A week beyond walls

I finished reading “Madness: A Bipolar Life” yesterday and was floored by Marya Hornbacher’s style, fluidity, candor, and innate sense of storytelling. (I want to pause for a moment here to mention a book that I read yesterday: “Marbles” by Ellen Forney. It’s new, a comic, and amazing.) Hornbacher’s book was released after I stopped questing for information about BP, in a lull of my life when no one, especially myself, was sure exactly what made my brain tick. I was in college and still technically being medicated for BP-II (Lamictal, Lexapro, Ambien, Imipramine, Adderall, etc—the cocktail was forever changing), but it was at my own behest. In retrospect, my psychiatrist would probably not have treated me with most of those meds if she thoroughly disagreed with my theory about BP-II, which I became suddenly set on my sophomore year after I read “An Unquiet Mind.” It was a revelation to me that I could be bipolar without being bipolar type I.

Aside from my med-induced craziness at Three Lakes, I had never had a truly manic episode. I had never been psychotic or hallucinated or had any serious break from reality. But I had had a lot of the symptoms of hypomania, I discovered. I would pick up projects, make plans, get very excited, set up a whole litany of things to do and pursue them for an odd amount of time, only to have the passion fade, the focus flit away, the drive grind to a depressive halt, and the self-loathing kick in as a I would settle in another depression under my comforter. In HS and college I was (and I’m being generous with myself here) impulsive, reckless, and thoroughly idiotic about drugs and sex. I would randomly go on shopping sprees, or decide that I needed to tell everyone everything about my life (hmm, self-awareness moment, is this what’s happening now? No matter. I’ll help someone!), or think that I could solve someone’s problems by being brutally honest and dissecting their issues. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Bipolar-II was new territory for me, and it made more sense than what I’d been told before.

In total, I spent about a month at Three Lakes. I became intimately familiar with the grounds, the walk to the cafeteria building, the walk down to the school building, the kickball field (really a baseball diamond but who’s going to give teenagers in a psych ward a baseball and bat), the creaky stairs up to the girls hallway, the doors that buzzed to let visitors and staff in and out. After a while they revoked my privileges to go to the school building or the art rooms because of my habit of stealing staples and squirreling them away to my room so that I could scratch myself.

During a psych ward intake everything you have that could pose a potential threat to yourself or others is taken away from you: makeup containers, shoelaces, razors, belts, any and all medications, tweezers, even spiral notebooks (which, at the time, was what I had been using as a journal. Of all the things taken from me at that moment, I was the most upset about that, relegated to starting over in a solidly bound notebook. I was teenaged and moody and resentful. And it just wasn’t fair). Watching a nurse or staff member dig through your belongings, which only days ago were entirely yours to enjoy or ignore, is a special kind of demoralizing. For me, those are the moments when I come to grips with the reality of my situation (having undergone this process almost a dozen times now, nearing thirty years old). I’m locked in. I can’t choose to leave. I cannot be responsible for myself. These people have total control over me. Eyes widen and my mind churns. I grind my teeth. I think a million miles a minute. Anger wells up inside me. I become unruly, belligerent, loud. I scream or yell and pound my fists. I try to argue, but I don’t make a lot of sense, even to myself. Finally I slump, dejected, defeated, exhausted, and I retreat into the recesses of my mind until it’s safe enough to come out again.

At the time, my ears were pierced heavily, with I think about 8 earrings in each ear, maybe more. I had to remove each and every one so that I couldn’t hurt myself with them, or let someone hurt me. This I did reluctantly and with much protestation. I think I eventually earned the right to have them put back in because I convincingly argued that the holes were going to close up and that I could be safe and trusted with them, which turned out to be true. They were not sharp and I was vain (remember, 14 years old people).

My parents, mostly my mother, brought me new clothes whenever they came to visit, something cozy and comfortable to curl up in. More often than not I was sick of the hospital’s food and requested McDonald’s. I still cannot hear Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me,” which played ad nauseum on the radio that month, without being transported to the small teen unit kitchen where I would sit quietly with my mom and sometimes my little sister and dad, munching on a cold quarter pounder and fries at the dark wood table and bench, thinking, “Well, this is weird. Objectively. I mean. This is really weird.”

