August 16, 2012

10 Insights from Inside an Acute Psych Ward (& recovery afterwards).

Hard to smile when you’ve just been released from a psych ward

In September of 2004 I spent nine days committed to Lion’s Gate Acute Psych Ward.

That meant I wasn’t allowed to leave. I had to wait until the authorities-on-high deemed me sane enough to walk the streets.

They had good reason to do so. Not a month early, I’d been admitted to the same acute psych ward by my fiance after I freaked out post-LSD, getting weirder and weirder after we’d spent a long weekend at Shamballah Music Festival. The final straw—I started speaking in some language that wasn’t English. Clearly, I’d lost the plot.

Spiritual burglary, the doctor I saw that time called it. My use of drugs had opened doors of perception I had no right to enter.

Now, a month later, this time after my fiance broke up with me, I’d freaked out again. The cops picked me up running half-naked down the back roads of Pemberton, playing Fear Factor games with logging trucks.

I’d have locked me up too.

Waking up in the psych ward, round two, was devastating. I couldn’t blame it on the drugs this time. Plus I was totally alone. No more fiance, no family close by, and no friends dropping by to see me. Psych wards are like that. People aren’t lining up at the door to visit.

Those nine days were excruitiating. My sole motivation for all actions and words was to prove that I was sane so I could get the hell out of the ward and begin the long process of putting my psyche back together.

Hang on a minute.

Surely an Acute Psych Ward would be the ideal place for a recently crazy person to hang out? The ideal place to be supported through a healing process? The ideal place to be cared for and looked after?


And that was insight #1. Institutions are designed to hold people and keep society safe, they’re not designed to heal people.

No surprise there I guess. It’s difficult to remember all the details now—I remember seeing a doctor once or twice. I don’t recall what we talked about. I remember the nurses taking us through some kind of group therapy sessions each afternoon. My interactions with the staff didn’t make much of an impression.

What I do remember was the abysmal food, over-cooked, over-starched, over-dead. Nothing nutritious, healing or life-enhancing about the food. I remember the sterile environment, the lack of plants, the white walls, the anti-septic nature of the environment. Nothing healing about that either. In my enhanced-senses state, the food I was feeding my body, and the energy of my environment was paramount for my state of mind and ability to heal.

I knew that if I wanted to put myself back together, this was not the place to do it.

#2. Mental health services are difficult to deliver, and not all health professionals are up to the task.

A week after I was released from Lion’s Gate Hospital, I was on a plane back to New Zealand. Newly diagnosed bi-polar, and on a prescription of Epilim and something else I don’t recall, I was advised to check in with my local GP and local mental health service when I got home.

So I did. My GP was fine. The nurse I encountered at Mental Health Services was not—she was condescending. The last thing I needed in my fragile, “I’m such a loser state.” So I walked.

That was my last encounter with Mental Health Services. If the health professional who’s meant to support me through this process has an idea that I am less than her… well how the hell is that meant to work?

#3. Drugs have their place.

After my first psychotic episode, I was put on two drugs. Epilim, and something else. The name escapes me. One was an anti-psychotic, and one a mood stabliser. Two weeks later, I stopped taking the medication because, I was fine you know? Nothing wrong with me.

Until the emotional distress of being dumped by my fiance triggered another episode. Would the drugs have prevented that second episode? Hard to say. But after episode number two, I wised up. I continued taking the drugs while I stablized my life, then decreased the dosage in increments with the full knowledge of my family and flatmates. Within six months, I was drug-free. They’d done their job.

Eight years later, I’ve never had any other experiences of psychosis.

#4. Nobody knows what to say to someone who’s been crazy.

I’d had the freakiest experience of my life, and even though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, all I craved was someone to talk with about the experience. More than one someone actually. I wanted people to ask me about it, and talk to me about it, because that would make it normal and okay. Like getting a broken leg.

“So how’d you break your leg?”

“Fell off a cliff.”

“So how’d you go crazy?”

“Oh, had this childhood behaviour pattern of suppressing all emotion, leaving my body and disappearing into my mind.”

