Hey readers, just a heads up that this story talks about mental illness – some of you might want to save it for later.
My brain broke and all the noise gushed out: a river of mania, anxiety, negativity, depression, suicidal thoughts and incoherent gestures of I-don’t-know-what’s-wrong-please-help-me. Which is why I’m at the hospital, shaking. Not my whole body. Individual parts like fingers, knees and elbows. That worries me: the elbows bit. Whose elbows shake?
My eyes feel too open; too round. My wife is holding my hand and leaking tears. It’s a discreet hospital. I guess the neighbours don’t want neon signs outside screaming, “Mental people are here!”
I’m escorted to my room. My wife carries my bag, which I packed the day before: it contains five photos, a large folio of art supplies, the entire set of Harry Potter in hardback, some clothes and the remnants of my sanity, slipping through the stitching.
The male nurse flicks on a pair of latex gloves and investigates my bag’s belongings intimately, intrusively, carefully. When he takes off the gloves, he bundles them into a tight ball and makes a little air bubble in one of the thumbs, which he proceeds to rub back and forth so it squeaks.
My wife, my solidity and safety, has to leave. I kiss her face and our tears.
Doctor Male Psych and Registrar Female Psych introduce themselves at the doorway to my room. I follow them both outside, walking as if my knees were welded together. We enter another tiny room. Why are the rooms so tiny? Dr. Psych says he is going to sit creepily in the corner and just listen while Registrar Psych asks questions. I added in the word ‘creepily’.
Registrar Psych asks me every question ever thought of in the history of questions, repeatedly. I rip my brain out, full of memories and noise and mania and anxiety and suicidal thoughts, and put it in a blender without the lid – and turn it on full. It’s messy. I am breathing through my teeth.
I have a different nurse when I get back to my room. She arrives with a cup of tea for me, which is lovely and completely based on the assumption that I like tea. Perhaps it was one of the questions I answered this morning.
The nurse has forms and the same questions that the Registrar Psych asked, only phrased in a more nurse-like manner. I rip my brain out and blend it again, sans lid. Still messy, but kind of lumpy and cohesive this time. I practise breathing through my teeth again.
I have to go to the medicine counter to obtain my half Valium this afternoon. I don’t like Valium. It mutes me. All my thoughts are forced into a glass box in my head and I exist in the weird geometric space that’s created when a cube is inside a sphere. The process is so much like the movies that I’m waiting for the director to yell, “Cut!”
There’s a little cup with a pill in it. They watch as I swallow it down.
The next day
Sleep that night was ephemeral and did nothing to appease the sense of resistance and panic I wake up with.
Tony is the resident cat. He has a chunk out of the tip of his left ear and wears a scowl like a favourite pair of shoes. He’s enormous, covered in a brown-and-black map of patches. He marched up to me this morning demanding that I sit instantly, and proceeded to make bread dough out of my lap. He scowled while purring.
I am expected to take group therapy sessions. They sound awful. There are some very big-space people here: their laughs fill the air with ripples; they reverberate off objects and bounce back, echoing discordantly. There’s no room in that space for me. I don’t particularly want to talk to complete strangers about the weather in my head. (“Hi. It’s very windy here today. Everything is being blown around. Doesn’t look like it’ll be stopping any time soon. Back to you in the studio!”)
The very enthusiastic therapist delivers a verbal thumbprint of each session, and pronounces the craft sessions to be “lovely”, because apparently I can “make something lovely to give one of my family members when I see them. Wouldn’t that be lovely?”
Here comes my storm again. I’m twitching, rocking, sobbing, sitting in a chair at the nurse’s station, drowning in the water of the sealed box that is my panic attack.
My brain and mouth just worked simultaneously to use the words ‘conceptualise’, ‘theoretical’, ‘cognizant’, ‘Kübler-Ross Model’, ‘denial’ and ‘articulate’ in a sentence. With that victory, created through the power of medication, I’m heading off to Art Therapy: Dot-to-Dot Mindfulness.
I rip my brain out, full of memories and noise and mania and anxiety and suicidal thoughts, and put it in a blender without the lid – and turn it on full. It’s messy.
Although I am the only person doing this session today (the main reason I signed up for it), the sessions are sort of compulsory and I worry that a type of punitive consequence may occur if I don’t attend. I’m to complete a 1,000-dot picture of a horse’s head. The art therapist informs me of the benefits of concentration and mindfulness and how I won’t be able to finish even half of the picture, but that’s okay because I’m going to be attending the session again tomorrow.
