Saturday, October 23, 2010

In the rearview mirror

I remembered the fence. There's a courtyard, with a couple of broken swings, a picnic table. On the opposite end, across the fence is a horse that lives next door. I remembered the day someone escaped over the fence, and we were all corralled quickly inside while staff members frantically chased him down. I remembered trying to play basketball, badly, because I don't know how. I remembered my roommate, Prudence, and some guy and I throwing the ball to each other. Anything to break up the monotony. I was so grateful for those cigarette breaks, because it gave me a chance to get into the fresh air (when I got far enough away from the smokers), and gave us all a change of pace, and glimpse, ever-so-briefly, of freedom.

This is the mental health crisis center here that I'm speaking of. I was there five years ago, and I recall it all so clearly, even now. I was there today doing advocacy work. Actually, I was there twice in the past week. I had the idea sometime back that our NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) consumer council should collect books, games, and puzzles for the people on local psychiatric wards, especially this crisis center. I finally delivered what we had collected last week. I went up to building H, and rang the doorbell. It felt strange to do this. It felt strange to have a staff person open the door and talk to me as if I was a regular person, not a patient. I recalled going through that door to get to the cafeteria with the less-than-tasty food, and there I was, five years later, ringing the doorbell.

Today, I was back there again to deliver resource packets. Earlier this year, I told hte consumer council members I thought we should make up resource packets for patients in hospitals, to give them the phone numbers and addresses of places they might need to go to, and the other members of the council agreed this was a good idea. I spent a lot of time putting the list together, and we now have had 300 packets printed. We are putting the resource lists in folders with a brochure about our consumer council and a brochure about NAMI Pinellas County. We put the first folders together last weekend.

As I drove away today, looking at the fence through my rearview mirror, I thought, I am doing what I can do. I know how it is to be in that place, and to be in psychic terror, and to feel like a prisoner, with no way out. I remember it vividly, just like I remember the other building I was sent to where I spent several months, which no long exists. I remember how little treats, like cakes that a former patient used to bring to us every week, and visits from my mom, and getting to do art projects after I convinced the staff to buy some materials, all of these small creature comforts meant so much in that dark, empty time and space. And I can't visit everybody there, or bring them cake every week, but I can do something. And I am doing the something that I can do. I feel good about the work our consumer council has been accomplishing, and I think we are on the road to really creating change in people's lives. We are trying to get the word out about our group so we can grow from five people to more than five, but in the meantime, we're doing these things that we can do now.

Driving away I thought how funny it is that now I talk about being grateful for the time I spent in that place. I tell people it saved my life. I say I would be dead without it, and I believe that is true. But when I was locked in there five years ago, nobody and nothing could have convinced me I would ever look back on it as a positive experience. I hated being confined. I hated being in a chaotic atmosphere. I was scared of the staff and the medication. I hated not having any freedom. I was bored stiff. I got beaten up by another patient once. I found my way out of boredom by flirting with Jim, who later became my live in boyfriend. I loved every outing we patients got to go on, and I hated the times when we had to do nothing but stay in our rooms. I felt caged like an animal in the zoo.

And yet, it was good for me. It was the best thing available for me at that time. Today, if I was as psychotic and as suicidal as I was when I was sent there five years ago, I might not be so lucky. They don't keep many people for five months anymore. The state government in Florida did not want to fund Short Term Rehabilitation programs anymore, so a couple years ago, they got rid of the one we had in this county, and the got rid of the ones in other counties too. Today, people are falling through the cracks more than they were five years ago, and this makes me angry and sad. That building I was at today still exists, but the one where I spent months in SRT is gone - a lost lifeboat that no one can use.

For the people who are hospitalized, I think our resource packets will be helpful. It lists what help there is available in the community. I think that even if they only help a few people, it's a worthwhile endeavor. I'm glad NAMI has the money to pay for the printing. NAMI is a great organization, and if you have a mental illness, you might want to check out the chapter in your area or start one if one does not exist.


  1. Jen...would you mail me one of your resource packets so I can see if it is something our NAMI group could do here in our area? I can adapt it to what is available here. I think that is an awesome idea and I would give your group ALL the credit. Thanks in advance. If you need my address again, I can email it to you. Thanks!! janet

  2. I think it is great what you are doing for those in need Jen. In my mind you are well on your way to succeeding at whatever you set out to do. There is a couple who live in a town 20 minutes from me who are going to go to the NAMI facilitator training program in Albany and may start up a group this December. They've asked me to be one of the starting five members and I said yes. I hope it happens. I'll let you know.


  3. Janet, I'll email you because I don't think I have your address anymore, but I can definitely send you a packet.

    Kate, that's great that they may be starting a chapter in you area after all this time! I'm glad to hear it. Definitely keep me posted!


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