Thursday, July 02, 2009

It takes a village (a retrospective from 2005- present)

In the summer of 2005, I was in hospitals. I was in them for five months, and most of that time was spent in a center called SRT (which stood for something like short-term residential treatment), which was part of the community mental health center known as PEMHS (Personal Enrichment Through Mental Health Services), a place well-known to anybody in Pinellas County who has a mental illness. I was not happy to be there, as I had only recently been told my correct diagnosis (which would prove to be correct from that point onward), Schizoaffective Disorder (a form of Schizophrenia with attributes of Bipolar Disorder as well). The place felt like a prison. We ate food like people in prisons eat. We had 13 people in 6 rooms, with four bathrooms, and one, small common area where we ate and had groups and watched rented old movies on special occasions. It was as not a colorful place, or a cheery place, but it was the place that saved my life.

Hillary Clinton wrote that "it takes a village to raise a child", and I would argue that it takes a village to save someone's sanity from mental illness as well. For me that village started that summer, in that hospital. I had a case manager who came to visit, the mental health techs to chat to about things, the kind and caring nurse named Kim who gave me my Risperdal injections, the Nurse Practitioner who prescribed and treated me, the other patients who I was friendly with (in some cases, anyway) - one of whom became my first long-term boyfriend in a relationship that would last three years.

I didn't know then that I was healing, that I was becoming myself again, that I was gaining insight into the reality of my situation, that I was being saved from my own suicidal thoughts, that the medications would eventually work to stop the auditory hallucinations and the delusional realm in which I lived.....I just knew that I had almost no freedom. I knew I had people telling me what I could and could not do, that I had to have someone watch me shave my legs if I ever chose to do so, that I was locked into a tiny building in a really crappy part of St. Petersburg, and that I felt like I was never going to get out. I had been sentenced there for six months, under the Baker Act, a law which allows people to be committed to psychiatric hospitals against their will.
"The label of mental illness, once obtained," I wrote, "works much like a garbage disposal on one's life. Indeed, I thought my life was over.

In my mind the world was ending. In my mind, I was pregnant, I was in danger, people were speaking to me in code, I was Jesus Christ or Anne Frank (they alternated depending on the day), and I needed to die. The staff wouldn't let me go on outings at first, because they thought I'd run in front of a truck if we went for a walk down the block. I felt I was suffocating in this prison-like place, and I wanted out. I also was becoming increasingly aware that I actually did have a real, legitimate, serious psychiatric disorder and that it was not going to go away any time soon. This is what I feared the most. It was a fear I had to learn to live with.

What I didn't realize at the time, what I couldn't know then, was that being locked up in that little prison-like building, being forced to take medications I thought were poisonous, being forced to face the fact that I did not have a healthy brain.....this saved my life. I was, literally, saved from death by going to that hospital at that time, and I am, today, imminently grateful for the care I received there, for every helpful word said to me, for the injections, the meds, the quiet time, the time to regroup. And I came out of there swinging. It didn't happen all at once. Changes were gradual, but I definitely went out on an uphill slope and have continued to improve ever since then. I have, as this blog can testify, had times when I was quite ill again for months, but never as ill as I was back then when the diagnosis was fresh and the medications had not kicked in.

Then last year, I found out some horrible news. The SRT program was being shut down due to budget cuts from the state of Florida. When I heard this, I started writing letters. I wrote about how that program saved me. I wrote about how I had many other hospitalizations that did not work to help me because I couldn't stay long enough for the medications to work. I explained why a place like SRT, which offers stays of many months, was necessary for people like myself. I sent the letters to all my state representatives and county commissioners. They wrote back and said nothing helpful.

So, that brings me to tonight. NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) had its monthly speakers' meeting tonight, and the speakers were from various local community mental health agencies, including PEMHS. At this meeting were Chelle, the nurse practitioner who prescribed my life-saving medications in 2005, and Kim, the kind and gentle nurse from that time. I saw them from across the room. At previous meetings I had seen Chelle, and I had told her how much she helped me, and that I am doing much better now. But I hadn't seen Kim since 2005.

As the CEOs and operators of these various agencies spoke, I listened to the news of budget cuts, the closing down of needed programs, the strain from the economy.....a lot of bad news, and a lot of rigmarole. So I raised my hand at the end, to ask a question. "SRT saved my life", I said, "and since it's closed now, I want to know what you do with people who are Baker Acted and need to stay long-term in a hospital." The answer was that they send these people to Tampa, which still has an SRT program. So if I nearly die of a suicide attempt or something, and I end up in that situation again (which I most likely never will; thank you universe), I will be sent to another county for my hospital stay. A county where I do not know anyone, and where I do not live. What if visitors need to take a bus, as many do, to visit someone at SRT? Being in a prison-like atmosphere for months is hard enough without having the added loss of contact with family and friends that a person may have. My visitors (my mom, usually) were the highlight of my days there, when I had them.

But that was the answer tonight. That is the situation. We send them to Tampa.

After the speakers were finished, I ran over to Kim, who was beaming and laughing. "Do you remember me?" I asked, so excited to see her. "Of COURSE!" she said. I told her I was looking at her from across the room and thinking, "Hey, that's Kim! She gave me my injections!", and for that moment, standing next to her and telling her I am doing well now, telling her I've lived in the same apartment for three years, and things are okay....for that moment I felt myself go back to 2005. I visited the Jennifer locked up in the room that was like a prison cell, with that metal bed, writing in my journal about how much I hated what was being done to me in that place....and I told her, "You will make it. It will be okay. And this will save your life."

I cried the whole way home. It meant a lot to me to see Kim and Chelle, and I cried for the person I was who was so confused and so terrified for so long back then. I cried for all the people who will never see the inside of that safe, prison-like room where I got better. I cried because I'm angry that the government of this country does not consider mental health care to be a priority and that the state of Florida continually cuts back necessary programs. But I cried, also, because of happiness.


  1. You have been through a lot and you are doing so good! We are having the same budget mess here in TN. NAMI has really fought to keep things in our budget but still some bad cuts and they fund other stuff that is so stupid when lives are being hurt! Hope you have a happy 4th weekend!

  2. I hate what the government is doing with budget cuts. I mean I know we are in a sort of depression, but there will be more people not being able to function if they continue to cut back. In my state, New York, many things are closing too. It's quite sad. There is this one place that used to be in my county call "Friendship Connection" and it was for people with a mental illness who couldn't work. They would go there and socialize instead of wondering the streets aimlessy. It like they want you to get better, but everything is sad!


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