I reach 890 dots before she tells me that it’s time to stop. She takes one look at the expression on my face and asks if stopping is difficult. It is.
The art therapist nods and tells me my concentration levels are amazing but intense, and strongly suggests I sign up for all sessions containing the words mindfulness or relaxation.
My wife and our son are here. I miss them so much. They’ve brought flowers, chocolate and undies, and our son has made me a card. He sits at the desk in the room using the coloured markers to create what he calls “machines”, while my wife and I sit opposite each other, remembering our faces.
Yesterday afternoon was revealing. The attending doctors informed me I have bipolar disorder, and I started a new drug called Epilim, which is used for epilepsy. It chops the pointy bits off the peaks and troughs.
The new patient in the room next to mine decided to watch Casino Royale and then sport until 1.38 a.m. last night. He turned up the television volume so loud I could hear the dialogue, even in the poker scenes. The ward nurse turned his TV off at the wall.
I’m attending every single art session, mainly to avoid the Listen and Talk sessions. I find them patronising and infantilising.
Each art session revolves around a different topic – anger, trauma, dysfunctional families, the usual – so I’m finding out about myself, which is interesting for its reflective and introspective value. Today I managed to draw something I wanted to draw without seeking external validation for it. I found that amazing and uncomfortable and tiring.
There are people here whose identities seem defined by diagnosis. Their mental health label is their shell. That’s quite sad, I think. Most of them are young: late teens, early twenties. Maybe they haven’t had enough life yet to be anything else.
My identity is wife, teacher, mum, friend, and so much more – core stuff, like kindness, compassion, generosity, empathy, humour, social justice. Bipolar is just something I take medication for, like high cholesterol or diabetes. Yet the term ‘bipolar’ is still settling itself into the sand of my comfort zone. I’m battling a personal history filled with familiar catch cries: “All that mental illness rubbish is just people looking for an excuse for their bad mood, for being rude, or for their attention seeking. They just need to be getting on with it.”
I’m exceptionally wary of some of the men in here. There’s a toxic masculinity floating around, like dust motes; an uncomfortable undulation in the air. It’s bravado and swearing and casual misogyny. And genital rearranging. Does it really get that snarled down there? I walk past these men, hold my breath a little and send out waves of sonar.
I’m starting to think about what I’ll say when I’m asked the where, what and why questions that will inevitably occur when I return to my everyday. If I say I went to hospital because I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and that I drew a lot of pictures, coloured in some mandalas, took medication and slept a lot, I can just imagine the range of facial expressions and reactions: “Huh! Nice for some!”; “Wish I could take time off to have a holiday like that”; or, “Bipolar. Come away from the crazy person now, Johnny.”
I am literally going to rip the TV off the wall in that bloke’s room next door. It is on every single minute of the day, and until 12.30 a.m. last night.
I’m settling into a routine in a place that unsettles me and because I like routine I’m feeling calm, but because I don’t enjoy being here I’m not entirely calm. It’s extremely disconcerting.
But mostly, I’m calm, with occasional showers of homesickness and rare gusts of, “TurnTheFuckingTVOffYouInconsideratePrick!”
I’m sitting at the desk in my room, staring out the window. I’m not thinking about bills, or money, or work. One thought I have is that I’d like to have a shower in my own bathroom when I visit home tomorrow. That’s a thought in my head. Now it’s gone because I know I’ve thought that thought and it’s going to happen therefore that thought doesn’t need to be in my head anymore.
I wonder if this is what it feels like to have a head devoid of the chaos of unnecessary thoughts.
My wife and our bundle-of-a-six-year-old unexpectedly kidnapped me for half a day. Home was wonderful, safe, calm, loving, supportive. The cats came out of wherever they were hiding to say hello, our son was beside himself with excitement, and my wife and I stopped randomly in rooms to hold each other. My poor depleted reserves have been filled again. My heart is so full of the gorgeous love raining inside it that I reek of petrichor.
I’m concerned about my wife. I want to wrap her up and let her howl at whatever lunar, celestial, or spiritual entity she chooses for as long as she wants.
The lights in my room don’t work.
A new day
I’m in a new room. Not because of the lights not working – that was fixed last night by an anonymous person the nurse kept telling me was Technician S12. My new room has been allocated because of ArseholeNeighbourWhoNeverTurnedOffHisTV.
