Reflecting on good things, losing my addict tag, and anxiety about going home.
My time in the psychiatric hospital was quickly coming to a close. Insurance companies seem to have more power over your medical care than doctors do, so I was going home, ready or not.
There were only two days left when I started to come out of my sedated state. I spent most of the time reflecting on how much I had in my life. I also took note of the other patients around me.
One woman, Jan, especially stood out. She was another grandmother. I lost the last of my grandparents when I was 13. The absence of older family members made me drawn to the grandmotherly types.
I can’t remember if Jan ever told me her story. She said she’d fought depression for decades, but I remember little else. I carefully excluded personal details about other patients in my journal, so there’s no record to refer to now.
Jan was a talented musician and sang me a song she wrote for her grandson. I wrote in my journal, “I finally felt a real feeling with my heart today. As she sang, all I wanted to do was cry. And I did.”
I’m not a crier. I hate it almost as much as throwing up. That I gave in and let my emotions flow was proof I was making progress. For those few moments we spent together, Jan made me feel seen. Our hearts connected in a warm embrace, leaving us both the better for it.
Surviving Bipolar is a monthly series where I share the early days of my journey with bipolar disorder. You can read the story from the beginning here.
The Battle of Substance Abuse
I finally saw a substance abuse counselor one-on-one on day nine. During my entire visit, the staff treated me as an addict, but no one ever did an evaluation. No one asked if the drunken night that led to my hospitalization was a trend or a one off.
Now that my stay was ending, the Alcohol and Drug (A&D) Director finally found a few minutes to sit down with me. Nine days in was my first conversation about substance abuse. You can guarantee I didn’t let that fact slip by during our conversation.
Jack asked a series of questions, but unlike the intake staff, he let me take my time in answering. I didn’t hold back and told Jack about my frequent drinking bouts.
“It’s not a problem,” I told him several times.
“You may not be an alcoholic,” Jack told me. “But you’re well on your way. If you continue to use alcohol to treat your mental illness, it’s only a matter of time before you are an addict.”
He ended our session by crossing off the red addict stamp in my patient file. A&D sessions were no longer required, but I kept going because the group sessions had already helped me see the danger signs in me.
It felt essential that I not be an addict. I knew alcoholics and didn’t want to be like them. I threw aside Jack’s comment about me being well on my way and proudly told everyone I didn’t have a problem with alcohol.
Yes, I was abusing alcohol. There was no question about that. Even if I wasn’t an alcoholic, I was fighting other addictions. Regardless of what label I carried out of the hospital, the lessons I learned there helped me to deal with future trials.
Repressed Anger Revealed
I had always known that I had a temper. Even as a child, things made me boil with rage. The anger pushed me to break things. My misdeed usually led to a spanking, which only made me angrier.
Both of my parents had tempers, so I figured my anger was a learned response.
Later on day nine, we had a class on repressed anger. The group leader gave us a paper test to complete that we then scored ourselves. One by one, the counselor reviewed each question and then gave us a number score for each multiple-choice answer.
The highest possible score was 100, and I got a 92. It was the highest score in the room, confusing a few of my fellow patients. No one, except a few staff members on Level A, ever saw me angry.
In my journal, I detailed my internal conflict. Part of me felt the test was complete garbage, and the score meant nothing. Another part felt the high score revealed a serious problem, but it would be years before I actually addressed it.
Even now, nearly 30 years after my hospital stay, there are days when my anger gets the best of me. Like someone flipping a switch in my mind, I go from the normally calm guy to a raging monster ready to destroy the world. Losing control from bipolar anger still scares me to this day. Fortunately, it doesn’t show up near as often as it used to.
A Look Inward
On my last day, while I was reflecting on the things I had learned during my hospital stay, I started to recognize that I would one day tell people about my story. As much as I hated it, the experience had transformed me. I was going home a changed man. I knew the impact of my stay was a story I’d have to share.
In my journal, I scribbled notes on the parts of the story I would tell. It felt important to remember how cold it was in the hospital. I wrote, “We may be at different stages in working on our mental illnesses, but one thing we all have in common: we’re leaving here with pneumonia.”
Even in my darkness, I found humor.
I’ve talked to other people who spent time in a psychiatric care facility. No matter the hospital, they all had one similarity: they were cold. Often painfully frigid.
If you have to go, make sure someone brings you warm clothes. I think it’s where my obsession with hoodies began, and why I’ve never more than a few feet from one now.
I also reflected on the positive things in my life. When I checked into the hospital, I felt like I had nothing of value in my life, including myself. Yet, during my time away, I had friends come for every visiting hour.
As I watched the other patients work on their recovery, it clicked how many things I had to be thankful for. While my relationship with my folks was strained, I knew I had two people who loved me. My sister, hundreds of miles away, also worried every day about my well-being. And I had reliable friends ready to support me.
My fellow patients told me how scared they were to leave the hospital. They knew they would be alone, but I had friends waiting to help me. Weeks would pass before I had to face life by myself, and that was a gift I had to hold on to.
In our darkest moments, it’s hard to be grateful for anything. Bipolar depression can make us only see the worst in our world. In our pain, we may forget the value of what we have.
If you have even one person who loves you, that’s a precious gift. Some people don’t have that. If you haven’t found your people yet, don’t give up on looking for them. Everyone is worthy of love, including me, including you. Open your heart to others, and people will love you in return.Start Today!
Back to Normal Life
On my last morning, I woke up excited at the thought of going home. I was ready to escape the walls of the hospital, a place I was viewing more and more like a prison. I longed to be free, to walk through doors when I wanted.
My friends planned to pick me up around lunchtime, but the closer it got to noon, the more anxiety I felt. My prison felt more like a sanctuary, and the world outside looked scarier than I was ready for.
I didn’t know what to expect. My head swam with questions. Would the dark impulses come back? What would happen when I was alone again? Was the positive feelings I felt reality or a manic cycle?
I tried to strengthen myself by remembering I had friends to see me through. It was clear that much of my process would depend on working through the issues inside my head. I doubted I had the strength to open up to my loved ones, or the power to work hard on my stability.
The next Surviving Bipolar post will cover my first days back in the real world.
Until next time, keep fighting.