Straight Talk About Mental Hospitals & Postpartum Depression

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One area I don't like to talk about is hospitalization. I don't know why. It's like the ultimate embarrassment for me or something that at one point I had to be hospitalized in a mental hospital (UGH!) for depression. It was only for a few days, but it's one thing of which I have to say I still feel slightly ashamed. If our society considered mental illness a physical illness, then of course I wouldn't be ashamed, because there is nothing at all wrong with being sick and having to go to the hospital. But you and I both know that's not the way people think when it comes to "mental institutions." Nonetheless, I can't let that stop me from talking openly to you about a type of treatment that some women with postpartum mood disorders must experience, so here goes ...

The truth is, if we are a danger to ourselves or others we need to be hospitalized. Period. I wish there were another way, a better solution, but as far as I know there isn't. I got to a point where I thought I might kill myself. And so, that's where I was sent. The minute I got there and saw what was coming I completely changed my mind about killing myself, of course. I told them very articulately that I was all better and there was no need to move forward. (Stop the train, I want to get off!) But once the proverbial cat is out of the bag you can't put it back in.

Here's what you should know: Mental hospitals aren't a treat. It can feel like being in jail. Once you are in you can't just get out any old time you want. At least not for 48 hours or so. You don't have access to all of your things because they take them away from you to make sure there's nothing dangerous or illegal in them. You don't have free access to the people you love, except during limited visiting hours. The decor is sorely lacking. The food stinks. The beds are lumpy. You don't even have the right to go to the bathroom at any time without permission. I remember at one point being in the cafeteria trying to eat the awful food and I needed to pay a visit to the facilities. They wouldn't let me, because they couldn't leave my group and couldn't let me leave the cafeteria alone. I was humiliated and infuriated. "I'm a competent grownup! How dare you tell me I can't go to the bathroom! What happened to basic human dignity??!!" They were unimpressed by my reaction, and I had to wait. Also, I was in the general adult ward, with men and women in all sorts of mental states -- addicts, schizophrenics, people suffering from depression or bipolar disorder -- and I was scared. The truth is no one would choose to hang out with a group of people she doesn't trust to make safe choices. But be all of that as it may, it was the exact right place for me.

I truly benefited from being in that hospital at that moment. Once we get over the thinking that we are somehow better, special and different from the rest of the people in the "asylum", it can be a profound experience. First, they took care of me and helped me become stable. I was in a crisis and they helped me out of it. Second, I was humbled and made to understand via circumstance that we are all one step away from losing our minds no matter where we come from or how much money we make or what we look like or what job we have or how competent we've been up 'til now. Third, I learned that severely mentally ill people are still people, and I became very empathetic to their plight. I remember watching a man who stood in the corner all day brushing himself off and found out it was because he thought there were snakes on him. Another young man curiously kept cutting the eyes out of pictures of people in magazines. Only later did I notice he had been taping them up surreptitiously in strategic places throughout the ward -- in the leaves of the ficus tree, on the wall clock, in the plastic floral wreath covered in a layer of dust. The eyes watched me wherever I went. I imagined what those two men, and some of the others, might have been like as innocent, happy children with no inkling of what was to come in their lives. Could they help the situation they were in now? Maybe, maybe not. I went from a state of fear to one of wonder and to one of caring about these people and hoping for their well-being.

I have family members of women with postpartum depression or psychosis reach out to me to tell me their sister or daughter has been hospitalized and that it's absolutely the WRONG place for her. "She doesn't belong with those other people. She's not crazy. She's just not doing well." I completely understand what they mean. It's the wrong place for everyone. Wouldn't we all like to go recuperate from wanting to kill ourselves in Tahiti? Don't they have a "Mental Health Weekend" 3-day package at the Ritz? That would be lovely but that's not how it works. So I tell them I know it seems like a mistake, but it's actually the exact right place for her at that moment. I tell you that if it's what you have to do to restore your sanity and return home a more healthy mother to your baby, just do it. Suck it up and do it. No matter how yucky it is, you will live. And you might be a better person for it.

 

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