It was five days before my birthday and two weeks before my wedding. And there I sat, hugged up against the wall of a psych ward at the far end of the hall from the nurses’ station, arms wrapped around the teddy bear that my fiancée Rob had brought to visiting time. I sat there hugging Mr. Teds, as he’d been named by my fellow psych ward residents, and crying. Everyone was off in the rec room coloring or looking out the one big, locked window that made us feel more confined than anything else about this place, even the fact that the only thing to do was walk up and down the short hallway over and over again. One of the mental health technicians approached me. They were my favorite people because they were the ones who were always there. Not just taking notes about us, writing prescriptions for us, or calling us out every two to three days to talk. No, they were there for a full glorious twelve hours of our presence.
“Would you like something to take?” I didn’t really. Because really, who wouldn’t be crying? Rob, who understood better than anyone and had held my hand as I walked into the ER, was come and gone. And here I was, sitting against the wall of a psych ward hugging a teddy bear with two days before I’d be allowed any more visitors. It felt like there was something innately wrong with the question, but I didn’t have any better questions or answers, so I just said no and he went back to the other end of the hall. Being in the hospital was both alien and comforting, a layer between myself and my normal anxiety, interrupting the noise in my head with novelty and routines.
The good news about the psych ward was that someone finally told me my problems mattered. The problems were easy to hide because they were mostly in my head and whenever I tried to talk about them, no one seemed to think they were that big of a deal. It had been almost a decade ago that my mind had learned to turn my worst fears against me in a sadistic game that was endlessly mesmerizing, keeping me stuck in a loop to prove my haunting doubts wrong. What if I accidentally denied God? What if I didn’t really like him like that and was leading him on? What if I didn’t feel the right way right now? There was always a way things needed to feel and the quest to know if it was right became an all-consuming one. “If you aren’t willing to think about it, you might just be lying to yourself,” the anxiety taunted me. It seemed like a good point and I didn’t want to be inauthentic, so I kept at it.
The bad news about the psych ward was that after spending a week there and immersing myself in the mental health system for months afterward, I got worse instead of better. I’d gone from a high-performing college undergrad to someone who barely managed to hold a part-time job and was forced to sign “safety contracts” as an alternative to going back to a residential facility. You know, “I promise not to kill myself before next week.” I’d never wanted to die, but thinking about liabilities like pills and suicide makes you a liability. And so you talk and think more about pills and suicide, and sign contracts, and the cycle continues.
I hated therapy because I hated being silently stared at like I was supposed to being saying something I wasn’t saying. It seemed like an obviously bad way to deal with anxious people, but they all did it, making me feel — predictably — more anxious. My psychiatrist managed to make most things sound condescending and never seemed to believe I was telling the truth. One day he asked me if I wanted to hurt myself. I said no, because I didn’t. He asked again and again. I said no. At the end of the appointment, I got up to leave and as I walked past him, he asked again. Another time, he asked if I’d ever been molested by someone close to me. I said no, because I hadn’t. He asked again. I cried and he seemed to think maybe that meant I’d been molested after all. I always cried when I got to my car behind his office.
I saw another psychiatrist who was significantly more understanding and who listened as I described a time I’d recently and suddenly switched my direction in life. “But you’d been thinking about it for a long time, right?” It was a loaded question. It had a right answer and assertiveness wasn’t my strong suit, so I nodded. She went on, “Because not thinking about it wouldn’t fit very well with the obsessive-compulsive things.” The truth was, I didn’t fit very well. I was a watercolor splotch painted over the pages of the diagnostic manual, bleeding into disorders I wasn’t supposed to have anything to do with. The parts that didn’t fit were dismissed until they could no longer be ignored. Then the practitioners would scratch their heads and rethink: maybe she actually has bipolar. The search for the perfect fit had never served me before and it became more and more clear that the search for the perfect label wasn’t serving me either. I finally stopped going to therapy, went off the pills I was terrified I wouldn’t be okay without, and never sat crying in a psychiatrist’s parking lot again.
Over the next few years, I did the best I could. The twisted vines that had begun inside my head had found their way out and into my life. My marriage was loving but challenging. Having someone I finally trusted with my feelings meant that I could finally express them. But anxiety is an instinctual force of self-preservation which when expressed, especially with no obvious threat to diffuse it, is equally as terrifying as when confined to our thoughts. The feelings pushed me to a desperate need to escape them, or at least make the intangible terror physical so that it was as real to those around me as it had always been for me. I took too many sleeping pills so I wouldn’t have to face another day at my boring but otherwise benign job. I dropped classes I needed and things I wanted to do because I associated them with the bad feelings. I avoided social situations because I didn’t want to “get weird” in front of people I knew. I thought about and sometimes practiced self-harm. In the moments that my fear reached its fever pitch, I cared only about feeling more safe and okay.
