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.

Wrong.

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.