Breaking the Stigma transcript

Five years. It took five years of convincing, cajoling, and near pleading for me to swallow a pill. I grew up with a fear of mental illness and a deep suspicion of psychiatric drugs. Which is why it took a collective five years of persuasion by my caring therapists to swallow that little pill.

Flash forward to eight years later, when I’d gone cold turkey off those meds, popped out a baby, and was a manic mess. Things unraveled fast and there I was checking into the psychiatric hospital in the middle of the night, stumbling along behind a staff. 

As we rounded the massive, high-ceilinged main room, a woman sat silently in a chair while another woman bustled softly nearby, and a few staff members chatted behind the desk. The bustling woman asked something like, “Do you want to go back to bed now, Lin?” The woman in the chair made a few small motions in response. Their conversation continued that way, the bustling woman speaking and the woman in the chair making tiny gestures in reply. 

I shrank away from the woman in the chair. She must be a patient….like me. But I wasn’t like her, my manic brain insisted. I’d talk only to the staff. I then proceeded to initiate a loud, too-friendly conversation with the women behind the desk. THEY were who I could relate to, after all. Not this strange woman who sat silent and unblinking in the middle of the night. 

The problem, of course, with me appointing myself to Team Staff was that I was in a psychiatric crisis and the staff were not. That, and I was treated like a patient, because I was one. While the staff could congregate behind the desk during slow moments and chat, I had to stay behind the silver bar that separated the desk from the rest of the room, drawing a clear line between our spaces. It was hard to become besties under those circumstances. Plus I hadn’t slept in a week, so I wasn’t at my social best. My would-be staff buddies went home after their shifts that night, while I conked out in the arrival room on a couple of chairs. 

When I woke up the next day, my brain felt strangely peaceful after my first night of sleep in a week. Dozens of people in sweatpants and pajamas were milling around the main room. They carried faces that ranged from sleepy to grim, and there was some sort of order to their ebb and flow. I stood uncertainly to the side, my foggy brain trying to make sense of where I fit, and a bearded man in a plaid shirt noticed my hesitation. “It’s morning vital signs,” he explained, pointing to a couch where a couple of staff had set up shop with thermometers and blood pressure cuffs. “We all go wait over there till we get our check.”

Suddenly the scene made sense, and I looked at the bearer of this news like he’d just solved the Rubic’s cube. “Thank you! Thank you so much. I’m new here.”

He nodded and ducked his head. “Yeah. I’m Byram.”

Byram was the first patient who broke through and became a person to me. Later that morning, I followed him along with the rest of the patient pack outside. Out in the courtyard, the weirdness of where we were faded away as conversations and laughter broke out. I tried not to stare at a woman with an exotic accent, but soon she turned her sparkle on me. 

“The one who came in the middle of the night! We’ve all been wondering about you. Where did you come from?”

Several people gathered around as I stumbled through my story of stress and new motherhood and a return to the birthing hospital. It felt like an exceptionally friendly, nonjudgmental neighborhood barbecue. 

The queen of the barbecue, the gorgeous woman with the exotic accent, became my new roommate later that day. She kept me laughing with stories of mixing up her three passports on trips around the globe while I sat on the no-frills bed pumping breast milk. When staff knocked on our door for entry, Marla sprang into action. “There is a lady in here who needs privacy!” she exclaimed, jumping off her bed and running to the door. “Female staff only! No men!” she declared as she blocked the doorway with her body. 

We were protective of each other, my fellow patients and me. Probably because, at some point, the demons had gotten to each of us.  

But just because I accepted and appreciated my fellow folk in the psych hospital didn’t mean that I accepted being in the psych hospital. That evening we were sitting at circular tables, surrounded by magazines and glue sticks as the earnest therapist explained our college activity, and I couldn’t stop smirking. Art therapy? How mental patient could you get? 

Almost immediately, I caught myself. Well, yeah. After all, I WAS a mental patient. Never would there be a more perfect time to embrace art therapy. “Does anyone have a picture of a baby?” I asked, and a sweet young man passed me a picture of Reese Witherspoon and her newborn. I darkened Reese’s hair, found a picture of an actor who looked reasonably like my husband and created a beautiful collage representing the three of us surrounded by a web of support that hung on our fridge for years afterward. 

By the time I left the hospital 4 days later, all of my fellow patients had long since ceased to look like a sad-faced bunch of people in pajamas and looked like their beautiful, unique, messy selves – including Lin, who I shrank from on my first night there. She became my roommate after Marla left and I began to appreciate the sweet soul that underlaid her silence. 

What my years-long resistance to trying medication and my rejection of the reality of being a psychiatric patient have in common is fear. I was so determined to “keep my chin up” that I punished myself, severely and effectively, by avoiding what I needed for years. 

This is not an across-the-board endorsement of all psychiatric hospital stays or all psychiatric medication. Like anything else health-related, you should be smart about it. And when I say “you” here, I don’t mean “you” singular sitting around diagnosing yourself with a copy of Psychology Today, I mean “you” as in you and one or more trusted mental health professionals and the supportive people in your life. If you’re hurting, unhappy, and/or struggling to function? Please believe me when I say you owe it to yourself and those you love to seek help. Please believe that while it may take time and trial and error and ongoing work, there is a way out of the darkness, and life can be so much better. 

People who choose to or need to go to therapy/take meds/to get more intense mental health support are not weaker, less worthy, or in any way morally inferior to people who don’t. We simply need a thing that some others don’t. Which is also true of, well, just about everything. Some people need heart medicine/hearing aids/help learning to read/etcetera, and some people don’t. No moral judgment calls are needed. No matter who you are and what you do or don’t need – you really, definitely don’t need judgment. You do need people in your corner and a community to be real with.

To read the full version of the story and more by D'Arcy visit her blog