For Sadie’s naptime today, I had really wanted to also crawl into bed and take a nap. But as I sat rocking her to sleep just now, this blog post pulled and lunged at my chest the entire time, so here I am.
I’m doing it.
Braver versions of me have wanted to write this post for a long time, but the shame has always been too great, so I haven’t.
A friend of mine who shall remain nameless and detail-less called me a few days ago and said: “I just got out of the mental hospital and I have No idea what do or how to feel and I only know of one person that has been through this before and that’s you. Can you give me some advice?”
We talked for a long while, and I listened to all of her post-mental-hospital dilemmas with a heavy heart and a ready smile.
I am proof that there IS life after a mental illness hospitalization, and I also know how Incredibly hard it is to be a human, or to feel like a human, after the experience.
I reassured her that 1 in 3 Canadians experiences a mental illness in their lifetime, which statistically means there are far more people in her life that may have experienced a hospitalization other than just me, but when I got off the phone, that fact started to really grate on me.
We have the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, which has gotten a lot of people normalizing their experiences of mental illness on various social media platforms. We have some really wonderful human resource professionals in larger and/or more progressive companies that are equipped to handle employees’ mental illness concerns and help guide their conversations with employees/employers following a mental illness event, such as a hospitalization or extended leave of absence. I’ve recently seen billboards all along the highway demonstrating scenes of two people in various contexts (boss/worker, husband/wife, middle-age lady/friend) discussing mental health concerns with a tagline that says “Mental Health: Every Action Counts.”
These are all REALLY wonderful initiatives, and they’re starting to pave the way to ending mental illness stigmatization, but I am one of the Most outgoing, heart on my sleeve, share a shitty experience with anyone if I think it can help them type person I know-
And it’s been over 5 years now, and I Still Can’t Talk About My Time in The Mental Hospital.
That’s how bad it was.
So this- what I’m about to write- is for my friend. And for anyone who might find themselves in this situation in the future. And for anyone who Has been in this situation before and might find comfort in knowing that someone else received the same inhumane treatment while hospitalized. This is for you. But really, it’s for anyone to read, and anyone to share. If we’re going to normalize mental illness, people need to hear these things, talk about them freely, and not be ashamed.
I was hospitalized 5.5 years ago, in May of 2015.
I was in a very manic phase of my bipolar, and my friends were scared.
I was very hyper, super social, spending money frivolously, unable to sit down or stay still.
I had recently come back from a trip to the Dominican Republic, where I had had an allergic reaction to Dominican sand fleas and been treated with prednisone in a Dominican hospital.
I had returned to Canada and had been telling these friends I could see the bugs traveling under my skin and that I had rented a hotel room downtown because I knew the fleas were all over my apartment and I needed to get away from them for the night.
Clearly, I was not in my right mind.
The girls were scared. They didn’t know how to help me. I’m not sure of their end of the details, but someone apparently Googled or asked a friend who knew mental health things, what they would have to do or say to get me committed to a hospital.
I had invited these friends to a pub I loved in Kensington that night for drinks and steak sandwiches, and had invited them to my hotel room downtown after.
They arrived at the pub in Kensington. We had some drinks. I buzzed around wildly. At some point, I went to the bathroom.
When I stepped out of the bathroom stall, there were three uniformed police officers standing in the very small ladies bathroom.
I asked if everything was okay, were my friends okay?
The two male officers asked the female if she was comfortable taking me, and when she nodded, they left.
She asked if I was okay stepping outside with her. I said ‘certainly.’
When we walked out, I saw the two male officers comforting my three friends. They were all in tears.
I had no idea what was going on.
The officer asked if I was okay getting in the back of her car so she could ask me some questions. I said ‘of course.’
She told me that my friends had called in, saying that I had invited them to my hotel room downtown that night to party, but that when they left, I was going to kill myself.
I burst out laughing, it was so absurd.
I apologized to the officer and said I had no such intentions.
