I got, the more lithium the doctor prescribed. By month three, I was researching and planning. I was on a trip with my family (an activity I now try to avoid) the night I made the decision. I remember looking up the lethal dose of lithium and doing the math on how much I had. Not enough right now. I’ll have to wait until I refill the script. Only 12 days. Then I’m out forever.
It wasn’t a panicked decision. My suffering was a slow burn. My planning process was meticulous.
The night before I got my refill, I stopped believing that love existed. No one loved me and I loved no one. Love had been my very last reason for considering staying. Knowing that there was no love felt like the universe was giving me permission, telling me yes, of course this is exactly what you should do. You can see the truth that the others can’t.
They’ll all get over it in a year or so anyway.
I failed in an important detail. I won’t say what, because I don’t want to help teach anyone to effectively overdose. I took twice the fatal dose and fell asleep. A few hours later, I vomited up my dose. I took a second more-than-lethal-sized dose and fell back into dark sleep. Woke up vomiting. I took the last of what was in the bottle, only half a lethal dose, and added a bottle of Tylenol. Hopefully, I figured, the cumulative effect of what I’ve already digested would allow me my escape. Back to sleep again. Woke up. Threw up. I went back to sleep.
Eight hours later, I woke up. I was furious. I had failed. I was an atheist at the time, but in my drugged up haze I was firmly psychotic. I had digested massive amounts of lithium before vomiting each time. I was heavily “medicated”.
And all I could think was “God said no.”
God said no. God said no. God said no.
Fuck you, God.
I went into the living room, where I told my mom, calmly, that God had said no. I thought she would understand, somehow. And she wouldn’t worry. I was alive, plus love didn’t exist. She was very confused and concerned at my behavior, and when I admitted to my failure, she took me directly to the emergency room.
The doctor who first saw me asked me how much lithium I’d taken. I told him (the lethal dose times 4.5) and he said “You shouldn’t do that, you could have died.”
How fucking ignorant can you be.
In the ER, they said it was too late to pump my stomach, so they gave me something intravenous and had me drink several big styrofoam cups of thick charcoal powder mixed with water. It was (I probably don’t have to tell you) very disturbing: like drinking dirt mixed with kitty litter. I gagged my way through them. It seemed every time I finished one, another was swiftly presented to me. I felt like they were punishing me for wasting their time. They did all seem pretty pissed. Maybe they were.
I gave zero fucks. God said no.
They kept me overnight in a room upstairs, and in the morning two police officers came into my room and said they were going to “escort” me next door to the psych hospital, DePaul. They wanted to put handcuffs on me. My father begged them not to, and he (and our collective white privilege, I now recognize) won out with the cops. I put my shoes on with the laces removed, but had to leave still in my hospital gown, and the five of us walked down an endlessly long hallway, my father firmly holding my shaking hand. My mother followed behind us carrying my belongings.
My parents had to say goodbye to me at the cop car. We hugged.
I didn’t feel anything. There was no love. It meant zilch.
I was waiting, in my mind, to try again. This time, I’d climb the fire escape of the Alico building and dive headfirst. I couldn’t possibly fuck that up. I just had to wait and pretend to be okay until they let me out again. I was waiting to finally get to Forever. I could wait another week. Forever would be forever. I’d just hurt like hell in the meantime.
I was put on the intensive care unit when I arrived, but I answered all their questions “correctly” and completely dishonestly, acting pleasant and normal. In a few hours, I was deemed to not be a danger to myself or others and was transferred to the regular “adult unit”. I was still in my hospital gown. It didn’t matter. I was nothing. I didn’t speak to anyone. They were all nothing, too.
And now, here I am in 2020, slumped in the wheelchair while my dizzy-making drugs wear off, and sobbing at seeing a bench and table after 16 years. How am I back here? How have I failed so badly that I’m back here? I’m supposed to be a role model. A helper. A small but positive force in the universe. Someone who helps people. Someone with lived experience who has vitally important things to share with others. Someone whose full life for 16 years has been learning, coping, living, falling, struggling, suffering, persisting, and ultimately, saving myself from myself without ceasing. I don’t want others to go through everything I have, so I give as much of what I’ve learned to my readers in the hope that they can skip over some of the really bad parts. I tell my stories so they know they’re not alone.
And still, I’m back here.
True, I wasn’t there for suicide. But still, I felt I’d failed at something. And I knew that to treat a manic episode, they would keep me more than 3 days (they kept me a week). I felt I’d failed at my only profession in life; staying healthy. I’d failed as a role model. I was not “the woman who got better” whom I so desperately long to be. I was still sick, after all these years, and was now realizing that this could happen again and again throughout my life. My illness might come roaring out from time to time to sabotage me, and this might not be the last time I see this bench and table and weep.
Those stories, containing everything I felt in my past stays there, were clear as the summer sun during my most recent stay in DePaul. I had to sit with the vibrant memories of those stories for my week-long hospitalization for a manic episode. Haunted by my past, I was once again haunting these hallways. That is the root of the trauma I now have to recover from. It wasn’t just the injustice of the staff not offering us care. It wasn’t just the danger of Time Lady. It wasn’t David singing “Medicaid comes to mediquaid” over and over as he paced. It wasn’t just the near-violent episode that my new, 20-year-old friend James had that pierced my heart and sent me into my own crying fit, knowing how deeply and long he would suffer. It wasn’t just my own mania and episodes. It wasn’t just the pure hopelessness that inhabited this ward.
