Acceptance: How One Friend Helped Me Get Help for Depression and Anxiety on my Own Terms - OC87 Recovery Diaries

Acceptance: How One Friend Helped Me Get Help for Depression and Anxiety on my Own Terms

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“I think I need to go to the hospital,” I mumbled into my best friend’s shoulder as she hugged me. We were in her driveway. Snowflakes flurried around us. The air was bitter and my face was numb. The tears forming in my eyes burned hotter than normal in the cold. It was January first and the New Year was not looking too bright.

Four days prior, I had come within inches of carrying out my first suicide attempt. Recently diagnosed with PTSD, my entire system felt overloaded. Flashbacks to horrific moments from my childhood and marriage were daily occurrences. I experienced panic attacks in which my entire body shook, and my vision blurred until I didn’t even know where I was. I was confident that I had completely lost my mind and that no one anywhere could help me. I had given up. I felt like a burden to my loved ones. So I turned to suicide. But, at the last minute, I hesitated.

In the moment of my attempt I suddenly remembered the shock and pain I felt in April, 2014 when I received the call that my grandparents were both dead. In the ensuing hours, the entire family learned that they died by murder/suicide at my grandfather’s hand. They had been such an influential force in my life, often serving more as parents than grandparents. I thought of my brothers, with whom I am very close. I also remembered something a therapist had told me once: “Ultimately, suicide is your choice. But you can decide to put it off for one more day. Knowing you have the power over that choice can help you. Choose to live for one more day. See how that day goes.” I thought of my friends. I thought that I owed them one more day. I owed myself one more day. I’d pushed through for this long, and I could do it for one more day.

I spent the next day working a normal shift at the group home, as I had done for the past five years. Despite my own battles with depression, it has always been far easier for me to support others with mental health struggles than to admit my own. I don’t remember any part of my shift on this particular day, though. I was operating completely on caffeine and autopilot. I felt disconnected. I couldn’t think of anything other than the night before. Thoughts of suicide and desperation for relief felt all encompassing.

I’d been sitting with these feelings alone for a month. I wasn’t being fully open with friends or in therapy. Growing up in a home filled with abuse and instability, my defense mechanism has always been to minimize what I’m feeling. This is a common byproduct of chronic abuse. I was the “Caretaker” in my family. I felt the immense burden of being the one who “could handle things.” I felt unable to express fear, sadness, or anger as it would often result in more chaos, abuse, and instability. The need to be “OK” in the eyes of others became one of the core values, albeit an unhealthy one, which I carried into adulthood.

When I called my best friend, Cassie, I intended to tell her everything over the phone, but all that came out was, “Hey, are you busy this weekend?”

Thankfully, she had no plans for ringing in the New Year beyond staying at home with her two children, so she invited me to come down with my daughter to spend the weekend.

Although I had not revealed all I had wished to over the phone, I did manage to buy myself more time. I knew I would not harm myself while with her. I also knew that she’d help me gauge the severity of the situation. Having known me for over fifteen years, I trusted her opinions.

It seems counterintuitive, maybe, but a part of me also thought I was overreacting. No matter how close I felt to the edge, a part of me honestly did believe that it wasn’t as bad as it seemed, or would sound to someone else. I knew that most people would hear the events of the previous night and call 911 immediately, but a portion of me was in complete denial, thinking that the previous night was just a one-off moment. That it had come and gone and I could return to simply white knuckling my way through this

Having struggled with depression, anxiety, and insomnia for the majority of my life, and with suicidal thoughts since I was thirteen years old, on some level, this battle with PTSD simply felt like my normal issues cranked up a few notches. Sure, I was now also dealing with flashbacks and full-blown panic attacks, and, yes, the night before had been the closest I’d ever come to actually attempting suicide, but I asked myself, “Is this really any different than being fifteen years old, lying on my futon, and wishing I had a gun so I could just end it?”

 

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The night before I had been calm. It felt completely natural to be sitting in a cheap motel room, where no one I cared about would find me, drunk out of my mind with a bottle of pills in hand. I couldn’t differentiate between passive and active suicidal thoughts. But my survival instinct was still intact, no matter how distant it felt, and it was screaming to be heard.

Once the weekend came and I arrived at Cassie’s house, I asked to talk with her alone. I told her everything—the flashbacks, the nightmares, the fact that I hadn’t had more than a few hours of sleep each night in over a month. I told her about the motel room and the pills and the drinking. I told her I didn’t think I could keep going like this. With a confidence that, in hindsight, scares me, I said, “I’m going to kill myself.” I also told her emphatically that I did not want to go to the hospital.

Like many, I held negative expectations of what “being in a psych ward” would entail. I was terrified of being over-medicated, ignored, written off because I was “a crazy person,” and dehumanized. Cassie saw the fear, heard the desperation, and picked up on the tension I felt awaiting her response. She simply hugged me at first, and, when she spoke, my fears about her response vanished.

“We’re going to figure this out. We’ll do some research, we’ll make some calls, and we’ll figure out what to do. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want. The second to last place I want you to end up is the hospital. The last place I want you is the morgue.”

I agreed with her plan, because she was leaving the choice, ultimately, in my hands. At this time, when I felt completely out of control, she gave me agency. She also made it clear that she was right next to me, for whatever may come. I knew I was not “in it” alone anymore.

