Inpatient bonds.

20160727_214408[1]One of the bright sides of spending so much time in hospitals during my teens and early twenties is the people I met there.  Some of them became lasting friends and the bonds between us defied understanding by outsiders.

If you’ve never spent a significant amount of time as an inpatient in psychiatric wards and mental health treatment facilities you probably won’t understand.

I’ve had people close to me tell me that I “shouldn’t have so many friends with problems” or that I should “try to make healthier friends” or that I “shouldn’t talk to people who depress me.”

These comments miss the point for a number of reasons.

First of all, if my “friends with problems” aren’t worthy and I shouldn’t be friends with them, does that mean nobody should be friends with me either?  In case you hadn’t realized from reading this blog, the secret is out.  I identify as living with mental illness! I’m not exactly 100% well myself, otherwise I wouldn’t have been in the hospital in the first place!  Does this make me less of a good friend?  Does this make me a person who should be shunned and avoided?  I certainly hope not.  I would like to afford my other hospital friends the same courtesy.

Two, it’s hard for people who are mentally well, neurotypical, never struggled with severe mental illness to understand me.  Sure, I have well friends who empathize and who don’t judge me.  But the bonds and mutual understanding I’ve shared with other people who struggle with PTSD, eating disorders, depression and suicide are very strong.   It’s like I can breathe again, when I talk to a friend who I know “just gets it.”

Three, when you are living in a hospital ward, you naturally form friendships and alliances with the people you are living with.  Some of them become friends.  It happens and it helps us survive.

So please, don’t judge these special friendships.  Even when I’ve lost friends to suicide, even when I’ve been triggered by friends and had to set boundaries, even when it feels like listening to their struggles is too much to bear, I never regret them.

My dear friends who are gone.  I desperately miss that feeling of belonging I had when I talked to you, laughed with you.  MJ, there was never anything I shared about PTSD that you hadn’t breathed and experienced yourself.  I never had to explain myself, you just knew.  This blog entry’s photograph is a picture of all the cards you wrote to me during our friendship.

Who else could I share my strange experiences with?  When I told her one day, crying in the bathroom in my ex-husband’s house, that I was scared because I thought I was seeing X everywhere.  I literally thought I could see him all around the city.  Intellectually, I knew he wasn’t there, but it felt real and my heart skipped a beat each time.   She almost laughed and said, “It happens to me all the time.  I see everywhere too”  We breathed out together, suddenly this PTSD symptom was normal and okay.  We understood each other, we weren’t crazy.  I loved her for this and I know she loved me for it too.

When I was in treatment for anorexia when I was 17, I met another young woman named M.  She and I were stuck on the eating disorder for 5 weeks together, while other patients attended groups.  We were on “modified activity phase” until we gained a certain percentage of our goal weight and it took forever.  During this time we talked, bonded and sometimes sneaked around doing things we should not have.   She was painting rocks when I got there.  I asked her what I was doing and if I could help.  She told me she wanted to paint 1000 rocks so her wish would be granted.  Soon, we had an assembly line going.  We would fill our pockets with rocks on our 15 minute outside break, sometimes walking further than we should have away from the break area.   Once inside, I would paint the rocks a solid colour, then when they dried she would write “Expect a Miracle” in careful lettering on each one.  The final step was applying a clear glaze once all the paint was dry.   We painted so many rocks, I don’t remember how many we had finished when I discharged myself 3 months later.  I still have some of them in my bedroom almost 20 years later.  I’m still waiting for a miracle.   I often wonder what happened to M.  We lost contact and I still think of her often.  I wonder if her miracle came true and I wonder if she recovered.

I met my friend Lexi at a support group in my city.  It was the first place I really talked at any length about leaving my ex-husband and what was going on in the marriage.  Lexi loved to crochet and knit.  She loved her family.  I used to go to her apartment sometimes and we would chat about all sorts of things.  Sometimes we shared stories of our trauma and sometimes we joked and laughed about our future.  I was inspired to try online dating because of Lexi.   I lost her suddenly last summer, about  a year ago now.  I still miss her.

Darlene, whose story I recounted in another blog post, her anniversary was this week.  14 years ago I lost her.   I wish I’d had the chance to know her better, but I won’t ever forget her.

Some friends like my dear sister LJ, I have kept in contact with for over 12 years, through email, fb, text and phone.  She lives in a different country, but she calls me sister.  I miss her and I hope to see her again one day.  I have ever letter and card she has ever sent me. She has inspired me in many ways and her commitment to recovery and to survival is tremendous.

My friend John, he is also gone now.  But his music lives on and I have his CD which I listen to from time to time and remember his gentle courage.

