Follow me, follow me, follow me, down, down down…

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I began taking a psychiatric drug cocktail around February 2001.  At that time I was mainly scratching my skin, enough to bleed, but superficial marks.  I was having almost daily panic attacks, insomnia and nightmares.  The idea was that the drug cocktail would help all these symptoms.

On my 3rd admission to South Street 7th floor, I met with Dr. X.   We were sitting in my hospital room.  I had a bed by the window and this was a ward room with four beds separated by curtains.   He sat on the chair that was provided for visitors and scrawled some words on a scrap piece of paper.

Major depression

Anorexia nervosa (in partial remission)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (mild)

Borderline Personality Disorder.

This moment changed the direction of the rest of my life.   Even today, at 35 years old the impacts haunt me.   Dr. X explained each of my diagnosis to me one by one.   When I learned about PTSD I felt a weight lift.  So many things suddenly made sense, why I startled so easily, the nightmares and intrusive thoughts.  PTSD was a psychiatric label, but for me it was a useful one.  It made me feel less alone, less crazy to know there was a word for what I had been experiencing since I was 15 years old.

The issue was the last line in his list.  Borderline Personality Disorder.  What did that mean?  How could my personality be disordered?  Remember that I had only just begun to recover and process memories of sexual abuse and that was the immediate trigger of my instability.   Dr. X explained that because of my self harming behaviour this was the diagnosis that fit best for me.   Over the years I would learn many things about borderline personality disorder and how it is used as a label to marginalize women survivors of violence and abuse.  But in the next few years all I learned was that as soon as a doctor in the hospital saw that diagnosis I would get treated differently, with less compassion, less humanity and less kindness.  Quite simply the hospital staff began to give up on me.

A terrible paradox began to occur.  The more I felt that the hospital staff and Dr. X did not believe and validate me, the more I acted out.  This was not a conscious decision, but I soon learned that without harming myself I would not get hospital care, and after a few more months, I began to be turned away from the Emergency Room on a regular basis, told there were no beds, that hospital stays did not benefit people who were borderline.

Something else was happening during this time period.  The toxic soup of psychotropic drugs were beginning to poison me.  I was 20 years old, still a young person.   SSRI anti-depressant medications can be very dangerous for some young people.  They can trigger impulsive self harm and even suicidal thoughts and actions.  They can create an almost hypomanic like state in someone who is not bipolar.   This is what happened to me.  But all the while I kept believing “Drs don’t give you medicine to make you sick”

Anti-anxiety and anti-psychotic medications slowed me down.  I found myself sleeping more than I wanted to, napping during the day, living in a fog.  I also became more intense and more impulsive with my self harming behaviours which escalated extremely quickly between February and April 2000.  Soon I was harming myself daily, sometimes multiple times a day.  My arms looked like a mess of scars, cuts and scrapes.

In April 2000, I bought an exacto knife and for the first time I cut deeply.  Down the rabbit hole, down, down, down…I went to the Emergency Room by myself and received 9 stitches by a medical student.  When the resident came back to check his work she told him the sutures were done incorrectly.  I waited, but she did not offer to fix it.   The first time left the worst scar,  6 years later it still hurt me so much I had plastic surgery to repair the scar tissue.   I imagine that if this wound had not been self inflicted, the resident would have corrected it and been concerned about the potential scar.

One week later, walking back from University I became consumed with thoughts about ending my life.  These thoughts had become an almost constant companion, but that day there was an impulsiveness that was new.  Almost without thinking I overdosed in my apartment.  Shortly after I told my boyfriend who drove me to the hospital.

I don’t remember very much about what happened after the car ride.  I do remember drinking activated charcoal.  I still have nightmares about this and I still have trouble drinking or eating things with a chalky texture.  It was black and I was drinking it from a bottle with a straw.  I was confused and kept asking why I was drinking it.

The doctors discharged me home after a few hours.  I vaguely remember the car ride, I remember throwing up in the parking lot of my apartment building and many more times that night.  I don’t remember going to bed or much of that evening.

It confused me that I was sent home.  Surely a disoriented, drugged young woman who had just tried to end her life was not the person who should be walking out of the hospital.  I must have told them I felt better, but I can’t imagine their thought process in discharging me so quickly.

