Another abandoned hospital.

I visited another hospital where I spent time as a patient.  This is the now abandoned Regional Mental Health Care Centre, otherwise known as the LPH, or prior to that the Asylum for the Insane.  There has been a psychiatric hospital on this site since 1870.

I walked around the large property.   Back in the late 1870s, asylums were located on large properties where patients lived and worked.  This property included a farm and a separate chapel.  For a time, there was a type of treatment known as “moral therapy” which included involving the patients in activities such as farming asylum land.  This site also witnessed many tragic and scary “cures”, like surgeries and electroshock treatments.

When I was a patient at the Regional Mental Health Centre, the facility was already operating at a much reduced patient capacity.  It has now been closed altogether and patients relocated to a modern, newly built site.

This site was creepy then and it is even more creepy now that it is abandoned.  I felt the energy around the property to be cool and sinister, despite the beautiful sunny day.

When I was a patient, we used to go for walks around the property.  There are long tree lined roads, which provide shade.   There was also the abandoned insane asylum.  The new building stands in it’s shadow.

This is what the building looks like today.  10+ years ago, it was even more run down.  The ceiling was falling in.  The glass in the windows was shattered in many places.  At night it was frightening.  I imagined ghosts and spirits of dead patients haunting the property.   On this visit I noticed that the city has added a new roof and boarded up all the windows.  Today, the building looks more like a museum.   The chapel and barns have also been boarded over and trees and grass are beginning to reclaim the entire site.

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It’s strange to think that the hospitals where I was treated are now torn down and abandoned.  I wonder what will happen to the brand new build in another 50-75 years time?

The time I spent at this hospital was a turning point in my recovery.  The mood disorder specialist who treated me recognized that I was being made sicker by the psychiatric drug cocktail I was on.  He changed all my medication, and within 5 weeks I was released from the hospital a significantly more stable person.  This marked the end of the 4 years I spent in and out of hospital.  It marked the beginning of the next chapter in my life.  It allowed me to become a parent.  My mood disorder specialist followed me closely during both my pregnancies and postpartum periods.  Without him, I would probably be dead and I certainly would not be a mother of two healthy children.

I have mixed feelings walking around the site.  I’ve always been fascinated by the history of medicine in general, but more specifically the history of psychiatry.  I feel captivated by the old building, while at the same time frightened and ill at ease.  I feel thankful that I was able to get the care I needed to begin my recovery.  But I feel unsettled that I had to spend time in a place like this.

The roots of an abusive relationship.

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Through some parts of my youth I kept diaries.  Never entirely consistently, but consistently for periods of time, especially when I was in treatment or in hospital.  I’ve been thinking back to this time of year in 2001.  My first year with my abusive ex husband.  My first year in psychiatric care.  My first year engaging in severe self harm.  My first psychiatric admissions (aside from eating disorder treatment).  My first suicide attempts. It’s interesting how all these “firsts” coincided so neatly in time with my new relationship.  At the time I thought it was because memories of the abuse I survived as a teenager were triggered and surfaced when I became sexually active.   That was part of it.  But there was more to it than that.  There was subtle abuse in my relationship with my ex husband that started very early on.  The seeds of gaslighting and emotional abuse were being planted.

It started with showering me with affection and attention.  It started with making me feel special and loved, almost to the point of making me uncomfortable.  It started with planning for the life we’d have together, the kids we’d have, the marriage…within months of meeting me (I was 19!).  It started with gifts, cards, flowers, spending all our time together.  It started with gradually isolating me from my other friends and social outlets.

Then some lies started.  And the lies were repeated so often I believed them to be true.

These lies were focused around my mental health problems and their link to my feelings about his abusive  behaviours.   He would tell me that it was because of my PTSD that I was uncomfortable with something.  He would tell me that a “normal woman” would be okay with it.  He would make me feel guilty, tell me that he felt like there were three people in the relationship: me, him and X.  He made me feel like I was CHOOSING to have flashbacks, like I was CHOOSING to think about X rather than him.  Almost like X was someone I never quite got over, a lost lover, rather than an abuser who had traumatized me to the point I often had flashbacks during any type of intimacy.  Over time, the lies were repeated to the point that I felt crazy.  I felt like I was to blame for the problems with intimacy in our relationship.  We even sought out support from a sex therapist to talk about this.  I had blood tests and was checked to ensure my hormone levels were normal.  I was completely manipulated into believing that the issues in the relationship were entirely my fault.

