Part 15: Leaving the Psychiatric Hospital and Taking a Break Before Returning to Life

A few days away helped me adjust to normal life.
A young man walking on the beach. | Graphic made by author with Canva.

As I stepped through the glass hospital doors out into the bright April sunshine, I felt the weight lift from my shoulders. Ten days is not a long time, but when those days are in a psychiatric hospital, it feels like forever. The night with the pills felt like a lifetime ago.

I was free again. Free to go outside or eat whenever I wanted. Free to do whatever I pleased. For a few moments, I stood in the sun and closed my eyes, relishing the sweet feeling of freedom.

My friend Margaret was there to pick me up. She drove me straight to Dr. Burt’s office, the therapist I would see for a few weeks.

Surviving Bipolar is a series about the early days of my bipolar journey. Read it from the beginning here, or Part 14 here.

Even a Bad Therapist Can Help

Dr. Burt disappointed me in many ways, but I did still learn something from him. If you pay attention, you can learn valuable lessons from even a poor therapist.

It may be unfair for me to say Dr. Burt was a weak therapist. Many of his patients loved him. For me, though, I felt like he only wanted to focus on one part of my recovery.

Dr. Burt was a recovering alcoholic. It was his favorite subject, so he steered every conversation in its direction.

Alcohol abuse was just one area where I needed help. I also needed to unpack repressed memories, a chaotic family, and constant thoughts of suicide.

I couldn’t get Dr Burt to understand what I needed, so our time together was short.

The day I left the hospital, Dr. Burt gave me homework. He wanted me to write my history, a sort of autobiography. In a way, that task was the start of what would become the Speaking Bipolar blog.

But that was 1995. The internet was barely a thing, so Speaking Bipolar had to wait 20 years. Still, it was the start of me telling my story.

A young man walking on the beach. | Graphic made by author with Canva.

Looking Back to Move Forward

Sometimes you have to look at where you have been before you can move forward. My first draft of my story was four paragraphs. It listed a few highlights from my life, but not much else.

When I took my one-page history back to Dr. Burt, he frowned and handed it back to me. Instead, he gave me a list of questions to answer while writing my memoir. A few questions were:

  • Why did I remember things the way I did?
  • How did past events affect me?
  • Where did I want to go from there?
  • Who were the biggest players in my life?
  • How did each person touch my history?

Those might look like a few simple questions, but answering them has taken decades. Sometimes you have to let time pass between an event and when you can cope with it. You need time to heal before you can look at the wound again.

I wasn’t ready to tackle the hardest parts of my life with Dr. Burt. My fear and his failure to call me on it also made him less useful as a therapist.

Easing Back Into Life

Patrick and Margaret were priceless friends, and they feared letting me go home alone. My first night out of the hospital, I stayed with them and their two little ones.

I didn’t want to admit it, but I was afraid of being alone, too. I also wasn’t ready to face most of the world. As much as I wanted to get out of the hospital, the realities of being back on the outside was more stressful than I expected.

After a long talk, Patrick and Margaret decided I should get away from my hometown for a while. Margaret and another friend, Penelope, had already made plans.

The next morning, we left for Seaside, Florida. It was the best thing to do as I tried to adjust to life again.

Part 15 of the Surviving Bipolar Series describes the first few days after leaving a psychiatric hospital. Read how bipolar disorder feels on the inside. | #SpeakingBipolar #mentalhealth #mentalillness #bipolardisorder #mentalillnessawareness
Please share on Pinterest. Graphic created with Canva.

Connecting With a New Friend

It was a trip of many first for me. I had never seen the ocean, never been to Florida, and never walked on white sand before.

Stepping out onto the sparkling beach the first time, the sea shining like a blue-green emerald, and white sand shores as far as I could see, I felt transformed. As each gentle wave lapped against the shore, it became part of me. The ocean would become one of my best friends, a bond to last forever.

It was still spring, but Florida had survived another spring-break crowd before we got there. Most of our visit, we had a piece of the beach to ourselves. I was in heaven, and part of me wanted to stay there forever.

