I remember waking up to the sound of a sliding glass door. Through my eye lashes I saw a friend carefully taking a seat against the wall, while another stood in the corner. They were speaking in hushed tones, something about how I was sleeping in a strange position. I blinked sleep from my eyes a few times to discover I was still in my hospital bed (indeed, practically upside down), now with a searing pain in my arm which I began to rub.
“I think she said it was valium,” my friend said.
“How long was I asleep?” I asked, choking over a parched tongue.
“About seven minutes,” the other smiled.
Apparently over the last couple of days I had received multiple visitors, all of whom with I seem to have done a lot of drifting in and out of sleep; anxiety meds and tranquilizers will do that to you. Seventy two hours earlier I had been admitted to the ER for my own safety. In the morning after church, a deep, pervasive depression had started to talk me into swallowing enough pills to kill a moose. Instead of succumbing to suicidal thoughts, I threw my meds down the drain and convinced myself that maybe, if hospitalized, we could finally figure out what was wrong with me. I sought out some friends who helped me pack a bag and then drove me into Portland where I could receive some mental health care. I was embarrassed that I had to go to the hospital, even more so that I was placed on suicide watch.
I was an accomplished single girl of 24, with a career and a social life, and many dreams and ambitions. I had been struggling with severe mood swings and been in a lot of pain due to a neck injury, but generally I was known as happy and fun and put together. As we drove to the hospital, all I could think of was how I’d now be considered broken, weak, or, worst of all, unstable.
Through the big glass windows and doors (for there is no privacy on suicide watch) we saw a nurse head my direction with a wheelchair ready to go. After three long days being poked and questioned and lectured about not eating my food, my time had come and it was time to go. I assumed my two friends were there to take me home, but they seemed as surprised as I was as we walked down several corridors and into a lift, then several flights up to the psychiatric ward.
My heart sank to levels I didn’t know existed. I wasn’t being released, I was being committed.
A few tears were shed as I prepared to go through the secure doors. My friends hugged me tight and promised to come in as soon as I had finished the admission process.
“God is going to use this,” one of them said. “It’s going to help you heal. You’re strong and you’re brave.”
I distinctly remember thinking that I was neither of those things.
“If anyone can survive this, it’s you.”
Between the valium, the lights and the noise (I hadn’t left my hospital bed except to use the restroom), I was already disoriented and overwhelmed. To add surreal to the mix, the first face I saw was an old, familiar face: my best friend from grade six, the first friend that ever asked to sit and pray with me, the first friend I knew cared about me on a deeper level. She was my intake nurse. She did a double take at the chart, her eyebrows raised so high they met her hairline.
“Oh my gosh, Lozzah!” she said with a surprised smile. “Do you remember me?”
I did, and I proved it by offering our secret high five.
“How are you?” she asked, as though none of the chaos around us was happening.
“Me? Golly, I’m great! Being admitted into psych wards is just a regular run of the mill thing, you know?”
She grew very serious and then asked me some basic questions about myself, details that were pretty rote and mundane but had been somewhat tempered by all the medication that had been pumped into my system in the last 72 hours.
Once I had been issued scrubs and a bed, my two friends were allowed to see me. Neither had words for me, and I didn’t want to hear them should they have them. What was I supposed to say? My mind was numb from all the new meds but racing all the while with questions. Now that I was ‘mentally ill’ my life was over. What if I lose my job? What agency would ever send me overseas with this type of disability? How would my new diagnosis change the leadership roles I had? What if my students and colleagues found out? What man would ever take me as a wife? What friends would now distance themselves because I was now far too much baggage to deal with? And what stranger would take me as a friend or roommate when they learned I was a ‘psychopath?’ I’d be seen as fragile and weak, people would tiptoe around me. I was ruined – more ruined and broken and unfixable than I ever could have imagined. And when my tears started, there was no stopping them as I fell into a huddled clump barely able to breathe as my two friends took turns attempting to comfort me.
“Well,” one of them finally said, “like I said, we’ll get through this. I know it’s scary but, everything is going to be okay…”
From down the hall we heard a scream, a plea for help: “YOU CAN’T MAKE ME TAKE A SHOWER!”
None of us really knew how to react, so my friend continued her thought. “Well, maybe it won’t be.”
For some reason that outburst made me feel better. I was ‘messed up’ in the head, of course, but not that bad… I guess, well, if there was anyone in the world who could survive this, it certainly was not me, but I wasn’t keen to give up.
Eight days later was I sitting in the Commons of the Ward at St. V’s, tracing the rain drops as they splattered on the windows as I watched traffic bottleneck along 217 and 26. I put my face as close to the glass as it could get, desperately hiding the fact that I was crying. Even though everyone in that place was in the very bottom of the pit, we at least had the decency to care about one another’s well being. People would ask where the tears were coming from.
Several friends had come to visit me that day, and it was a joy to spend time with them and listen to their apologies that dangerous items- like crayons and my etch-a-sketch – had been confiscated. But now, tears rolling down my cheeks off and on since supper (still denied my request for caffeine), waiting my name on the med roll-call, I was the epitome of my illness. Up just a few hours ago, and now crashing down into depression that had likely not gone unnoticed and would render a few new tabs in my med regime. My evening appointment brought unwelcome news; they were not confident in releasing me.