Today, in 2017, I realize I like some types of sex just fine.  I just prefer consent to be a factor in that sex!  In other words, I like sex, but I don’t like sexual abuse!  It turns out, I’m not physically broken.  I have PTSD.  I have flashbacks, but with a safe, trusted and patient partner I can be okay.  But because of the lasting impacts of gaslighting, I struggle with saying no. I struggle with blaming myself for anything that might go wrong. I struggle with identifying and communicating what I want or enjoy.  And I still fall back into patterns of believing that I’m crazy.

When I left my ex husband, I mainly remembered and talked about the sexual abuse that happened in the last 5-6 years of our marriage.  These were the incidents I felt most comfortable labeling “sexual assault” and “rape.”  When asked, I couldn’t really describe when the sexual abuse started.  I couldn’t really remember the first time.  I couldn’t really say when things started to go wrong.

But reading back in my diary from 2001, the first year we were together, there are so many red flags.  I can hear my 20 year old self trying to convince herself that things were okay.  I can hear my 20 year old self trying to believe that she loved this man she barely knew. I can hear my 20 year old self trying to rationalize that things would be better with him when SHE was better, when SHE stopped cutting, when SHE stopping being so depressed.  I can hear her trying to convince herself it was the right choice, and I feel deeply sad for her.

June 8, 2001

“The evening went well until the car ride home.  Before getting in the car I was feeling panic starting. [He] tried to kiss me but I pulled away.  He got offended.  I tried to explain but he got angry and said he felt stifled like he couldn’t be spontaneous.  He said I only make love to him out of duty.  I got really upset and started crying and I couldn’t breathe. It was like a panic attack and I couldn’t stop hyperventilating. I just was so very scared.  I’m terrified of being with [him], but I do love him too.  It’s such a dilemma all the time. I feel like it would be easier for me to get better without the strong feelings of a relationship.  But on the other hand [he] is my support.  I don’t know.  It’s so tough right now.  I’m so scared of my life and everything in it”

Looking back on the things I wrote, I realize that I was barely more than a child myself. Just turned 20 years old.  I had just disclosed the abuse from my childhood, just started counseling.   I was talking about abuse I’d kept inside for 5 years.  I was in full PTSD crisis mode, complete with flashbacks, hyper vigilance, anxiety and nightmares.  I was on psychiatric medication cocktails for the first time.  I was self harming almost daily and had recently attempted suicide.

It was perfectly normal that I didn’t always want to be intimate with someone.

Perfectly normal.

Today, I choose to forgive my 20 year old self for not knowing this.  I choose to forgive her for not knowing that she was having normal coping reactions to trauma and that she was not crazy.  I choose to forgive her for being tricked into a situation where, instead of healing and support, she found gaslighting, confusion, entrapment and more sexual abuse.

I know I’ll wake up tomorrow, or the next day and feel confused again.  I’ll wonder if the abuse was my fault.  I’ll think that I’m exaggerating or that I’m making things up.  I’ll start to feel the thoughts creep in that I’m not normal.  I’ll start to wish that I had died all those years ago when I attempted suicide.  I’ll start to believe his lies again, because a long term emotionally abusive relationship includes an element of near brainwashing which can take years of healing, therapy, patience, self love and self forgiveness to recover from.

But just for today, I want 20 year old me to know that her reactions were normal.  That she was allowed to say no to that kiss for any reason.  She was especially allowed to say no to that kiss when she was triggered.  She had the right to say no without consequence, without anger, without bullying and blaming.  She had the right to have needs and preferences and anxieties.

It wasn’t her fault that he didn’t understand consent.

South Street.

Photo credits to the London Health Sciences Centre website documenting the decommissioning and destruction of South Street Hospital.

I’ve been thinking about South Street.   It’s been completely demolished now, destroyed and decommissioned but it’s still alive in my memory.

I haven’t written many posts about being in the hospital since I started this blog almost a year ago now.  Those were first posts, the first thoughts on my mind which I wanted to share.

I think people who have never spent time on a psych ward often have a dark curiosity about what they might be like.  I find myself filled with the same morbid curiosity as I search through pictures of the abandoned South Street hospital online.  How can a place where I survived so much just be demolished?  On one hand I’m glad it is gone.  It was a horrible place!  On the other hand, I feel like it should have stood there forever as a monument to the suffering and the intensity I felt there.

What were days like as a patient at South Street?

