In the town where we grew up, there was a psychiatric hospital. It was spoken about in hushed whispers as a scary place where crazy people were fenced in and tortured. In reality, the hospital catered predominantly for those who were institutionalised during a time in our history when those with even minor problems were often hidden away. We were told as part of our abuse, that if we told the secrets we would be sent to prison or this hospital forever. So our early contact with psychiatric hospitals was negative.
If you place these experiences within the context of our rather traumatic experiences with the medical profession, you get a picture of someone who has deep seeded issues and fears about all things medical. The young ones especially react with terror even when driving by a hospital. We avoid dentists, doctors and nurses where at all possible. In many ways this fear enabled us to appear high functioning for many years – if there was a threat of having to ask for help through therapy or medication, well that just wasn’t acceptable. Time to stamp it all back down into The Basement and carry on being invisible.
Then arrives the dissociative train wreck we experienced when about 34. Our coping mechanisms fell apart. Then there was the final straw – we were teaching a group of 40 students when something about the interactive whiteboard markers caused Angel to come forward. So there you have a 5 year old drawing pictures of flowers on the whiteboard while a group of adult students look on. M comes back to find half the board covered…
So back to therapy we went. We were in the throes of an abusive marriage and suddenly facing a childhood that wasn’t as perfect as we’d convinced ourselves it was. These factors led to constant suicidal ideation and intent, which in turn resulted in us needing to find some support to keep safe.
In New Zealand there are a few support lines for suicide help – Lifeline, Samaritans, Youthline, the emergency number or the local mental health hotline. Lifeline, Samaritans and Youthline are confidential – unless they feel you are in danger, in which case they will try to get your details and send around the Police. Emergency services transfer you through to the mental health hotline, unless you are already need emergency care. Once you’re in the mental health system, you are told to call the mental health hotline. Usually you wait for 5-10 minutes on hold before the phone is answered – ever been suicidal during the Christmas season and had to listen to Christmas carols for 20 minutes while waiting to see if someone can help you stop killing yourself? You can at least double the waiting time if you call after midnight, as that’s when they go down to one or two operators.
If you do manage to get through to a human, you’re asked for your details – name, phone, address, caseworker and then why you’ve called. If they consider you to be at risk, they will send around the local mental health workers to assess you. If they consider that you aren’t at risk, they will discuss grounding skills you can use before sending you on your way. The problem with this is that at any one time we can have up to 5 suicide plans – apparently that means we don’t really mean to die as we’re not focused on one plan (we consider it covering our bases in case one doesn’t work). We can also begin the phone call with one who wants to reach out for help; but by the time we get to actually talk to someone, we’ve switched to one who either won’t talk or says that everything is fine. So in many ways the service doesn’t suit us (and a majority of the population).
If you are considered at risk, you get the joyful experience of being escorted up to the psychiatric ward of the local hospital. Where you begin the wait for some poor registrar who has been working for at least 10 hours and is surviving on a combination of adrenaline, coffee and sugar. This person then has to assess your level of danger. Most registrars haven’t dealt with anyone with a dissociative disorder, let alone tried to understand if there really is a risk. They have a thankless job of walking a tightrope – is the patient telling the truth? To make this job more complicated, during our experiences with registrars they’ve encountered –
- Aimee (9 yrs old and carefree) who smilingly told the nice young registrar that she was too young to drink. Quite forgetting that the body she shares is in it’s mid 30’s and sitting cross-legged on a hospital bed while drips are hanging from each arm to pump us full of drugs to counter the drugs we’d OD’d on.
- Sophie (16 yrs old) who is our safest bet for these assessments – no one would section Sophie. The main problem is getting close enough to hear her as she talks very quietly when scared or worried.
- M who is the other safe bet. She’s confident and knows how to work the mental health system to ensure that we are released. Release is always her goal as the young ones she protects are violently triggered by hospitals.
- Ellie who won’t be sectioned as long as she can keep her swearing and scorn for the medical profession under control.
- Frank who is the worst one to front for an assessment. He doesn’t get suicidal, but doesn’t understand what constitutes aggressive behaviour as seen in the eyes of a psychiatrist. He doesn’t actually get aggressive, but his anger at being in a hospital is seen as aggression.
It’s at this point where we’ve usually been sent home. But on two occasions we’ve been admitted or sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
Event 1: Sectioning with two nights in hospital.
- Night of admission, put into art therapy room with triggering artwork around the walls.
- Given a single room across from an alcoholic man in his 40’s (the father is an alcoholic).
- As punishment for being admitted W used all of her strength to try and break the arms by bashing them against the storage unit in the room.
- A miracle was there in the form of a part-time night nurse. She realised we wouldn’t sleep so asked if we wanted art supplies and then she sat and talked to us. She didn’t care who she talked to, she just sat on the floor and let us talk and draw. She got us Arnica cream for the bruised, swollen mess that was now our arms without a fuss.
- Then there was the daytime registrar. We had asked to be released as the hospital was too triggering. He went through the whole assessment again. He asked why our symptoms made us special. We tried to explain that we weren’t special, just sometimes experienced dissociation. He dismissed the dissociation saying it wasn’t important. Then when returning after talking to the consultant, said that the dissociation made us too unpredictable to release. Yes, the one symptom that he totally dismissed, became the thing he used to keep us in.
- That night the same part-time nurse told us how to get out – say the words “I have no intent”.
- The following day a different registrar got the consultant to come in and talk to us. He was going to let us out for the day, but M came forward and dazzled him with a veil of sanity. We were outta there.
Event 2: Admitted to the secure unit with one night stay.
- Saturday afternoon attempted suicide through an overdose and was taken to ER by the husband.
- Put on a drip and was overwhelmed by the dissociation.
- Overheard the nurses say that we hadn’t really overdosed, but were just attention seeking – our bed was right beside the nurses station and strangely enough the curtains aren’t sound proof.
- As soon as we were coherant, we asked to leave.
- After a 5 hour wait, we were assessed by the same psychiatrist who once picked up the phone while we were in the room and told the DBT specialist that “the borderline actually turned up, do you want to come meet her?”
- Because of all the triggers, Ellie and Frank weren’t able to control the anger very well. We were escorted to the secure unit by the Police. We didn’t threaten anyone or even raise our voice, but we were considered to be irrational and dangerous because of the barely contained rage.
- We were released the next morning.
If we are ever sectioned again, we’ll request to go to the secure unit. It was comparatively peaceful and safe. If any of the half a dozen patients even raise their voice, they are immediately surrounded by about four staff and taken away to be calmed down. The only downside was that the cups of tea were lukewarm – hot water being a dangerous weapon.
This is a very light hearted look at our experiences. In reality, during the sectioning Sophie was nearly destroyed when her twin came from The Basement to tell her why they were created. The day after we were released from the secure unit, the ex-husband tried to kill us. Other incidents have occurred while we’ve been waiting to be assessed, including one I’d like to forget where a patient masturbated while looking through the window at us.
We sit in wonder when people say that they voluntarily go to hospital. It’s a concept that we don’t understand – why would you volunteer for torture, ridicule and scorn? We know our perception is warped and that hospitals help people every day. But it’s not something we identify with. It was once recommended that we go to Ashburn Hospital for a minimum of six months to try and break our cycle of destructive thinking. Just the thought of that was terrifying. I wonder if part of the reason is that in New Zealand the focus within the psychiatric ward seems to be on holding you in a safe place until the suicidal intent goes, rather than helping you in a long term way. It’s reactive rather than proactive.