*Content/trigger warning: this post discusses self-harm/suicidal ideation.
Super Bowl night, I found myself in the ER again, squirming in a hospital gown with no underwear. There, again, of my own doing, chasing the Super Bowl drinks I’d had with pills, giving into the voice in my head that said I was better off dead, where I wouldn’t feel that deep, paralyzing emotional pain.
They asked if I wanted to admit myself, and I politely declined. Having been down this road before, I know that the psych ward is for stabilization and safety. I believed I was safe at the moment from doing this again, knowing I’d end up right back in that ER. But what about a month from now? A year from now? I feared I’d ultimately be successful at completing suicide. As much as I didn’t want to live then, I didn’t want to die, either.
After the first trip to the ER, a friend and her mom insisted I go to an inpatient treatment center. The hospital suggested I do an IOP (intensive outpatient program — it’s 3–5 hours of therapy a day, five days a week). I don’t need that, I told myself and them.
I thought I could manage my depression — or the diagnosis I later received, bipolar II — on my own, with therapy once a week and monthly psychiatrist appointments. Meaning: doing the same thing I was doing. What’s the definition of insanity? Ah yes, doing the same thing and expecting different results.
I thought yoga teacher training would change my life. I thought trying out California would change my life. Yet, intense thoughts of walking out into that ocean to drown myself chased me. I have a hard time going back to Culver City because that’s where the Airbnb was that I began drafting a note in my head. I began wishing a massive crash on the 10 would end it all.
I saw glimmers of hope, and they are what kept me alive. Those tastes of my “old” life, which had felt far brighter. When thoughts of suicide had never crossed my mind.
But coming back to reality in NYC around the holidays and self-medicating with anything I could get my hands on hit hard. If I was already feeling so terrible, why not numb the pain more?
Waking up in the bright light of my bedroom on that cold February morning, I knew if nothing changed, nothing changed, and I knew what I needed to do: attend an inpatient program.
I still couldn’t care less about myself; I initially did it for my loved ones, to give them a respite from worrying about me. To get better for them. I was terrified to tell my dad. That I wasn’t OK. What if he judged me? What would he say? A dear friend made a deal with me: she’d help me with research and call him for me. Admitting to him (or anyone really) that I wasn’t OK, that I couldn’t take care of myself, was part of what held me back from this for so long. A fear of admitting I was different and feeling further isolated.
Thankfully, my dad was more than OK (to be honest, I needed his financial support for this as these programs are insanely pricey. Here is where I acknowledge both my immense privilege that I was able to do this and also how unfair our healthcare system is that not everyone can get this level of care.)
I made plans to fly out to California for a month at a mental health treatment center — which I ended up extending to six weeks because it was going so well. I picked the one I did for their combination of their therapeutic programming as well as their integration of other forms of self-care such as daily gym trips and yoga, alternative therapies like breathwork (I may dedicate a full post to this at some point — this shit was INTENSE, and yes, trippy, like this linked article describes.) As for the actual therapy: we were in programming from 9–3 daily, which was mostly group therapy, with three one-on-one sessions per week as well.
I’ve been in therapy for years, but every single therapist I had prior to this pales in comparison to S. To know me in person is to know that my face is, um, very expressive. Eye rolls, sighs, eyebrow raises. S called me out on every single one of these nonverbal communications, asking what they meant. I learned that, for years, I’d intellectualized things. Meaning: I could identify the thoughts but I had no clue what the underlying feelings were, because I’d so rarely let myself feel them. If you’d asked me to label one of my feelings in the prior year, the only words I would have used were depressed, anxious, sad or, very rarely, happy. Fear, hopelessness, shame are all “feelings words” that I learned were the actual emotions driving the depression and anxiety.
I admitted that my humor and sarcasm were defense mechanisms to avoid admitting actual feelings and letting people in. I admitted how codependent I was on others. No wonder I was so deeply lonely — depending on others to fulfill all of your emotional needs is a losing proposition. A common pattern for me was feeling a little better with others but feeling so deeply lonely as soon as I left them. Nobody but you can fulfill those emotional needs. And I learned how to do that. I learned distress tolerance (what up DBT, love you) — that I could admit and feel those emotions AND move past them. I sat through intense sessions where we explored my romantic life/lack thereof (gulp), and I literally squirmed in my chair out of discomfort.
Most importantly, I learned how to be myself — and not the self I think friends, family or society want me to be. Myself is actually pretty damn cool and has a lot to offer this world. This is why I am telling you this story — to let you know that if you’ve felt this way, you are so not alone. If you need to get treatment like this, you are not a failure. You are a human who has had a lot going on and who so deeply wants to get better.
In those last sessions, S teased out answers to how I’d take care of myself after leaving. “That sounds like a lot of maintenance,” she said, as we talked about accessing everything I’d learned to self-soothe and mitigate crises. I overheard someone say “it works if you work it,” what I learned to be an AA phrase — and I kept tracing those words in my journal ad nauseam.
What S was trying to get me to get at is this: I may have walked out of that center flying high (my depression and anxiety assessments rated me at severe levels when I got there and mild/”normal” levels when I left) — but life will continue to happen. It’s that proactive and preventative care — real self care, not just the shit you see on Instagram — that I deserve and that will help me weather whatever storms that come my way. I’ve made it through a lot, and I can make it through anything else that comes my way.
I faced down many of my demons in those six weeks in California, and I survived. (“Did not implode” is literally what I wrote after discussing the relationship stuff I’d been so scared to tackle.) I will probably face more depressive episodes for the rest of my life. I may face passive, chronic suicidal ideation for a long time/forever (and this is the best description I’ve read of how I feel), but I have a crisis plan and know what not to do. This is lifetime work, but it means I get to have a long, full lifetime so I’m going to continue to fight for my life. I won’t let loneliness and fear of being myself kill me.