The days varied slightly depending on which unit I was on.  There was something comforting about the meals being delivered on neatly organized trays.  In the morning you could select your choices for the following day, marking them off on a paper slip.  The selection for vegetarians was rather poor.  The food in general was awful, but they would bring me a peanut butter and jam sandwich for lunch.  I wrote in my request beside the offered choices.   In the morning there were little boxes of cereal and tiny muffins.  Breakfast was always my favourite meal.   For your first day or two, your meals are delivered directly to your room.  After that you were encouraged to eat with the other patients in a small dining room which was unlocked at meal times for this purpose. I never ate there.  I carried my tray carefully back to my room where I ate alone.  The meals arrived like clockwork at 8AM, 12PM and 5PM.  You could order ginger ale as a snack or a treat, it arrived in a paper bag with your name.   I used to order Colt diet ginger ale, but I’d use the edge of the can to hurt myself, I never drank the pop.   Dinner was the worst meal.  There were a selection of about 4 different vegan dinners that came in plastic trays, preheated.   I would peel the plastic wrap off and sample them, sometimes eating very little.   The arrival of the trays marked the passage of time through the day and the long hours after dinner stretched out, especially if you didn’t have a visitor.

Medication times were another way to tell the time.  At first my nurse would come to my room to give me the selection of pills (at one time I was taking more than 11 pills a day).  After settling in, patients reported to the nursing station at set times to receive their pills.  Each pill came in a tiny sealed plastic bag, labelled with my name and patient number (I still have it memorized!).  The nurse would check my wristband carefully against the name on the plastic bags.  Then the nurse would rip them open carefully and tip the pills out into a small paper cup or into my hand.  I would get another small cup with water and the nurse would watch me swallow the pills.  Night time medication was always greatly anticipated as it marked the end of the day and the time at which it was acceptable to go to sleep for the night.  Realistically, on high doses of anti-anxiety and anti-psychotic medication I often slept during the day as well.   Floating in between high levels of anxiety and thoughts of self harm and suicide, and drugged, sluggish, words slurred together medication induced slumber.

There were no cell phones at that time, difficult to imagine!  There was a Bell payphone at the end of the hall in the TV lounge area.  There was a black leather chair you could sit in while you were on a call.  There was another payphone halfway down the hall, at the edge between the Y and Middlesex portions of the 7th floor (older and comparatively newer parts of the wing).  Talking on the phone to friends and family members was one way to pass the time.  Some patients also sat in the TV room watching whatever was on. I rarely sat there, preferring to stay in my room or in the room of a co-patient I had befriended.

If you were upset, you could ask to speak one on one with your nurse.  There was a small room attached to the nursing station where we could sit.   Sometimes the nurses would speak to me in my room.   The psychiatrist would visit once every few days.  These visits were highly anticipated.  Sometimes I would wait around the floor for hours, figuring that my Dr might check in on me.   Visits from the psychiatrist meant changes in medication, changes in privilege levels, and often discharge from the hospital.  The doctor generally just spoke to me in my room, even when the room was shared with 1-3 other people.  The level of privacy on the psych ward was very low, unless you were lucky enough to be moved to a private room.

Private rooms were highly coveted.  On the psych ward private rooms had nothing to do with the insurance coverage you had and everything to do with privileges.   When I arrived on the 7th floor I was generally in a ward room, 4 beds separated with curtains.  I didn’t mind this as long as I had one of the two beds by the window rather than one of the two beds by the door.   Patients who just arrived on the unit were placed in the ward rooms closer to the nursing station.  Aggressive or self destructive patients were placed in these rooms.  If I stayed longer, I would often be allowed to move further down the hall, further from the nursing station and closer to the exit (both literally and symbolically).   I loved the single rooms which had their own washrooms.  All the rooms had these chain link grills over the windows, but some of them did open a crack.   There were also double rooms, some of which did not have washrooms.  There was a shared shower room.  It had space for 3 people to shower or bathe at the same time, but the showers were separated by curtains.   Rumors circulated that people had completed suicide in these shower rooms and all the patients believed them.  There was also a laundry room where longer staying patients could wash their clothes.

The best part of staying at South Street was that I was generally allowed to come and go for brief periods on my own.  Sometimes I was allowed only on hospital ground, in which case I would go down to the patio at the back of the building.  This was a place where smokers could smoke and psych patients who were not allowed to leave could get some fresh air.  I would go down there with fellow patients sometimes and it was almost like an outing.  Smokers looked forward to the scheduled times we were allowed to leave the unit.

Other times I was allowed to go for short walks around the neighbourhood.   I used to walk down to the river by the hospital.  I’d walk around the streets in the area.  Sometimes I’d walk to Tim Horton’s and buy a piece of caramel coffee cake.  There was a walking path along the river to a small waterfall.  I know we sometimes though of jumping into it.  There were ducks which could be fed if you ordered extra bread with your meal.  Sometimes I walked alone, sometimes with visitors and sometimes with other patients.   I made some friends at South Street.  A few of them I still stay in touch with today.

