Psych Ward

*tw: mental illness, hospitalization, suicide, self harm, sexual assault*

At the end of May, I spent a week in an inpatient psychiatric hospital. While I don’t feel comfortable sharing the specifics of what led me to be admitted, I was admitted involuntarily, meaning I did not walk in off the street and decide I needed care. Instead, I had reached my saturation point for handling life’s variables and healthcare providers determined I would be safest in a hospital setting. I never thought I would need to be hospitalized, but in retrospect, I’m suprised it took me this long. I can now see warning signs in myself all over the place, but I wasn’t listening to them.

Late on the Monday night before Memorial Day, I sobbed in the car as my roommate drove me to the emergency room. I texted my boss and my therapist and called my partner, but I remember very little after that. I spent the night in Emory University’s ER, attempting to watch Sex in the City and drifting in and out of conciousness as we waited for the rotating psychiatrist to come and evaluate me. Around 5:30am, my partner left to go home and rest. Around 6:30am, the psychiatrist finally arrived. I talked with him for a few minutes, answering questions about what brought me to the ER, my medical and psychiatric history, and how I was feeling. Not long after, the attending nurse told me I was being taken to a psychiatric hospital. They assured me they would find one that would accept my insurance. I was loaded onto a stretcher and into an ambulance with no specific idea about where I was headed. I was terrified and exhausted, and I slept the whole ride.

When we arrived, I was unloaded along with my backpack I had somehow managed to bring along. Still in blue papery hospital scrubs, I sat scrunched up in an armchair alone in an intake room for what felt like hours, waiting to be processed into the hospital. Eventually, I was able to put my own clothes back on and use my phone to text a few people to tell them where I was. I wrote down important phone numbers so I would still have them after they could confiscate my phone. They took my bookbag as well, and it would be two days before I could get the rest of my things out of it. I was taken to a section of the hospital that I now know is primarily for people who are psychotic, delusional, aggressive, or paranoid. I didn’t fit any of these categories, but the women’s trauma unit I was eventually bound for was full, so I was stuck in holding until there was an open bed.

I walked around for three days in a complete fog. I’m sure the sleeping medications didn’t help, but as the reality of what was happening set in, I began to feel less and less in control of my body. I had panic attacks and cried constantly. I had no idea what was going on. I felt entirely alone. I wanted so badly to process what had happened but felt I had no one to talk to. I watched people get shots of sedatives to calm them after having raging outbursts. I watched one man try to escape twice in one day. I watched another walk around wearing only one shoe, in a psychotic daze for 48 hours until they corrected his medication and he became a completely stable person. I was scared and I had no clue how to move forward.

On day 3, I finally had visitation hours. Seeing my partner and my best friend was both jarring and comforting. They said they were surprised at how good I looked and seemed. Looking back, this is especially strange because of how out of control I felt. All of my defense mechanisms to keep my life together had finally failed. My perfectionism, my obsessive cleaning and organizing, my intellectualization of my problems, and my avoidance of conflict and difficult emotions had all worked for a long time. But the thing about defense mechanisms is that they work until they don’t. I avoided digging deeply into myself for so many decades that I started to believe I could forget that certain things had happened to me by simply not acknowledging them. (Spoiler: This does not work.) I was dishonest with myself and the people who love me about how I was really doing because I was ashamed of the pain I was actually feeling, and, at times, completely unaware of the pain I was actually feeling.

I started to unwrap all of this once I was moved from the chaotic holding unit to the women’s trauma unit. I was surrounded by women who shared my diagnoses and my life experiences. We never discussed specifics, but we just knew. It was such a relief to get hugs from other women after not having any physical contact for days in the other unit. I started to smile and laugh again. “This isn’t the psych ward!” we would yell across the table at each other, as we color pictures of mandalas and animals with dulling colored pencils. We laughed because there was no other way we could make it through. Because we were in the psych ward. And our reality pressed in from all sides as we walked around in our pants without drawstrings and shoes without laces. Our backs ached from mattresses without springs and our eyes were tired from the wellness checks every 15 minutes during the night to make sure we were breathing. It was an overwhelming week. It was a week I never thought I’d have. But it was real, and now it’s a part of my story.

Since being released, I’ve been participating in a partial hospitalization program for women’s trauma. It’s possibly the most difficult work I’ve ever done. I’m not quite ready to share my reflections on the work I’ve been doing in trauma therapy yet because it’s still so close and because I’m still doing it. But I wanted to at least share the beginning of this journey. I want to share this experience because I want to help normalize psychiatric care. Inpatient hospitalization programs are for everyone. If you feel out of control of your emotions, a situation, substance abuse, or your behaviors, admitting yourself to a program like the one I was in could be a helpful step. Inpatient programs help stabilize you in moments of crisis. Getting help before you’re in a full blown crisis is also a valid reason to seek hospitalization.

