12 October 2011

Confessions of a Therapy Patient

It may have become apparent to astute readers in this past year that my depression has gotten out of hand.  It has led me to withdraw from family and friends, to take less (and often no) pleasure from the things I used to enjoy and eventually led me to the point that I began to have suicidal thoughts.  I never acted on them, but I honestly don't know how close I was to doing so.  Maybe I was never going to, maybe I was one impulse away.  It doesn't matter for the purpose of this blog post because this isn't about me.

I was finally persuaded to check into a mental health facility last week.  I went in as Mr. Hyde and have come out on the other side as a reasserted Dr. Jeckyll, though I know Mr. Hyde will always be with me.  I have the power to keep him at bay, though, and I needed to be reminded not only that I could, but that I wanted to do so.

There were several patients admitted after I arrived, and speaking with a few of them (in what could accurately be called heart-to-heart conversations I shall obviously not repeat), I realized there were some universal feelings that we all shared.  I present them to you now in the hopes that maybe you--or someone you know--can benefit.  This isn't coming from a textbook or speculation; this is field-tested, firsthand experience speaking.

I Can't Really Be This Bad, Can I?

Mental illnesses are better accepted today than ever, but even now there is a tremendous stigma attached to them.  We imagine insane asylums with padded rooms and straitjackets, with people like The Joker and Hannibal Lecter in one wing and another filled with characters played by Jodie Foster.  No matter what your predilections may be, there's a sense that surely you haven't reached that point.  You just need some different meds, a lucky break for once and maybe some one-on-one therapy but there's just no way you've got any business being surrounded by the kinds of people who are admitted to such places.  I mean, they're the kind of people who aren't salvageable, or have real problems.  You've just let things get out of hand.


There's no such thing as "real" problems, at least not in the context of mental or emotional illness.  Maybe you haven't been the victim of sexual violence or you haven't seen inhumane things in the course of war, but if you've reached the point of despair then you have a legitimate claim on real help.  I had a harder time relating to the substance abuse patients because that isn't an experience I've had, but the depressed patients and I were kindred spirits.  You know what one of the most common things I heard from them?  "I felt like I didn't have a good enough reason to be around everyone else here."  There's a false sense of ranking reasons, that a rape survivor deserves therapy, but the young woman going through a breakup does not.  It's not what happened that matters; it's how you've handled it that matters.  Don't allow yourself to think that you don't deserve treatment because you don't have a sufficient trauma to discuss.

This Is Just Going to Be Lame and I Won't Get Anything Out of It

One of the main speakers we had was Ned Flanders from The Simpsons; an enthusiastic dork complete with mustache.  I thought for sure that my time there was going to be the most mind-numbing thing I've endured since I slogged my way through Economics 301.  It turned out he was a nice guy, though, and I liked him (being someone else who shares my belief that From Russia with Love is the best James Bond movie didn't hurt).

What I discovered was that the lion's share of the therapeutic value of my stay came from socializing with other patients.  We traded "Why are you here?" stories and found nice things to say to and about one another.  We picked up on mistakes that each of us had made and we called each other out on them, in the kind of way that only someone else there can do with credibility.  For once, I was part of the "in" crowd clique, which we formed late Friday night and by the time I left Monday, it had expanded to two tables of patients as we kept drawing in more of the rest.  This carried over into the organized group sessions and what we found was that the speakers weren't necessarily telling us anything specifically poignant, so much as just leading us through the process of continuing what we were already doing on our own.  They gave us themes to consider, and I can't tell you how many times someone would use the phrase, "We were just talking about this" in the course of group sessions.

I'm sure everyone took away different things, but I think what mattered most was that there was something genuinely meaningful for each of us to be in that environment.  Even Ned Flanders, in his dorky way, helped cultivate that environment and their touch was light, guiding us along from topic to topic rather than endlessly hounding us with platitudes and hokey cliches.

