As an ER nurse, there are countless examples of how mental health affects me personally and professionally. When offered to write an article for the Inner Fokus blog, I debated whether to discuss my perspective on how mental health affects the emergency room or to get more personal by sharing some highlights of how mental health has affected me throughout my life. A quick Google search of “mental health in the emergency room” resulted in a seemingly endless list of results, but personal stories are less often shared.
I struggled in my younger years. I had this “dark hole” inside of me, a pit of endless sadness. I can remember it for as long as I have memories. I would cry alone in my bed most nights. I felt utterly alone even though I was surrounded by a relatively large family of 2 parents and 4 siblings. Depression set in right around when my period started. A deeper pit of despair overwhelmed my whole life. I felt black on the inside. And then the voices started. They were my voices, but there was the bad one that would tell me to hurt myself, the good one that hardly ever convinced me not to hurt myself, and then the “real me” in the background. I was a cutter, and I cut wherever I could hide it. One day I was alone in the house, I remember “coming to” with a large butcher knife to my throat. I threw it from myself. I guess the good me won that time.
At the age of 13, I drank a large bottle of mixed pills from my dad’s cabinet, went into my room, cut my arms up, and laid down to sleep. As I was drifting off the “good me” told me that if I went to sleep I was going to die. I didn’t want to die, I simply wanted to sleep forever. I went downstairs with my bloody arms out and I heard my mom scream. Somehow, I told her that I took a bottle of pills, she didn’t need to be worried about my superficial arm wounds. They had to pump my stomach at the ER. I remember my nurse being so mad at me; she seemed so sad, as she held back her tears, but on the outside was very stern. I don’t know if they gave me medications to keep me sedated, or if the effects of the medications I had taken kicked in, but the rest of the hospital stay is a blur. I remember being so exposed in a room behind a glass door. Everyone could see me and I could see them talking about me just outside the doors, but could never hear what they were saying.
Right around this time, I had finally remembered the sexual abuse I endured as a very small child at the hands of a neighbor kid. I had recurring nightmares as a child that I would repress when I woke up, probably because I did not understand what it all meant as a kid. By this point, my brain wouldn’t let me forget. The first person I confided in was my best friends 18-year-old brother, who proceeded to take advantage of me as well. I froze and I dissociated from myself.I told my therapist, who apparently did not report it. I also told my brother, who told his therapist, and his therapist reported it. All of this came out while I was in the hospital. I felt totally physically and mentally exposed. I felt so embarrassed. Even my Dad knew…I didn’t want him to know any of it.
I was transferred to a mental hospital in the back of an ambulance. The mental hospital itself was horrendous. There isn’t enough space in a short article to share the details, so let’s just say it was a real-life “Girl Interrupted” situation with people who were severely mentally ill. It was attached to a mental hospital for the criminally insane, so the population was a poor fit for a depressed teenager. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder based on my mom’s descriptions of me and was prescribed a cocktail of medications to combat it before being released. The next year plus of my life was spent being medicated and visiting a psychiatrist and therapist. My mother chose each therapist and would discontinue treatment and find a new therapist each time the therapist sided with me or disagreed with her. My depression wasn’t lifting, so the psychiatrist continued to add new medications and increasing doses. I would plead with them that the medications were making things worse, but no one would listen to me or take me seriously.
At nearly 15, I ran away from home for the night. I couldn’t think anymore, I couldn’t do homework, I couldn’t write poetry, I couldn’t FEEL anymore. When I came home the next day, my mother was justifiably upset and scared. I remember repeating, “I can hear you, but I CAN NOT hear you. I need to go somewhere safe.” We took me and my already packed up bags to a nicer psychiatric hospital where I detoxed (cold-turkey, despite their recommendations to slowly discontinue) off the 4 – 5 antipsychotic and anticonvulsant/mood stabilizer medications that I had been taking. I overheard a discussion about my mom having doubled my dose of some of the medications on her own (past the point of a safe adult dose), which helps explain why I felt as awful as I did and why the withdrawal symptoms were as long and excruciating as they were.
The next few years were eventful, including me dropping out of my freshman year of high school, doing some homeschooling, attending a small private school, being forcefully sent to a wilderness camp and then a lock-down treatment center for a made-up methamphetamine addiction and antisocial personality disorder, both “diagnosed” by my mother. At 18, I finally moved out on my own to begin my independent, adult life. As you might imagine, I had a string of unhealthy relationships, including a marriage that became physically abusive while I was pregnant. I left the relationship for good 6 weeks after giving birth to my son. I had a realization that I needed to fix myself in order to be a good example for him and to take the best care of him possible. I spent the next 5 years digging deep inside myself. I didn’t want to be broken anymore and wanted to thrive as best I could as a single parent (raising a child on your own is a whole different blog post – single motherhood is hard!). I have been lucky enough to meet a wonderful man who loves both myself and my son. We have been together for almost 4 years now.
Now in my mid-30’s, I’ve come to realize that my parents have significant mental health issues of their own. I’ve always known that something wasn’t right, but over time I’ve come to understand that my mom’s deep-seeded need to be wanted/depended on fuels a lot of her choices. This lead to a sense of chaos and instability throughout my life that set me up to choose emotionally unstable and unreliable partners through most of my young adulthood. As is the case with many people, I continued the patterns I learned in my childhood. While being sent to residential treatment as a teenager was upsetting at the time, in retrospect, I believe it saved me. I had multiple therapy sessions each week with a therapist my mother couldn’t choose or control and group therapy sessions every day where I learned valuable skills I’ve relied on throughout my adult life. My main therapist understood my mom in a way no other therapist had and protected me from her in ways that allowed me to feel safe while in treatment. While I didn’t belong there, I learned a lot and benefited greatly from the experience.
While it’s been difficult to navigate adulthood in terms of my relationship with my mom, I believe I’ve made wise choices that best protect me and my son from her manipulative behaviors. It’s hard to set boundaries with someone that you love, but it’s been essential for our well being. My son does not understand why these boundaries are in place and is upset at times that he cannot spend considerable time with her. As an adult, I know it’s not healthy for him and I’ve seen the ways loosening those boundaries have negatively affected him. Since limiting their time together, the issues he has been facing with his mental health and vision (a diagnosed conversion disorder in which emotional problems manifest as physical ones) have begun to improve considerably.
I am grateful that I discovered why my world was so unhealthy. In many articles I have read, some people do not discover that their parent is unhealthy until that parent dies and they are in their 50’s-60’s. I can’t imagine suffering for that long. I am also thankful that I made it through school and became a Registered Nurse with a BSN. It was a tough road — I worked nights as a brand-new nurse while caring for my infant son during the day — it wasn’t perfect and it’s been incredibly difficult. But, I made it. I am in a stable, healthy relationship, with a great job that I enjoy, and a son that I can focus on and help him achieve his goals in life. I believe the adversities in my life have made me a more understanding and compassionate human being and a non-judgmental and caring nurse. I’m still afraid that I’m not a perfect mother. I am afraid that I didn’t build appropriate attachments with my son, or that I let my mother hurt him, or that I do not respond appropriately to him. But I am doing my best and I’m proud of the person that I am. It’s an ongoing process, but it’s worth the effort in order to overcome the challenges life has presented me and to have the fulfilling and stable life we all deserve.