I Survived

*tw*: s*icide, mental illness, depression and anxiety, self harm, eating disorders, trauma

One year ago today, I woke up in the hospital. I never actually went to sleep, but I was in and out of awareness so much that I don’t remember much. So, when I was told I was being loaded into am ambulance and taken to a mental health facility, it felt like coming out of a restless sleep. I’ve never felt so helpless. By the time I was in the ambulance being transported to Ridgeview Institute, I was alone. My roommate who brought me to the ER left to go to bed not long after my partner arrived. Around 5am, my partner left to contact his job and re-situate his week based on the circumstances. No one actually knew where I was being taken or when. I couldn’t contact anyone. I tried to use my cell phone while I waited in an intake room in Ridgeview, but there was little to no reception. My iMessages went through as little green SMS messages as I attempted to give the name of my location to a few important people, including my partner. I had to read the hospital information off of my wrist band in order to relay it.

I felt completely lost.

Sometimes I look back on those first 24 hours after my suicide attempt and sincerely wonder how I made it out. My memories are spotty, but the things are remember are terrible, the feeling of loneliness and confusion being some of the most palatable. At the time, I didn’t have any idea how I had ended up in the hospital, both physically and mentally.

The things I initially pointed to as the causes for my attempt only scratched the surface. After all, it’s never about what you think it’s about.

My trauma was all connected in deeper ways than I realized, and I was only in a headspace to acknowledge pieces of it. I was just trying to survive.

In recovery, people talk a lot about survival. When we’re moving through or away from trauma, we often lean on unhealthy coping mechanisms to make it out. Though unhealthy, they’re coping mechanisms nonetheless. We do what we have to do to survive, even when it’s not pretty. My self-harm, panic attacks, disordered eating, and perfectionism have all been attempts at controlling my surroundings in unpredictable times. While I do my best every day to move away from these old habits, I am also grateful for them. They are all ways my body and my mind tried to protect me in survival mode.

In a triggered or traumatized state, all we can do is try to survive. And I did that.

My therapist reminds me on occasion that, even in the midst of my attempt, I advocated for myself. I got help. I went to the hospital. I did my best to tell my support system where I was. When I was being processed during intake, I asked for food because I hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours. Even in my worst moments, I was making decisions to survive. While, from the outside, attempted suicide, addiction, co-dependency, or stuffing down feelings might appear self-destructive, they are often evidence that a traumatized person is doing their best to survive.

It’s counter-intuitive, yes, that my suicide attempt was also a survival tactic. It doesn’t quite make sense. But my logical brain wasn’t in control, my trauma responses were. My overwhelming panic, sadness, grief, and shame brought me to a place where I could no longer move forward, like a remote control car running into a wall over and over. The best thing my body could tell me to do was to escape. To end the effects of trauma meant to survive them. Trauma Brain could not see any future beyond the trauma, so it told me to stop exhausting myself trying to overcome it.

Now, I’m no longer in survival mode. I can’t pinpoint when exactly I finally emerged or how long I had been there, but I know that now I’m able to do so much more. I’m connecting my sense of justice in the world to my desire for my story to be heard. I’m tracing my episodes of dissociation and panic all the way back to childhood, realizing that I’ve been working through trauma much longer than I knew. I’m working to separate intrusive thoughts, like thoughts self-harm and body dysmorphia, from actions, knowing that just because I think or feel something doesn’t mean I have to act on it.

Most of all, I’m trying to discover who I am, because I don’t think I’ve ever really known. I think I’ve just been searching.

Now is both a terrible and a wonderful time for self-discovery. I’m struggling with identity and value as they relate into my ability to be busy and productive. How am I supposed to discover who I am if I can’t do anything? But who I am is not only qualified by what I produce.

Who I am is deeper, and she can’t wait to meet you, now that she’s survived.

If you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts, self-harm, or other mental health issues, reach out and get help. You don’t have to do this alone. Find a therapist near you here. Reach out to an emergency hotline here. Text with a crisis counselor. Call a friend or family member. Your life matters.

Trauma Therapy II: Sitting In It

This is part II of a III part blog. If you haven’t read part I, read it first by clicking here.

After about a week of trauma therapy in PHP, the work finally began. I stopped resisting and started being honest with myself about my experiences. I stopped trying to do everything right and started trying to tell the truth. Through this, I realized that the reasons I thought I’d been hospitalized weren’t really the reasons I’d been hospitalized. The things that I thought had tipped me over the edge were only the topsoil in a deep and messy hole. And the only way out was to sit in the hole and get dirty.

Because I had been in survival mode for so long, actually feeling my emotions was exhausting. I don’t like for people to see me upset and I don’t like to be vulnerable, but trauma therapy was requiring me to do both of those things basically all the time. After a day or two of this, I told my therapist that I felt like there was a gaping wound in the middle of my chest and the only way to feel safe was to curl up in a ball. She said, “What are you afraid is going to happen? You’re safe.” I wasn’t sure what I thought was going to happen if I let go and sat in it. In retrospect, I think it was the actual letting go that I was so afraid of. I had built my life around hanging on in order to survive. I thought I would lose myself. I thought the darkness would take me over. I thought my grief and trauma and shame would eat me alive. But, in reality, it had already tried and I had escaped.

I cried for a week. I cried constantly in group even if I wasn’t the one sharing. I bought frozen and prepackaged meals at the grocery store because I could barely manage to eat, much less cook. I laid in my bed and cried myself to sleep every night, overwhelmed by the amount of emotions I was finally allowing myself to feel. Plus, the loneliness of knowing that no one else can help you with your feelings is probably the most destitute I’ve ever felt. Some days, I felt ok during PHP because I knew others around me felt the same way. It was often when I left that I felt the most overwhelmed. When it was time to go home, what was I supposed to do? The answer was: nothing. I just had to sit there and feel terrible. I felt lonely and sad and overwhelmed, and you just feel it. I felt homesick for something I couldn’t identify and entirely umoored. And when I felt like drinking or hurting myself or ending it all just to make the feelings stop, I called someone to sit with you. And kept feeling.

After about a week of feeling all of this, I remember asking my therapist, “How long do I have to sit it in? How do I know when I’m done?” She looked at me and said, “I’m still sitting in it.” There will always be things I need to sit in and feel. It will probably never be as overwhelming as the second week of trauma therapy because I aim to never get to a point again where I have decades worth of built up trauma to process, but there will always be something. No one else could tell me when I was done sitting in it. I just knew. One night, I looked at a picture of my mom and sobbed for hours. After that I knew I had reached the bottom of the cave and it was time to find my way back out.

To be continued in part III…

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.