Comedian, Paul Gilmartin hosts a podcast called The Mental Illness Happy Hour. I recently was honored to be a guest on his show, speaking about my recovery from mental illness. Recovery has meant so much to me that I want to give back now that I am able. Doing the podcast was a great way for me to spread the word that people can get better from mental illness. I have seen it first hand, in my own life and countless others. Recovery is a reality. I think it is so important for people to know this because it gives hope and helps combat the ignorance of stigma. I thank everyone who has been and continues to be a part of my recovery. I thank everyone who is willing to listen to the podcast and appreciate the followers of my blog!
Instead of writing about one of my experiences, this post is a link to a podcast I was a guest on. The podcast is called The JV Club and is hosted by my dear friend, actress and comedian Janet Varney. I’ll let it speak for itself but I have to give a huge thank you to Janet for asking me to record with her and for being who she is. Enjoy!
I have been hospitalized in psychiatric facilities more than I can even guess. My rough estimate is 80 to 100 times since the age of 18. Usually I was there because of cutting, but there were times when I was so debilitated by depression or so consumed with racing thoughts, that I was unable to function in “the outside”. I have always felt very vulnerable in this world and anxious by the day to day life. Things that seem trivial to some make me crumble in fear. Things are much better now, as I have worked very hard on healing but at times I get a reminder of what it was like within the confined of hospital walls.
At 22 years old, because I landed myself in the psych hospital monthly, I put myself in my state’s facility. I thought that a long-term stay might fix me. I always saw myself as broken back then…in many ways I was. I think that I was hoping the doctors could glue the pieces of my heart back together again so that I could carry on. I was there for a short time for what stays usually are in that place. Three months and I was so starved for the love of my family that the psychiatrist thought it best if I was released. Those months, though, were the longest I have ever known. What is ironic is that I have very few memories of that place which is for the best.
I do remember feeling defenseless. I was very medicated on old anti-psychotics that I developed trembling limbs and involuntary movements in my face . My body was so slow that when i walked I shuffled and had so little energy that lifting my foot enough for the next step was a slow and arduous process; it’s coined the Thorazine shuffle. There were others on the ward that did not like me. One girl regularly told me in expletives, that I should die. Another used her size as intimidation to get me to give her my belongs. She also exploded into rants late at night and I had the misfortune of sharing a room with her. I remember I tried to stay up throughout the night and if I dozed I would jolt wide awake at any sound.
Day after day, 50+ people in a room with two televisions on different stations with there volumes cranked up. I believe it was enough to make any person crack. This and other memories are such a small part, I suspect, of what went on there in the state hospital. I have faint memories of the grounds outdoors and one blurred picture in my head of being in restraints. The two things that bring my mind back to these moments are the smell of coffee mixed with the odor of stale cigarettes, maybe that is why today I neither drink coffee or smoke.
These things happened and it was a horrific time of my existence . When I reflect on certain hospitalizations, my heart burns and tears bulge in the corners of my eyes. But then…I have to remember that I am shaped by my experiences. I was not weak during these times, but just the opposite…incredibly strong and resilient because I survived. I not only survived, but I grew and now thrived! I would not change my life in anyway. I have gained from my losses and built on what was taken from me. I am who I am because I thrive in adversity!
As I lay in the hospital, I thought for the first time about my future. Never had I really cared before about what was to come in my life. As I stared at my arm, hurt and fear throbbed in my heart. I then realized the lives I had damaged of the people I loved the most. I needed to say those four words that I had never thought I would say in my lifetime. “Help me, I’m sick.”
As always my mom was by my side in that hospital room. So I turned to her and for the first time broke the silence of all the suffering I had endured. I confided in her that I was scared of dying because secretly I embraced life. “Please find me a place that I can go to get help for my cutting”, I pressed. Being the pillar that she was and is, my mom took my hand and ran her hand through my hair, “I’m on it.”
Because of my cut I was sent to the psychiatric hospital yet again. This time, unlike the others, I had determination with the glimpse of a goal. That first day during visiting hours my mom and dad came in to see me with smiles on their faces. They filled me in on research they had done the night before about a hospital in Chicago called S.A.F.E Alternatives. It was the place for people who wanted to stop self-injuring. At that moment, without any hesitancy I agreed to give the place a call.
A short time after discharge from the hospital, I found myself with my suitcase in hand boarding a plane bound for Chicago. Upon arrival, the totality of what I was taking on built up and my whole being quivered with anxiety, but unlike other times I pressed on. Slowly but surely, I took my first step into recovery. That month in Chicago was some of the hardest work I have ever done in my life. Every day, all day, I sifted through my past, present and future in seven hours of therapy. I worked like I had never worked before helping myself heal, learn and grow. The transformation that happened was life altering.
The year was 2001 when I spent the month at S.A.F.E. and it is with tears in my eyes that I can proudly say I have been injury free ever since. It seems like a lifetime ago, these last 12 years, since I have cut. The remnants from those days of suffering that stick with me the most are the physical scars I see daily running up and down my arms. The difference is today I have learned to see them not as a failure, but as war wounds and signs of triumph. Today I can truly say to myself, “I love you,” and mean it.
