Trigger Warning! This passage has mentions of Sectioning, Suicidal Ideations, and Self Harm. Please read only if you feel it is safe to do so.
I was always under the impression that you can trust health care professionals. They’re there for your best interests; to keep you safe and healthy. They would never force you into anything for their own gain or to save their own backs, right? That’s what I always thought, and I can safely assume that for a majority of doctors out there. However, there is always an exception to the rules.
I was going to see a free counselor weekly. That was my only treatment plan and, for a while, it was working. But sometimes talking is not enough and my counselor suggested I go to my PCP to ask for medication. I agreed and made an appointment with a doctor right down the street. I had been on SSRIs before, so I figured the prescription would be easy to renew.
Despite this, I walked to the appointment terrified. My mental illness was always one of my biggest secrets; I could count on one hand the people who knew. As I walked down the street, everything that could possibly go wrong spun in my head. One thought repeated itself more than the others. What if he doesn’t believe me? That was the fear that was holding me back for years. I was always convinced that, if I were to express how I was actually feeling to others, they would either not believe me, thinking I was trying to be trendy, or, on the complete other side of the coin, they would believe me too much.There was such a stigma about mental illness, there was no way to know how people would react.
I had finally arrived at the office and sat in the waiting room. At this point, I was shaking. As I was trying to think of any excuse to get up and go home, I heard my name called. I slowly stood up, briefly debated making a run for it, but ultimately changed my mind and followed the nurse into the examination room.
After she finished the routine blood pressure and weight checks, the nurse left the room and I was alone with my thoughts. There’s no going back now. I tried to shake the fear out of me. He’s a doctor, he won’t judge you. Eventually, there was a knock at the door and Dr. Johnson walked in.
He asked me why I was there and I explained that I had been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder at age sixteen but had not been medicinally treated since I was eighteen, just over two years ago. I told him my previous prescription and that I wanted to start it up again. Then Dr. Johnson started asking the hard questions.
“Have you ever cut yourself?”
“Yes. Routinely between the ages of nine and nineteen.”
“Have you ever had suicidal thoughts?”
“Yes. I’ve actually attempted it.”
“I… hung myself from a ceiling fan”
“Two years ago.”
I then explained that I was in a very bad place back then, with absolutely no treatment plan and no one I felt I could reach out to. I insisted that I did not feel that way anymore. I explained how much my counselor has helped and how I have been opening up to my sister and boyfriend a lot more. I was actively asking for help. I was no longer actively suicidal.
I watched as he wrote everything on his chart. I was clearly scared, each one of my answers getting quieter and quieter. He then asked me if I currently had a “plan”. I told him that I did not, repeating again that I was not actively suicidal. He asked two more times and then said, “If you did have a plan, what would you use?”
This seemed like a really weird question, but I figured it was routine so I played along. I thought about it for a minute. I had not considered this at all, so I had to think of everything at my disposal. “A belt? I guess?” He wrote the answer in his chart.
“Ok. I am going to suggest that you stay overnight at the hospital.” I immediately started crying and objecting. Dr. Johnson explained it would only be for one night. This was the first lie. I refused again and so he came up with a middle ground. “If I bring a psychologist and they agree you should get further examined, would you agree?” I thought for a second. A psychologist must hear things like this every day, she’ll understand. Hesitantly, I agreed and Dr. Johnson walked out, saying he would be back with the psychologist. At least he believed me.
He returned a minute later not with a psychologist, but a transport team. I started crying even harder, scared and confused. The transport team tried to put me into a wheelchair, but I declined, saying I would be compliant and walk. A montage of movie clips flashed in my head of people refusing, just to have the doctor subdate them, eventually waking up strapped in a bed.As I was walking out, I asked Dr. Johnson if I was being admitted into the hospital. He assured me, no, I was not being admitted, I was just being brought to the Psychologist’s office.
The transport team took me across the hospital to the E.R. Admissions Desk.