I explained that I had a history of episodes of severe depression and that when depressed, I definitely thought of suicide, but at this point in my life I was quite happy with how my life was going and I had zero plans to end my life.
She explained that even though I had said that, she was obligated under the Mental Health Act to take me to the nearest hospital with an opening in psychiatric emergency, and that the officials there would make the decision.
She was very kind and just doing her due diligence, so I wasn’t mad at her at all. Plus- I was already in the back of her squad car, so what choice did I have?
She brought me into the Peter Lougheed Hospital and transferred me into the ‘care’ of psychiatric emerg.
Please- for the sake of this story as it unfolds now- pretend that this was you.
You came into emerg willingly. Though shocked and confused as to how you had gone from enjoying a steak sandwich and a drink at a bar with your friends, to the back of a cop car to a hospital, you came willingly and obligingly.
Now the police officer hands you to a security guard who orders you to strip.
He hands you a flimsy gown, the blue, worn cotton kind with the ties in the back.
You emerge in your flimsy gown.
He orders you to hand over your clothes.
He instructs you to remove your favorite necklace, the one you like to swing back and forth on its chain when you’re anxious, like now.
He tells you to take off your ring, the one you haven’t been without in years.
He tells you to hand over your cellphone.
You tell him that no one knows you’re here. Your sister, your stepmom. Your Mom, your Dad. No one has a clue you’re even in here. Can you please quickly call just one of them?
No! He barks. Give me your phone- NOW.
He directs you to an area that reminds you of a bad animal shelter. Concrete. Cold. Grey. Plexiglass. Pens. Three cages, for humans.
He tells you to step into one of the three rooms and wait for a doctor.
When you enter, the door bolts behind you.
It’s now 11 pm. No one knows you’re here. You’re cold. You’re basically naked. The room is freezing. There are no sheets or pillows or blankets on the ‘bed’ in the centre of the room. Let’s be honest- the ‘bed’ is a slab of cold metal. It looks like a slab you would see in a morgue.
You notice there are stains all around the base of it. Blood? Urine?
The walls are grey. Cold. You step closer and see that there are more stains on these walls. Bloody fingerprints. Scratches made by fingernails that etch out phrases like ‘Welcome to Hell’ and ‘Satan lives here.’
You need to pee. There is nowhere to pee in this cell.
You knock on the door.
No one hears you.
You knock again.
You begin to wonder if you might pee down your legs.
You bang as hard as you can.
The same security guard finally hears you. Stomps down the hall and asks ‘WHAT?’ through the Plexiglass.
You hop foot to foot and point to your privates.
He opens the door. Motions for you to follow him. Leads you to a bathroom.
As you slip inside, he says ‘Leave the door open.’
He doesn’t watch, you don’t think, but for the first time, you realize that you are now a criminal.
It doesn’t matter that three hours ago, you were a warm body, wearing its own clothes, smiling and eating a sandwich at a pub- here you are. Stripped of your clothes. All of your possessions. Shoved into a cell, guarded by someone with handcuffs, and can’t be trusted to pee with the door closed.
And for What?
Being a human.
Being a human with a mental illness.
I waited in that terrible cell and got interviewed by two psychiatrists over the course of the next 8 hours.
Under the Mental Health Act, a person can be detained against their will if two psychiatrists agree that that person is a danger to themselves or to others. When those two psychiatrists sign the form, the person is thereby ‘formed’ and shuttled up to the unit reserved for mental illness.
I came in around 10 pm to that awful holding cell and was formed somewhere around 8 in the morning.
The porter who comes to get you from that awful cell doesn’t tell you that you were formed. They tell you they’re taking you upstairs for further medical testing, and then they tell you to get into the wheelchair.
I didn’t need a wheelchair, but I was just so glad to be freed from that awful cell, I would have gone anywhere.
The pleasant wheelchair pusher chatted with me all the way up the elevators and onto the unit, where they buzzed me in through three sets of giant, locked doors.
