I hope you’re okay. Not in the way that people on the outside will ask, “How are you?” and neglect to hear out the answer. Or how a well-meaning person might say, “I hope you feel better soon,” as if our illnesses were common colds that come round once a year, then disappear without a trace.
After my month-long stay in the psych ward, I’m the same person with the same illnesses I was when I walked in. After nearly 10 years navigating the mental health system, from GPs through to psychologists and psychiatrists, I was doubtful that I’d be transformed by this experience. It is so hard to not get swept up in anger and frustration and sorrow when I think about all the time I’ve lost to being ill.
I remember my first panic attack at eight years old. A game of sudden death flash card arithmetic was the culprit. I was (and am) hopeless at arithmetic. I remember the flash card appearing in front of myself and my opponent: 4 x 6. Blood rushed to my cheeks; my heart raced so fast that my breath could barely catch it. My head began to spin – I didn’t know if I was about to faint or vomit, or both.
You should know this, a voice that no one else seemed to be able to hear heckled at me from the back of the classroom. This is so easy, why can’t you answer this? Everyone is laughing at you. My eyes began to well up to the score white noise.
By this time, my opponent had already answered the question. Everyone was waiting for me to take a seat, my teacher even mouthing at me words I couldn’t hear. I ran outside and fell in a heap on the deck that supported the portable classroom, rocking back and forward. My tears became sobs, my silence became cries for help. I thought I was dying as I choked on my own attempts at breaths.
My last panic attack was a few weeks ago, one month on from getting out of the psych ward. They don’t come as often now as they did back then, but they can be just as debilitating. One month on, I haven’t taken my name tags off my things, because I know it’s likely only a matter of time before I return. I still spend spells of time – hours, or days – in bed, suffocated by a dark depression that comes and goes. I’m often overwhelmed by fits of sobbing, suppressed during a week of trying to function. I still feel mortified after lashing out; I still disappear in the depths of my mind, shutting down when it gets too much. I’m scared to leave the house when my body and mind are unpredictable, creating a vicious cycle of illness and fear that keeps me trapped.
This was my first time self-admitting into a psychiatric hospital. I never felt I’d needed, or rather deserved, this level of care until then. I’d been able to grit my teeth and stop-start my way through my teen years and early adulthood, keeping my illness carefully hidden and disclosing only to my closest friends. I frequently compared my story to yours. I thought, I don’t deserve to be here, despite having given it my all on the outside to live a full and happy life. I thought, I’m not sick enough to be here, when a few weeks earlier, I thought of ending my life every day.
We met because, for most of us, this was our last resort. We didn’t want to be in hospital, but were running out of options that didn’t include leaving this life altogether. We didn’t want to take on the labour of asking for help, or the discomfort of needing to explain our absence to our friends, family and colleagues, but we took the leap.
Walking into this place with a single suitcase of belongings and rose-tinted glasses, I was hopeful that a new approach might provide the answers I’d long looked for. This isn’t so bad, I thought early on, unpacking my toiletries in the ensuite bathroom built with my safety in mind – angled door frames and handle-less shower taps. Throwing my blankets and pillows from home over my hospital grade sheets, it finally clicked that this wouldn’t be anything like what I’d seen in movies of psychiatric hospitals. With this unexpected strength, I could let my guard down, relinquishing the expectation to feel a certain way, or to perform a specific set of actions that would lead to recovery.
But after a few weeks of sweating with withdrawals from failed medication, flashlights in my face at night time, lining up to collect more pills, restricted visiting hours and routine setbacks, I needed a break through. The air in my once idyllic bedroom became stale, and I longed to open a window. Pacing up and down the courtyard behind brick walls and staring at the floorboards in group therapy, I realised that this place was only made to keep me safe, for now.
You helped me through my treatment, sharing anecdotes where my doctors could not. You gave me space to vent, to share in mutual frustration, to grieve pieces of myself lost over time. You made me laugh, providing a momentary escape from our less-than-desirable realities. You gave me comfort as you kept me company in silence, sipping teas, reading books, making art in the courtyard. You helped me feel as at home as I could feel.
Although I’d been conditioned to push through my pain, you welcomed me with open arms. Our experiences were always different, but you validated my right to seek help, and to receive it. You helped me deconstruct the ableist narrative I’d consumed, interpreted and acted out every day of my life. We shared stories in solidarity, accepting each other’s boundaries, enjoying the feeling of being understood.