I’m getting better, but I can’t say I’m getting better every day because that would be a lie. Healing is not linear. I’m learning new ways to cope and some days I use those new coping skills effectively, but other days I don’t. I’m back at work part time, but I’m teaching my self to take it easy. I’m scared to integrate back into “real life”, but I know that I’ll be ready when it’s time. I’m still not sure what all I’m supposed to have learned from the psych ward, but I trust that I’m learning it.

Getting Pulled Over While White

I had never been pulled over before. I try, generally, to follow traffic rules and drive safely, but I’m probably not that much better at driving than most people. I refuse to text and drive but I’m definitely guilty of speeding to get where I’m going because I hate wasting time. I used be a timid, conservative driver, but then I moved to Atlanta and it was all downhill. In Atlanta, I’ve learned how to honk and throw my hands up exasperatedly. Somehow, though, I’ve managed to avoid getting pulled over, and I have my white skin to thank, at least in part. White people don’t get pulled over by police for “looking suspicious.” Partially, I’m lucky to have avoided traffic cameras at red lights and overzealous cops, but also, I’m white in a society that favors white people.

However, this past weekend, as I returned from a writing retreat in North Carolina (blog post coming soon!), I found myself completely zoned out, unaware of the speed limit and gliding absentmindedly through the mountains of North Georgia. I looked in my rearview mirror to find a cop tailing me, and I panicked a bit, wondering how long he’d been following me. I slowed down a bit and got into the right lane. A minute later though, he put on his lights and merged behind me. I sighed, said a few choice words, and slowed to the shoulder.

I always thought I would cry when I got pulled over. I hate breaking the rules, but I hate getting in trouble for breaking the rules even more.  Maybe it’s a tribute to my five years of weekly therapy, but I found myself relatively calm upon being pulled over for the first time. As I waited for the police officer to come to the window of my car, though, the faces of all the black men who have been shot in similar traffic stops flashed through my mind. Next to me, I had a backpack, full of books and my computer from my retreat. I rifled through it to find my wallet, thinking that, if I were a black man, this would be an incredibly dangerous action, my hands and the contents of my bag hidden.

It was a strange moment, anxiously thinking of all the ways black people are unsafe around police while also knowing those things wouldn’t happen to me. When the officer asked for my proof of insurance, I had to open my center console to find it. Again, I thought, what suspicions would this rouse in this police officer’s mind if I were black? Is this the moment when I would be shot, just for trying to comply and find my insurance card?

The police officer took my license and returned to his car to run it. I sat comforted, knowing that I had no prior traffic violations and no pending criminal or civil issues. If I were black, though, I might have found myself panicking, remembering a matter for which I had been unjustly or disproportionately charged. As a white middle-upper class woman, I am highly unlikely to be arrested. I’ve been to protests. I’ve yelled in the street, blocking traffic and demanding human rights. I’ve trespassed, stolen street signs, hung out in parks after dark, and other adolescent debauchery. But even if I had been caught by a police officer in any of those moments, I most likely would’ve been free to go with a slap on the wrist. And that’s exactly what happened in this traffic stop.

The officer returned my license to me, and, as he did so, he asked, “When was your last race?” It took me a minute to realize what he meant, but as I remembered my 26.2 and 13.1 bumper stickers, I told him I had run a half marathon in November. “Well, that’s farther than I can run!” he joked. I probably came off entirely aloof because of how shocked I was at his attempt at comradery. I knew this would never happen to a black person. After our awkward exchange, he simply told me to keep my speed under control and drive carefully. That was it. No ticket, no nothing. I felt a mixture of relief and guilt that it had been that easy. All I had to do was be a cute white girl willing to make small talk, and I was home free.

As I continued south down US-23, my mind reeled. The faces of Tamir Rice, Freddie Grey, Alton Sterling, Michael Brown, and Philando Castile swirled around in my head. I was no better than these men, but here I was, alive and well, driving away from a routine traffic stop without consequence. 

overprotective

Weaving a maze of sticky threads,
the spider busies itself making a home
that sparkles innocuously in the morning dew.
A fly lands,
lulled in by the beauty and
perceived safety.
The spider closes in,
wrapping the fly tightly
in the filament,
a swaddle not meant to insulate
but to incapacitate,
slowly smothering
the fly
into a pale
and lifeless
form.

The Cycles of Grief

Each year on November 5th, I post a picture of my mom.  Some years, I feel strange about this ritual, especially if I’m in a new place where people don’t know that my mom died.  I do it anyway, though, because I have to find a way to hold space for her.  I think about her on November 5th even if I forget about her the rest of the year, and that feels holy.

