I Reread The Journal I Kept On The Psych Ward To Remind Me What I Learned There

I chronicled my experience in the hospital like it was some sort of anthropological experiment. (Trigger warning for discussion of suicidal ideation.)
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Laura Stokes
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I chronicled my experience in the hospital like it was some sort of anthropological experiment. (Trigger warning for discussion of suicidal ideation.)

Image Credit: Abbe Macbeth

Image Credit: Abbe Macbeth

I hadn’t read the journal I kept while on the psych ward until just recently.

In 2006, I was hospitalized after a major depressive episode after months of sleep deprivation, daily panic attacks and extreme stress provoked by the end of a relationship. Although I was living in New York City, my parents removed me to New Hampshire for hospitalization and I was there for two weeks.

I came home when my employer insinuated very strongly that my job wouldn’t be waiting for me if I took any more time off. I wasn’t ready and I stumbled through the next year, slowly rebuilding my life and my sanity.

Over the last seven years, I’ve done a lot of hard work on myself. I’ve gone back to therapy many times, changed my career, started a family and moved to another city. In many ways, my life is unrecognizable compared to the one I led back then. But I know that kind of depression could happen again. I live with that knowledge -- I sit with it daily, and it keeps me humble.

Recently, after my son was born, I made the decision to go back on medication. I felt like the hormonal adjustment after pregnancy was leading me back into old patterns, and I wanted to nip things in the bud before they got dangerous. The calm and rational way I made that decision was in such stark contrast to the wild, desperate and chaotic process of my hospitalization in 2006.

But I still wept when I took the first pill -- some of those feelings of failure came back to me again. It made me think about that part of my life again and I finally felt ready to read my journal.   

I worked backwards through it, figuring it was better to ease myself into the worst of it slowly. One of the first passages I discovered was an attempt to reconstruct the day I had tried to commit suicide, written several months after the fact.

In this passage, I’m trying to capture a moment in Central Park where I snapped, after spending the day unable to find a psychiatrist who was accepting new patients. I was in despair -- I knew I needed medication, but I was too scared to go to an emergency room alone. I felt like no one in my life really understood how serious this was, and every day I felt more and more of myself unraveling. Here’s what I wrote:

Finally, a voice in my head said to me, "It’s okay. You made a really good effort here. But you can give up now. Just let go." I decided to die. It was a strange moment because my surroundings were so at odd with that -- middle of the day, kids playing, traffic on 5th Avenue. I remember the color leeching from everything, my vision clumping up around the edges, and so much pain in my head that I felt like I would faint. I blinked and found myself in another place -- home. I have no memory of how I got there. There were calls on my phone that I didn’t remember making. I only remember a fistful of pills, alcohol, writing something at my kitchen table. I felt so much pain that I thought my spine would snap. I blinked again, and was at my ex-boyfriend’s apartment. I had kitchen knives rolled up in a towel in my bag. My arms were so weak that I wondered how I was going to have the strength to cut myself with them. I kept trying to lock myself in his bathroom, but somehow never got beyond the doorway. I felt such horror at the situation, but also just wanted it to end -- I kept hoping I’d be struck down.

Friends intervened, took me home, and called my parents. I still don’t remember very much of this and the journal is very fragmented. I do remember an unbelievable amount of pain -- physical pain, which is something people don’t always understand about mental illness. There is a bone-deep, horrible ache that comes from depression. The first time I felt that pain beginning to lift was the moment I was put on a hospital gurney as they took me up to the locked ward. 

Initially, I chronicled my experience in the hospital like it was some sort of anthropological experiment, like it was my job to dwell among the mad and document their culture. This was my way of distancing myself, so I didn’t have to fully absorb what had happened.

I recorded what everyone was wearing in my first group therapy meeting, as if it was of vital importance to remember that the woman with bipolar disorder was wearing blue capris and the teenage girl with anorexia had a loose ponytail and baggy canvas pants. I also recorded exact dosages of medications I received and my grim speculation that my medical team could care less about me. “I think Dr. G put some note to Dr. T in my file to ask me about the books I’m reading,” I wrote, “I suppose this is what their teachers told them to do to forge rapport with patients.”  

Reading it now, I realize that I was I retreating from considering my own predicament by examining other patients in minute detail, recording some of their more melodramatic comments. I wrote about another patient, B, who almost never came out of his room. He spent entire days staring out of the window. One day he walked to the nurse’s station for his medication, saw me standing there and muttered, “What’re you looking at, slyboots?” I noted, with a little smugness, that my medical team told me I was “higher order” than the other patients.

Image Credit: Abbe Macbeth

Image Credit: Abbe Macbeth

And then, something changes in the journal -- or, rather, something disappears: the need to defend myself from my own scrutiny. I began to chronicle my thoughts and feelings, carefully watching for the triggers of my anxiety. There is often this slow release for many patients in the hospital, during which the medication has done its work so sufficiently that they feel they can finally let go and begin to recuperate.

In one session with a therapist, I remember him saying to me, “You have a choice: you can decide to let other people define this experience for you, or you can define it for yourself.”  

After that session, I went back to my journal and wrote this: “I can transform the past’s impact on me by reviewing what happened and seeing it for the opportunities it gave me.”  

Seven years later, that simple sentence -- with its emphasis on opportunity rather than self-pity -- is so striking to me. I knew I was going back to my old world, with its judgments and stigma about mental illness. I knew I was extremely susceptible to the way other people would react to what had happened to me, but I resolved to stay true to what I believed, which is that hospitalization was the only thing that could have saved me.

It was that decision -- to see it not as shame but as salvation -- that ushered in my recovery. The medication let me sleep and helped bring me immediate relief, but it was the commitment to that journey that changed my life.  

Reading the journal now, seven years later, I’m also struck by how open I was after my hospitalization to learning, no matter how brutal the lessons. On one of my first days back at work, I wrote, “I’m learning that failure is my new teacher.”

That line cryptically refers to a lot of fallout: my employer demoting me, my coworkers gossiping about me (often within earshot), a few friends deciding they would rather not be around me for a while. At each of these moments, I tried to embrace the experiences and considered what possibilities they gave me.

I quit my job, applied to graduate school, and invested in relationships that were more durable. I did not let other people’s ideas about mental illness affect my sense of self and I built my emotional core around the idea that I was capable of surviving and, eventually, flourishing.

So many entries from that time start with the simple phrase, “I’m still here.” It mattered so much to me at the time, that I was still writing and still getting through the day.

I tell the story of my hospitalization to people now because I want them to understand that time spent in the psychiatric ward is not humiliating. I also want this story to be a gesture of compassion for those in distress. So often, I encounter people in such deep agony from depression and anxiety, yet hospitalization seems like defeat to them.

By talking about my time in the hospital, I want to show them that it can be an act of hope, a brave step taken towards a life that is joyful, a life they have begun to lose hope they can ever have again. That was my experience, one I revisit to remind me just how important that first step was.