Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Mental Health Week - #getloud - My Story

As I sat there in my room, tears running down my face, I found myself asking, "How did I end up here?"  Here I was, sitting in a room that can only be described as a room that was the result of a university dorm room having procreated with a hospital room.  It was my first day, of many days, in the private mental health facility I checked myself into in July of last year.  How did I go from a high functioning, high profile, Director in an Investment Firm on Bay Street to someone mentally ill and so fragile I now needed a full time hospital to take care of me? 

Mental illness can creep up on you.  It doesn't have to be dominantly present from the time you are a child.  Or debilitating throughout your youth.  Sometimes, by the time you reach adulthood you are just tired of fighting to keep it at bay.  You get overwhelmed by life, and you realize it has caught up to you.  You have a mental illness.  You are no longer high functioning.  In fact, you are barely functioning at all.  

I always knew there was something different about me.  The way I reacted to things was not like the other people in my life.   The way I felt about things wasn’t the same as most.  Every emotion felt overwhelming so all my energy was spent pushing those emotions aside.  I showed little emotion but anger.  I was exhausted.  It was like running a marathon in my brain every day.  It caught up to me in my mid 30s.  Like any other disease, mental illness can take its time developing inside of a person until it starts to affect their everyday life.  And it can make you feel tremendous shame.  That is the difference with mental illness as compared to other diseases.  Most diseases don’t come with so much shame attached to them.  Very few people with Cancer are looked at the way people with mental illness are looked at.  No one wonders what the Diabetes patient will say or do in an emotional or stressful situation. 

The facility my husband and I found for me had been on our radar since before the 2014 year even began.  I had fallen into what can only be described as existential angst in the latter half of 2013.  Constantly wondering why I was alive.  What was my purpose?  Why was I here?  It was excruciatingly painful.  By May of 2014 I was far beyond clinically depressed, I was completely lost.  I tried to push the darkness aside with every ounce of strength I had.  By June, I couldn't do it anymore.  I was tired of fighting just to convince myself, every waking second, of every day, that there was a reason I was here.  On June 4, 2014, I attempted suicide. 

Up until that fateful day, my husband’s fulltime job had been babysitting me.  I was so full of sadness and despair he worried about me constantly.  I talked endlessly about the unbearable pain.  During this time if my husband wasn’t physically at my side he made sure I was in touch with him every half hour.  Even if only by text.  If I missed the half hour mark he would call.  On that day he had meeting away from the house.  He did not want to go.  I convinced him that I could be left alone.  It wasn’t long after he left that I realized I shouldn’t have been left alone.  The racing thoughts, laden with pain, wouldn’t stop.  I had been fighting for so many months.  I was so tired.  I sat on the floor of my bedroom with every prescription bottle I had.  Some pills were for mental pain, for depression.  Some were for the diagnosed Bi Polar disorder.  Others were for back pain, some to relax my sore muscles at bed time.  And others were to sleep.  I had a lot of pills at my disposal.  And wrongly so.  Looking back, there is no reasonable explanation for someone with a mental illness to have access to that many pills, but I did. 

I sat on that floor with all of the pills around me and I wept.  I knew I was going to cause considerable pain for so many I was leaving behind.  But that guilt, did not outweigh the pain I couldn’t shake.  I answered my husband’s text messages.  I told him I was fine.  One handful after the next, I took as many pills as I could stomach swallowing down.  I got into bed, and I waited to die.   There was a point I panicked that I had made a mistake.  That I didn’t, in fact, want to die.  And then I realized that it was already too late.  I had taken the steps and I had to make peace with it.  No more pain, I thought to myself.  No more pain for all those around me.  Pain I am causing.  I decided it was out of my hands.  I had made my choice.

My husband will never forgive himself for those few hours he took away from my side.  Just a few hours to go to a meeting away from the house.  He says he feels guilty every time he walks out our door now.  He flashes to that day and remembers racing back to the local hospital to meet the ambulance.  Praying I would live.  I gave him that burden to bear.  He has forgiven me, he has not forgotten.  I have forgiven myself, I have not forgotten.  That is a place I will never go to again.  I hope.  If I ever sense that kind of despair coming over me, I will check myself into a hospital Emergency Room.  Even if just to be monitored and to keep myself safe.  I was so lucky that day.   Answering the phone saved my life. 

With all the drugs in my system I was so incoherent that I didn’t even realize I was answering the incessantly ringing phone.  Answering the phone prevented my death.  My husband realized immediately on the other end of the phone that something was terribly wrong.  He called 911.  They made it to me, and I to the hospital in enough time to save my life.  I resented that for days, weeks even.  I resented being alive.  And that is why I didn’t fight it when the mental health facility called and said they had a bed.  If I wasn’t happy that I lived, I needed serious help.  More help I was capable of handling on my own.    

Thank goodness I had allowed my husband to put me on the waiting list for the private mental health facility early in 2014 when everything started going very wrong for me mentally.  The waiting list is, on average, about 6 months long for those patients paying cash.  Just imagine if I was an OHIP patient.  Having to wait for the government backed health care insurance system to fit me in.  Do you know how many beds are available in Canada at long term mental health facilities that are sponsored by OHIP?  Not many.  My wait was long enough.  And even in that time, while I waited for help, I attempted suicide.   I was lucky I survived.  I wonder how many die every day simply waiting for a bed.

