I’m making a gutsy move here, guys.
I’m letting you in on a huge part of my journey.
If I’m honest, it’s easier for me to think of strangers or friends or classmates reading this than it is to accept that my family reads it, but maybe that’s because they were primarily the ones that had to watch me go through it.
Anyway, this year, it feels right for me to share at least a part of it...
I did a bible study with my girls tonight from 2 Corinthians, where Paul talks about bragging about our weaknesses, for it is in our shortcomings that Christ’s power is the most evident (paraphrased, Julia-bible).
A lot of people don’t like it when others are honest about their struggles. Mental illness is a highly personal, immensely judgmental, increasingly difficult thing to talk about.
I share these memories not to say, “Look what I went through. Feel sorry for me!” or “Look what I’ve done. Congratulate me for being so strong!” …I share them because it’s part of what has made me who I am. It’s why I make a point of always being available to listen. It’s a good portion of why I’m the Julia that you all know (and I presume some of you love :).
I share this to say,
“I’m not a perfect person, but I believe in a Really Great God
…pull up a chair and let me share some of the dark corners of my heart
that He’s helping me bring light to.”
So now, for family, friends, classmates, peers, and the occasional stranger, here’s an extremely cut down, choppy, edited version of some of the things I remember from three years ago.
*** [I have intentionally left out things like the specifics of why I was hospitalized or identifying details of others that I met. If you have a valid reason for wanting to know these things, just ask.]
Three years ago, on a Wednesday night at the end of October, I was admitted to Forest View Psychiatric Facility.
Being in Forest View was exhausting, terrifying, traumatizing, draining, and humiliating.
It was also healing, empowering, refreshing, strengthening, and completely necessary.
I’ve forgotten a lot of the names and specific instances.
I’ve forgotten a lot of the conversations and specific stories.
I’ve forgotten a lot of the individual details, but not all of the experience as a whole.
Some things still stick out:
Gordon was my case manager. He also led my two most memorable group therapy sessions: paint chips and drumming. I use the paint chip exercise to this day, both for myself and for the girls on my floor at school. The gist of the exercise is sorting through piles of paint chips and picking one that describes, both in name and color, our emotional selves in that moment or a greater aspect of our personality. That day my color was a dusty reddish-brown called “Barn” because it was a bold color, strong, passionate, but somehow muted and worn down, and it reminded me of one of my favorite smells and the sense of earthiness, comfort, and home I felt there: barns.
We also threw together a therapeutic drumming circle for one of our group sessions. This sounds really sweet, but let’s just say our resources were lacking… Gordon pulled some strings to get the kitchen staff to save their cottage cheese containers and our drums were cheap plastic tubs. I’m sure it was a sight to see for the staff, all of us sitting in a circle pounding on empty cottage cheese containers, but it taught us all something far beyond drumming and rhythm. It taught us that sometimes the things that are best for us are laughter and community instead of fancy treatments and different doses of expensive medications.
Doctor Van Haren sticks with me to this day, mostly because he pisses me off. For a good while after I was released I blocked his name and face completely from my memory. I remember it came back to me all of a sudden, a flashback completely unlooked for. Some of the things that man said to me are burned on my heart, day in and day out. I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach when, after googling the treatment types I had received at FVH, I stumbled back on his name and photo. I’m sure he had his moments of almost redeeming qualities, but I don’t remember them, even in the slightest.
Things I remember the guy saying to me and/or to other kids: “You don’t look like an eating disorder patient.” “You gained weight (since you went home), and that’s not good.” Every new aspect of a patient’s journey that came to his attention was met with a sort of smirk and an, “Oh, I don’t think I knew that.” “You don’t think you’re actually going home yet, do you?”
He is a part of the reason I’m studying Social Work. He is a part of the reason that I’m determined to work in the helping profession. I don’t want to go the medical route, because I don’t want people to become a compilation of symptoms that I need to be resolved. I don’t want to fix people. I want to be for others the things that he was not for me. I want to be on treatment teams with genuine people. I want to look at each client holistically. That man, in his rude and hurtful actions, has inspired me, and, in an odd way, I’m very thankful for that.