Whatever Happens in a Mental Health Facility Stays in a Mental Health Facility

For privacy concerns, this is actually pretty true; I won't share anything that would in any way invade another patient's privacy.  But the greater concern is that whatever progress you might make as a patient won't survive once you leave the campus.  It's certainly true that it's easier to stay focused and feel positive in an environment crafted for that purpose, but you can also find things that you can tether yourself to once you've left.  Each person gets something different from the experience, of course, and I'll share what I got out of mine in forthcoming posts but the important thing is that your time spent can best be viewed as a course correction.  You may have been on the right path and things got out of hand and you strayed.  You don't have to start all over--in fact, you can't.  What you can do, though, is see the sign posts back to the right path and now you know what to look for in the future.  If you've ever driven around lost, you know what it's like when you keep seeing the same landmarks and signs; they let you know you're back in the wrong place.  Your experience as a patient can help show you what those landmarks and signs were that you missed, and it's this knowledge--more than the positive feelings--that you can carry with you outside the facility.

If you've read this and you've been thinking that maybe what you've been dealing with has gotten out of hand, I hope I've helped assuage some of your self-consciousness about seeking the help you may well need.  If this doesn't apply to you, then I hope it has at least made you more mindful of the potential needs of those around you.  It's very hard to be honest about needing help in the best of circumstances, and it's almost impossible if you feel that those around you won't "get it."  Maybe you don't get it anymore now than you did before, but at least I hope you see there's something to get, and that alone is helpful.

Edit to add

You may also find it helpful to read a previous post, "On Depression."  Other readers have indicated to me that they have found it helpful to share with people around them, so they might better understand the nature of depression.


  1. I'm so glad to know you had a positive experience in what could be a shattering situation. As always, you write so thoughtfully; it's very helpful.

  2. Derek Armstrong10/12/2011 12:58 PM

    As always your writing is exceptionally well crafted and observant. However, that's just cold technical praise -- the message you share is wonderful, and I'm glad indeed that you have returned to Dr. Jekyll. Looking forward to your comments on the Avengers trailer ... ;-)

  3. Derek, thank you for the kind (if cold and technical ;-) ) praise. As I indicated in my last post, "I've Got Talent," I have been reminded of my ability to reach and help people, and I hope this post does that. As for The Avengers trailer, I still haven't watched it. I'm not quite ready to get back to casual entertainment, but as soon as I am I'll be certain to remark. (Though I think Nathan's side discussion about Scarlett Johansson is going to be hard to top.)

  4. Brenda, thank you for the encouragement. Being helpful is the most satisfying thing I can do, and it is my sincere hope that perhaps I can reach some people with this post who might need it. I know firsthand how hard it is to feel like you're in uncharted waters, and while I'm not qualified to know what lies ahead for even myself, much less anyone else, I hope that I can at least assuage some fears that the waters are navigable.

  5. I am soooo glad that you can share with us. You are an excellent writer. I lost a friend to suicide in late Aug. He checked himself into a hospital on Sun and out the next day. Went home and took his life. I often wonder why he did not reach out. But like you I too have considered this option many times and not sure what has stopped me but glad I am still here. I guess please keep sharing, you never know how many lives you saved today.

  6. I'm sorry for your loss, Larry. Why your friend never reached out, I have no way of knowing but I can tell you why I have been reluctant to reach out. It was almost impossible for me to bring myself to speak about this with anyone but my wife--and it's a testament to her and our relationship that I was able to come to her with it. With everyone else, I was afraid that they would characterize me as a drama queen of some kind, insist that I wasn't "really" depressed or that I didn't have sufficient justification for depression, that they would treat me with suspicion or derision, etc.

    Mind you, I had no real basis for any of those fears; my family and friends are generally accepting and supportive--that's why I've surrounded myself with them. But I felt like everything in my life (except my marriage) was evidence of my having been a complete failure and somehow admitting that to my family and friends would make it even worse for me. It became better to suffer in silence and then one hypothetical day to just end it rather than face them.

    You do touch on a very important point, and it's one I intend to explore further in a subsequent post but I'll go ahead and say now that one of the most important things about treatment is that you have to be honest with yourself about whether you're ready to leave it. Time and again I implored my fellow patients: "If you don't think you're ready, don't let yourself get impatient about getting out of here. Stay and get the help you came here to get."

