I came across a picture that I took when I was in a Psychiatric Clinic this time last year. I remember that picture vividly: I was lying on a bench in the garden, looking up at the sky through the branches of this magnificent tree with the most intricate details on its bark, and I was reading my book – Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama. In that moment, I felt small and insignificant and I remember that I kept on telling myself that I will be okay, that I shouldn’t be so hard on myself because only I know my own journey. (I ended up posting this on Facebook and it showed up as one of those “On this day one year ago” things and for the first time I actually appreciated that function. I appreciated seeing how far I’ve come, how much things have changed, how much better they are now).
I got some bad news last week, news that shook me and made me question my friendships, made me wonder who I can trust, made me question myself and my attitude to relationships and friendships. This little reminder with its cliche’d caption (“Don’t be so hard on yourself for only you know your own journey.”) made me feel a bit better. This all started one year ago when I spent three weeks in said Psychiatric Clinic.
I ended up in the clinic because of a suicidal episode. I don’t remember how many of those I had prior to my admission, but that was not my first, it just happened to be the worst. I got admitted to this facility on a Friday evening, fully expecting to be discharged by the Monday morning so that I could study for my final exams. Hah! I ended up being in there for three weeks.
My first night was confusing. I got to the clinic and immediately saw a person smiling and waving at me. This is where internal biases creep in: I thought to myself “Oh shit, what have I gotten myself into? I’m just a little bit depressed, not insane!” I immediately despised myself for thinking that because that sort of thinking is exactly the reason why the stigma surrounding psychiatric institutions still exist. It did not help that I had to empty my bags, hand in anything that could potentially cause harm (including my anti-perspirant which was in a glass bottle – thanks, Nivea!) and then immediately walked into a room with someone sobbing uncontrollably about how (s)he did not want to be there. Honestly, I was pretty terrified. Don’t get me wrong, the nurses, doctors and staff were lovely and I met some amazing people in the clinic, but I was terrified. I was worried about what my family and friends would think if they knew where I was, so I told only a few people. I did not want visitors, so I asked the few people who knew where I was to tell little white lies, to tell anyone who asked about my whereabouts that I was just really busy preparing for exams.
I came around quickly enough. When we go through truly dark times, we need care. We need someone to look after us, to protect us from the world, to be there for us. I got a new psychiatrist, I tried out new drugs and I spent a lot of time in therapy. I had people waking me up, making sure that I ate and making sure that I took my medication on time. I spent my free hours building puzzles, reading books and accepting some visitors. I spent my time cultivating friendships with people who were as hurt and lonely as I was, people who knew exactly how I felt.
Mental illnesses are horrible in that they are isolating. It is difficult to understand just how broken someone can feel when nothing works. When friends try, but they don’t succeed, when sleeping numbs the feelings of emptiness and inadequacy, but only temporarily, when people seem to be living on three hours of sleep every night and succeeding, but somehow this cannot be done by yourself. For months, I barely slept. I was exhausted, I got at most three hours of restless sleep every night. In this clinic, I got enough sleep to feel human again. I could play 30 seconds (and dominate, if I do say so myself), I could read and retain information, I could do puzzles, have conversations, feel normal. It helps so much to be in a safe space.
One of the problems with mental illness is that there is no blanket solution. The medication that works for one person might not work for another. I could not sleep, some people sleep too much. I tried out some strong sleeping pills and new anti-depressants which really helped. That does not work for everyone. For many people it takes multiple tries before something works, only for it to stop working after a while and the whole process to be repeated. I was fortunate that I have only had to change my medication three times in about two years because for many people it is so much worse. Typically it takes about three weeks for psychiatric meds to start working, so that means that for at least three weeks, there is severe depression or insomnia or suicidal ideation or whatever symptom comes to mind, if the medication works. If not, this can go on for much longer. Being in a controlled environment, in a clinic, is so much safer. Nurses monitor the patients’ progress, there is regular interaction with a psychiatrist and with psychologists. This is a much less dangerous process than having to change medication alone.
Being admitted to a psychiatric clinic literally saved my life. I am not saying that things were easy once I left. I had to face the real world again, I had to interact with people who did not understand, I felt isolated and inferior again, but being in that clinic was like a reboot. I now know the warning signs, I know when I am slipping, I know when I am having a panic attack and how to deal with it, I know when to seek serious professional help. I have had to do that twice since I left the clinic, most recently about a month and a half ago, but in a year, I have not been suicidal. Severely depressed, yes, but never to a point of wanting to take my own life. That, to me, is a win, especially considering how much of a roller coaster this year has been.
I keep on getting compliments on how happy I look. I don’t know how true that is. I am happy, but I also know that what most people see is the image of happiness, it is not the panic attacks, the self-doubt, the anger and frustration, the scared little girl. For the most part, however, I am better and getting better every day. I am recovering, I am reading, learning, standing up for myself and developing into a stronger woman.
I realise how fortunate I was to have had medical aid that would cover three weeks in a clinic. Most South Africans do not have that ‘luxury’. I was so frustrated when I realised that I had to pay for my medication and therapy sessions in cash because my new medical aid did not cover them. That’s R500 per month for the medication alone. I am so privileged and fortunate that I can afford that. I don’t know how much worse things would have been if I had to choose between food and medication.
This is why mental health issues are never treated correctly, why we have students failing and dropping out, why we have mothers who suffer from post-natal depression and loathe themselves for not feeling connected to their babies, why we have crime and unemployment. I am so fortunate and eternally grateful.
Please, with the festive season approaching, donate to a mental health facility, donate to a children’s home, donate to a women’s shelter, donate to a rape counselling service. Choose one and run with it, but try to help. Mental illness is isolating, even for the privileged like myself, so imagine how much worse it is for the less privileged.
Lastly: don’t be so hard on yourself for only you know your own journey.