Saturday, September 10, 2011

I walked through the locked door. I came full circle. I turned my life around. And I can be of use. It feels good.

Today I entered a place I hadn't been inside in six years. I am taking a social work class that requires we do an internship. And I decided that I would look into doing mine at a mental health treatment center, one where I happened to have been a patient long ago. My reason for wanting to do it there was to see if I was really interested in working in mental health, and get a better understanding of what that would be like. What I did not anticipate was the profound sense of empowerment, the feelings of gratitude, and the pivotal change this experience would make in my life. And that happened for me the first day.

You see, I was a patient for a long time. For years of my life, I was in and out, and in and out of hospital, after hospital, after hospital. And that was my life. I was barely able to keep a roof over my head and rarely fed myself enough. I was so profoundly ill that my entire life was lived in an unreal world created by my mind. I was not here at all. I was somewhere else. And today, you see, I am here. I remember once, in a hospital when they gave me a hearing with a judge to determine how long I would be forced to stay there, in New Jersey, I stated, "It feels like Alice in Wonderland in here", and indeed, it did. Now it feels like I have closed that book. Sure, it may be less exciting here, in the real world, outside of Wonderland. There is no Cheshire Cat, no rabbits, no queen, no Humpty Dumpty, nothing wild and crazy happening at all. It is different here. Today, outside of Wonderland, however, I have some things that I value. I have peace. I have, however cliche it may sound, serenity. I have relief from pain and suffering and confusion and madness. I have calmness. I have happiness. I have reality. And I have hope. I also have a roof over my head, food in my stomach three times a day, medications that keep me here in reality, and a life. I get up, brush my teeth, get dressed, eat breakfast, go to work or school, (and now my internship), drive my car that I bought with my money, and go to movies with a friend sometimes, or  family member who I am no longer estranged from. I have a regular life today. I closed the book on Wonderland. I am glad for that.

So I walked through a hospital unit, where once I was a patient aimlessly wandering around in pajamas, raging at the staff for keeping me so unjustly locked up in there (as I thought), or crying and screaming hysterically at all the torment that I was experiencing from my brain. I walked through there and I remembered the days coloring coloring books, because there was nothing else to do, and the roommate I had named Prudence who talked endlessly because she was manic and also brilliant but who couldn't contain her anger at being locked up and repeatedly ended up in the seclusion room. I remembered those days, and the days lining up to go outside into the locked courtyard with the high fence, for some much valued fresh air while everybody smoked cheap cigarettes around me. I remembered Mary, who had sex with another patient and who introduced herself to me by saying, "Hi, I'm God", which was very confusing because I myself was Jesus. I remembered the day they cut off all her hair because she had lice. And today, I walked through that unit as an intern, as a professional, as a person who had officially crossed over to the other side of the system, and who could be trusted to be amongst staff, not patients. A person who is stable, in control of her own life and her own mind, and in reality. I am that person now, and that's a wonderful thing because if you don't have control over your life and your mind, and you don't have reality, then really, you have nothing. You have no life to speak of.

So today, I felt empowered. And I felt grateful as I learned about the patients there, and the lack of support they have, the lack of a place to go, the lack of hope they have. I am a lucky one. I got out, got better, got to return to work, to college, to a home, to a life. Not everybody is that lucky. I also think it's vitally important that we all remember that people can, and do, improve, and get better, because there is hope, and we must have hope because as Pearl Buck once wrote, bread without hope is meaningless. I think that it is important for the mental health profession to allow people in who are former "patients" and who have been on that side of the desk, because we are the living proof that improvement can happen, and because it is not our fault that we were given these illnesses, so these illnesses should not define our entire lives. Schizoaffective Disorder does not define my life.

Repeat after me: My mental illness does not define my life. It does not encompass all of who I am. It does not define my future. It does not define me. It does not define my life. I have hope.

Today, I got to walk in and out of locked offices and rooms, and I got to read someone's chart and learn his case, and I got to see the inner workings of a facility where they treat people with the illness that I have and other similar illnesses, some of whom are worse off than I ever was, and some of whom are similar to how I was. And I got to think of myself, for a moment, as a potential, possible professional in that field, helping those people. I've never seen any of my own charts. But I got to read a chart today. I was trusted, and I was allowed. (And of course I signed confidentiality agreements and would never share that information with anyone or discuss my own mental illness with anyone who is a client there). Because I am a competent human being, and a college student in a social work class and an intern. I am no longer a hospital patient. I have come a long way. And for that, I am profoundly grateful.

This is more than just a college assignment for me. It is a life changing event. It is a chance to experience what it would be like to do the kind of work I think I might like to do. It is a chance to really feel fully like I am competent. It is a chance to learn and to use the empathy that I have to help others. And if I could have a career helping others, using knowledge and skills that I have gained from experience and not just from college, well that would be a meaningful thing to do. It wouldn't pay much money, and it would be difficult and stressful. But it would surely be a meaningful thing to do with my life. And I want a life with meaning.

Thank you, cosmos, for today. And yeah, thank you Risperdal Consta and Wellbutrin and Klonopin and Vistaril too. You helped me get this day.


  1. I am so so proud of you. Thank you for your comment on my blog, yes, I am looking forward to being where you are after doing my psychological science degree. I too can't wait for that empowering feeling and I will probably choose mental health as my line of work. I am pretty sure I will get into my program and can't wait to start. What a change. This time last year I was going back into hospital after three years out. I never want to go back and I only want to go up and be well and have a normal life again. Like you said, it may sound dull to some, but to those of that have lost so much to our mental illnesses, it is life changing to come out of it. Good for you :)

  2. Jen,

    What an amazing day for you! You must just feel incredible.

    I thought long and hard about a career in psychology, but I realized eventually that it would be too draining for me because I also have the increased empathy that comes from having been there.

    But I think a lot of people with mental issues are drawn to the field because they know what it is like and they want to help make it better. I think only someone who has been there can really "get it" and maybe really help.

    Congratulations and I am really happy for you!


  3. o my goodness this is so expiring. HUG!!!
    i am so pround n excited for u,it must feel gr8 all the control over everything. Omg i'd KILL to read my med files ,so glad u don't even sound tempted
    keep having a fab life <3

  4. Congratulations Jen! You have come far. I know you will become an excellent mental health worker.

    What I don't understand is why there isn't some coordinated effort to link people in recovery with people behind the locked doors in hospitals. Just a simple support group of some sort, you know? It's as if those in charge possibly think that if you're locked up, then you can't participate in "civilized" society for an hour or so each week with patients on the outside. That is omitting a crucial step for everyone in the hospital, the step out into the world and into some personal recovery program.

    Success stories, from minor ones to major ones, need to get back to the inmates. Not only that, but the ones on the outside need to do something for their segment of the population to give them back purpose and meaning. It's similar to becoming (or graduating into) a sponsor to someone at a meeting for any number of addictions. People helping people works, especially when those doing the helping have been through similar experiences.

    Here's to you continuing to help yourself and others!

    Kate : )

  5. Wow! It's very hard to be in a good enough place to go back to a hospital where you once stayed. I'm proud of you. I could barely manage a speaking engagement in a hospital setting 5 years ago.
    I'm diagnosed with schizophrenia but really am not one for labels. That's wonderful that you're doing so well in school to get an internship. I'm not sure if I'd be ready to work in a hospital with all my trauma. Good job on dealing with it in a healthy manner!
    I'm glad I stumbled across this in my blogroll. It was well written and uplifting. :)

  6. Wow. Such bravery. I am so impressed by you. This is a wonderful,affirming step--not only for you, but for all the people you will be able to help with love, compassion, understanding, and empathy.


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