How I Picked Myself Up After a Breakdown

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The solid metal door locked firmly behind me, my belongings were screened for any means of self-harm, and my body crumpled as the reality of the horror I was facing set in. My attempts to remain stoic were now met with the brutal reality of hospitalisation in a locked public mental health ward. It was 6pm, many hours after I had arrived at the hospital emergency department seeking a second opinion on medical treatment for the anxiety and low mood that had pervaded my life over the previous few months. I could barely breathe and the only comfort was my sister sitting beside me and a close friend, both desperately wanting to help me see some consolation in the bleakness of the closed ward with the plastic looking food served on my dinner plate, the sterile chairs lined up in front of a large television screen, and an old pool table looming in the background. From these facilities extended a dingy concrete outside area, the dark night screened by a cage extending the perimeter of the building. The caging a stark reminder of the propensity of the clientele to want to escape the confines of this intended safe haven and the perils of what had brought them to this point.

Within a matter of weeks my life as a busy mother of three young children with a part-time professional career had been shattered and my attempts to re-establish any form of a foundation to perform just the basic routines of life, which included various psychiatric medications, natural remedies, and counselling, were unsuccessful. I had not noticed the signs I was heading towards a breakdown — irritability and a sense of raciness as I rushed between paid and unpaid duties, grieved the loss of a significant person in my life, squeezed in a hectic overseas family holiday around a conference, considered the logistics of three children soon to be at three different schools, and managed with broken, restless sleep. I had come to feel constantly like I was on a treadmill whilst also becoming more and more depleted of energy. When I resigned from my paid work role with the hope of restoring balance, my mood plummeted further amidst a sense of failure and guilt for no longer contributing to the family financially (do take out income insurance if you are self-employed, something I had ignored and thereafter no longer an option as a person who has been mentally ill). Now here I was — no clear salvation in place but the refusal to let me go home meant trying to survive what felt like an incarceration.

My first night in the ward was spent in a room shared with three other women. My brain still fully wired, I did my best to obtain some sleep to shut out the living nightmare I was in. This proved difficult as a nurse was sent to check on me every fifteen minutes, not discretely — a torch was shone on my face and I was offered Valium if I showed any sign of being unsettled.

My days in the ward were a blur of confusion as to how I had ended up there and filled with moments of distress as actively psychotic patients were secluded in rooms in front of the nurses station, their torment played out in front of me in the large windows which enclosed the isolation rooms. My sister’s daily visits to sit with me in the caged outdoor area were a major source of comfort and calmed the well of despair as I questioned what I had done to deserve being locked up in this place. The atmosphere was not one that I would want my children to witness so it was with a heavy heart that I did not arrange for the children to visit. I had telephone contact with the children when I was allowed to use my mobile phone from near the nursing station or via the telephone in the communal area of the ward. It was incredibly hard to hear their confused, tearful voices.

At one point I politely protested about sharing a room with a woman who had been actively suicidal just the night preceding, tying pillow cases together in an attempt to hang herself. I was sternly reminded by the nurse that I was in a psychiatric hospital — the curtness of this response oddly brought me a jolt of much needed humour.

The days passed with a sense of numbness interspersed with bouts of high distress as my attempts to feel a sense of normality in life in the ward failed. I was grateful for several compassionate nurses who took the time to reassure me at particular times of despair and I found comfort in the company of a younger female patient who appeared stable but for a lack of suitable accommodation and told me I appeared too sane to be there. I resolutely sat in the sterile television area to pass the time and even found myself playing pool. A gentle and caring psychiatrist registrar offered me hope in the suggested diagnosis of melancholic depression though no associated medication adjustment was forthcoming and I was eventually discharged none the healthier but obviously still alive. I felt extremely shaken by the experience of the admission process and the confinement to the ward and unable to draw on any therapeutic benefit.

