Photo credit: http://www.lhsc.on.ca
For me, PTSD is extremely linked to anniversaries of dates. January into February is a difficult time, with the memories of my last extended hospital stay in 2005 and my family law trial in 2016. I often have flashbacks, memories and symptoms, and then notice the date and realize what is triggering them.
My last admission to South Street was in early January 2005. I was there for about 5 weeks, my longest admission at that facility. I was transferred in early February to the Regional Mental Health Care facility, the former London Psychiatric Hospital, where I stayed until sometime in March. Since then, I’ve largely been free from in-patient admissions.
In my mind, I can walk through the buildings at South Street, especially the main building. The large stone steps which led to the main entrance. The single stall washroom off the lobby where I cut myself on a number of occasions, with sharps I brought back inside from walks. The smell of institutional brown paper towel, and the cheap, strong soap found in hospitals everywhere still brings me back to South Street. The smell of adhesive first aid tape and band aids, bring back the rusty smell of blood harden on towels during long emergency room waits.
Past the lobby was a small gift shop on the right side of the hall. I would go down there to browse sometimes or to buy a magazine. Just past the shop was a cafeteria. It was more of a snack bar, I suppose they had meals there, but at that time I rarely ate more than a muffin or rice krispie square. Being in the hospital was an excuse for Ana to get away with restricting more, when nobody was watching me eat or expecting me to do so. I remember walking through the line style cafeteria. I’m not sure what I bought, maybe cookies. A little further, past the first set of elevators was a Tim Hortons kiosk. It was small and didn’t carry a full selection of items. It was open longer hours than the cafeteria, which shut at the end of the office hour work day. I remember it being more dimly lit in the evenings. There was a second set of elevators, the only ones which went all the way to the 7th and 8th floor: psychiatry. If you kept walking to the rear of the building, there was a door to the “patio” which was where people went to smoke. It was also the place where psych patients who had off unit privileges but not full privileges to leave the property, went to get fresh air. The hallway split into a Y shape at this point. To the left was the admitting department. You could walk down a long hallway and exit there as well.
That last time I was admitted, I was a patient on the 7th floor. There was an orderly who sat at a desk at the entrance to the inpatient unit, which was to the left side of the Y. The stem of the Y had offices and the right hand side of the Y had other departments, like occupational therapy, and a patient dining room. The hall was carpeted. The carpet was dirty, even though it was vacuumed daily. Patients and visitors had to sign in at the desk. As a patient, passes off the unit were awarded in increments. Maybe a 15 minute pass, lead to 30 minutes, led to 4 hours and then to an overnight pass. Smokers were given 15 minute breaks at intervals throughout the day. Visiting hours ended at 8pm and at that time the orderly went home and the door to the unit was locked. Patients returning after 8pm had to ring a bell which alerted the nurses to let us in. I remember coming back after an evening home, or out with my ex-husband. The hospital was quiet, the main floor abandoned with the exception of security at the main entrance. The elevator ride was quiet, the halls semi darkened. It was easy to believe the building was haunted. I would be buzzed back onto the unit, check in with the nurses to get my evening medication and then get ready for bed.
The rooms all had reinforced glass windows, many of them had metal grills covering them. Some of them opened a tiny crack and others did not. The hallway seemed impossibly long, with the nursing station 3/4 of the way towards the far end. For all intents and purposes, it wasn’t all that safe. The nurses were quite far away from most of the patient rooms. They didn’t search us when we came back from passes. It was quite easy to smuggle in anything. On a different admission, I had a roommate who used cocaine and cut herself in our shared washroom. Another time, a patient who was supposed to be recovering from an eating disorder continually smuggled in laxatives which she took by the handful. A third patient, being tube fed and struggling with bulimia would order large amounts of food and then purge.
It wasn’t exactly a safe place.
I spent a lot of time sleeping, resting and talking to other patients. I filed out my menus and looked forward to the muffins and cereal at breakfast. I ordered peanut butter and jam sandwiches for lunch. The vegetarian and vegan options for dinner were largely inedible. Sometimes I went home for dinner, sometimes I just didn’t eat. The meals arrived at 8am, 12pm and 5pm on trays, covered with burgundy or dark blue coloured domes to keep the food hot. There was a fridge with cheap Colt Ginger ale cans (regular and diet). Sometimes I brought cereal from home. I often went for a walk to the Tim Horton’s down the road where I would order caramel coffee cake and black coffee. They don’t make that cake anymore, but you could order extra caramel sauce drizzled over it.