I had no idea that I would, involuntarily, spend the next 30 days of my life on that unit.
Over the next 30 days, other people got to decide what I was allowed. For example, for the first 12 days of my stay, I was not allowed access to fresh air.
As someone who, in my manic phase, copes with the excess energy racing around my brain by running and rollerblading long distances, this was perhaps an even greater blow than my initial incarceration.
In the place of exercise and fresh air, I got incarceration and Copious amounts of sedatives.
I had hoped that maybe while on the unit, I would get some group therapy. Maybe get to leave the unit for a cooking class or an art class? Nope. I didn’t get access to those either.
I found pamphlets around the unit detailing a process by in which people held there involuntarily could have access to a lawyer and could argue for their early release.
On day 15 of my stay, my trial was held. A boardroom table full of people who didn’t know me got to read my medical files, hear me speak for 2 minutes, and decide if I needed another 15 days.
When we lost the trial, my lawyer said that I was the closest he’s ever come to a win on a mental health trial, and that we had only lost by one vote.
He apologised for the loss and handed me my medical files that had been used for the trial (which I’m 99% certain was illegal- as he instructed me to hide the thick binder under the clothes in my laundry basket).
When I reviewed it later, a nurse with a rather poor command of English had written on day 11: “Patient believes she has no oxygen in her body.” I remembered the moment I had spoken with her precisely. I had said “depriving people of oxygen is a sure way to make them crazier.”
When a room full of doctors reads that the patient believes her body contains no oxygen, clearly that patient isn’t going to win their vote.
In total, I spent 30 days of my life there.
I met some wonderful people on the unit. I had some wonderful friends visit the unit.
I got copious amounts of heavy sedatives to knock my ass flat and bring my chemicals down from their manic high.
And finally, I got out.
On the day of my release, I told No One.
I put back on the clothes and the jewellery that were taken from me. I used my confiscated cellphone to call exactly no one, and I walked home.
I lived 14 kilometres from the PLC Hospital and I walked every single kilometre away from that hospital, by myself.
I was Free.
I felt the sun on my face and the breeze in my hair in a way that I had never truly appreciated before.
And then I had dilemmas, much like my friend is facing now.
Where do you tell people you’ve been? How do explain your absence?
What do you say to your boss? Your coworkers? Your friends?
And then bigger dilemmas.
Can this happen again? Will this happen again?
How can I avoid Ever going back to that Hell?
And so it has been 5.5 years from when I was eating a sandwich in a pub and then suddenly incarcerated, because of a lie that my friends told. It’s been 5.5 years since I’ve had all my rights and freedoms stripped away from me. It’s been 5.5 years since a group of people in a hospital setting got the right to treat me like a criminal because I have a chemical imbalance in my brain.
I still find it Very hard to trust people. I find it Especially hard to trust people professionally, because the people that called me in were my work friends. I find it Very hard to live with my bipolar heart on my sleeve like I truly wish I could, because at any point in time, no matter how hard I’ve worked to stay on my meds, eat healthy, stay in touch with my psychiatrist, keep accountability with Ryan- someone could, at any point, call in to the police and say that I want to kill myself, and all of my rights and freedoms can be stripped away from me again. This is a Very hard probability to live with, and I shouldn’t have to live that way.
I wish that mental illness was treated like cancer.
You get to walk into the hospital yourself and keep your clothes on. Come sit in this nice comfy chair. I’ll put a heated-up hospital blanket on you and ask you where it hurts. I’ll offer you a glass of water. You can take your meds and cozy up on that chair, knowing you’re in good hands.
You can call your friends and tell them where you are. They won’t be afraid to visit. They’ll be tender and treat you with empathy when they visit. They might not understand what having cancer feels like, but they don’t have to. They just have to know that you’re unwell and it’s not a happy time for you. They’ll bring cards and flowers from the office.
The cards will say: “Thinking of you” and “Get well soon.”
And you will.