This was not the last time I tried something like this.  Looking back from the perspective of a wiser adult I know that:

a) SSRIs or anti-depressants of any kind make me extremely ill/hypomanic, suicidal, impulsively self destructive, and more depressed

b) benzodiazapenes make me extremely suicidal after only a few doses, let alone after taking them daily for weeks.

c) almost every psychiatric drug has similar side effects (ie. making me act like someone who might have borderline personality disorder)

Yes, Drs do give people medication that makes them sick.  They do it every single day and then label those same people as sicker than they were previously, with labels that stick with them for life.  No matter how recovered I might be, no matter how well I am, no matter how functional, those three words (borderline personality disorder) still have the power to put me into a dark box.

I know that I’m not alone with this.  Many women who live with PTSD, and who have used self harm as a method of coping,have been labelled and marginalized this way.   And so many youth became ill taking anti-depressants that they now have black box warning labels advising of the increased risk of suicide.

Scars criss cross my entire body and sometimes I wonder, if I’d never consented to taking the medications if my body would look differently today.  I know my life would.

 

What’s it been? Over a decade? (20 years today)

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April 12, 1996

The day my whole life changed.  It was exactly 20 years ago this evening that I went on my first date with X.  We went to the same high school, were the same age, played the same instrument.  I was 15 years old and I was happy, popular, involved in school, healthy and enjoying my life.

Within a few short months of being in a relationship with X I was depressed, socially isolated and on a dangerous path to developing anorexia nervosa.

X and I dated for 11 months.  During that time I was sexually and emotionally abused on an almost daily basis.  Nobody knew.  The social isolation was a particularly harmful aspect of the emotional abuse.  X was jealous of just about anything I did other than spend time with him.  He used to write me lengthy notes and typed letters whenever we were apart.  At times it felt caring, loving and at other times slightly disturbing.

I began to numb myself in various ways.  I developed my own methods of coping with the ongoing abuse.  At one point during that year I caught the stomach flu.  I was mildly ill for a few days and not eating very much.   My body felt empty, floaty, my mind felt quiet…and I loved it.  I had stumbled upon a new coping technique, restricting eating.   It was never about calories, losing weight, or fitting into a societal ideal for me.  It was all about control, about numbing out about the quiet feelings in my mind (I later learned that this was a form of disassociation).

Sometimes people who have been abused write letters to their younger selves as a part of their healing.  If I could tell my 15 year old self something it would be this:

Dear Ana,

It’s not your fault.  You are not dirty.  Do not be ashamed of your body.  What is happening to you is abuse.  If you feel uncomfortable it is not right for you.

Tell someone.  People care about you, so many people care about you.  Ask for help.  Someone will believe you.   You don’t have to go through this alone.

Talking about this is scary, but believe me…20 years from now, when your body is covered in scars and you have long term side effects of self starvation, you will realize that speaking out is simpler than the alternative.

This doesn’t have to be a secret.  You are not alone.  Forgive yourself and surround yourself with people who treat you with respect.

I’m so sorry that nobody can see what you are going through.  I’m sorry none of the adults in your life have figured out what is going on.  I’m sorry, but you are going to have to be the brave one and explain it to them.

You didn’t deserve this.  Don’t turn your back on yourself.

You are loved.

x

Adult me

Day 1 (aka welcome to hell)

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The first time I was admitted to South Street hospital was in January 2001.  I had been in crisis since around October 2000, shortly after meeting a new boyfriend.  I had begun self harming with increasing frequency.  I was struggling with overwhelming memories of the sexual and emotional abuse I had survived as a teenager which I had almost blocked from my consciousness.

I was 20 years old.

When the memories began to resurface one day in the middle of a lecture a lecture hall at the University of Western Ontario I had an intense panic attack.  My brain was overwhelmed with connections being made and I felt incredibly unsafe, wanting to run.  I started having regular panic attacks at school and I became increasingly depressed and socially isolated.

One day I called the local Mental Health Crisis line.  It seemed like a reasonable idea.  The person I spoke to realized that I had no resources in the city and offered me an appointment with the psychiatrist who saw patients once a week at the Mental Health Crisis office.  Seeing little other option, and feeling it was logical to accept any help that was offered to me I went a few days later to meet with the Dr.