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My mom on her wedding day.

For the first 20 years of my life, I didn’t think  much about grief.  Right after my mom’s death in 1995, my dad took me to grief counseling where I did both individual and group therapy.  I’m grateful for that early therapy but it was nearly impossible for a five year old to fully process death.  The loss of my mom because more of a “fun fact” that I could pull out when people made “your mom” jokes in high school or when I had to explain why my dad was getting married when I was in the 4th grade.  I would wear some of her jewelry or her tshirts with cats on them, but that was the extent of it.  I didn’t consider what it meant for me as a daughter or a mother or a person trying to understand herself.

It wasn’t until college that the weight of it fully hit me.  I was on a worship team for my university’s chapter of InterVarsity Christian fellowship, and on one of our annual retreats, we had a particularly poignant sharing time.  Team members shared about breakups, deaths, friendship struggles, and other things we usually kept close to our chests.  I remember suddenly bursting into tears, shocked at my emotional reaction to something I hadn’t cried about for a decade.  It sunk in that she wouldn’t be there when I got married, when I graduated, or when I had my own children.

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I see myself in this picture.

Since then, I’ve tried to get to know her more.  It turns out, getting to know a dead person is difficult, but not impossible.  I talk to her and write to her and talk about her.  This doesn’t make it hurt less.  If anything, it makes it hurt more, but if I feel nothing, the grief will fester inside me.  And unresolved grief can be a real bitch.  My decades of not feeling grief brought about depression and self harm.  So, even if it’s been years, it turns out I can’t just pretend that nothing happened.  When I recognize that my desires to be perfect and control everything around me have a lot to do with my need to live out her legacy and protect myself from an early death, I can learn to let those things go.

I recently joined a community called The Dinner Party (TDP).  There are chapters all over the world, and their mission is:

OURS IS A COMMUNITY OF MOSTLY 20- AND 30-SOMETHINGS WHO’VE EACH EXPERIENCED SIGNIFICANT LOSS & CONNECT AROUND POTLUCK DINNER PARTIES TO TALK ABOUT IT

I’ve only met with this group once, but it was overwhelmingly refreshing to be in a room of people who aren’t afraid to talk about death.  One of my close friends recently lost her dad, and as I watched our other friends respond to her grief, it brought to light my own experiences in which people weren’t sure how to approach death.  At TDP, I could joke about death, cry about things that I “should be over by now”, and talk about the things that don’t seem to make sense.  I didn’t have to put my grief in a box that looked the way others expected it to.  Listening to others describe their experiences clarified my own.

Each year on November 5th, I can’t believe how long it’s been since she died, but I hope that as I grow farther away from her temporally, I grow closer to knowing her.  I see her in myself as I approach the age that she was when she died.  I see the shape of my body when I look at pictures of her.  I think about how much she would love my cats.  None of this makes it easier, but it’s better than pretending none of it happened.

Legend

This is a portion of the piece Legend, which is published in full in the collection Georgia’s Emerging Writers: An Anthology of Nonfiction.  The collection can be purchased here or on Amazon.

I am a child, maybe six. Alone, but not lonely. I walk without direction along the suburban street in front of my house. There are railroad ties that my dad put in our yard to prevent drivers from cutting the corner and leaving tire tracks in our grass and a wooden fence, gradually rotting. Bradford pear trees and small cacti neatly circle around the perimeter of the yard. I watch my cat climb the tree right next to the house, hoping she doesn’t get stuck.

I breathe in the magnolia air and run across the yard to a strip of woods that separates our yard from the neighbors’. Rocks the size of cantaloupes line the patch of woods, and I like to hide things under them – pieces of paper with secret messages or tiny toys. My favorite spot is a small tree that grows strangely out to the side, stretching toward the sunlight and making a chair with its trunk. I sit on it and uncover my favorite rock, grey-blue with sharp edges, under which I keep one of my mother’s old lockets.

I look out and survey the world I’ve created for myself. I am safe here with the trees and the rocks and the Southern air. I am safe from the grief that fills our house. I am safe from the stress of my father as he tries to balance raising a daughter and working in an office. I am safe from the emptiness of a house without a mother. In my imaginary world with trees and rocks and railroad ties, the truth is avoidable. In my game, I am a mother, caring for the trees and for the tiny objects under rocks.

