How I Sought and Received Inpatient Mental Health Treatment
Click here for Part 1: I’m not okay
Click here for Part 2: I’m just happy to be here
Click here for Part 3: The Bully of 4 East
“Friends keep calling me ‘brave’ for doing this … but I believe I have it easier than most. I have supportive friends and family who made taking this step easier. I’m so blessed to have such a strong support system. Almost makes me wonder how I could even get so low. But that’s the rub, isn’t it? Even someone ‘like me’ with all this love and support, can get so low.” Journal Entry, August 25, 2018, 11:45 P.M.
One night, during our 9:00 P.M. snack time, I started chatting with a really cool nurse named Dino*. He was about my age and we had slightly overlapping backgrounds growing up in Detroit. As we played the “do you know so-and-so” game, I could actually see the shock on his face as he started to put the pieces of my life together: I went to a well-known, all girls, Catholic high school, then to a Big Ten university, where I pledged one of the largest Black sororities in the world. Finally, unable to contain himself, he blurted, “With your background, what the heck are you doing here? This must just be a bump in the road for someone like you”.
“Someone like me”, as if my upbringing somehow protected me from having a mental illness. As if middle-class, college educated, Black sorority women don’t sometimes need inpatient mental health treatment. To Dino, I was an outlier patient. I didn’t fit his idea of who a patient on 4 East should be.
Dino’s response bothered me. When he said pretty much the same thing again a couple nights later, I gently reminded him that even “someone like me” needs help, sometimes. I wasn’t feeling very gentle when I chastised him, though. I was angry.
His response is exactly why more Black people don’t seek treatment when they need it. There’s this notion that Black people don’t have the luxury of having mental health issues because we’re too busy just trying to survive. For Black women in particular, there’s the expectation that we’re “too strong” to need help; we’re too busy taking care of business to be bothered with therapy; or my personal favorite, we turn our problems over to God, so we’re fine.
This archaic attitude is killing us! Our steadfast refusal to face the fact that undiagnosed and untreated mental illness runs rampant in the Black community is literally killing us. So is the notion that therapy is for “other people”. We need to de-stigmatize mental illness and treatment, and start getting the help we need.
Black women need more safe spaces to not be ok. Because sometimes our “not ok” is different from other people’s “not ok”. To quote the late Bebe Moore Campbell, “Your blues ain’t like mine”. Our unique experiences at the crossroads of race and gender aren’t like anyone else’s. That’s why we need to create and sustain more safe spaces just for us.
But, I digress.
The bottom line is the old, tired trope of THE STRONG BLACK WOMAN is dangerous. Yes, we are strong. But contrary to popular belief, we aren’t impervious to pain. To only judge our strength based on the pain we can endure is to deny us our full humanity. To only see us as “strong” is to deny us our full humanity.
That’s exactly the point of my advocacy. Mental illness affects EVERYBODY, regardless of class, education, religion, race, ethnicity, etc. The fact that “someone like me” seems like such an anomaly to a seasoned professional like Dino proves that there’s still a lot to be done in terms of awareness and stigma, particularly among African Americans.
I know I’m not the only Black, college-educated, sorority member who needs mental health treatment. My being such a rarity on the Behavioral Health Unit means there far too many people “like me” out there suffering in silence.
As passionate as I am about erasing the stigma of mental health in the Black community, you’d think I’d be more compassionate about anyone seeking mental health treatment. Sadly, I’m not. This realization was a humbling, yet necessary experience, and it involved Barb the Bully.
Barb acted up and out on a daily basis, sometimes more than once a day. Sometimes, she was so violent and disruptive, security had to be called to the Unit to subdue her. I even saw the police once.
One such incident occurred one morning while we were in Group. There were about six of us meeting that day, and we were in one of the group rooms with our door closed for privacy. We were about ten minutes into our session when we could hear yelling and screaming in the hallway. The only words I could make out were profanity-laden threats to cause someone physical harm.
It was Barb, of course. I don’t know what precipitated her outburst, but it got ugly fast. Through the window on our closed door, we could see other staff and armed security running down the hall towards the nurses’ desk. After a few seconds, the screaming suddenly stopped and all was quiet.
A patient named Jimmy*, who’d been on 4 East, against his will, for almost two weeks by the time I arrived, said “I bet they sedated her and chained her to her bed again”. I didn’t take him seriously, though. Jimmy was given to hyperbole and loved to talk smack about any and everybody. (He was actually much cooler than that description made him sound.)
Anyway, after Group, as I walked down the hall to my room, I passed Barb’s open door and looked inside. Sure enough, she was lying prone on her bed, dead still, with her eyes closed. And to my surprise, her ankles were bound to the bed with what looked like leather straps. Jimmy was right.
The image of my nemesis strapped to her bed shook me to my core. For one thing, it creeped me out in a “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” kind of way. I mean, I had no idea this kind of thing happened on this Unit! I was shocked.
Also, I was so busy resenting Barb for her toxic behavior that I failed to recognize not only her humanity, but the fact that she was a patient on 4 East, just like me. For all my “she’s beneath me, so I’ll just ignore her” and my holier-than-thou “a bully is a punk-ass who hasn’t met the right person” attitude, I failed to see the obvious: Barb and I were both mental patients on 4 East.
I further realized that for her to be so toxic and disruptive, she must be in immense psychic pain. Like me, she was sick. Just because my sickness didn’t manifest itself the way hers did doesn’t mean she wasn’t as deserving as I was of care. She deserved healing as much as anyone else on the Unit. And she deserved to be healed with compassion and dignity.
I don’t doubt that the staff took appropriate measures to diffuse the situation with Barb. I trust their expertise and experience, and believe they did the right thing. In fact, she had to be sedated and restrained on two more occasions before I was discharged. But for me, that first time seeing her knocked out and tied down was an eye-opening experience that forced me to face my own hypocrisy.
Here I was, this so-called advocate for mental health awareness, being judgmental and petty when it came to Barb. I actually believed she was beneath me. How hypocritical of me! I wrote in my journal, “I’ve been such a hypocrite – advocating for the mentally ill in my writing, all the while hating on her”.
Facing my own hypocrisy was a revelation. It made me take a long, hard look at how I perceived and reacted to other people, and what I saw wasn’t always pretty. I’d treated Barb as badly as others treat Black women – I’d used her pain against her, and denied her humanity in the face of that pain. I’d deemed her beneath me without any regard to her circumstances.
Someone like me, indeed.
I later journaled, “I am no better than anyone here. We are all sisters and brothers in this mental health fight. May we all prevail.”
*Names of patients and staff have been changed to protect their privacy.
END OF PART 4. STAY TUNED FOR PART 5, THE FINAL INSTALLMENT.