For me – like so many of us who are chronically or mentally ill – the line between where my illness ends and where I begin is blurred beyond recognition. We hear it often on the outside: “You are more than your illnesses.” Sometimes it doesn’t feel like I’m anything more than a handful of diagnoses from various doctors. To say that I’m not this, and this alone, feels like turning my back on getting the help and recognition I need.
Physical and emotional health, for me and for many others, come as a package. They are reciprocal, and they rely on each other. The moving parts of chronic and mental illness are like tectonic plates: sometimes shifting undetected, setting up for a catastrophic collision. And you can have all the right specialists and scientists watching these plates move, but we can only learn to reduce impact. When one illness takes away your chance to heal from another, it’s nothing short of devastating. It’s then when the allied health team that once felt over-the-top and impossible to administrate becomes essential. I’m still waiting to stand on solid ground.
I shared meals, went for walks and sat in therapy with people whom I shared a diagnosis with, but our experiences couldn’t have been more unique. After falling victim to the fallacy that we’re all the same, it was affirmed to me that there is no one way to be sick, something that science is still catching up with. What does it mean when the “problems” prescribed to us by medicine are so deeply linked with how we grew up, how we think and how we act, and how we move through the world? What happens when the world we live in is unbudging from strict capitalist ideology, and we’re forced to squeeze ourselves into a mould that is neither helpful nor safe for us to exist in?
What is recovery? Am I broken? Will I ever recover?
As I send off new referrals and check in with doctors, it feels like I’ll be in this loop forever. When it comes to mental illness, how can I perceive my battle, my struggle, my suffering as anything other than who I am? This might always be my life – I live with these illnesses, and I can’t afford to live in pity for what society would call an unfortunate affliction. It will command more attention at some times than other times. I will always know when I can feel it coming in my body, eating at my mind and weighing down on my heart, it’s a feeling I am familiar with. And all I can do is learn and practice coping, to accept myself radically and encourage others to do the same of me.
Sometimes I feel trapped in a train of thought that wants nothing more than to derail all the progress I’ve made. The duality of being self aware and, at times, being equally unable to make it stop can be a painful existence. Building a safety net or tool kit takes energy and time that we can’t always give, because we’re too busy surviving. It requires constant maintenance. Sometimes, for self-preservation and protection, coping is the best we can do. We’re taught to stand a safe distance, observing and learning to tolerate our difficult feelings and frightening thoughts until the next wave. For so many reasons, healing isn’t a readily available option.
Now that I’m out, not much has changed. My treatments continue, and bouts of illness come and go – unpredictably, yet expected. Despite the common saying, it doesn’t always get better. Not right away, anyway. But even after some time passes, depression can break through, anxiety can return and the cycle can repeat. It can take a long time to get marginally better, only to get immeasurably worse soon after. It’s hard not to feel like I’m not meant to get better, to go further than this. This is my reality.
To my new friends, I hope you’re making it work on the outside. Maybe even thriving from time to time. I hope that your treatments are affordable and accessible, although those things aren’t always a given. I know how painful it is when it feels like nothing is changing. I hope you wake up one day and the fog lifts, the jitters are less, the voices are kinder. I’m still waiting for that day.
We might not talk as much now, and that’s okay. I don’t talk to my old friends very often either. Like them, I hope you know that I still think of you. From the heartbreaking chats and aimless banter in the common room to kind gestures of flowers and gifts, the mark you’ve left on my life is one I’m grateful for.
I’m proud of you and us for overcoming the stigma that mental health care is anything other than health care. Whenever I feel like a failure, I remember that this relationship to a system that’s meant to protect us works two ways, and it’s failing us. I remember that we have been socialised to feel like we aren’t worthy of care or acceptance for who we are. We must be our own advocates.
I’m angry that we often have to write our own pathway to a recovery that aligns with our lives, one that is not linear and changes over time, often without notice. But, this lets us author our own stories. We deserve holistic health care – care that sees us as the multi-system, unique and deeply human people that we are. I hope we can make it there one day.
From the little ruts and spirals to the all-consuming crises, I hope you can find the strength to see it through to the other side of this moment in time. The strength you gave me is pushing me onward, as I prepare for the next battle in a life of fighting wars.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help now, call triple zero (000)! If this article has brought anything up for you and you’d like to talk to someone, you can also call Lifeline on 13 11 14 — 24 hours a day, seven days a week.