Dr X will remain nameless in this blog.  Anyone living in London, Ontario who has accessed emergency psychiatric care within the last 20 years probably knows him and his snakeskin boots well.  15 years later I still can’t see snakeskin boots without shuddering.

As my mental health unraveled in the following weeks Dr. X offered to admit me to the hospital.   The plan was to start me on some psychiatric medication and to stabilize me.   By that time I was barely sleeping or eating and I was desperate.   I believed that doctors helped people who were sick and that the hospital could be a safe place.

My first admission was on 8 East.  The top floor of the hospital, where Dr. X’s offices were located in another wing.  I barely remember going to the hospital or what happened when I first arrived.

What I do remember is being terrified.

My nurse was a kind man named Grant.  He took me to my room.  It was evening and I was handed a bunch of pills.  I didn’t know what they all were but I took them.  The rest of the evening is a blur.  I was told later that a friend of mine came to see me, but I have no recollection of it.  My first experience with anti-anxiety medication and sleeping medication all mixed together and I remember nothing.  At some point my boyfriend at the time must have left, visiting hours ended.

I woke up early the next morning, suddenly aware of my surroundings.  At this point I was beyond afraid, I was almost frozen with terror.  What had I gotten myself into?

It was a fairly small hospital room.  I had one roommate and there was a bathroom with a toilet and sink.  I remember a lot of greens and beiges and linoleum floors. My bed was by the window and my roommate’s bed was by the large metal door.  There was a curtain separation our beds, I think it was green.  There was an antiseptic hospital smell in the air, the sheets smelled institutional.  If you don’t know what institutional smells like, sniff the sheets and blankets in any hospital.

The door to the room was closed.   I was curious about what was going on in the hallway.   Would breakfast arrive?  Was I allowed to leave my room?  How many other patients were there on the unit?  Where was I allowed to go?  What was I supposed to do?  Would the nurse come back to answer my questions?

At last, I worked up enough courage to open the door, just a crack, enough to see out into the hallway.  My heart was racing.  The hallway was empty and quiet.  I could see other doors which looked like mine.  I could see what I assumed was the nursing station, with its glass wall, diagonally across from my room.  At each end of the short, corridor were locked doors.  I knew one led off the unit, to the elevators and freedom, but I didn’t know where the other one went.

I remember going back and sitting on my bed and just waiting, too afraid to leave my room.

Finally, my nurse Grant arrived.  He explained some things, that meals would be delivered on a tray, showed me where the shower was, how to ask for help at the nursing station etc.  He also brought a little paper cup filled with tiny plastic bags, each one contained a single pill.   Morning medication.  He checked my hospital bracelet, matching the ID # to the little bags of pills. I took the pills without questions.   I was here to get better right?  The doctor is an expert, he knows what is best.

I don’t remember very much about that admission except the intense panic I felt and how desperately I wanted to leave almost the moment I got there.

I realized very quickly that the psych ward was filled with other sick people.  This atmosphere was not always the most conducive to my healing.  My first roommate had an eating disorder and insisted on talking about it graphically to me.  She was taking huge amount of laxative pills in our room.  I also struggle with anorexia, which at that time was fairly well managed.  I remember being confused, didn’t this woman want to get help?  Why didn’t the staff take away the medications she was abusing?  Why was she sharing triggering details of her eating disorder behaviour with me?  Didn’t she know I was here to get better?

After less than 48 hours, I had had enough and I learned, during my very first inpatient admission, the vital skill of the psychiatric survivor.  How to tell carefully crafted lies (or sometimes desperate unplanned lies) to hospital staff to get yourself out of sticky situations.

I told Dr. X I was feeling better.  I would take the medications at home and see him as an outpatient.  I was there voluntarily so he allowed me to leave.

Less than 48 hours later, head spinning, on a cocktail of psychotropic drugs I was home.

I didn’t know at that time that this was the start of a vicious cycle of becoming desperate, seeking help at the hospital, experiencing trauma at the hospital, running home, problems unsolved, becoming desperate again and REPEAT.  This cycle continued and escalated for the better part of 4 years.