Upon arrival at the facility we were moved through the admitting process pretty fast.  They obviously understand that no one really wants to be there.  People just know they have to be there.  From there we were escorted up to the unit and to my room.  I hadn’t been away from my husband for more than a week since we moved in together in 2004.  That’s all I could think about standing in the middle of the room.  That thought was quickly followed with, “How am I supposed to live in this room?”  The room was very small.  And crammed in this small room were two hospital beds, two small desks, two side tables and two wood lockers.  One set obviously taken.  I was supposed to have a private room.  I do not do well in tight spaces with other people.  Tears pouring down my face I turned to my husband, and said "I am not staying in this room.  I am supposed to have my own room.  I want to go home, NOW.  Please honey, I beg of you, take me home".  He immediately began asking about other accommodation options.  He knew I was ready to bolt.  We were told that beds open up, not rooms.  All they had was a semi private room.  Once a private room opened up, I would get moved she told us, “It shouldn’t be more than two weeks”.  Aside from my husband I have never had a roommate.  Here I was in my most fragile state and I was to have a roommate who was a complete stranger.  My husband hugged me tight and begged me through tears of his own to stay.  I had to.  If for no one else, for him.  He asked the nurse if another semi private room was available.  “Perhaps one a little bigger”, he asked.  He could tell I felt claustrophobic in that room.  This tiny room wasn’t helping prepare me for my stay away from home.

They took me to another room where a woman I had seen checking in at admissions was unpacking.  We had already smiled at each other through our mutual tears. I quietly introduced myself.  Leaving my things behind, I walked hand in hand with my husband to the door of the unit.  I watched him walk away through the glass door.  I felt much like an infant at daycare for the first time, nose pressed to the glass pleading with my eyes not to be left behind.  I slowly made my way back to my new home to unpack.  Once done, I crawled into my bed and facing the wall, let the tears fall silently.  I didn't leave my room much that day.  I can't recall eating.  I slept on and off, and I cried.  For 24 hours.  I guess it wasn’t much different than the last few months at home after all.

The next morning was a Saturday.  I was awoken by the nurses at 645am.  “Standard practise”, they said when I asked.  I didn’t sleep very well that first night.  Inside mental health wards, at least the ones known to me, patients must be monitored constantly so the nursing staff are required to check on the patients all night long.  Every couple of hours a nurse enters the patient’s room and shines a flashlight on the patient to ensure they are safe and sound, and sleeping well.  A little ironic.  I am not a heavy sleeper to begin with.  Someone opening the door every couple of hours and flashing a bright light on my face didn’t help much.  Every two hours, my brain screamed, “I can’t do this”.

My room didn't have its own bathroom so on that morning I had another first by making way down a public hallway in my pajamas to get changed in a stall of the women’s public bathroom.  This was my now going to be my new normal?  What was happening to me?  I asked those questions to myself over and over as I brushed my teeth muttering hello to other female patients who were coming and going through the bathroom.  Once the shock of that experience wore off I slowly made my way to the cafeteria for breakfast.  Where again, I found myself facing another first, having breakfast alone, in public, seated by myself.  The cafeteria was buzzing.  It was buzzing far too much for my over active, very anxious mind.  There were so many unfamiliar faces.  So many voices all talking over each other to be heard.  I almost turned and left without food but instead I forced myself to stay.  A challenge faced. 

After breakfast, I wandered aimlessly back to my room.  I climbed back into bed and staring at the wall, I let the tears fall silently again.  We were allowed to keep our cell phones on the unit I was in.  Most of the other units didn’t allow this.  But on my unit they wanted you to stay in touch with the real world, the reality outside of those walls.  I texted my husband that second day and asked, "Please tell me how long I have to stay here?  How long must I give this before you will believe I gave it my best?”  He replied quickly with, "Two weeks.  Please give it at least two weeks before you decide to leave”.  I had hoped he would say a week.  But I resolved to stay for two weeks.  If not for myself, for my husband. 

I can honestly say those two weeks were some of the hardest days of my life.  They weren't awe inspiring days full of “ah ha” moments allowing for great distraction.  I wasn’t learning new and amazing things every day thus willing me to stay.  For those first two weeks you get a schedule and easy classes to attend like horticulture and art.  The time is simply spent getting used to waking up at a certain time and going to bed at a certain time.  Your challenge is to make it to a few classes a week where you are not pushed to do more than arrive on time.  Your schedule included the times you are allocated to receive your medications daily at breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Each time you went to the medication window you were required to share with your nurse how you were feeling.  And how you were truly feeling is what was expected in your reply.  As one of my nurses said that second day, "fine, okay, good, and alright tell me nothing about how you truly feel and are not acceptable answers”. 

By the end of the week one I found myself talking often with two younger women who had arrived on the unit just before me.  By the end of week two I found myself playing basketball in the gym with them.  Week three, we were walking to classes together, always sitting together.  That week I finally got moved into one of only a few private rooms with its own bathroom.  Looking back, I actually spent very little time in that room.   Suddenly I found myself looking forward to French toast breakfast Wednesdays and pancake breakfast Friday's in the cafeteria.  Where I sat at “our table” with the other patients from my unit.  I was spending all my free time with people.  I was knee deep in the hard psychology classes trying to figure myself out.  I found myself standing at the medication window three times a day, tears streaming down my face as I described in depth how I was feeling.  How did I end up HERE I wondered?  I got sick.  That's how.

I am a step mother, a wife, and a domestic engineer.  After spending 21 years on Bay Street, mental illness derailed my life as I knew it.   I have a new life.  It’s different.  Not better.  Not worse.  I am loved.  That is all I focus on now.