  7. Travis,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. As depression isn't something that I've ever really had to deal with, you give a great insight into it, and that helps me relate to not only you, but other friends and family that struggle with depression.

  8. I'm not a research scientist, so I can't do anything on that front, but what I can do is try to spread awareness. Not just the "oh, this exists" kind, but a truer understanding of what it is--and this goes for depression as well as Crohn's. I'm glad you find it helpful.

  9. SO many good and valid points.

    I’ve been on both sides of depression—suffering and living with people who suffer—and am dealing with a child who has severe Anxiety/OCD, so I identified with a lot of what is said. The line, “There’s a false sense of ranking reasons…” says it all for me, although I will qualify it with this—it’s not just the person suffering who ‘ranks’ their illness alongside others and finds themselves wanting, it’s the world around them.

    I don’t know if it’s a general lack of empathy, a lack of interest or just plain old selfishness on the part of others but one of the things that drives me the craziest (heh) are the people who announce, “Well, you’re not living in Japan after the earthquake.” “Things are so much worse for people in the Middle East” “Well, at least you have food on your table!” or other sundry comparisons designed to make you feel like shit for daring to say, “pay attention to me for five seconds”.

    Yes, there is always someone in the world who is suffering more…but it is possible to acknowledge that and yet, still be “allowed” to acknowledge your own suffering and to deal with it. Yes, when you go into an ER, the Triage staff will ‘rank’ your injuries…but you will still be dealt with even if you just have a broken leg, even if someone else in the room was in a car accident. No one says, “sorry, you’re not as badly injured as those guys over by that wall—go home.”

    Too often, I encounter this attitude—if you try and talk to someone about your depression, they dismiss it as not real, you just need to “get over it”, get a dog or a cat, or pay attention to someone who is really suffering, then you will be fine. We still live in a society that views depression as something that is somehow a psychic ‘luxury’—I’ve heard people say, “Oh, I wish I had the time to be depressed.” They do not understand that they have not a clue what depression is and how it truly affects people.

  10. Arrrghh--Travis--I was trying to post as myself not as Ty in any way (hard when he accesses his accounts on my computer and all his info is there)...can you remove the previous version of my comment and I'm going to repost as little ol' me.



  11. Great post. I think the thing that stops me from getting help is that I don't think there's anything wrong with my actual brain--I think I'm depressed because I'm surrounded by depressing things--no dayjob, no income, dying cat (not dead, but supposedly in the process of), wife out of town for work from Sept-Dec), local friends always too busy to hang out, too much boring career-related busywork to do, and very little in my life that I can point to and say: this is a good thing! I'm no expert, of course, but in my past experience it's people with chemical imbalances that end up in hospitals. However, based on your post, it sounds like this conclusion isn't accurate.

    That said, I do feel that if I were to just stop reading the news, stopped trying to do something meaningful with my life, stopped trying to make the world a better place, got a crappy (but stable) job, and just focussed on being happy, I *would* be happy. Does this sound at all reasonable or accurate? I have been thinking about getting therapy for a couple months now. The only thing that has stopped me is the cost. I used to be against it, but now I think it might help me. I dunno...

    Thanks for this post, though. It's gotten me thinking.

  12. Pete,

    I'm not qualified to diagnose or treat you or anyone else, but I can tell you this much: If you feel you're depressed, you should speak with a professional about it. Don't make the mistake of thinking you're somehow not qualified to have depression problems just because you can account for what troubles you. You might want to read my post "On Depression" to get a better understanding of my insights into the nature of depression.


    I don't know what resources are available in your area, but you should be able to find someone that can help and work with you financially. I know around here there are places that will charge on a sliding pay scale based on your income. I would elaborate about how this is just one glaring inefficiency of the U.S. health care system at present, but I suspect neither of us would benefit from the diatribe. ;-)

    I've been exploring depression a lot lately in this blog, and two posts originated with reader requests so if there's something you'd like discussed that I haven't covered yet, don't hesitate to put the question to me! I'm happy to share my insights in the hopes that they will benefit someone else.