I had the unique experience of spending this week in an inpatient psychiatric hospital after a major depression/anxiety episode. Most people with whom I share this feel similar to how you might be feeling now: uncomfortable, a little scared, morbidly curious. I have inadvertently learned that sharing this information is the most effective method of murdering casual conversation that I have ever come across. I am still reeling from the experience, and unfortunately, a casualty has been my conversational filter. My inner Good Idea/Bad Idea lady is on so much medication now that she can’t even recognize an inappropriate or potentially alienating conversation topic before she lets it fly out of my mouth. The week has been traumatic, though, and neither she nor I really give a flying fuck what’s appropriate or polite because we’re still trying to figure out what the hell just happened, and how the hell we managed to survive it. This week was definitely one of the most difficult of my life, and though it was traumatic, I’m not ready to say it was the worst week of my life. I’m not ready to draw any conclusions about it, actually, because there are too many feelings to process. Everything has changed now as a consequence of this week, and now I just have to figure out what that means. I hope writing about it in pieces (in addition to lots and lots of therapy – get ready to get squoze, insurance company! I’m coming for you!) will help me heal from the experience.
Ok, the facts: For almost 24 hours in the late weekend I couldn’t breathe, my vision was blurry, and my hands and arms were numb. I had been extremely anxious in the days leading up to this about a job situation that requires a decision that I had (have) no idea how to make. The job situation and other recent major depression and anxiety issues must have all choreographed an elaborate ambush plan that went down at 4am. I had still not improved by midnight. I, who have been in therapy for 13+ years, who sought therapy even through heavy shaming from my inexplicably militant anti-therapy family, had absolutely no idea what to do in the middle of a panic attack. This wasn’t even my first panic attack. I was aware I was having a panic attack at the time, but all of my action plans were invisible. I, whose action plans have action plans, had no idea what to do when an invisible baby elephant parked itself on my chest while I tried to breathe, and I couldn’t do anything but cough, cry, and clean the 5’x5′ bathroom floor with three entire rolls of Chlorox Wipes.
I was scrubbing the same tile in front of the toilet for the tenth minute and sobbing when my husband found me and tried to get me to stop scrubbing. That was apparently the worst idea I had ever heard and I wrestled myself away and went back to scrubbing. He stared concernedly and wordlessly at me, making me panic harder. I had to do something, but this was the only thing I could think of doing. To get my husband to stop staring at me, I said, “I’ll call my therapist.” The look of relief on his face was so transparent that I figured maybe I was onto something. I stopped scrubbing for a moment, even though the world spiral out of control again, I called my therapist, my psychiatrist, and the mental health hotline. Since my body decided to do this at night on a weekend, I had a hard time getting anyone on the phone. Recorded instructions and hotline instructions were all the same: if you can’t breathe call 911 or go to the ER. That was more instruction than I previously had, so I followed it.
I sat in the ER lobby breathing in the flu and other sick general public germs at ~100 respirations per minute for about an hour before they brought me back and asked me history questions.
“No, I don’t smoke, do drugs, or have HIV.”
“No, I’m not pregnant.”
“No I do not have a third nipple.”*
“Yes, I have a history of depression and anxiety. Yes, and panic attacks.”
“Yes, I have recently had suicidal thoughts.”
“Yes, I have intentionally hurt myself within the month.”
“No I do not want to harm others.”
*They didn’t really ask me this, but a girl can dream of a world with more interesting medical intake questions.
I told the nurses that I’ve had major upheavals in two major areas of my life recently: my marriage and my job, and those stressors have caused me to be intermittently depressed, self-destructive, and yes, suicidal. I told them no, I do not entertain thoughts of planning anything because suicide would hurt the people I love way too much for me to bear. (This is a good thing, guys, it means that I am able to consider consequences of my actions, thus am very unlikely to try anything stupid.) I also told them that I sought help immediately when I began hurting myself and when I began having suicidal thoughts. My therapists are helping me relearn productive ways of coping, my Dr is adjusting my meds. (Another good thing, guys, it means I have a strong support system and that I’m hopeful about the future if I’m seeking help!) My thoughts and actions aren’t things I’m proud of, but this is medical history and there’s no reason to lie or omit important things.
