5 Lessons From The Psych Ward

Alvaro German Vilela / (Shutterstock.com)
Alvaro German Vilela / (Shutterstock.com)

This October will mark five years since I was hospitalized for a suicide attempt. After years of suffering, diagnoses, and medications, I finally had enough. In an effort that is equal parts catharsis and advocacy, I have come up with a list of five lessons I have learned since my time in the psych ward.

1. Progress is not linear.

This phrase gets thrown around a lot, but for some reason it seems hard to believe. Magnified by the social-media highlight reels we see of our friends’ lives, it can seem like everyone is happy and achieving all the time. I am here to tell you that is NOT true. The amount of times I’ve been told, “You have to hit rock bottom” and thought, “That’s what I was told at my last ‘rock bottom’” is more than I can count on my fingers.

We all want this glamorous, sudden change where everything falls into place. And while I have had my fair share of life-altering experiences, the truth is much less sexy. There will be good days and not-so-good days. You will achieve and feel accomplished. You will mess up and get down on yourself. Such is life. It is the sum of these successes and “failures” that will shape your life and who you become.

2. It’s not about what happened; it’s about the meaning you give it.

Part of my problem—and something I still struggle with—is living in the past. Childhood traumas, traumas I’ve picked up along the way, and a plethora of labels I was stuck with (both clinical and not) became the role I was comfortable playing:

Well, of course I did that. I’m bipolar; that’s what bipolar people do. They never get better: they only change moods. …or… I played a role in my abuse, so can I really even call it abuse? It’s basically my fault.

It can be easy to get stuck in places like this, but it is something you can (with help) actively combat.

My childhood therapist had something along these lines written on her wall: “Don’t let me go into my head alone without a flashlight and a shovel.” This was something said in one of our group-therapy sessions (group therapy can be an amazing resource, by the way) that shows immense insight and incentive to let others in. The things we say to ourselves and the meanings we give to events become facts in our minds, even if they have no basis in reality. We might not even realize they’re irrational or unhealthy. Letting others in or just challenging your thoughts can affect, if not transform, the emotions you regularly experience. Asking yourself, “How does this serve me?” can help you gain awareness into negative thoughts and belief systems.

3. Loneliness sucks, but doing some things alone is important.

How many songs or movies or books can you think of that talk about loneliness? We sing or watch or read along, loving it and connecting. Then we turn around and are unkind to people, possibly causing them to feel alienated. This can be especially true when dealing with mental health. You can feel broken or feel as if your friends and family will never understand, or even as if you don’t have any real friends at all. It is possible that these people will never understand. This is OK, because you may never understand exactly what they mean, either.

Do not get me wrong—relationships are a key component to one’s well-being, BUT relying on other people for your sense of happiness or self-worth is not only unhealthy, it is dangerous.

What’s more, it is important to see that you can do things on your own. When I recently ran into an abuser unexpectedly, my first instinct was to freak out. A million thoughts raced through my mind as my body froze. I reached out to my parents and some friends to no avail. No one seemed to know how to respond. I felt alone and resentful until I realized that even I did not know what to do, so how could I expect others to know what to say? I withdrew my judgment and just let myself cry and be with the feelings, aware that they would eventually subside. I woke up the next morning and thought, “Wow, I am proud of myself. I didn’t think I could handle that on my own, but I did it.”

4. Balance is key.

As someone with a flair for the dramatic and an overwhelming urge to pour my soul into anything that makes me feel good, this lesson is hard. How do we toe the line between passionate and obsessive? How do we maintain relationships with friends when we’re so in love we want to give all our time to our significant other? How do we do well in school while still respecting our part-time job and our social life and our body’s need for sleep? While I have yet to come across a definitive answer, I have learned that it is all about experimenting. There are so many components to one’s health, and the best combination is different for everyone.

This is one of the most beautiful things about life. We can try things on, keep what fits, and get rid of what doesn’t. We do not have to be rigid. Trying different approaches—despite what you may hear—does not make you a “phony.” It simply means you are trying different skill sets that you may not have been exposed to. Maybe we learned to place too much importance on others’ opinions and need to learn some self-care skills. Maybe we learned to place too much importance on ourselves and need to learn how to build better relationships. The possibilities are endless, and, with help and practice, we can find the person we wish to be.

5. Life is worth it.

Things can (and do) change. You can feel better, just as I have. My life is not perfect. I am still figuring things out. I have setbacks and days where I don’t feel great, just as I have achievements and days where I do feel great. Through the ups and downs in the years following my suicide attempt and hospitalization, I have fallen in love with life. If my attempt had worked, I would have never gone to my university, met some of my best friends, improved my relationships with my family, loved and had my heart broken, and done things I never could have dreamed of doing before. Like they say, suicide eliminates the chances of things getting better. I promise life does get better, and you have to power to make it so. TC mark

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