The transport team gave the desk all of my information, while I stood silently behind them, tears running down my face. After a few minutes, the woman behind the desk printed out a bracelet and wrapped it around my wrist. I was officially a patient of the hospital.
I was terrified and confused. I had never been admitted into a hospital before. I had no idea about the routine or procedure of the hospital, I had officially lost all control of what happened to me next. It seemed so much bigger than going to the doctors office. This was no longer a routine appointment, now there was something wrong with me.
I sat in the E.R for five hours before the psychologist came. The nurse brought me some coloring pages (I was in the pediatric wing), and I distracted myself as best as I could, having absolutely no control over what was happening to me.
Finally, the psychologist came in. She asked me about my medical past, reading my chart as we talked. I repeated the entire conversation I had with Dr. Johnson. Then, looking up from the chart for the first time, she asked, “What about the belt?” I explained that Dr. Johnson had made me come up with a plan, that I had not thought about anything until he asked me.
The psychologist didn’t believe me.
She told me I was going to be in the hospital for at least the next 72 hours. When I said Dr. Johnson said it would only be overnight, she said that they don’t do that. The earliest I could be released was three days from now. She then handed me a contract, saying that, unless I was seen as a danger to myself or others, the hospital legally had to release me after the three days. All of this seemed so sudden; I could barely get a grip on what was happening before a new piece of information was thrown my way. This was all new territory for me. I was barely an adult! I was not ready for these life changing decisions! My family was on the other side of the country, so I couldn’t even turn to them for support. I signed it, not knowing what else to do.
After she left, another transport team came in and escorted me to the psych ward. I grabbed my bag, which my roommate quickly threw together when I called and explained what was happening, and walked to a conference room. A nurse walked in after us, sat me down, and explained the legal side of what was happening. He then said he had to confiscate my phone, which I was not expecting. I started crying yet again and explained that I need my phone, not to talk to people or go online, but to listen to something while I slept. I have awful night terrors and the only way to calm them is to distract myself with dialog. He looked me dead in the eyes and laughed, “I mean I can stand over your bed and talk to you all night.” I didn’t think it was funny.
I finally gave up my phone, still wanting to be compliant. On top of my phone, the nurse confiscated all my sweatshirts and my shoes; anything with a removable string. They brought me to my room and I laid down, terrified and still not entirely sure what was happening, and cried myself to sleep.
The next day I was woken up at 6:00 am to get blood drawn. Afterward, I went to breakfast, where I met everyone else in the ward: A girl about my age who was completely monotone, a recovering alcoholic who had relapsed, a girl who was assaulted and started thinking of hurting her attacker, a man who had been paralyzed from a car wreck and started losing the will to live, and an old lady who was convinced she was dating a country star she had never met, who talks to her through pictures on Facebook. We were quite the Brady Bunch. Everyone seemed surprisingly normal, no one was in a straight jacket or rocking in the corner. They could tell I was not happy being there and started to comfort me, saying they all took care of each other. My eyes started to dry for the first time in 24 hours.
I then met my team. It consisted of a doctor and a caseworker. We sat in the conference room and they explained their roles. The doctor was there to diagnose me and prescribe me medication, while the caseworker was there to find me an outpatient psychologist and psychiatrist. They then asked me to go over my symptoms yet again and I went over the same story I had repeated one thousand times in the past day. I then said something that piqued my doctor’s interest. I explained that I have thoughts that I can not control, as if someone else is in my head. I now understand that it is just my brain trying to conceptualize my illnesses, but I did not have the language to explain that back then. I had never told anyone about the “voices” back then, and stated, “I don’t want you guys to think I’m crazy.” The caseworker smiled and said, “We don’t think you’re crazy, do we, Dr. Miller?” This made me feel a little better, until Dr. Miller answered, “Well what you’re describing is psychosis, so in that case, you may very well be crazy.” I was shocked, unable to say anything. Was I actually crazy?