Well I don’t know how what I said got translated onto my chart, but after sitting in an ER room for a half hour, a stream of nurses and doctors marched into the room to confront me about wanting to kill myself. The gist of what everyone was saying basically went like this:
Staff: Suicide?! Are you suicidal right now?
Staff: You’re not?!
Me: No, should I be?
Staff: You told the intake nurses you were suicidal.
Me: Yes, I told them I was, and that’s why my Dr changed my medication.
Staff: And you cut yourself?
Me: Yes, the last time was 2 weeks ago, and I’m working with my therapist on stopping that.
Staff: Why would you tell the intake nurses that you’re suicidal but you’re telling me you’re not? It’s very confusing.
Me: You think??
Me: Nothing. What I’m telling you is that I am very depressed and anxious, and when I get very depressed, death is a passive thought that looms over me. I am not planning to kill myself.
Staff: Did you plan to cut yourself when you did?
Me: Well, no…
Staff: Do you agree that you need help?
Me: Yes. That is why I’m here, I didn’t know what else to do.
Staff: I think we need to transfer you to the psychiatric hospital for some more intensive help. I mean you said the word suicide to the intake nurses, so the word suicide is on your medical record now, but you won’t say the word suicide to me which makes me think you’re hiding something, and we heard the word suicide, you said suicide!
Me: I- (I was having a flashback of the scene from Meet The Parents when he’s being kicked off the plane. “You can’t say bomb on an airplane! BOMB BOMB BOMB, BOMB BOMB B’BOMB…”)
Staff: We will send someone over from the hospital to talk to you shortly.
I signed the paperwork that said I was going to the psych hospital voluntarily, even though they told me after I signed that if I decided to try and go home now that I would end up being brought in to the psych ward in police custody. I was overwhelmed, panicking even more, I couldn’t find anyone to tell me whether they found anything on my EKG or chest x-rays they had taken, my blood pressure and pulse were off the charts. I waited for the person from the hospital to show up, formulating questions in my head, then was appalled to find that the “person from the psych hospital” was a pair of EMT’s, male and female, arriving to strap me onto a stretcher to transfer me next door to the facility. I saw the extra restraints on the stretcher and burst into fresh tears, instinctively turning to run. My husband hugged me hard, he was in tears too, and held me even though the EMTs were telling me to come on. I would have fucking walked over there on my own, it’s literally across one driveway from where I sat. The male EMT made me lie down on the stretcher, didn’t even let me put pants on or take the time to make sure my hospital gown was tied, and started connecting the restraints.
The female EMT, once we were in the ambulance, said, “Are you ok? Why are you so upset?” I don’t think a stupider question has ever been uttered from the back of an ambulance before.
“No, I’m doing great! Was having a slow weekend, so I thought, what the hell, I’ll let someone parade me through a hospital half naked and tied up like a wild animal. After all, I came here seeking help and that is the perfect prescription for a girl who couldn’t catch her breath from panic when she started this process, but now feels like she’ll never breathe again. Oh, and for good measure, leave my husband standing in a hallway in tears while you wheel her away, then tell him he can’t come visit me at the new facility until Tuesday. That’s really going the extra mile!” I didn’t say any of this out loud, but I think the look on my face when the EMT asked me that question was enough to stir up some sympathy. She ended up kicking the male EMT out and letting me put my pants and clothes back on. I appreciated that so much in that moment.
In the next adventure of The Unit, we will learn what can happen to a psych ward rookie in a 24-hour suicide watch lockup while she waits 10 hours to see a Dr for just a whiff of an anti-anxiety medication. Does anybody know what can happen in an emergency psychiatric patient potpourri setting in 10 hours? I do. But there will be plenty of time for that when the emotional energy recharges.