Fighting Stigma from a Hospital Bed (again)
Content Forecast – this story will discuss a lot of heavy subjects, including abusive relationships (with details), suicide and mental illness, details about psychiatric hospitalisation, and overall reflection of the week I have just had. Please read with care. – Scout
New Years has always been a pretty rough time for me. I have a lot of “traumaversaries”, or anniversaries of traumatic events. Ironically enough most of these anniversaries aren’t even days where anything particularly bad happened, they’re days where significant events happened that remind me of all the bad stuff.
New Years was the anniversary of getting engaged. I was 18, and in true Scout fashion, I was desperate to hurry up and get on with my life after repeating a year of high school. My relationship felt perfect, my parents absolutely adored her, we were preparing to move out together. I proposed on the balcony at my parents’ place looking over the lake. She burst into tears and didn’t respond til at least 12.02am, by which time my knee was starting to hurt enough that I had to ask her to stop crying and answer me.
By that stage I’d missed quite a few warning signs within the relationship. I think the biggest one should have been how she treated her mother – she was just about a year older than me, about 19, and she only ever dealt with her mum by throwing violent tantrums or being totally adoring. There was no in between and no moderation. Within a month of us living together, those behaviours were targeted at me.
New Years is a reminder for me of that entire relationship. It brings me back to how I felt, small, young, terrified, walking on eggshells. It brings me back to the times she would pin me against a wall and scream at me, or confiscate my phone to stop me from calling anyone for help when she was being difficult. It brings me back to the times she would phone the police from the private hospital she spent 2 months in, falsely telling them I was psychotic or suicidal and a risk to myself. I was usually asleep – and all she achieved was actually making me psychotic and suicidal.
That was the first time I was ever admitted to a psychiatric ward. It was a locked ward at Ipswich Hospital, in South East Queensland. I was in a double room with a really lovely older woman who had had a bit of a meltdown in the supermarket carpark and felt self conscious about the dog treats in her handbag that she hadn’t gotten a chance to take home. I wasn’t allowed my phone (full stop, not even allowed to check it), and I was given the wrong medication by three towering nurses, who had snapped at me for asking them several times what was in the little cup they’d shoved through the pharmacy window for me. It was a heavy antipsychotic that I was definitely not prescribed and after their realisation and meagre apology at “breakfast” (I didn’t touch my food), I ended up sleeping off the other person’s medication, packing my bag, and self-discharging.
My first experience in a locked psychiatric ward was a very offputting one, and since that time I’ve been really lucky to only be admitted to unlocked wards. However, this week things have come to a head.
A combination of New Years trauma, the end of another unhealthy relationship, post-surgery fatigue from having my wisdom teeth out, my entire support team being on holiday, the death of an old friend, having nothing to do over the holidays, and one moment that triggered a evening of flashbacks lead to one of the deepest depressive episodes I’ve ever found myself in. It’s been a bizarre experience, and until Friday I’d been managing with zero suicidal ideation despite how deep the depression was. I couldn’t eat, drink or get out of bed for longer than ten minutes for about 5 days. I was using prescription medication to knock myself out for really lengthy periods of time, because I couldn’t cope with how I was feeling.
On Friday, an appointment with a psychiatrist through the Emergency Psychiatric Services seemed to be the catalyst – after being rather unheard through the whole appointment, the psychiatrist seeming surprised I was so “well” (read: high functioning), I left with the loudest intrusive suicidal thoughts I’d had in months. I impulsively bought the tools I needed for a suicide attempt that afternoon. They were in my bedside cabinet just in case.
By Saturday afternoon I was at breaking point. At the request of several friends, I chose to give EPS one last chance to hear me – that evening I phoned their crisis line and within a minute was told to come in and be assessed for a hospitalisation.
Mind, in any other region I wouldn’t have been hospitalised in this situation. In Dunedin, we have a grand total of one community respite bed for patients like me. Recently, they’ve had to start using a few others they wouldn’t usually use, but they were all full that night. I had a gruelling 3 hour wait in ED, hiding behind the triage desk because the noise from patients’ families was triggering panic attacks, before I was ushered into EPS and seen by a doctor. That isn’t the usual process, usually you’d see a psychiatric nurse first, but I’d already seen and spoken to several over the week and they didn’t think any more pre-assessment was needed.
At 3am, I was admitted to 9B, Dunedin’s locked acute psychiatric ward. The ward is made up of primarily Mental Health Act patients, and feels significantly more clinical than you’d probably want a psych ward to be – but it meets a purpose. Had any beds been available in the unlocked ward, I’d have been admitted there, and I’m now waiting to be transferred as soon as a bed becomes available.
Many of the people reading this will know that I’m a staunch and loud advocate and activist for improved mental health services in Aotearoa. You’ll also know that I’m working to become a politician – it’s the area of politics I’m the most skilled at – and that I yell loudly and regularly about reducing stigma surrounding mental illness.
I’ve been told a lot by people who happen to not be my doctors that I’m too unwell to be trying to get into politics. Conversely, my own doctors, counsellor, nurses, etc etc are all thrilled that I’m working to become a politician and are determined that this country needs people like myself in parliament. If they had any concerns about my ambitions and the work I am doing in relation to my health, they would raise those with me.
I thrive on keeping busy, keeping safe, staying well. I have an intricate self care plan that I follow to a T. I keep open and honest about the state of my mental health because as someone as publicly known as myself, even though I’m not quite at the level of people like Max Key, I feel a responsibility to use my experiences and knowledge to help people. My story isn’t one I share for brownie points, it’s one I share for a purpose.
I’m writing this piece from a hospital bed in a sparse room, up on a hill that overlooks the city. I’m glad I made the decision that I did to ask for help, and I’m glad I made the decision years ago to always be open and honest about my health. I don’t feel okay, but I feel much safer. My experiences are ones that people learn from, that I use in my own practice as a support worker, and that my classmates have begun to use in theirs. Writing about my experiences gives me a genuine link to the rest of the world, allows me to feel significantly less alone, and keeps me busy.
The most important thing I want people to take away from my experience is that a psychiatric hospitalisation is not the end of the world. When I ran for the position of Mayor of Dunedin, the Otago Daily Times asked me whether voters had anything to be concerned about regarding my psychiatric history.
The answer to that was, and always will be, no. And I counter that question by asking my own – Cr Aaron Hawkins broke his arm last year and spent a week in hospital. Do his constituents have anything to be concerned about regarding whether or not he will break his arm again?
And in the meantime, I’m going to attempt to psych myself up for whatever Compass offers up today for their vegan dinner. I bet it’s a tin of chilli beans on white rice again. I cannot possibly wait.
If you relate to any of the topics I have discussed in this story, and feel like you need some support, please use one of these helplines:
Lifeline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 354
Depression Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 111 757
Healthline (open 24/7) – 0800 611 116
Samaritans (open 24/7) – 0800 726 666
Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO).
Youthline (open 24/7) – 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free
between 8am and midnight, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
0800 WHATSUP children’s helpline – phone 0800 9428 787 between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at www.whatsup.co.nz.
Kidsline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18. Those who ring between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays will speak to a Kidsline buddy. These are specially trained teenage telephone counsellors.
Your local Rural Support Trust – 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)
Alcohol Drug Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 787 797. You can also text 8691 for free.
For further information, contact the Mental Health Foundation’s free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812).