It’s not that I hadn’t grown or taken my life back from my anxiety in big and important ways. I had. I had chosen to be with my husband in spite of the anxiety that said I was guilty for staying. I had walked away from a strict faith to find a spiritual path that would allow me to feel free. I had embraced a worldview that said there were many right choices in life, not one choice I always needed to be in search of. But in its sneaky way, the anxiety had found places where I would keep it safe because I believed I had to in order to keep me safe. I put it in front of everything, including myself and my husband. Day by day, it was easy to think that how I was living was the only way to live. But eventually, I was forced to realize that I was hurting the man I loved and keeping myself from the full life I’d always wanted. It was my reality check, a this-is-bigger-than-you-want-to-believe-it-is moment. The truth dawns more quickly when we’re afraid of losing everything we love, and so the truth was clear as day.
At first, I did what people do. I made an appointment with a psychiatrist and booked a session with a therapist I’d never heard of or spoken to. If I was broken, I’d get fixed. If I was sick, I’d try to get well. But this wasn’t the first time I’d been in this place. This wasn’t seven years ago, walking into an ER full of desperate hope. And I realized this wasn’t what I needed.
I was afraid of how it would look. People will think I’m in denial. People will think I’m not trying. But this wasn’t about people. It was about me. So I canceled the hastily-made appointments and sat down with my journal, writing the things that mattered and the things that made sense. I found a non-pathologizing therapist, one who saw emotional distress less as disorders and more as the complex ways we cope with the world around us. He was the first therapist I didn’t have to pretend to agree with, and I had the first good therapy session of my life. He didn’t ask me questions like they weren’t really questions but answers he already knew. And he wouldn’t look at me like I was stupid if I raised my eyebrows at convenient but unscientific explanations about “chemical imbalances.” I wanted real stuff, not easy stuff. I wanted to talk about what was going on in my mind and why, because I’d figured out by now that it had a hell of a lot to do with the anxiety sitting tucked away in the fortress of my mind, blind to all the dusty corners that light could slowly shine into if I’d let it.
I made journaling non-negotiable. I’d found a new level of self-awareness and I wasn’t about to lose it. I stopped drinking coffee because it wasn’t worth setting off my anxiety at such a vulnerable time. I started sitting in nature and running trails. I practiced being present, prioritized sleep, and kept with therapy. Things started to shift. I’m still at the beginning of this journey, but I continue to be excited about the little things I notice and do that I didn’t before. These things are my medicine. In a society that sees psychological problems as disease, these things are often seen as what you do if your problems aren’t really that bad. But to me, these are the things I do to save myself every day.
It was never about dogmatically saying no to meds. It was about not dogmatically saying yes to anything just because I was hurting and wanted to please others. I had always nodded my head and tried to get by, and that’s a sensible way of coping with a system that turns valid concerns into signs of sickness. But nothing could begin to change for me as long as I tried to pass as a good and obedient patient. There is no change without empowerment, without the right to be the expert of our own lives. It wasn’t the radical notion it was treated as, but the simple truth. No one knew me like me. This time around, I accepted the truth about my situation just as I had before. But this time, I didn’t give up the authority to define and make meaning of my own life. I wasn’t silently nodding along. And finally, I was in a position to get somewhere.
I’m lucky. My husband has been nothing but supportive, whether that meant holding my hand as I walked into the ER or forgoing the easy answers that didn’t fit and finding a different path. I’m lucky because not everyone who struggles finds this kind of unconditional support. I’m also lucky because not everyone is able to access knowledgeable, progressive professionals they’re comfortable with. If we’re being honest, many of us are told that asking questions about what we’re experiencing is just another sign we’re sick. We’re dismissed if we say that the meds that are supposed to be making us feel better are making us feel worse, despite a huge body of evidence to support that this is frequently the case. We’re written off if we don’t like the therapy we’re receiving as if it’s obviously our illness that doesn’t like it.
I think it’s time to call bullshit on these dismissive and easy answers to emotional suffering. Because that’s all they are, answers from people who don’t know. From friends, family, and even professionals who don’t have better answers. And unfortunately, these answers lead to individuals being shamed into getting “help” that is often far from informed consent, into reluctant agreement to damaging “therapeutic” relationships, and into unnecessary and unethical force when we’re at our most raw and vulnerable.
I see it, because I’m one of them, and I talk to others who experience it all the time. We’re fooling ourselves if we don’t listen to the questions, if we only hear in them the answers we think we already know. Now, fifteen years after my emotional distress began and seven years after psychiatry first medicalized it, I feel hope. I will forge a path forward for myself, and I will work to make it wider so that one day, all of us can.