Apparently the person beside this new room is very quiet. They’re either an introverted agoraphobic or on so many medications they’re basically a zombie.
I’m creating so much artwork at the moment. Mostly, I’m testing my medication to see if it’s going to mute my creativity or create a two-dimensional version of myself. So basically I’m at art camp with drugs.
Another new day
Tony and I had a discussion about how I’d like to leave on Friday and then we both stared intently at a bush for a few minutes.
This morning, Dr. Psych did that distracting doctor thing where they phrase observations as questions. I told him about the revelation I’d had about the experience of having a thought, thinking that thought, and then the thought leaving my head and coming back as needed. And how thrilled I was to learn this was normal.
He said I was almost childlike in my wonderment.
I’d only ever known noise and billions of thoughts, so when I was younger and couldn’t justify the pain I’d bash my head against the walls until it hurt enough to validate the mental anguish going on inside.
Dr. Psych commented on the extreme level of learned control and personal rigidity I’ve had to utilise throughout my life to manage how my brain functioned. No shit, Sherlock.
I didn’t say that out loud. I’m hoping to be discharged on Friday and sassing the doctor signing my paperwork would be a poor decision. But, oh my god, I love how brains are supposed to work.
The day before
A collection of random thoughts:
- I have a headache. Annoying. Have taken two Panadol.
- I haven’t worn a bra for three weeks.
- Friday cannot come fast enough. Going home is being a big girl and making changes.
- Lovely cleaning lady just came in. “Do you want those flowers anymore, hon?” “No, thank you,” I say. “They’re doing that thing where they smell a bit after a while.” “What? Dying?” “Yes.”
I rang my wonderful boss today. She assured me that I am missed, valued and still employed.
My next session is with the gorgeous trans art therapist. In any other situation, I think we could be friends. We have very similar senses of humour, and a quiet, quirky observation of the world surrounding us. It sucks that life, and admission into a mental hospital where a potential friend is a therapist, does get in the way somewhat.
Another day before
The day my brain broke, after I came back from the horrible space where I exist during a panic attack, my first action was to give my phone to my wife. I robotically thrust it at her and told her to put it somewhere, anywhere. I knew something was drastically wrong because my phone is my calendar, memo keeper, photo album, banking system, email access, and, frighteningly, social media provider. And I didn’t want any of it.
But I am reinstalling the Twitter app on my phone. My finger hovers over the blue and white icon for a second. I press and Twitter welcomes me back. I read without interacting. The best bits I read contain the hashtag #QueerSelfLove, which is full of wonderful, beautiful queer-identifying folk uploading selfies and enlarging the space that we take up; pushing back at the restrictions and sticking our elbows out in the crowded subway of society.
I became emotional in the art session just now, trying to explain why personal validation is so very important to take away with me tomorrow when I’m discharged. Permission to exist will no longer be in my portmanteau of peculiarities. Along with my set of hardcover Harry Potter books, dirty underwear and art materials, will be an understanding of compassion for myself, an acceptance of who I am, and a belief that I am visible.
Tomorrow I am going home with medication for bipolar disorder. Tomorrow I am going home with less noise.
The last day
I’m informing Tony that I won’t be seeing him ever again. He seems to know. He is making extra deep holes in the legs of my jeans. Half-formed prints appear as he marches up and down my legs with his muddy paws, like a toddler with an ink stamper.
For me, one of the worst parts about mental illness is losing your sense of agency. Call it “my brain broke” or “a neurological breakdown”, it’s the same loss of control. Initially, admission to this hospital felt like another notch on the belt of chaos. I needed to strengthen my sense of self, rather than have products, events, tasks and the minutiae of life rule my existence.
Something had taken the brakes off my train, and I derailed. I needed to be here. I needed to circuit-break my life, and search in the wreckage of carriages, wheels, couplings and engine parts for the pieces that made up the brakes.
Discharge today is like being given a Bipolar IKEA Box which, when opened, seems to contain all the bits and the instructions.
I know how to wield an Allen key. Let’s see what I can do with all those pieces.
K. J. is a mum to a gorgeous son, a wife to a beautiful woman, a drinker of mostly New Zealand wine, a lover of the Oxford comma, and a fairly decent teacher. These qualities generally happen simultaneously. She is very passionate about feminism, mental health, and rainbow families.
If you want to get informed about mental illness, Head Desk uses GIFs, comics and interviews to get the conversation started. If you need support, call Lifeline Australia (13 11 14) or Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636) if you’re in Australia.