Over the weekend, she held me through panic attacks, talked me through grounding exercises during flashbacks, and comforted me after nightmares.

We called local crisis support and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. She did most of the talking on the phone calls because I was too ashamed and scared to explain the situation myself, but she kept the phone on speaker and sat next to me as she spoke, allowing me to speak when comfortable and make any corrections I felt necessary.

We searched Google for resources and any indication of when hospitalization was necessary. We talked together about options. We emailed my therapist. We did everything we could think to do. Every resource said that I should be at the hospital.

Despite that, Cassie did not push. I asked her periodically what she thought, and she’d simply respond with “I know that you’re not going to hurt yourself as long as you’re with me, and I’m not calling 911.”

Unspoken was the sentiment, Because, ultimately, it’s your choice to make. You are going to have to decide to go to the hospital or not, and until you do, I’m going to be here supporting you and keeping you safe.

And she did just that. She kept me safe for the entire weekend. It was almost time for me to go home, go back to work, go back to white knuckling it. The motel room was still at the forefront of my mind. A part of me knew, if I went back home, I would follow through. But the weekend with Cassie showed me that at least one person on this earth would be incredibly upset if I did. When she met me in the driveway on Sunday night, I imagine that she was relieved as I finally admitted, to myself and to her, that I needed to go to the hospital to stay safe.

I’d made the decision, but a large part of me was still in denial. I wasn’t thinking clearly due the lack of sleep. In the waiting room, I remember turning to her and saying, “You know, they just want to interview me. They could decide that I don’t need to be here after all.”

She agreed. Cassie knew from the multiple conversations with mental health professionals over the course of the weekend that I would be admitted, but she let me sit in the comfort of my denial for just a little longer. I needed it.

When I was called to the back quickly after checking in with a nurse, Cassie came with me. On the chair in the exam room, I saw a set of hospital clothes. The nurse instructed me to put them on. I realized in that moment that I was going to be admitted. I felt relief that maybe there was hope. Maybe there was a chance at recovery. But I was overwhelmed by fear of the experience I imagined was ahead of me. Had Cassie not been there, I’m not sure I would have had the courage to stay. But she was there. And I knew she wasn’t going anywhere, which meant I wasn’t going anywhere other than a hospital room.

After an interview with a psychiatrist, blood work, and two hours of waiting, a doctor came in and said, “You would be a great candidate for our program, if you agree. A typical stay is two or three days. We’ll have you out and back to your normal life in no time. What do you think?”

Despite my anxiety, I agreed to voluntarily admit myself to the psychiatric unit. Once I agreed, the fear and relief collided with the stress of the past month and my hands began to shake. But there was an underlying comfort: there was no more uncertainty, no more denial, no more need to be “OK”—the decision was made.

When the doctor left the room, I turned to face my best friend, I recalled us at thirteen years old, when we first became friends, our awkward punk rock phase, sleepovers that lasted for entire weekends, prom night with our respective dates, our weddings, and countless play-dates between our own children. I wanted to thank her: to say something profound.

Instead, I said with a shaking voice, “Well, we always said one of us was going to end up in a psych ward. Now we know who.”

She laughed. And her laugh made me laugh.

We waited in that room for seven hours before a bed was prepared for me. We alternated between joking and discussing the logistics of the situation.

While we were waiting, a woman in the next room began screaming “No!” and “Please stop!” This triggered a flashback of my mother being beaten by my stepfather. Cassie held me through that flashback. She let me speak when I wanted to and allowed silence when I needed it. She was there until they put me in a wheelchair and pulled me through the door labeled “Psychiatric Care.”

Her unwavering acceptance of me, even at my worst, gave me the courage and ability to accept the truth: I needed help. Ultimately, it saved my life. Her ability to maintain a sense of normalcy helped me feel grounded.

My time in the psychiatric unit was not the horror story I thought it would be. It was a lot of group therapy and medication adjustments. It was helpful. It was also not a cure all. I’m still fairly young in my recovery journey. In addition to PTSD, I’ve been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. My stay in the hospital lasted for seven days instead of the projected three. I was discharged into a month long partial hospitalization program, and I accessed crisis stabilization care during another depressive episode in August. Now, I attend weekly therapy and monthly psychiatry check-ins.

I never would have connected with most of those resources, or made it this far in my recovery, had I not taken the initial step of voluntary admittance to the hospital. And I would not have made that step without the love, support, and acceptance of Cassie.

She’s been there every step of the way, and her faith in my ability to recover has given me faith in myself, faith in the professionals, and faith in recovery.

EDITOR IN CHIEF: Gabriel Nathan | EDITOR: Laura Farrell | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | PUBLISHER: Bud Clayman

See Related Recovery Stories: Anxiety, Depression, Mental Health First Person Essays, PTSD

Sheila O'Donnell is a Vermont based mental health advocate and blogger. She worked direct service mental health in a group home setting for 5 years, studied Social Work in college, and interned as a case manager at a local mental health agency. In January of 2016, she was admitted to a psychiatric unit following a manic episode and the emergence of severe post traumatic stress symptoms. Since that time, she has been sharing her story, her perspective as someone who's been on "both sides of the isle,"and helpful recovery skills and tools through her blog Parallel Dichotomy.

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