I will never forget the stories of survival I heard and witnessed during my hospital stays.  I met so many survivors.  I met war veterans who were kind and brave enough to share small details of their own private hells with me.  I met residential school survivors who shared with me the abuse they endured.  I met childhood abuse survivors who overcame.  I met women who were admitted to the hospital in full psychosis, speaking in delusions and making little sense.  I saw those same women, mere days later, completely calm and rational again after taking their medication.  I met people who had lost family members in tragic circumstances.  I met people who had nearly died from multiple heart attacks due to anorexia and bulimia and some of those women have children and are well and healthy today.

These friends give me hope.  They remind me that I’m not alone.  They remind me that recovery is possible.  And the ones that have died, I will hold in a special place in my heart forever.

Inpatient bonds are something to be celebrated.

Dental Floss. When the truth is I miss you so…

Wonder-Woman

I met my dear friend MJ during the summer months of 2002.  We were both patients in the Post-traumatic Stress Recovery Program at Homewood Health Centre in Guelph.  We became friends very quickly, even though we were both struggling.  In so many ways she was struggling, coping with the impact of years, a lifetime really, of abuse.  We were close in age, we were both looking for hope and for something to hold on to.

I won’t write too much about MJ’s story, because it is not my own.  I will say that she was also a survivor and spent a good portion of our friendship hospitalized in various places.

MJ and I would write letters to each other, cards mostly.  Words of encouragement.  We would speak by phone, sometimes almost daily and sometimes months would go in between.  The amount of contact varied along with our health statuses at any given moment.

MJ was the person who I felt completely understood my experience of living with PTSD.  She never judged me.  She was always so grateful for our friendship.  I could tell her my strangest thoughts and she knew exactly what I was going through.  She was one of the bravest people I’ve even known.

MJ and I had an inside joke.  I don’t remember anymore who started it, but I think it was her.  We both struggled with near constant thoughts of suicide and self harm.  But we would talk about holding on and about being there for each other.  She used to say “hold on to hope, even if what you are holding onto is as thin as dental floss.”  We often talked about holding onto the dental floss, each of us holding one end and clinging to life.

I supported MJ through many hospitalizations and numerous suicide attempts.  I always knew in my heart that MJ would not be with me forever.  I almost lost her too many times to count.  We had a special connection, one that I’ve only had with a few other people in my life. I would dream about her, nightmares about things happening to her. Waking with a terrible, panicked pit in my stomach, I would know the dream was true. We were so connected I often knew something was wrong or something had happened before she told me.  I would call and find that she was in hospital.

MJ died one year ago.  She died from complications from chronic, terminal PTSD.  I was not there, I did not get to say goodbye.  For some reason I was not invited to the funeral.  I found out over a week later when her Mom answered her cell phone.  I was sitting in my car and I instantly knew.  I cried as her Mom described what happened.

MJ did not die alone.  Her family was with her and she was peaceful.  I take great comfort in this.  I said thank you hundreds of times.

But my heart aches and aches.  I can’t believe she is gone.  I feel devastated that some people don’t survive violence. There are days when I think if I pick up the phone to call her she will answer.  If I get on a plane and fly to her city, she will be there waiting for me.  I dream about her still and wake up crying when I realize she is dead.  She will always be a true survivor to me, even though she didn’t make it out alive.

I still have all the cards she ever sent to me.  I have about 25.  I keep them, along with photos of us together, under my bed.  I’ve read and re-read them, my eyes filled with tears of gratitude that these small pieces of her, her words of encouragement to me, will always be with me.

If I could have one wish, to speak to anyone, living or dead, it would be her.  Just one more time.  I wonder if anyone else will ever understand me so well.  I know I won’t ever have a friend just like her.  The bonds that are formed through shared experiences of trauma are difficult to break.  And I don’t want to break them.  As much as this hurts, I don’t regret being her friend.

I miss you MJ.  I miss you so much.  I’m still here, I’m still holding my end of the dental floss.  I’m still trying to be the Wonder Woman I know you believed I was.  Thank you for being my friend.

Cowboy take me away
Fly this girl as high as you can
Into the wild blue
Set me free oh I pray
Closer to heaven above and
Closer to you closer to you”   -Dixie Chicks

 

Terminal illness (psychiatric style) aka suicide

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One of the side effects of having a chronic psychiatric illness is that you spend a lot of time in hospital, treatment and therapy groups.  One of the great aspects of this is all the amazing people I’ve had a chance to meet along my journey.  Perhaps the most tragic aspect of this story is the number of friends I’ve lost, when their mental illnesses became terminal.

I think it is time to stop saying “she committed suicide” or even “she completed suicide.”  It is more accurate to say things like “she died from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder,” or “she lost her battle with anorexia and alcohol addiction,”  or bluntly “depression killed her.”