I was angry. I had done everything right, followed all their little rules, been honest and forthright with the doctors… and they were keeping me? I felt trapped, convinced I would never be let go and would stay imprisoned in the Ward forever, broken and beyond help. I wanted to quit. My friends were wrong – I couldn’t do it. I’m not strong enough.
A girl named Sarah came over to me. She and I had talked much over the past few days. She was no longer wearing long sleeves to hide the large bandages around her wrists, and I was proud of her for that.
“They won’t let you go home?” It was more of a statement. I just shook my head which shook loose a few more tears.
“Well, for what it’s worth, I could use a friend for a few more days….” she trailed off as her name was called.
So, I guessed, that’s what I was doing in there, allowing my friends to love in hard situations, being a friend to those who have need of friends. That’s what it’s worth. But what about me? Apparently I’m not getting any better… what good am I helping others out when clearly I’m not okay?
God was pretty clear that night. “I know you are hurting. I know you are afraid. I know you are ashamed. It does not get easier. It does not get better. It will not heal. But you are brave, and you will keep going. In time you’ll learn to deal, then manage, then even have some control… and one day you will talk about it, tell your story, and people will be inspired. You will have ups and you will have downs, and some days they will be unbearable. But we will be fighting this together until the day you get a new brain. Don’t over think today. And don’t over think tomorrow. Think about right now – just you and me, and that’s okay.”
I heard my name called for med roll. I wanted to ignore them. I wanted to skip meds and appointments and hide in the corner until real peanut butter was delivered. But I knew somehow that God wouldn’t like that very much. So I went, and I took my pills and turned around to find Sarah.
“You know, people think we’re in here because we lack courage to live out life. But, if you think about it,” she said, “it takes an awful lot of courage to trust in medication.”
“Some trust in chariots and soldiers, others in Depakote and… Xanax?” I said.
“I’m proud of you for taking them, I know you didn’t want to.” I didn’t bother asking how she knew. “Don’t worry about today’s appointment. Just focus on the rest of the evening. Ten minutes at a time, remember?”
Remember. Yes. She was quoting me.
For eleven days I sat in my pajamas and counted ten minutes at a time.
I complained about being put on a decaf coffee regiment, colored pictures in art therapy, read my Bible, and learned how the game was played. Each day I had several visitors, and that gave me some hope that people weren’t going to abandon me now that I had the stigma of “mental illness’ tattooed on my forehead.
When I was released there was a big to-do about what was to be done with me. I probably shouldn’t live alone, it was decided, and a good many decisions I made were always under scrutiny. I grew tired quickly of being treated like I might fall apart any second, wished people would stop asking me how I was doing, and I tried to go about the business of learning how to manage my new diagnosis of bipolar with medication, therapy, and a whole bucket of stigma.
Ten years later, I’m generally open about my disorder. I’ve learned to talk about it in terms others can identify with, and those who have grown with me have learned how to support and encourage me better. I’ll discuss medication (generally avoiding talking publicly about lithium in case it was featured in last night’s crime dramas). I’m guarded on the topic of seeing a shrink, even more so when I mention trauma therapy that involves electrical impulses, and seldom mention serious symptoms that occasionally surface. Between my job, my ministry, and my desire for a love life, I’d be stupid to mention the scary parts of both mania and depression that I battle. I feared greatly that the detectives who did my background investigation would learn of my big secret and it would bar me from my dream job. I usually refrain from ever mentioning that I was hospitalized unless I can paint it as a routine hospitalization for surgery or some other condition.
I understand and maintain that the experience changed my life… saved my life, really… and put me on a path of recovery.
But there’s a feeling of real vulnerability and almost humiliation that comes from admitting you were admitted.
My cheeks burn with embarrassment and shame when I’m asked about scars or side effects. And though I’ve learned it’s okay to confide in friends when I am wrestling with symptoms of my disorder, I feel very weak and broken in the fact that I still have symptoms, that I require medication, that I have to see a doctor, and that hospitalization is in my bag of treatment options if the need were to ever arise again.
I’ve realized over time, though, that all of these things, the stint in the ward and the meds and the doc, even my disorder, they don’t make me weak.
They make me brave.
Brave enough to face fears that had been locked away deep in my mind; brave enough to try new things and meet new people even if it means stigma; brave enough to keep trusting that God will give me the desires of my heart; brave enough to whether long, dark nights of the soul or the frightening, dizzying heights of a manic fever; brave enough to undergo the humiliation of having everything stripped away and your fate put into the hands of a few tiny pills that may or may not work. Brave enough to trust God when there seems to be no hope, no solution, no way out but one that involves pain and loneliness.
And I did trust God. As you read my story, of my time in the hospital, you must understand that it’s also a story of God’s heart swelling with pride as He watched his now diagnosed ‘mentally ill’ daughter clench her fists and say through her teeth “I will not let this hold me back.”
Battling Bipolar and PTSD requires of me a strength and trust that can only come from God, and it demands courage to trust that God will provide that strength. In the times I feel weak, belittled by my condition, set back because I must work so hard to stay healthy and thrive, I remember that my weakness and feebleness draws me to rely on the promises of Christ, and that through Him, then, I have the strength to conquer anything, even eleven days of nothing but decaf coffee and synthetic peanut butter and wondering who in the dining hall is afraid to take a shower.
He makes me mighty as I fight my disorder.
He makes me brave.