 

 

Trying to break free

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On the 7th floor of South Street Hospital was the general psych ward.  It was a long hallway with patient rooms along it and about 3/4 of the way down, the nursing station.  Across from the nursing station was the psychiatric intensive care unit, a 4 bed unit for patients in the most acute crisis where they were observed constantly.  That unit had 2 windows, one one either side, and sometimes the patients would press their faces up against them looking out at us.  We were prisoners too, but must have looked free as birds to them, allowed to walk around and even go outside to the courtyard below.  Just past the nursing station were the showers. At the farthest end of the hall was a lounge with a television and two pay phones.

At the entrance to the 7th floor, 7East as it was called, there was a sign in desk with an orderly.  Patients could not enter or leave the unit without signing in and out.  At night the door was locked and patients had to be buzzed in and out from the nursing station.  The door was metal, a fire safety door with a glass window in it.  The window had reinforced glass, little metal lines criss-crossing through it.   It was a strong door.

I made quite a few friends during my various stays at South Street.  It was afternoon that day, I was colouring in the room of a young woman I’d become close with.  Colouring was a favourite hospital pass time of mine.  We were sitting together on her bed, chatting and trying to relax.  There were many of these “normal” moments of human interaction, friendships formed and even laughter in dark moments.

Suddenly, the colouring was disrupted by a man’s voice:  yelling, screaming, panicked and angry.  We heard banging and we ran out into the hall.  The door to the unit was closed, as it was sometimes even during the day when patients were unsettled or considered a “flight risk.”  The agitated man was banging his arms as hard as he could, with seemingly superhuman strength against the glass.  I can’t remember now if his words made sense or if he was just shouting, but it was clear he wanted to get out.  Now.  Almost before we realized the danger, the inevitable happened: his bare arm slipped through the tempered glass.  At this point my friend and I began screaming as loudly as we could “Nurse! Nurse! Nurse!”  We were panicking as this out of control figure began staggering around the hall, as massive, seemingly impossibly large amounts of blood gushed out of his arm, dangerously close to his neck.   We grabbed a towel and threw it towards him, as if it could have been possible to stop the bleeding on a moving, raging target.  First aid was not going to be an option.

It was probably only seconds later that security officers arrived.  Grabbed the man and whisked him away, presumably downstairs to the Emergency Room.  It seems like hours.

The next day a new door arrived.  Solid metal, impenetrable.

The staff spent days trying to scrub the bloodstains from the carpet. They brought in giant fans to dry the water after the unsuccessful cleaning attempt was finished.  I had to walk past the dull red mark daily each time I was admitted to the floor after that day.

We heard that the man survived.  He never came back to 7E.

It’s probably been about 15 years and I remember it like yesterday.

 

Flashbacks. Better out than in?

Yes, doctors do give you medication that makes you worse.

Yes, misdiagnosis and mental illness stigma are real.

Yes, I spent the better part of 4 “lost years” on the psychiatric wards of beaten down hospitals that had been slated for closure decades before.

Yes, I left the system an order of magnitude more traumatized than when I first “sought help.”

I survived sexual abuse, emotional, psychological and physical abuse by multiple perpetrators.  But I also survived what I call, for lack of a better word, institutional abuse within the mental health care system.

South Street Hospital in London, Ontario has now been torn down, demolished to the ground.  The psychiatric wards were the last ones to be closed, years after all the medical inpatients had been relocated to a newer and more adequate facility.  Once the building was abandoned I re-visited the grounds, the building stood like a ghost, an empty shell, holding the untold stories of so many people just like me.  Some of them, like my friend Darlene, didn’t survive those years and lost their lives to suicide.  But I made it out and I now provide feminist based peer support to survivors of violence as my full time job.

So many memories from those years mix together with memories of the other traumas in my life and have been resurfacing more than usual recently as intrusive flashbacks.  Sometimes I worry that those around me tire of my ongoing struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and it is difficult to share the memories.  At times I fear I will face disbelief, dismisal or disgust rather than validation and acceptance.  I’ve decided the memories are surfacing for a reason and they have to go somewhere.  Better out than in?   Why not share them with the world?

I am a psychiatric survivor.cropped-10267763_10152018756625936_5945078775421952754_n.jpg