TW: mental illness, psychiatric hospitals, suicidal ideation
(It's a good news story mostly though. I promise.)
Today stenches of significance and the passing of time. On this day a year ago, I was admitted into a psychiatric hospital in Melbourne. I'd never been in hospital before, but I had found myself at the end of a tether, the end of a line, and unbeknownst to me, the start of wellness.
To celebrate the occasion I bought myself a cake and a hat and nearly lit myself on fire in my bedroom (again). I'm slightly embarrassed by how much it means to me, but if I think there's anything worth celebrating, it's fighting the demons in your head every day and turning your brain into your friend. As many of you will know, that shit is hard.
Lately though, my brain and I have been bickering. I've been trying to stave of a chest infection for the past three weeks, and whenever I'm physically ill my mental health often suffers too. It's why I've been absent lately (apologies if you've been trying to get in contact). When I get like this I just want to be really small and quiet. Alone, but not alone. With someone to bring food and water and a cold flannel for my forehead. Perhaps because on the inside I feel so expansive and loud, like an old town hall, with thoughts echoing off walls and then back into each other to form a cursed echo chamber. I don't like the noise, but maybe if I get really, really small and don't do much, it will settle down enough to let me think.
I feel a bit anxious writing this, and even more so going through it, because it mimics so perfectly what was happening for me a year ago when I got the flu and gastro and found some new ways that I felt I'd irreparably ruined my life and found myself in the Sad Zoo. But I know the game and I know that the fear of relapse calls it to you. And now I'm pretty good at the game so I stand adamant that THIS IS NOT THE SAME THING. I am at once in the same place and in a different place. The road is never truly traveled the same way twice.
I shy away from opening up when I'm not on top, which might sound ridiculous as I tend to focus on what most people would put in the "not on top" category of human experiences. Not for shame or embarrassment however, but because I know that on the other side, reading this, it can be awkward hearing about someone's not so great time when they're still in the mire.
That being said, I think that we should be able to talk about the thing as it happens, not just from either side of it. And because it's relevant to what's going on for me right now I thought today was a good day to talk about some golden nuggets I found whilst in hospital, including but not limited to:
1. Exercise is good for you
2. It's okay to ask for help
3. Elderly patients rarely eat the free cheese so you can steal theirs when your ward is out
Every weekday in hospital there was a full timetable of hour-long sessions on different topics like "Mind Boosting Activities!", "Living with Psychosis" and "Come and try cooking Lentils & Veg. Pasta with Diane". In my second week there, I happened upon a session called "Wellness: A personal perspective". It was run by Frank*, the consumer consultant (whatever the fuck that is), a well-spoken 60-something year old man whose intelligence and rigour reminded me of one of my favourite school teachers. He had been admitted to the hospital about ten years prior and at that time was so unwell he could only see in black and white. He stayed there for six months. He is now the consumer consultant, which as it turns out, is the guy who tells the hospital whether they are doing a good job, and runs classes like the one I found myself in, talking about recovery from someone who's been there.
And herein I discovered the most precious, well-polished nugget I received during my stay, this piece of paper about recovery patterns.
As you can see, unlike the recovery curve for physical illness, where most people regain 85% of function in three months, mental illness looks more like an aggravated MC Escher staircase than any progressive wellness. Because of this, it makes it a hard road, and turns pitfalls into chasms, and sits the fear of relapse like a tennis umpire, always looming over.
Frank handed us all the unsuspecting chart above, and talked about how people get better, and how better looks really different to everyone, particularly if you're battling a disobedient brain compared to a disobedient hamstring.
For a lot of people I know, myself included, the drunk MC Escher line is what recovery looks like. I would love it to look like that smooth, neat little curve, where it's only 3 months to 85% of full capacity. I would even love it just to look like that first graph, two steps forward, one step back, but still linear and predictable. But sadly, it is what it is, and the all-over-the-place job seems to be where I'm placed; where betterment is far from consistent, but rather is a process of continual acceptance, survival and everyday grunt work.
What's important is that it does, overall, get better. Knowing this and keeping perspective is key to recovery. It's why I always advise people to get a mood journal and fill it out religiously (I suggest the iMood Journal app as it's very simple and quick) as it helps you to see everything as a whole, gives you perspective, and helps you understand that the only thing that is consistent is change.
This chart though, the knowledge of not just what better looks like, but how better looks, this is why right now, even though I'm not great, I am okay. It is important to be able to be just okay, otherwise there isn't anything in between great and awful, and that's a hard turn; a cursed act of sublimation no one wants in their repertoire.
Some days I am angered by my need to know and understand these things, thinking there are many other ways I'd like to spent my hard earned mental energy. Yet sometimes fruits come from turning infertile soil, and one thing that comes from accepting this graph, and the nature of recovery and healing itself, is the ability to extrapolate that out to other aspects of your life. It has helped me understand the potency of time, the healing quality of patience, and that faith in small steps over time can create something heartbreakingly beautiful, like a life worth living.
There's another small thing I want to share with you that keeps me okay. It's a poem I stumbled upon in therapy by Rainer Maria Rilke. He knows that some days are survival days and that it's okay to just be okay, or to not be okay.
It sits here, atop my computer screen, with my primary school photo haunting it in the background.
I'm not one for tattoos (I have none), even though I am one for commitment (I was engaged once), but I've thought long and hard about getting "no feeling is final" scarred on me somewhere. What's stopped me is the fear that in doing so I'll just make it a "thing that is on me" rather than a "thing that has saved my life". I don't want it diluted. I want to be able to move it when it gets routine, to keep it fresh for the long haul.
May you be able accept life in whatever form it's coming to you now, knowing that it won't be that way forever.
- HE x
And as always, if you or someone you care about is having a rough time, please call a crisis line. Lifeline is my go to, they're good people.
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*Name has been changed