One of the problems I encountered in my weeks in the psych ward was that doctors go on vacation. I had two different psychiatrists/prescribing doctors while I was in my first stay at Three Lakes, and one of them was not even there for much of the time that I was. This made medicating me a crapshoot. I couldn’t have had more than a session or two with them before serious med changes happened and follow ups were few and far between. Besides, three weeks isn’t a clinically significant amount of time to be on any psych med, so why they changed them around so rapidly and so frequently is beyond me. Maybe my memories are squashed. Yes, it’s probably that.

If I can skip forward for a moment, I began today thinking about the week that I spent out of Three Lakes before I was very unceremoniously readmitted. This was the weirdest week of my life. I was back at home, my friends and boyfriend came to visit me. My mother had locked every single medication in the house into padlocked toolboxes (I kid you not, everything, including and especially the OTC meds), and I wasn’t allowed to have a razor. I still felt crazy. I felt uncontained. I had actually gotten used to the hospital and its rules and walls and limits and tenuous safety and the constant presence of medical staff, who I often sat with and just talked to for hours in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep, before they gently suggested that I take a sedative and got shooed off to my bed. It was like I didn’t remember how to be a person of my own accord. Life was big and open ended and without structure and I had absolutely no idea what to do with myself. So I wanted to go back. Somehow, and don’t ask me because this part of my memory is completely gone, I managed to get a hold of a bottle of aspirin (I think? Maybe I had it hidden somewhere in my room from before?) and swallowed most of it. Then I panicked and confessed and had yet another exciting visit to the ER where, for the second time in a month, I became intimately acquainted with the taste of liquid charcoal. This time though they put a tube in my nose and directly into my stomach because I refused to drink it after one sip. That was not fun. 

After this I wound up back at Three Lakes, but in a different unit, one lower on the hill that I had only been to a couple of times in my first stay because this was where the (ahem) more serious padded rooms were. This was where I had sung to my unknown neighbor in the room next to me. The staff knew me, most of them were sad to see that I was back, but I didn’t see a lot of them again because they worked up at the other unit. I got a new doctor and this man was the first person in my life to say “Bipolar” to me. I remember a lightbulb going off in my head, looking around his office at the posters on the wall outlining different mental disorders, thinking, “Huh. That does sound a lot like me. It explains a lot of things that I couldn’t make sense of. This man is a genius! I should hug him. Should I hug him? Maybe he doesn’t like to be touched. Why am I standing? I should sit. Now I’m sitting. What is he saying? Right. Bipolar. Medication. Something something Depakote. I wonder what that is. WIll it make me feel sane? When do I start. Why am I standing again? I should sit. Maybe if I bounce my leg I can stop myself from standing up. I should stop grinning. Maybe nodding would be appropriate. Can I go yet? Bipolar!” My thoughts tripping over each other, overlapping, like a cacophony of realizations happening simultaneously in my anti-depressant addled brain. The only words that I actually have a solid memory of him saying were “Bipolar” and “Depakote.” Nothing else from that exchange made any lasting impression or survived beyond the fog of medication that I was in. I could absolutely not tell you what he looked like. In my memory, he’s a cross-legged faceless man in a chair, wearing glasses and a beard, who sounds an awful lot like the adults in the Peanuts” cartoons. “Wah wah wah wah Bipolar. Wah wah wah wah Depakote.”

So they put me on Depakote, released me after a week, and I went to explore the terrible world of mood stabilizers on my own.

2 thoughts on “A week beyond walls”

  1. Amazing post. I have fears about the possibility of being hospitalized and not knowing what to expect can keep someone away from the hospital when/if they need to go there the most.

    1. Thanks! Glad you liked reading it. I’ve had to go into several different hospitals over the years, and it’s always different. Most of the time the staff is wonderful, focused, compassionate, and you can find a competent doctor. The other thing I’ve found out is that if, circumstances permitting, you can commit yourself voluntarily, the process of being released and general attitude of the staff is much improved. This is not always possible, of course. The common stay is about 72 hours; that’s the minimum hold time for psych admissions in most states, to my knowledge. Bottom line: the hospital is a weird place, but not a bad place. If you’re a danger to yourself or others, it’s definitely better to be in a hospital than out on your own.

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