Life continued painstakingly, attending to the needs of three young children as best I could on a regime of very little sleep and constant anxious rumination. With the unfortunate realisation that admission to a private psychiatric hospital would require a three month wait to be covered by our private health cover (always check if you adjust your policy as I did to exclude obstetrics that other aspects such as psychiatric care are not simultaneously excluded), I was provided with in-home care interstate with one of my very kind, patient and stoic sisters. This again caused me enormous grief as I left my children for a period of several weeks and was in vain as I again could not improve despite varying efforts to assist me to rest or partake in activities such as exercise or cooking. I could not escape the constant mental anguish, punctuated with moments of immense anxiety where sheer terror invaded my mind and body. This was akin to a sense of having no anchor at all — nothing could bring me a sense of stability or peace. I was completely adrift at sea.

Returned to my position as wife and mother, when the interstate respite was deemed unsuccessful, I bravely faced the necessary routines of raising three children, albeit at three different schools, and undertook my commitments such as volunteering on the school tuck-shop. Outside of these duties, I fixated on finding a way to feel well again. I googled obsessively how to overcome depression. Therapies targeted at treating trauma trapped in the body or reversing apparent depletions in my physiology with expensive vitamins and supplements failed to provide relief. Finally, my medical treatment was taken over by an astute psychiatrist who diagnosed the occurrence of an episode of agitated depression against the backdrop of the numerous stressors which she described as the ‘perfect storm’. Three months had now passed and admission to a private hospital awaited me.

The admission to the private hospital involved an immense sense of grief with leaving my family again. Friends helped me to pack, put one foot in front of the other, and face the unknown. Certainly the open nature of the private hospital and the pleasant conditions which included nutritional, inviting food and access to a gym and yoga classes as well as psycho-education sessions reduced the environmental stressors of the locked ward experience but my mental anguish still pervaded. Three weeks into my private hospital stay it was clear that the strong medications I had been prescribed on admission were not relieving my mental state. The psychiatrist who visited me daily and offered continual encouragement that my mood would shift made the announcement that it was time to implement Electro-convulsive Therapy (ECT). My trust in his wisdom was high but nothing could abate the extreme fear and sense of grief that hit me when I went back to my hospital bed to digest this next treatment ‘recommendation’. Certainly wanting to be in control underpinned my general tendency towards an anxious state so the thought of handing my brain over, under general anaesthesia numerous times over a short space of time, was terrifying. I wept inconsolably.

Support from hospital staff, reassurance from my specialist, and Google search results which down- played memory impairment and portrayed ECT as a rather benign yet very effective process, led to my consent to this treatment. This was an enormous leap of faith essentially. The efficacy of ECT was apparent to me from the first treatment and following six treatments over a two week period my mood had shifted consistently and the binds of the depression began to loosen their grip. As though my brain had been re-booted, the agitation dissolved and my interest and confidence in engaging in life returned.

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Just over two years on from my discharge from hospital I continue to feel happy to be back in the world with a resolve to living with balance and self-compassion. I am devoted to eating well — as little processed food as possible with plenty of fish and leafy greens and a commitment to exercise that strengthens both my body and mind. I feel strongly about this mind-body connection and though it’s hard to be grateful for fighting and winning a weight loss battle that arose as a result of an enormous amount of weight gain over a few months due to psychiatric medications, perhaps I am appreciative. I feel my ability to retain information has possibly been impaired by ECT but the impact is minimal on my life. I remain on preventative medication and consult regularly with my psychiatrist. I express gratitude daily which is a morning ritual I share via text with close friends, I partake in fulfilling paid work and am involved with a passionate group of quilting ladies who value the importance of giving to the disadvantaged and the benefit of laughter and creativity despite ageing bodies. I cherish my children and loved ones dearly. I monitor my body tension and the quality of my thoughts with mindful awareness. I also believe in the healing power of music.

Am I glad I suffered a severe episode of depression? To agree might be going too far as the torment of mental illness is soul destroying. The minutes, hours and days are never as painfully long or isolating as when mental illness takes its grip. But would I go back to my old way of life? I think not. For the rest of my time on earth I strive to value my own health and well-being, setting limits on the demands in my life so as to never feel so completely depleted again. I aim to continue to invest in my health through eating well and exercising and most of all continually appreciating the many blessings in my life which often come in the minute detail. Major Depression was one very significant chapter in my life. The chapters to follow will ascend the shadows of that harrowing time and embrace the vitality that comes in fully experiencing each moment this life brings.

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