Monty, Madison and Sherman are just a few of my recovery supports. These supports listen at anytime and no matter what I say they love me. In my darkest moments just knowing they rely on me for life has kept me alive. Yes, I consider them my children even though they are not of the human kind. They are my furry and feathery pets.
Through the years of my illness I have had pets. Their enthusiastic unconditional love is always apparent If it is my ferrets licking my chin or my bird climbing up onto my shoulder I knew they needed me.
I have been inpatient in psychiatric hospital 80 plus times during my dark days and the one thing I always made sure I packed in my bag was a scrapbook containing pictures of their precious faces. During these stays I would covet that book, flipping through the worn pages I saw hope. My longing to see them again turned into determination to get better, to move forward and integrate back into society.
Being released from the hospital was always overwhelming. Although I felt ready to go back out into the world it never failed to seem overstimulating. After being in the mundane setting of a hospital, where all I seemed to do is eat, sleep and take medication the outside world moved at an unsettling speed. It was coming home to my sanctuary and holding their soft little bodies is when I knew life was worth living.
Dissociation has been a counterproductive coping mechanism I developed from childhood. I often have times when I feel outside my own body and have difficulty returning. One of the tools I use is cradling my pets in my arms, using all of my senses to help bring me back to myself. It never fails that the pattering of their tiny hearts brings focus on my own beating heart returning me to feeling alive.
If I was a psychiatrist I would prescribe pets as part of the medication regime. I would write a script directing myself to hold at least one pet, several times a day. I would recommend laughing at their antics, care for their needs and have a heart to heart conversation everyday.
I have risen above many obstacles in my life. I have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness since the age of 17. The labels schizoaffective disorder, PTSD and generalized anxiety disorder are just some of the words doctors have used to describe what was happening to me. The most difficult diagnosis for me to come to terms with was Borderline Personality Disorder. I can hardly say the name without feeling sheepish. For me I took that diagnosis to mean that my personality was inherently flawed. I felt I was given that label mostly because of my cutting and eating disorder behaviors. Other factors probably played a part too, but the self-harm was what I saw to meet the criteria in the DSM-IV. I didn’t see any other “defects of character” in who I was that the psychiatrists seemed to agree on.
Cutting never seemed to be concerning for me. I thought that I would be able to keep doing it for the remainder of my life, however long that may be. It helped to cut. The world was so chaotic that harming myself was the only thing I could control. The secrecy also felt safe. I had something that was mine and mine alone, a secret identity. I was a “cutter” and I had found myself, so I thought.
Gradually through the years the cuts became more and more severe. They required stitches and trips to the emergency room. Because I was so removed from myself, the cutting never hurt. I never felt any physical pain. It always played out like this: I would dissociate, then I would complete the act. Following the cut euphoria set in, if only just for a moment. Then coming back to my body I would see what I had done. Finally, overwhelming feelings of shame and disappointment set in and I would crash.This was how it was for so long, I saw it as a life style until one day something changed me forever.
It was in the middle of the night when I awoke my parents because I knew I would need to go to the ER after the harm I had just inflicted. This was not unusual for me to jolt them from their slumber in tears and bleeding. I had yet to see the damage because it was dark in my room when I hurt myself. I got to the ER and I revealed the mess to myself and everyone in the room. Hysterics overtook me and I collapsed into a ball. This time it was bad.
That day was my bottom with my self-harm. I almost loss the use of my left arm. It was that day I realized I could accidentally commit suicide and it was that incident that prompted me into recovery. The allusion of control washed away and cold reality kicked me in the stomach. I needed help!
My life was slipping into a slow suicide. Because my brain was literally being starved, I could no longer function in school. My thoughts scattered and depression ruled my being. Things began to happen that I viewed as tragedy but later realized they were the life preservers I had to have tossed to me for survival.
I remember snapshots, like a slideshow of events. I see myself working out to the point of pure exhaustion, blacking out at the gym after my 3 hours run on the treadmill. There was the manic shopping trips, buy package after package of utility knife razors gradually increasing in the size and sharpness of each blade. I fainted downtown when I was with all of my friends and played it off that I had the flu. The incidents and sloppiness of my secrecy lead to poor explanations of my self-destruction. I neglected to conceal things like drops of blood on my shirt sleeve, vomit splatters on the toilet seat and forgetting to toss out the napkin that I quickly spit my food into when no one was looking at the dinner table.
I could not keep up with my lies. My memory was compromised, forgetting what I said when to explain away my secret life. Then one day, out of love and worry, my mom broke the silence. What I did not see through my denial was that my sickness became transparent. She saw the dark side that I coveted of a dual life and intervened with what at first I viewed as interrogation Later I see she did it to save my life.
The day I caved into my secrets and let the world into my truth was a turning point in my struggle with the self-harm in its entirety. I slowly left my comfort zone and began to talk about the plague that had been ailing me. Gradually conversations of hope and healing took place. I bravely began taking baby steps into recovery. It was then that life had possibilities once more.