There was a moment when I used to blame everything and everyone for all the pain and suffering and vile things that happened to me…
I didn’t get no answers because I was asking the wrong questions. You have to ask the right question.
Has anything you’ve done made your life better?
- Dr Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks)
‘American History X’
I have been hospitalised twice with suicidal ideation. The first time was back in 2007, the second in 2010.
The episodes leading to my hospitalisation were a few days/weeks in the making. Distinct events triggered reactions that I tried to push through. Previously, I had associated suicide with bouts of self harm while I was in extreme emotional and mental distress. I was trying to trigger responses in others or to give myself something to focus on. The 2007 and 2010 events were different. I was lost, like the redundant middle manager who leaves home with a briefcase everyday to catch the train to the city, only to spend the day sitting in the park. I tried so hard to hang on, but I couldn’t, so I made a plan. I reached a sort of calm. My thoughts were ordered. I was lucid, but in a far more dangerous place than I was at peak crazy.
And that’s when I saved my life.
In 2007, I left the office and went to my psychiatrist’s rooms. They arranged for my admittance to a private clinic. I was so ashamed of myself there were only a handful of friends who knew I was there. I didn’t tell my family. I stayed for two weeks. In 2010, I looked out of my lounge room window. The idea of going outside hurt, but I did it. I forced myself to get a cab and met two friends who took me to St Vincent’s. I was formally assessed as having both a plan and the means to complete suicide and admitted to the Psychiatric Emergency Care Centre (PECC).
As soon as I walked into the PECC, I wanted out. I cried, I begged, I pleaded with the nursing staff not to leave me on a ward with five men. The nursing staff observe you from a central ‘fishbowl’ which they rarely left. All beds must remain visible to the fishbowl. The bathroom was a fitted steel module – that is, there are no moving parts, no toilet seat, no taps, nothing that could be detached or broken and used as a weapon. My bed was in a corner. One man sat on my bed and made me feel physically endangered. Another was so heavily medicated he lay in bed making horrendous noises, occasionally walking up and down the ward in a rhythmic stupor. When I cried because I was scared I was going to be raped during the night, I was threatened by a nurse that if I didn’t ‘belt up’ I would ‘find myself in Caritas… and I didn’t want that’.
After I was released from the PECC (after about a week – there were no doctors available on the ward to assess me for release), it took me seven weeks to recover. I lost my job – in other words, the social determinants of my suicidal ideation were made worse by emergency intervention. After I left the PECC, I didn’t seek help from the area health service crisis team for fear that I would be hospitalised again. The suicidal ideation still comes and goes, sometimes when I’m alone in bed at 4am and can find no peace. The most troubling are the fleeting moments when I am surrounded by beauty and warmth and feel disconnected from it. Then it passes.
The way we care for suicidal people needs to change. People leaving hospital are at a heightened risk of completing suicide. Suicidality does not equal mental illness, but the ‘care’ I received was being locked in a room next to a man experiencing a psychotic episode. I am convinced hospital was not the best place for me. I needed a supported environment where I could just stop. Suicidal ideation is the end of the line. I was utterly done. I needed not to have to fight for myself, just for a little while, so that I could get up and make a new plan to live. My stay in the PECC stopped me from killing myself. It did not support my decision to live.
Getting back to the quote. Since 2012, I’ve done things to make my life better. Instead of chasing a relationship, I’ve eased myself into living with ‘aloneness’ as opposed to loneliness. Career-wise and financially… I think the euphemism is ‘insecurity’, but I don’t punish myself for not being successful anymore. I stopped seeing the psychiatrist I’d seen for a decade. That might sound weird, but I wasn’t getting better; I was just on an increasing cocktail of drugs and revisiting extremely traumatic events every week. In 2013, I stopped using an antipsychotic I had been prescribed to help me sleep (seriously, I was on this gear). In January this year, I began medically-supervised withdrawal from a benzodiazepine originally prescribed after I left hospital in 2010. Last week, I took the final step in my phased withdrawal from anti-depressants. I’m now clean for the first time in over a decade. Every one of these choices has (so far) made my life better. I am not anti-psychiatry, or advocating that anyone should avoid psychoactive medication. The help I sought and received served its purpose. If I need help again, I’ll ask for it. The most important choice I made was to allow myself to experience feelings in a normal range. I had always regarded resilience as sacrosanct – that the worst things that could happen to me had, and if I felt sad, I had failed. I couldn’t accept weakness. Resilience is a great quality, but I took it to an extreme that almost cost me my life. I have had some rough times, but I am on the whole more at ease with myself, have a better relationship with my family and am excited about the future. I’ll get a break, work-wise. I won’t let fear hold me back from telling people I love them. I’ll live.