I coloured and read books. I waited, sometimes what seemed like endlessly, for the doctor to arrive. Sometimes the doctors checked in with you ever week day. Sometimes they didn’t appear for days. They appeared at unpredictable intervals. Much of the time they spoke to us in our rooms, even in ward rooms with 4 beds, affording us little privacy. If we were lucky we might get 15 minutes to talk to the Dr. That last admission I had a very kind doctor. He spoke to me in a private room. It wasn’t his office, just a room for meeting with patients. He believed me. He talked about referring me to the mood disorders program at the RMHC. He didn’t think I was borderline. Sometimes there would be medical students or nursing students. I liked them because they were allowed longer to talk to us. It was lonely and there was little actual treatment in the hospital, aside from medication and medication adjustments. The medical students gave each patient a physical exam within 24 hours of being admitted. Even when I was in and out of South Street, I got the check up every time. In reality, these 1st year medical students were just using us to practice doing physical exams. But I didn’t mind. I liked the attention and the chance to speak to someone. The days were often long, and even the nurses were busy, assigned to multiple patients each shift.
Sometimes, if I was having a rough night, my nurse would bring me into a small room attached to the nursing station. We would talk about how I was doing. Mainly I talked about the urges I had to self harm. Even in the hospital I generally harmed myself on an almost daily basis. Looking back it’s hard to see exactly how I was helped by these admissions. Once I even ended up needing stitches, while I was admitted. I cut myself in the ground floor washroom, then went up to the 7th floor to confess. A different medical student, maybe a psychiatry resident stitched it for me in my room.
In the sad, lonely state of mind I was in, there was something about the ritual of having my cuts sutured, that comforted me deeply. I think it was a moment of literal relief to have something FIXED. The inner trauma I was struggling with was coming back to the surface with frightening intensity. I was in a new relationship that had rapidly become all consuming, emotionally and then sexually abusive. I felt trapped. I felt numb, depressed and hypomanic, agitated and anxious all at once. I was in a frantic state which was triggered by SSRIs and other antidepressants. I wasn’t thinking clearly for over 4 years. I was afraid all the time, and yet I felt invincible in a way. I knew only peripherally that my impulsive self harm and suicide attempts were extremely dangerous. I both wanted to die, and felt like I was not at risk from the self harm. I felt torn, tangled and pulled down, like I was drowning in trauma and suicidal thoughts. I felt like a mechanical robot, and a wind up toy spinning out of control.
When I look back at myself during those 4 years, I barely recognize any aspects of my true self. I was changed, and not in a positive way.
I was so young. I was 20-24 years old. I felt like a child, colouring, whining for help, begging for someone to SEE me. I didn’t feel truly SEEN by anyone at that time. I think I’d felt invisible and misunderstood for so long, that I actually was disappearing, even to myself. I felt like I’d aged decades in a few short months. I felt like a child trapped in the body of an older person. My health was poor, due to medication side effects, self harm, self starvation and lack of structure and routine. I became more and more socially isolated. I lost connection with the “normal” world and I became a full time psych patient. I filled out and inhabited the role of a sick person. So much so that I no longer realized I was playing a role. It became all I knew of ME. I lost myself. I lost myself in more ways that I can express in words. I wanted to be rescued. With all my heart I wanted to be rescued, but I learned to carefully shut people out. I was also being isolated by my abusive partner.
That last winter in South Street, I was so suicidal I couldn’t leave the hospital alone. I was perpetually compelled by thoughts of throwing myself in front of traffic on the busy road near the hospital. I didn’t trust myself to walk anymore. I knew all the train tracks that criss crossed the neighbourhood, and all the shops which sold sharps I could use to harm myself. I was a dead person walking. I was more than half dead, I had more than one foot out the door of life. I had 95% given up.
But somehow that last doctor who admitted me, he didn’t see my case as hopeless. He didn’t see me as someone who was just “trying to get attention” or “manipulate the system” I think he realized that it was possible the medication was making me worse. I think he realized, and actually believed me that my next suicide attempt would be a completion. He quietly talked to me, and quietly sent the referral to the specialist. I didn’t have much hope, but I sensed that things were different. Instead of lying to get myself discharged, I stayed there until the bed became available on the mood disorder unit.
5 weeks later, I was off all anti-depressants and on a new mood stabilizer. The mood disorder specialist retrieved my life from the purgatory and hell of anti-depressant side effects, including medication induced hypomania.
Less than a year later, I was pregnant with my first child.
I never had another extended hospital admission.
South Street has been demolished for years now. I visited the site last summer to see for myself that it was gone.
But South Street haunts my memories. The images are so vivid, but in the faded colours of a worn down, dirty building. Those years were brightly intense simultaneously to being muted and grey.
I expect they will be with me always. But 13 years ago, I never imagined I would even get out alive.