In adulthood, learning how to cope with my lack of knowledge about my biological mother has progressed little beyond my childhood games. If anything, I’ve grown further away from being able to remember her. In my consistent efforts over the past 22 years to count my memories of my mother, I can count only five. Other images of her float around, cross-contaminating my memories to form legends of a woman I never really knew. There are the stories that relatives and friends tell decade after decade – the story of my premature birth, the story of how she pulled out a chunk of her hair during chemotherapy and made a quippy joke to her doctors, the time we all went to Disney World when I was two – but none of these are my own memories. They are stories for which I created images after multiple retellings. More importantly, they are not the entire story. They are the high points, the greatest hits, the grain separated from the chaff. No one tells me about the mundane things – how she brushed her teeth, what she ate for breakfast, how she pronounced the word pecan – much less the terrible things. When someone dies, everyone is afraid to mention the moments that they gave up or the times they were frustrated with people they loved. We conveniently forget that they were a whole person with flaws and, instead, create a legend.

These unintended heroes give us the same hope that any legend gives: the story of a martyr who was kind through her suffering, benevolent to a fault, selfless in every circumstance. However, legends are not people; they are ideas. And my mother was not an idea; she was a person, and I cannot know her unless I know all of her stories. So, I will start with the ones I remember…

To read the rest of this piece, visit the Z Publishing website to purchase the collection.

Look for the Helpers

It’s been a difficult week.  Nationally, there is fear about what Justice Kennedy’s retirement will mean for the future of SCOTUS.  ICE continues to separate parents and children.  Personally, I’ve seen some overwhelming and  difficult things, as I do often working in a social service agency.  When I look at these broken parts, all I can see is that we are failing to take care of each other.

Our country claims to be a place with a government that is “for the people, by the people,” but right now that couldn’t seem farther from the truth.  Our government is failing to take care of its most vulnerable citizens.  What’s more, their lack of assistance is touted in the name of Christianity – a religion that espouses care for the poor and marginalized in both Old and New Testaments.  It’s no wonder the Church is dying when its mouthpieces refuse compassion.

On Tuesday of this week, I started the morning by calling EMS for a man who suffers from seizures and was also experiencing alcohol withdrawal.  He spent the night at the hospital and came back the next day to our agency, having received minimal care for his ongoing issues because of his lack of insurance and income.  A few hours later on Tuesday, my coworkers and I bore witness to something terrible.  A man drove a white sedan up the street from our agency, parked it on the side of the road and got out.  He walked across the street, directly in front of our agency to the steps of the Georgia Capitol building.  He doused himself in gasoline and set off rounds of fireworks on his person, causing his whole body to burst into flames.

His name is John Michael Watts and he’s an Air Force veteran from outside of Atlanta.  He was so angry by the lack of care he had received from the VA and was suffering so greatly that he saw no other option but to light himself on fire in front of a government building.  Mr. Watts is still alive, but in the hospital in critical condition with burns of at least 85% of his body.  This is not the image of a nation that cares for its citizens.

States away, children have been taken from their parents who came to our country seeking asylum.  Their countries of origin were so frightening that the best option seemed to be to travel miles with minimal supplies, hoping to be accepted at their destination.  Their children are now alone in a strange country, some of them so young that it is impossible for them to understand what is going on.  Some are infants, still being breastfed, who were forcibly taken from their mothers. While our government has promised to reunite these families, the logistics of doing so seem nearly impossible, with hardly any way to know if the right children are being returned to the correct families.  We are failing to care for those who aren’t our citizens yet, but would like to be.

Every day at my job, I see others who experience the constant failures of a system built for their destruction. Lack of healthcare and affordable housing are some of the biggest problems.  Many of them have physical disabilities, injuries, amputations, chronic health issues, and mental health problems that make it impossible for them to hold regular jobs.  Being on the street exacerbates their health problems, and they fall deeper into the hole of homelessness.  What little money they do have access to is in danger of disappearing.  Benefits like food stamps and welfare are being threatened.  We are failing to care for those who have no option but to rely on the assistance of our government to stay alive.

I am tired of bearing witness to these tragedies.  Lately, I’ve often felt hopeless about changing these broken systems.  My heart breaks over and over for people like John Michael Watts, Marco Antonio Munoz, and the faces I see every day at work.

This past weekend, though, I saw “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, a documentary about Mr. Rogers.  Toward the end of the movie, Mr. Rogers cited his famous quote about tragedy , and tears filled my eyes.

“Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

People took to this quote after 9/11, after recent shootings which are too many to name, and after Hurricane Harvey, among other disasters.  It is associated with so many difficult moments for me, that to hear Mr. Rogers finally say it out loud was breathtaking.  It reminded me that this is why I come to work each day.  I want to be a helper.  I don’t always do it well, but I’m out here trying.

We are the helpers.  Whether we are holding protest signs, soup ladles, or the hands of another, we are the helpers.  Being a helper also means taking care of ourselves, even in the most simple ways.  Mourn.  Grieve.  Feel the heavy pain of it to free yourself to provide hope.  Rest.  Be present in your body.  Clad yourself for the fight ahead.

We are here, and we are many.  Be the helpers.