It was all those things. But all those things reeked of memories from the darkest days in my life. Those memories rested in my hospital bed, inhabited the trays of food I ate and were echoed by all the archetypes of people with severe mental illness that seem to always populate this ward. Even the smell of the blankets opened old wounds I’d worked for years to close.
Although it may seem trivial, my week in DePaul was traumatic, and it’s going to take time to close those wounds again. When I get back from a vacation that lasts longer than two days, it takes me two full weeks to regain my mental balance. This was not a vacation, and it was not two days long. I need space. I need time to stare at the wall. There is a difference between isolating to cope with depression and isolating to conserve psychological energy. I’m doing the latter. And it is making me happier. I am improving. I’m getting past my anger and fear, bit by bit, and although I know it will come back on occasion, I’m doing the bulk of the work right now. The boundaries I’ve put up have become a little more permeable, and I do see people sometimes. I’m using my coping skills daily, but I don’t need to use them every second of the day like I did when I first got home.
My therapist says this is the kind of trauma that can be treated by experiencing awe as often as you can. Today it rained and then poured (but no old men snored), with winds violently rocking the trees outside my window in a way that made me stop and stare. And it always works. We’ve known for forever that awe is a good feeling. It has just now been proven scientifically to help the brain overcome trauma (mental health is physical health: your brain controls your body, your body can heal your brain).
Sometimes I use water to find awe: imagining where it has been in its life, going back and back and back through time, and how it got to my faucet and will run down my drain to continue its cycle of life. Sometimes I use Youtube videos about consciousness, the universe, multi-verse, or infinity. I highly recommend the Kurzgesagt channel’s videos for mind-blowing topics like these. Sometimes I hold the worked-flint tool I found, made by a Native American far in the past. I turn it over and over in my hand, imagining its creation and many uses. I ponder the person who put so much work into creating it. Where they lived. Who they loved. What they liked to eat. What made them happy. What made them cry.
Using awe, deep breathing, mindfulness, proper eating (low blood sugar causes episodes, among other mental/physical issues), consciously conserving my spoons (read spoon theory here), limiting stimulation, and getting good sleep, and using my support system, I’m starting to feel better. For my spots of grief and anger I cry or yell and then reach out to someone in my support system. Family and friends have been an invaluable resource. My doctor and I are in close contact (if you ever have the option to use MyChart, it can revolutionize your care. You can message your doctor directly and get a response from them within two days. You can also see them over Zoom through MyChart. Do not pass up this opportunity if it is handed to you). My therapist and I are continuing our work together weekly, and I’m being unabashedly candid on social media and Patreon about my struggles, because people keep reaching out to say it helps them. I’m maintaining the personal boundaries on my time that I need to keep in order to keep all my progress going. I can’t give out spoons willy-nilly right now. They’re a much more limited resource than I’m used to, and I can’t do everything in a day that I normally would. Today, for example, I have told my friends that they won’t hear from me much, and they respect that. I’m so grateful that they do.
I’m coming to terms with the idea that I may need to go there again, be escorted to the hospital against my will, see that bench and table and weep, and there should be no shame in that. I’ve still learned what I’ve learned. I’ve still helped people. I’m still fighting, and my illness still has not taken me out.
Carl Sagan once said something completely unrelated to my situation, but the phrase has been ringing in my mind this week as if he said it to me, personally. In my mind, it’s about me, my illness, and my future. He said:
“A still more glorious dawn awaits:
Not a sunrise, but a galaxy rise.
A morning filled with 400 billion suns;
The rising of the Milky Way”
Nothing can stop the sunrise. Nothing can halt those 400 billion suns from hurtling through space, dragging their unimaginable number of planets behind them at the pace of the expansion of the universe. Nothing can reverse the arrow of time.
Time moves us forward from moment to moment, never backward. No matter how many times I see that bench, it is never actually being “back here”. It is simply “here again”. Again is forward. I am moving ever forward.
My illness can never actually drag me backward. It doesn’t have the power, nor the right. I will continue to learn and grow no matter what I do. I will keep learning as surely as the sun will rise, and one of many things I’ve learned from this hospitalization is that seeing that table and bench is not a mark of failure. It is only a passing of time. It is a tic mark in my growth and the expansion of my Self and story. It is the present, and may be the future. But a truth I hold onto in every episode is that no matter how far away I go, I always come back. And I believe that as surely as I believe in the coming dawn.
If you appreciated this piece of writing, please consider signing up for Patreon benefits. It costs $3 a month, is quick to signup, and it all goes to me. The point of Patreon is to support your favorite artists and get inside looks at my process, life, and all my behind-the-scenes action, including some juicy things I can’t post here. If that doesn’t appeal, please consider donating a few dollars to my “tipjar” at Paypal.me/goldfishpainter. Times are tough right now, and my third attempt at getting my food stamps back has failed. I’ll just have to try again, but in the meantime, my parents are doing their best to pay for my groceries, and they have limited means right now themselves. I don’t want to beg, but if you’ve got two or three dollars you can spare, it would make a big difference to me. Small things add up.
If you would be comfortable supporting the website with $3 a month, please check out my Patreon below. Patreon contains all my additional content and is a more intimate platform where I reveal more personal things about myself and my journey. When you click on the button, you go to a page where you can see the benefits I offer. This, too, means a lot to me.