Ironically enough, many of the patients were allowed to basically come and go as they pleased.  At night the door was locked and you needed permission from your psychiatrist to have a pass home for the evening or overnight.  Sometimes I had accompanied passes which meant my boyfriend had to sign me in and out.  Other times he would just drop me at the front entrance.   Ironically, though I was often admitted to the hospital for self harm and suicidal thoughts or attempts, I was still allowed freedom to leave the floor unaccompanied.   In reality I could have harmed myself pretty much anytime I wanted, even when in the hospital.  Sometimes I did, but other times I didn’t.

I often wonder exactly what made the hospital safer than being at home.   I think it was the thought, or the hope, or the desperate idea that it was safer which kept bringing me back there.  I was almost hypomanic and highly impulsive about self harm while I was taking anti-depressants.  I felt unsafe, I thought I’d be safer in the hospital, admitted myself then realized I felt trapped.  I was generally a voluntary patient, so I soon discharged myself and the cycle began again.  I never really felt safe anywhere.

Sometimes the hospital was a comfort.  The routines, the quiet, the break from real life.

Sometimes the hospital was terrifying, like when one of my roommates was cutting and snorting cocaine in our shared washroom.  Leaving blood and white powder traces for me to find.   Like when a patient who dressed in black and openly worshiped Satan was restrained by multiple security guards and wheeled down the hall on a gurney screaming.   Like when an old man came up behind me in the hall and placed his hands around my neck, whispering that he would kill me.  Like the blood stains on the 7th floor carpet, from where a man had been seriously injured trying to escape.

There was  tenuous grasp on order there, and we all knew it.   Sometimes people think of the psych ward as being filled with crazy people.   But in reality, I was neither more nor less crazy than the other people there.  I wasn’t psychotic, like some of them were, but I was destructive and depressed.  Everyone was there because they weren’t safe.  Our reasons were different, but the result was the same.  We all lined up for our pills.  We all ate our meals off plastic trays.  Some of us were allowed real cutlery and others only plastic.   The lines were drawn in terms of privileges, delineating various levels of “crazy.”  But in the end we were all there together.  We were all psych patients.  I see myself as being no different from the others.

Even today, over a decade later, there is a part of me that still holds that identity.  The identity of being on a psych ward, of being hospitalized against my will.  It did change me and it did shape me.  But it no longer defines me.

 

 

No, you don’t have the right to torture me

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This is what the stigma of being misdiagnosed with borderline personality disorder means to me.  Trigger warning for description of self harm and abuse.

Monday November 8, 2004

I presented to the Emergency Room at South Street Hospital with a self inflicted cut on my arm.  By this time I had been using hospital psychiatric services for over 3 years.  I was a frequent flyer, a regular, a repeat customer and I was not popular.  I had experienced many unpleasant experiences in the ER.  I had grown accustomed to medical students poking at me and asking ridiculously offensive questions.  The worst was “Why don’t you cut yourself deeper so it would hurt more?”

I’m only going to say this once.  In my opinion someone who uses psychiatric services heavily is actually in MORE need, likely MORE desperate and experiencing MORE complex issues that someone who is visiting for the first time.  As mental illnesses progress folks become sicker and more marginalized by society.  What is needed are more individualized care plans, more compassionate care, more empathy and more listening to the survivor.  The survivor themselves is the expert in her own healing.  One size fits all models of care do not work, they have never worked, and will never work.  Each person is unique and experiences a unique mix of oppression and marginalization as they live with their illness.  Social and structural factors are an important thing to consider.  The survivor does not exist in a vacuum.

Believe me, if someone truly had options, they would NOT choose to spend their lives in psychiatric institutions.

Part of the reason I used the Emergency Room so frequently at that time was because I had neither a family doctor, nor a psychiatrist seeing me for ongoing care.  Lack of access to primary and preventative mental health care is a huge issue.  Another major barrier is the existence of a two-tiered mental health care system; whereby folks who have financial resources are able to access private care from psychologists and social workers and economically marginalized people (the sickest and most at risk) often face long waiting lists, lack of affordable housing and gaps in services.

