My siblings and I grew up in an emotionally abusive environment and continue to deal with the effects of that trauma. Part of my sister’s journey to health included an inpatient hospitalization last fall. Below is an interview during which she shares her story.
Can you describe how you were feeling in the months leading up to your hospitalization and what made you decide to pursue inpatient treatment?
I had had a really good year, the year before, but shortly after returning to school I suddenly snapped and my symptoms of depression and PTSD returned. It started with anxiety and panic attacks which escalated in to a constant state of hyper-vigilance. I started having thoughts of self-harm which then rapidly led to suicidal ideation. One morning I found myself standing in the kitchen in an unsafe situation. I stepped outside of my apartment, called my roommate and told her to hide anything I could hurt myself with, and then I called my counselor. My counselor told me that she did not think she or my friends could keep me safe and that I needed to go to the hospital. I had been resistant to the idea of going to the hospital because I had my friends who were my support system and I was going to counseling, so I felt like I was doing the things I was supposed to be doing and could get better on my own. I also thought that going to the hospital just meant sitting in a regular hospital bed and having people watch you, which didn’t seem particularly helpful. But for some reason, when I was talking to my counselor that day, something inside me broke and I knew I needed to go to the hospital.
What was the most difficult part of your treatment process?
Definitely the moment when I realized that I was not just going to a normal hospital floor, but to an actual psychiatric unit and that my friends would not be able to visit me all the time. My friends were what had made me feel safe, so I felt very isolated at the hospital.
What helped get you through these difficult moments and what was the most helpful part of your inpatient stay?
It helped that they had things to do on the floor – group therapy, activities, etc. – so I wasn’t just sitting there all day. I had brought a hymn book with me and sang a bunch while I was there. I also had a roommate, and there were other people there I could get to know. It was a group experience, so I wasn’t alone.
It also really helped that my brain had a break. Before, my brain had been spending so much time thinking of ways to kill myself or fighting those thoughts. At the hospital there was absolutely no way I could hurt myself and I didn’t have homework or anything else I had to do, so I was able to just focus on taking care of myself. I started on medication and got to process on my own and with others.
The whole experience was quite validating. The thing about trauma is that you tend to minimize it. “Well, it wasn’t really that bad, I should have been able to handle it.” But going to the hospital provided external validation because obviously something had happened to me or else I wouldn’t be there. It also gave me a tangible way to explain to people what I was dealing with. Not everyone has a framework for emotional abuse, but people tend to understand having a health crisis and needing to go to the hospital.
What kinds of resources did you find helpful after your discharge?
I continued to see my trauma counselor who was really great. She helped me find a psychiatrist who focuses on the whole person to make sure you’re physically, emotionally, and mentally healthy and doesn’t just focus on isolated parts of you. Before working on my trauma, I went to group therapy, which really helped me identify the subconscious messages I had been telling myself like, ‘This is all my fault,’ ‘I’m a failure,’ and ‘I deserve to be punished for this.’ These messages were really powerful. I had started having hallucinations where things came to be and told me that I had failed to kill myself, so they were here to do it for me. Cognitive behavioral therapy helped me build my sense of self and get my brain to a more stable place. And on a non-medical note, having friends who would take care of me and allow me to transition back to taking care of myself as I regained health was really helpful.
What was the most encouraging part of this whole process?
Definitely the community that surrounded me all the way through. My friends were really supportive. They encouraged me, talked with me, gave me rides to appointments, and all kinds of things. When I fell, I fell into community. They gave me a soft place to land. Not only that, but I saw how being open about my struggles helped people in the hospital, friends on campus, and even friends of friends and that was really encouraging and gave me a lot of hope.
Do you have any advice or encouragement for people going through similar experiences?
Don’t isolate yourself. It’s really easy to do so either because being with people feels like a lot of effort or because you are unsure how they’ll respond. But it’s important to talk to people you trust because that’s the only way they will know how to help. You get back up stronger when you fall but it helps when there are people there to catch you and push you back up.
One of the most helpful things I was told was that I was recovering from a life-threatening illness. I can’t be smarter than my PTSD or depression anymore than I can be smarter than my asthma no matter how much I want to be. Seeing it as an illness helped me be compassionate towards myself instead of thinking I wasn’t smart enough or good enough.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental illness or thoughts of suicide, please reach out. You can always call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text ‘Home’ to 741741. You are not alone.