I have long forgotten their names and faces and many of the stories that go alongside them, but I remember facets of two of the nurses:
I remember one of the interns. In many nursing, and I guess psychological and social work, programs, students are given the opportunity to rotate through various types of treatment. I came into contact with countless temporary interns. One of them was different from the others… she didn’t treat us differently. To most, we were dangerous; we were sick and broken and defective and needed our emotional space. I don’t blame them; we were an intimidating bunch. This one was different, though… she listened to us. She asked us how we were doing, and she wanted real answers. She didn’t tread on eggshells or shy away from interacting with us. She was our favorite when it came to guided relaxation. We’d all pack up our blankets and pillows (and when she took us, stuffed animals were allowed, too, if we hid them from the adults in the ward we had to walk through :). When she read the exercises from the book (yeah, they were tacky, imaginative pieces that had us pretend we were at the beach or in the forest…anything to get us to relax and get our minds off of where we were), her voice didn’t waver. She spoke clearly and softly and treated us like genuine, intrinsically good, and relatable human beings.
The other nurse…I don’t remember much about her. She worked the main desk in the adolescent unit. She was one of the first faces I saw when I came in the first night. She talked girls through panic attacks, dissociative episodes, and flashbacks when we couldn’t sleep. When I fell apart the day the show I was student directing was opening, she was the one who set me up with a pen, paper, and a little bit of space to breathe. She was a sweetheart. I guess the nurses had a discussion when my release paperwork was pending about how they never planned on seeing me again. She was the one that disagreed. Something along the lines of… “I said we’d see you again, years down the road. You’ll come back walking through these doors someday, but as staff. You’ll be back.” I don’t have specific plans to go back there, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find myself in adolescent inpatient therapy again.
I remember on Halloween the staff threw a little party for us. Some of the nurses had gone out and bought candy and little gifts for us and put them into bags. That was how I got to be an expert on making play dough roses. We watched Coraline, ate popcorn, and drank orange pop (and the pop was a big deal; no carbonation, caffeine, or sugary drinks were allowed otherwise). I remember the really warm smiles from the nurses when they realized that the eating disorder girl was eating additional snacks that weren’t mandated.
Early mornings sucked. You have very little concept of time that early in the morning and specifics fail my memory, so there’s no way of knowing for sure what time we had to get up. I had to have blood work done every other or every third morning…by halfway through both of my arms were black and blue. The phlebotomist said she did me first every time because I was the least hostile that early…which must have been saying something, because I wasn’t exactly thrilled. Lights came on and a sickeningly pleasant voice of “bloodwork!’ meant that I had to wake up and my roommate rolled over in her sleep.
Goals were the first thing every morning. We got a piece of paper we had to fill out with an inventory of our moods (suicidal / homicidal / depressed / panic attack / food intake or cravings / etc. [and yes, there were people that admitted to each of these things every day]). Then we had to establish a goal for the day, a tangible, concrete action that we’d have to show at the end of the day. My first day’s goal was just to process the emotions of the day. I journaled an awful lot that day. Other goals I accomplished was a letter to someone who had walked out of my life because I was ‘too sick’ when I entered the hospital, coming up with lists of motivating factors for while I was in the hospital, reasons to recover, and things to do after my discharge. I think I still have a few of those papers somewhere. (I spy an activity for over Thanksgiving break!)
A lot of the other kids thought I was a teen mom. They swore that I had a child. I guess I was more mature than the expected of me. “You’re so mature, I just figured you had to have a kid.” They never asked me directly, they just assumed that I had a child. I remember that it took a little bit of convincing in the gym one day for them to believe that. That’s one of the things I can look back and laugh about.
There are random things that remind me of the hospital. …smells primarily, but also random things like playdough and the song “Good Feeling” by FloRida send me back just as fast. I wasn’t one for much pop music, so I didn’t hear the song for a good while afterword. The first few times I heard it, it threw me into an anxiety attack. It became hard to breathe, and I even had to walk out of my homecoming the freshman year of college because the song started blasting. Now it’s a song I have on my running playlist, because it reminds me of how strong I’ve become.
While I was inpatient, visits were some of my favorite, as well as some of my least favorite things. Being locked inside 99.5% of the time was isolating. No fresh air, no breeze. Ten minute maximums on phone use, and only at designated times, made it even lonelier.
I think it was the normalcy of these visits that was the most comforting to me. It wasn’t until my second week that we were even allowed to step outside, and even then we were walled in by building on three sides and a high chain link fence on the fourth. The space was maybe 20 by 20 feet, all concrete, with a picnic table chained to the ground on one end. Having visitors come was the equivalent to breaths of fresh air.
…so every year, I let myself spend a couple of weeks remembering.
I don’t ever want to forget the journey that I’ve taken to get to where I am today…and it took being hospitalized three years ago for me to realize that it’s something I never, ever want to have to do again.