By that time Dr. X had stopped seeing me.  This happened over a period of months.  First he would cancel appointments, then not show up for them.  I was busing across town to meet him and he just would not be there.  Then he switched from an outpatient practice and seeing inpatients on the 7th and 8th floor to working full time in the Urgent Psychiatry Clinic and the ER.  When he switched his practice I was not assigned to another doctor, nor was a given a community referral.  Thus, my only option was to attend at the ER to get a psych consult and an appointment with Urgent Psychiatry.  I begged and pleaded and searched for a new doctor but I was not able to find one.  I found out later that Dr. X had essentially blacklisted me at South Street and no psychiatrist would take me on because I had “borderline personality disorder.”  I was also denied access to the PTSD treatment program, after waiting on their list for 18 months.  I was told I didn’t meet the criteria for the program.  Ironic since PTSD is my main, if not only, diagnosis.

But I digress…back to November 8, 2004.

I waiting in the waiting room for about 1 hour before being brought back into the curtained treatment area known as OR 2.  When I was directed to a bed I began crying and was visibly upset.  A nurse arrived to take my history, but she was interrupted by Dr. P who dismissed her saying “you are wasting your time.”   Dr. P spoke to me in a curt and derogatory manner, asking to see my laceration.  He took a quick look at it and said he was going to staple it.  I began crying and asking him to please stitch the cut instead because staples really scared and triggered me.  Dr. P laughed at me and asked me to lie down and proceeded to quickly clean the cut.  He then held my arm down and proceeded to place 8 sutures into my forearm without using any local freezing or pain relief.  I was sobbing and screaming and he continued offering no sign of sympathy or concern.  I couldn’t understand why he was not following procedure and I was confused and distressed.  I felt as though I was being purposely targeted and tortured because my wound was self inflicted.  I felt like Dr. P wanted to “teach me a lesson.”  I was known to him from previous visits and I got the sense he did not want to see me in “his” ER again.

After he was finished the nurse came back and tried to calm me down.  She reported the incident to the charge nurse who also comforted me and offered me Advil.  I was then taken to the psych waiting area to meet with the doctor on call.  I was very upset, triggered and in a lot of pain.  I remember curling up into the smallest ball I could make in the uncomfortable plastic chair which was bolted to the ground.  The floor was covered in green tiles.  All the furniture was bolted down, presumably to stop patients from injuring themselves of others.  It was a cold room, I remember I was shaking and probably in shock.

I reported the incident to the College of Physicians and Surgeons a few days later.  The treatment I received was abusive and was physical assault.  I came to the hospital (already living with PTSD) and I was traumatized in a time of crisis.  I firmly believe that if my cut had not been self inflicted and if I had not been labelled within the hospital as a “hopeless case” this assault would not have taken place.

Procedure allowed Dr. P to write a response to my complaint.  In his response he actually admitted to speaking with Dr. X who told him that I “had long standing borderline personality disorder and that none of his colleagues would take [me] because of this.”  Incredible!  Psychiatrists in the hospital were actively denying me care due to a psychiatric misdiagnosis?  I wouldn’t believe it except I’ve seen my charts and I know it to be true.

Dr. P’s explanation for not using freezing was that he thought my arm was so full of scar tissue that I would not be able to feel the sutures.  This made no sense since I was screaming while he stitched my arm.  He wrote that he offered me anesthetic which was a lie.  Luckily the two nurses who were working supported my account of events.  Also the Dr did not note in the chart that I had refused local anesthetic which is standard protocol before proceeding without it.   I found out later that my complaint was not the first one made to the College about Dr. P and his behaviour in the ER.

The College upheld my complaint and Dr. P was ordered to appear before the College for discipline.   I’m not 100% sure what that entailed but my complaint was heard.  I did feel validated by that, but it did not undo the trauma that I experienced.

I experienced torture within a Canadian hospital.   This happened because of the label of borderline personality disorder.  This happened because I wasn’t getting better quickly enough, because I wasn’t acting in a way that was expected of a survivor of violence.

But this should not have happened, not to me, not to any person.  Especially not to a survivor of abuse.  Self harm was a normal coping reaction for me.  My personality is not disordered, I survived ongoing sexual and emotional abuse; as well as dangerous side effects to the very medications the hospital kept pushing at me.

My message to the world:

Please treat folks who harm themselves with care and compassion.  Chances are they are already judging themselves far more harshly than you ever could.  Self harm is a misunderstood coping technique, it is not a way to get attention.  If you haven’t harmed yourself, please don’t judge, you haven’t walked in our shoes.  The reasons why people turn to self harm are complex and layered. By showing love and compassion to the self-injuring person you could be literally saving their life.  We don’t want or need to be saved, we just want to be respected, heard, and valued.

If you do harm yourself, please know that you are loved and important.  I hope one day you will find other ways to cope.I support you and I am glad you are fighting rather than giving up.

The world is a better place because you are in it.