ASK JANICE MENTAL HEALTH SPECIAL, PART 1: I’M NOT OK

Written by on September 12, 2018 in ASK JANICE - No comments

How I Sought and Received Inpatient Treatment for My Mental Illness

I’ve battled chronic depression since my early twenties. I’m 53, now. Over the past three decades, I’ve been diagnosed with clinical depression; manic-depressive disorder, later referred to as bi-polar disorder; and chronic depression. My current and seemingly most accurate diagnosis is:

Major Depressive Disorder, single episode, severe without psychotic features.

That’s not only a mouthful, it’s a lot to process. I came to receive this diagnosis about four years too late, during my voluntary, inpatient stay on the mental health ward of my local hospital. My mental health had finally deteriorated enough for me to take the drastic step to “check myself in” and get some real, professional help.

2018 has been particularly bad year for me. I’ve spent most of the year battling thoughts of suicide. From the beginning of the year, I’ve been on a downward spiral mentally, and just couldn’t figure out how to stop it.

This was going on despite my public efforts to eliminate the stigma of mental illness and treatment, especially within the Black community. Over the past few years, I’ve published a couple of essays about my decades-long struggle with mental disease, and I’ve used my social media platforms to educate and raise awareness about mental health issues.

But even my armchair activism couldn’t keep my own darkness at bay. I was sick and getting sicker, looking at my reflection in my mirror every day and whispering, “I’m not o.k.” So, I asked for help … finally.

Full disclosure: I was already in the hospital, by way of an ambulance ride to the ER when I asked for help for my depression. I’d been struggling with stomach issues for months, but since I didn’t have health insurance, I didn’t seek medical care. By the way, my lack of health insurance and money were also the reasons my deteriorating mental health had gone untreated for so long.

My most recent “stomach issues” turned out to be a severe diverticulitis flare-up exacerbated by my diabetes, resulting in an awful infection that left me dehydrated and sick enough to remain hospitalized for five days. While I was still in the ER, I told the attending doctor that I was having suicidal thoughts and wanted to be seen by a psychiatrist. My thinking was that, as I was already being treated without insurance for my medical problems, I might as well get the help I so desperately needed for my mental problems, too.

In other words, I saw an opportunity and grabbed it.

In all honesty, I doubt I would have sought help at all if I hadn’t already been so physically sick. Not only was I uninsured, I was also broke. I work part time at a job I love, but my depression has been so severe, I haven’t been able to handle full time work. I simply could not afford therapy or any more meds than I was already barely taking. So my diverticulitis flare-up probably saved my life.

After I’d been admitted to a regular room, a psychiatrist came to talk to me. He asked me how badly I wanted to get better, and I tearfully told him that I was desperate to get better.

“What are you willing to do to get better?” He held my gaze, not allowing me to look away, even I’d wanted to. Which I didn’t.

“I’ll do anything to get better,” I told him. “I don’t want to feel this way, anymore.”

“Would you consider inpatient treatment here, at this hospital, if I can arrange it?”

“Yes, please. But I don’t have any insurance.”

“Don’t worry about that,” he assured me. “Let me take care of it. As long as you’re willing to be admitted once you’re medically cleared from this floor, it will all work out.”

I cried with relief. It actually took that doctor and another mental health professional (I’m not sure of his title) a lot of string pulling and maneuvering for it to “all work out”. 21st century hospital bureaucracy is still a slow-moving beast. Luckily (or unluckily, depending on your perspective), I wasn’t medically cleared to move for four full days. I was just that sick. And even then, it still took another day for me to get transferred.

The other reason I could be transferred was that I worked with a social worker to complete a new Medicaid application. I’d had Medicaid in the past, but for some reason, it was cancelled. Probably because I’d failed to submit the documents necessary to “renew” it. Again, my depression stopped me from handling a lot of personal business. This was just another example of how my mental illness negatively impacted my life.

However, the hospital came to the rescue and I was getting what I wanted: some intense, professional help to deal with my chronic depression. Knowing help was available and imminent lifted my mood tremendously. Before I was even transferred, I felt better.

I immediately decided to journal about my experience with inpatient care. First because on the Behavioral Health Unit, 4 East at my local hospital, patients can’t have access to any devices, the internet, spiral notebooks, or even pens. As an avid user of social media, the prospect of an undetermined amount of time “off line” was daunting.

At least journaling, even in pencil on the unlined scrap paper stingily doled out at the nurses’ desk, would give me a way to focus my healing, write away my anxiety and fill my downtime with something constructive. I probably would have journaled in my own blood on tree bark, had that been a requirement of the Unit. I was just that ready to get better.

End of Part 1. Stay tuned for Part 2.

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