I explained my symptoms further and Dr. Miller decided I was, in fact, not experiencing psychosis. She decided my diagnoses,making it four in total now, and wrote me a prescription. She then explained that, because I was a student, she was going to write a note saying I could have my computer for an hour a day. My caseworker then explained that, while she worked to find me outpatient care, I had to find someone I could stay with after I was released. I agreed and we went our separate ways.
I immediately ran to the phone and called my aunt, she was the closest living relative and I knew I could turn to her. I explained the situation and she was rightfully shocked. She was not even aware of my MDD diagnosis, let alone my history with self-harm. She agreed to let me stay with her and came that afternoon with new shoes and games to entertain myself.
The next few days actually were not that bad. I was starting to bond with the other patients and spent most of my time in the OT room doing arts and crafts. Art had always been a coping skill for me; a way to completely forget about the world around me and focus on my breathing. Despite being physically trapped in a single hallway, my mind was free. One problem, however, was the orderlies still refused to give me my computer. I could deal with that, though, until the third day, when my caseworker came up to me and said she needed to talk.
Nothing could ruin my mood that day. It had officially been 72 hours, I was finally going home. I was free. I smiled up at her and asked what she wanted to talk about. She looked at me solemnly and said “I don’t know if you’re going home today. We still have some work to do.” My heart dropped. I stared at her in shock and followed her to the conference room. I sat down at the table, where Dr. Miller was already waiting for us. The caseworker then went on to explain that, even though they both agreed I was indeed not a harm to myself or others, I had to stay a little longer because my caseworker had not been able to find outpatient care for me. Apparently, the three days I was there, she had only made two calls, one to a psychologist and one to a psychiatrist, and they had not answered. I was bawling my eyes out at that point, barely able to breathe. We all agreed to drop the conversation until my aunt arrived.
An hour later, my aunt showed up and we all went back into the conference room. I asked the doctor how I could possibly be held here if they knew I was not a harm to myself. It did not seem legal. Dr. Miller then explained that if I did not agree to retract my contract, she would take me to court. I sat in shocked silence. This could not be happening; how was I continuing to be punished for someone else’s mistakes? She then continued to threaten me saying I could not leave until the court case was over, and it would take up to eighteen days just for the paperwork to be filed. This was the last thing I wanted to happen. I talked it over with my aunt for a minute and we decided it would be best for me to retract the contract. I signed the new paperwork and then turned to my caseworker. I asked her how she planned to ensure that I will be released as soon as possible. She looked me in the eye and said she would not make any more calls. She would wait until the two people called her back, and she could not guarantee that happening. She said I was free to do my own research and find my own doctors. My aunt stepped in at this point and asked how I was supposed to do that, I did not have access to my computer. Dr. Miller then admitted at that point that she never actually wrote the permission note to give me access to my laptop. My aunt insisted that she write and submit it right then and there.
After the meeting, my aunt and I came up with a plan. She called my sister, who we were both in contact with the entire time, and we all agreed to share an excel sheet of every available psychiatrist and psychologist in the area. We split the sheet into thirds and spent the next day making calls. After each of us calling around twenty offices, I finally got two appointments for a week from then. Now, I just had to wait for the doctors to call the hospital and confirm our meetings.
It took three more days, but finally, my caseworker called me into the conference room. “You’ve clearly done a lot of work in the past few days. A psychiatrist and psychologist have confirmed your appointments. We already called your aunt, she’s coming to pick you up at lunchtime.”
Finally, I was leaving. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I had control of my life. Looking back now, a little over a year later, I can see the way this traumatizing experience has helped me. It put me on the right track, and started a comprehensive treatment plan to help me get through every day. Most importantly, it forced me to ask for help from people I never thought I would. A strong support team formed from that experience, and I know now I can reach out to my aunt, my boyfriend, or my sister and they will drop everything to help me. Because of the supports created there, my mental health has made a complete 180 and I am genuinely happy for the first time in a decade. It taught me a lesson that I desperately needed to learn: even in the darkest tunnels, there is always a light at the end.