If you ever spend time in a psychiatric hospital, I suggest taking some time between when you leave the hospital and when you return to normal life.

Lots of Time to Think

While you’re in the hospital, it feels like you spend most of the day doing nothing. The truth is, your life is very scheduled.

The hospital staff tells you when to get up, when to eat, and when to go to your assigned activities. For most sessions, including group therapy, you must attend. It’s a lot of structure, and you can’t help but miss it when you leave.

As I sat on the hot white sand, hypnotized by the sound of waves crashing against the shore, my mind started to run. There was too much time to think. My time in the hospital brought a lot of memories online. Memories I wasn’t ready to handle.

Margaret and Penelope were the best traveling companions. They gave me space when I needed it, but were there to listen when I wanted to talk.

Even though it was the first time I saw the gulf coast, being near the water brought back childhood memories. There was a time I almost drowned when we were staying at a friend’s cabin, a near fatal mistake of leaving a child alone on the lake.

There was a time when my dad tried to force me to swim when I wasn’t ready. He pushed me into the water, and I fought so hard I skinned both legs against the concrete sides of the hotel pool.

Both memories were traumatic and tied to much bigger issues. Being near the ocean brought them back in vivid detail.

My mind fought against itself, trying to reconcile the horror I felt from the past with the peace I felt beside the ocean. It was too much to process and filled my thoughts all day. I also struggled with a desire to self-harm. so it was best I was with other people.

Finding a Happy Memory to Keep

I’m more than a bit silly, so I wanted a fun keepsake to remember my trip. We visited many shops during our long weekend, but nothing touched me until I saw a little stuffed orca.

Before the weekend was over, we would name the killer whale Mr. Happy. The toy became a symbol of both my success over my darkest days and a hope that I could be happy again. Mr. Happy still sits on a shelf doing his job.

Mr. Happy still sits on a shelf in my home. | Image by author.

I won’t say I was ready to return to life when we headed back home, but I was in a better place than when I first left the hospital. Spending those days in peaceful scenes helped me adjust from a scheduled life to one where I could make all the decisions.

It also gave me the strength to talk to my mother again.

My Mom Didn’t Understand

My relationship with my parents was strained then. They didn’t understand what I was going through, and my refusal to talk to them only made it worse. I refused to let them visit me while I was in the hospital, and it broke their hearts.

Tough as it was, there were things I needed to resolve on my own. That list included painful memories no one in my family wanted to talk about.

I hate I hurt them by pushing them away, but I can’t regret the decision. It’s what I needed to do so I could move forward.

I called my mom one night and told her how much I loved her, but that I also needed space. She was angry and said some pretty ugly things, but I stood my ground. I knew what I needed to do, and that meant finding the strength inside to do the tough tasks.

It’s Okay If You Can’t Work

As I read back through my journal, there’s no mention of work during the 10 days I was in the hospital, nor in the first few weeks after. Much of my memories of that time are a blur, but I think I didn’t work at all.

I share this because it’s important for you to understand there will be times when mental illness shuts you down. Bipolar disorder will take over your life, and all you’ll be able to do is fight against it. Work, school, and relationships will have to take a back seat.

Some people won’t understand, but you have to take care of you first. Without your mental health and stability, you will never completely be there for anyone else.

So don’t beat yourself up if you can’t work or if you don’t have the strength to see certain people. Let yourself heal and find a path forward. The people who love you will understand and still be there waiting when you’re ready to see them again.

Back home again, it was now May. For years, May was the worst month of my year, but I didn’t know that back in 1995. As the month began, I imagined it was full of possibilities. I convinced myself I had beat mania, and now that I was taking better meds, I had my mental illness under control.

How wrong I was. I’ll tell you more of the story in the next episode.

Until next time, keep fighting.

Read Part 16:

Part 15 of the Surviving Bipolar Series describes the first few days after leaving a psychiatric hospital. Read how bipolar disorder feels on the inside. | #SpeakingBipolar #mentalhealth #mentalillness #bipolardisorder #mentalillnessawareness
Please share on Pinterest. Graphic created with Canva.

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