Didn’t happen. People didn’t ask me questions. They pretended it hadn’t happened, they glossed over it, they looked the other way. Craziness freaks people out.

#5. Breaking a leg is just life. Breaking a mind is personal.

No one feels bad about themselves when they break a leg. It doesn’t strike to the core of who they are. It’s just their body, and it will heal.

Different story when you break your mind. We identify with our minds, so mental illness means there’s something drastically wrong with us. With who we truly are. Only this is false too. We are not our minds at all. There is no core failing in a person whose mind doesn’t work as well as it might. A broken mind can also be healed, just like a broken leg can. Maybe even better.

This extends to any kind of mental illness —you are not your illness. You are not depressed, you are not anxious, you are not mad. You are having an experience of depression, an experience of anxiety, an experience of madness. Experiences come and go. You remain.

#6. Any breakdown can be transmuted into a break-through.

My mind/body/emotions interface wasn’t working. So it broke.

Once it broke, it was easier to see why it wasn’t working—mostly because I couldn’t just ignore it anymore.

So I figured out what was wrong and I put it back together again. Better than ever.

That initial fault that caused the mind/body/emotion interface breakdown? Healed. Why? Because I got real curious about why I’d gone crazy. That curiousity led to answers. Answers led to solutions. Solutions led to healing. And now here I am, rocking it.

Sounds easy right? Maybe—but this process took eight years. The first year was hell. The second and third year was only Hell-ish. By the fourth year I was starting to feel some semblance of almost normal. It wasn’t until year six when I was starting to feel good again on a regular basis. But I was bloody-minded and bloody-determined to claw my way back from the pits of Hell and turn this experience into something amazing. Which I did.

It doesn’t matter what’s happened to you, it only matters what you do with it.

#7. Craziness is an aspect of the continuum of our human experience.

Here’s what I noticed when I was crazy.

Being crazy is believing the stories that your mind is telling you, even when the actual evidence from the here and now is presenting something else completely different.

Many of us, at all times, hold grains of craziness inside our belief systems, and in the filters through which we see reality. It’s just that most of us are able to continue functioning in step with the dominant reality to avoid detection. Fifty shades of crazy people, fifty shades of crazy.

We’re all crazy, one time or another.

#8. Persistence, faith and love will carry you through. Always.

It’s been eight years this September and I have never been crazy again. Oh I’ve made bad choices, and ignored my inner-knowing, but it’s all just been a part of the learning.

In the last eight years, something inside me has loved me enough to always seek understanding, to always inquire into my experience, to always burn with a desire to be real.

That something has been a daily persistence, fueled by a faith that I had a power inside me that could lead me to healing. I don’t know where this comes from. I only know that it is there, because I observe other people in their difficult life circumstances and I see that not all of them have that fire to blaze on through. I have the fire. For that I am grateful.

Find that fire inside you. If I have it, you have it. It just needs lighting.

#9. Truth, honesty, and expression of Self are the key to healing.

A huge part of my journey has been fronting up, just as I am. I started writing my first blog in 2006 (5?), and just being able to talk about what had happened to me was healing. Every time I shared the truth of my experience as I knew it in that moment of time, another layer of Not-Me dropped away, and another understanding floated to the surface. There was something so strong, so empowering, so liberating, in being able to own my experience, and own mySelf. This happened to me. And I’m okay with that. It’s just a happening.

Having the courage to talk about your experience, whatever it is, will change your life.

#10. People sit up and take notice when you casually drop into a conversation, “This one time, in the psych ward…”

I see now that I’m a Warrior, a warrior of the psyche. I ventured deep into the forbidden lands where ordinary mortals are terrified to go, because few men or women ever return intact. I ventured. I returned. And I’m intact.

This journey, deep into the psyche, has taught me how the psyche works. I understand it intimately, and now I can work with it, on a daily basis. This is an extraordinary gift.

Those nine days I spent committed to a psych ward forever changed my life. And I’m so grateful.

Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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