Kirsten, Irene, Pammy Jo, Darlene, Marian, Lexi, Erin, Andrea

I will say their names so they are not forgotten.  These women ultimately did not survive the psychiatric and health care systems.   They died as a result of complicated, layered physical and mental health problems and, in many cases, social barriers and challenges as well.  Sexual, physical and emotional abuse killed some of my friends, though they died ultimately long after the abuse ended.  Many mental illnesses do not just appear out of the blue (in fact they rarely do).  I struggle to even call many of these deaths suicide.  I’d like to call some of them murder by PTSD.  If these women had not survived gender based violence or abuse within the health care system they quite likely would be alive today.

Quite simply, if my friends had not been abused I would be talking to them today instead of writing this blog post.

This afternoon I attended a memorial gathering for Lexi.  She died about 9 months ago.  She was beautiful, talented, creative young woman.

I find myself flying back, years in the past to when I experienced my first loss as a result of mental illness….

I met Darlene on 8East at South Street hospital, it was within my first few months there.  Possibly the 3rd admission.  She just slightly younger than me, perhaps 19 years old at that time.  I remember her roommate was a young woman with bulimia who was being tube fed with limited success.  I can still remember their voices laughing across the hallway.  They were listening to Nelly Furtado, Turn off the Light over and over, singing along.  Their room was full of stuffed animals.

Like me, Darlene was also a frequent flyer at South Street hospital and later at the Regional Mental Health Care London (better known by us as the LPH).   London Psychiatric Hospital.

Also like me, I believe she had also been labelled with borderline personality disorder as a result of frequent overdosing and high utilization of psychiatric services.  She was also a patient of Dr. X while at South Street.

July 23, 2002 I received a call from Darlene.  She started saying goodbye to me and I was confused.  I asked her if she was going to visit her Mom and she said no.  I quickly realized she was speaking about suicide.  I talked to her for a while and asked her permission to call 911.  She agreed.  I ended the call and send the paramedics to her house.  She was taken to the ER.  I later learned that she ate a roast beef sandwich while waiting for the doctor.  I have often wondered if that was her last meal.  A dry, cold, prepackaged hospital sandwich.  The thought breaks my heart.

She called me from a pay phone the next morning and explained she had been admitted at the LPH.  She had been chemically restrained, with an injection in her thigh and put into an observation room overnight.  She was angry and was being discharged and wanted me to come to meet her.  I took the bus across town to the hospital and the two of us took a cab to her apartment.  It was the first time I’d been there.  I had to leave her because I had an appointment to attend.  Another friend of ours stopped by and kept her company for the afternoon.  She was a young woman, about 16 years old.  The two of them went to the park and swung on the swings together.

The next day I was not able to reach Darlene by phone.  Scared, I called 911 thinking I would send the police to check on her.  The operator asked her name and my own name and then I was put on hold.  I was confused and started to feel a deep sinking sick feeling in my stomach.  After a few seconds someone else came on the phone, I assume it was  a police officer but I can’t remember.

Darlene is dead.

Sometime over the course of that phone call, or when the police officers came to my house I found out that after E went home, Darlene had returned to the Emergency Room at South Street asking for help.  She was turned away rather than being admitted.  Having had similar experiences myself, I can only imagine the staff were frustrated that she was back again so quickly.

Darlene walked a few short blocks away from the hospital and in front of a train around 8pm July 24.  She died alone, less than an hour after walking out the ER doors.  Outside of hospital staff, my friend and I were the last two people to see her alive.

This is what terminal psychiatric illness looks like.

This is the result of labeling someone borderline and attention seeking.

She was only a few days away from turning 21.  The system failed her.

After speaking with the police I drove to E’s house.  We went for a walk in the park by her house.  I had to tell this young woman, my friend, that her friend Darlene was gone.  It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do.  We sat on a rock in the park, crying and hugging each other.  I remember that a balloon floated by in the shape of Bert from Sesame Street.  It was a sunny day.

At her funeral, still in shock, we cried for our friend.  It was a strange service, her grey velvet casket sitting at the front of the room. There was no eulogy, no family members spoke.  The priest that spoke was a stranger and gave what sounded like a stock, religious speech.  He kept saying her name and it didn’t make sense to me. It was impossible to believe it was our friend who had died.  At the end of the service they played Angel by Sarah McLaughlan.  That song still makes me cry

I hope all of these women have found some comfort.  I certainly miss them.

When mental illness ends in suicide, a light goes out.  Suicide takes some of our brightest lights.  Grieving loss related to mental illness is complex and often not acknowledged openly by society.  I will write more about my own struggles with suicidal ideation, gestures and attempts.  I will write more about my friends.  The secrecy and stigma surrounding suicide needs to be broken in order to save lives.

My dear friends…

“In the arms of the angel, may you find some comfort here”