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My walk through a mental minefield

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(Ellie Halvorson/The Collegiate)

By Elizabeth Halvorson

“Good morning, Elizabeth,” an unfamiliar, but not unsettling voice calls to me. “It’s time for your morning blood work.” At the last two words, my eyes fly open in momentary panic. 

Where am I? What is happening?

As my morning brain fog begins to lift, I remember I am in the Hickory unit at Pine Rest Christian Mental Hospital. It is my first morning in inpatient care. I had been asked by staff to voluntarily move myself from the adult day program to adult inpatient care the day before due to a dramatic spike in my suicidal ideation.

Everything comes flooding back in that moment: the rising tension in my marriage, working endlessly at a major wholesale retailer during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the unbearable weight of life and the choices I would have to make in the coming weeks all threaten to crush me. Every little thing was piling up like Jenga blocks, becoming more unstable with the shifting of each piece. I had allowed everything that was weighing me down to overwhelm me until I could no longer hold on. 

Two weeks prior, I anchored myself to a chair in the waiting room of the Pine Rest Psychiatric Urgent Care Center. I was at a point where I knew I could not keep myself safe anymore – I was terrified. I did not want to die, but the thought of continuing to exist was so heavy, as if I had anvils in my chest. 

While waiting for my name to be called, I observed the others around me. A man wearing a white tank top, sporting extensive forearm tattoos and smelling of fresh tobacco smoke, sat a few chairs away, trying not to appear nervous. Though from the familiar, rapid bounce of his leg, I had an inkling he was just as nervous as I was, which I found comforting.

Before I could offer him a reassuring smile, a swift movement caught my eye. I turned to see a woman rocking back and forth in her chair while gripping her hair so tightly it looked like she was about to pull it all out. Her knuckles were white and her body was being rattled by uncontrollable sobs. My heart clenched seeing her pain. I wanted to soothe her but I knew that I was in no condition to care for myself, let alone someone else, at that moment. I was in the same boat as her, just less obviously. 

After about an hour, I was called back to a small room. I expected it to be like a doctor’s office but it resembled a conference room more than anything else. While I waited for someone to join me, I kept rehearsing how I would respond to their questions even though I was terrified my answers would immediately land me in the hospital, but my rehearsal was cut short as I was joined by a young woman with kind eyes. She asked me basic mental health review questions before continuing with “what made you decide to come to the urgent care today?”. 

I froze. I had not thought of an answer to that question. Why did I decide to come here? Why today? To be honest, I was at the lowest point I had ever been, but I had the tiniest glimmer of hope that if I sought help, things could get better. I knew if I had not used that last bit of strength I had to take myself somewhere I would be safe, I would not have made it. I would not be here today, writing this story, living my life and loving every part of it.

At the end of my evaluation, I was presented with two options: Pine Rest’s adult day program or their inpatient hospitalization. I was given the choice, which gave me hope that maybe I was not as bad off as I had originally thought. I chose the day program, a short-term treatment plan that Pine Rest utilizes to help individuals who are struggling in different aspects of their lives but do not require 24/7 monitoring. 

Waking up the morning of my first day in the day program, I found my stomach in knots. I couldn’t even force myself to have breakfast. After arriving 15 minutes early, I closed my eyes and lit a cigarette, hoping it would help calm my nerves. My head was a chaotic storm of fears. What if I couldn’t get better? What if I was worse off than I thought? What if, even after I finish this program, my marriage still falls apart? I was too terrified to even think of hoping things would get better. I couldn’t allow myself to hope because hope would break me even further.

Opening my eyes to look at the clock on my dashboard, I knew I couldn’t wait any longer or I would be late so I grabbed my things and headed in. After completing my check-in, I was escorted to my group room. Every morning began with group therapy and self-evaluations. Everyone had to answer questions about how their mental health was doing since the previous day. How many hours of sleep did you get? Did you take your medications as prescribed? Are you feeling suicidal? On a scale of 1 to 10, rate your depression, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, etc. 

You would think answering these questions and then reading your answers out loud to a group of people who are all, minus the case manager, there for similar reasons would be comforting but it wasn’t. Hearing positive responses left me feeling bleak, as if I had no chance to recover, and hearing answers similar to mine made me feel as though I was made to be like this. Made to be tortured by my trauma and the poisonous thoughts that ruled my mind. 

As the day went on, I started to feel a bit better. I attended group therapy, spoke with a psychiatrist about medications, and signed up for two activity therapy classes of my choosing for the afternoon. Classes such as emotions management, boundaries and values, and relationships offered a focused approach to specific issues many people run into when their mental health is deteriorating. These classes gave me many of the coping skills I still use today.

I started to hope more that things could get better and right when I did, things took a turn for the worse. After my second day with the program, I left feeling empty. I had just started taking new medications the night before and the side effects were heavy. I was numb. I experienced uncontrollable tremors. I heard things that weren’t real like a dog barking in the hallway outside my hotel room and a strange male voice distinctly calling my name. I felt insane like something had finally snapped inside me. I didn’t want to live my life feeling absolutely unhinged and so the intrusive, suicidal thoughts flooded my head, but I would wait just one more day, to see if the tiniest glimmer of light left in me could survive.

The next morning I planned to lie. I would slap a deceiving, but simple, smile on my face and tell my case manager that I had no thoughts of hurting or killing myself the day before. I was fully prepared. I was focused and ready to answer with confidence. As I read my answers aloud, something stopped me right before I could answer this final important question. That tiny light inside me was screaming, begging, pleading with me to tell the truth. I couldn’t ignore it. My answer caught in my throat and that was enough to tip off my case manager. I knew where I would be heading next and, little did I know, it would be exactly the thing I needed most.

Most people have their own assumptions of what inpatient care at a psychiatric hospital looks like, but few actually know. I must admit as I was being escorted to my unit, I was petrified of what I would see. I thought of white walls and straight jackets, screaming and uncontrollable tics, and being under strict, around-the-clock observation – but walking through the doors of the Hickory unit was like a breath of fresh air. The main room was full of natural light. It seemed like everyone in the unit was in the main area, coloring, reading, or even conversing with others. It was peaceful. A few of the other patients must’ve known exactly how I was feeling at that moment because they smiled at me. It was heartwarming. I was actually excited to meet the other patients and be around people who knew what being in this situation was like.

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, I was quarantined in my room for the rest of the day until my test results came back. At first, I was really disappointed but the time in my room gave me a chance to really focus on my issues and aided in my self-reflection which ultimately led to my discharge a few days later. I spent the rest that day writing out my feelings and the traumas that plagued me. I sat on the windowsill for hours and broke down each problem to its roots. I cried tears of sorrow and I cried tears of joy as I finally had the space away from my marriage, from my work, from my responsibilities, to dig deep, apologize, and begin to heal my wounded inner child. 

The lessons I learned and the things I experienced while hospitalized will forever be held deeply. 

Every little piece of my experience from the smallest interaction to the biggest breakthrough, has helped me rebuild myself from the ground up. I rediscovered my drive. I found my passion and enrolled in college to turn it into my career. I prioritized myself and my needs and walked away from a relationship that hindered me more than it encouraged me. I nurtured my self-love by leaning into journaling, yoga, and mindfulness and discovered what really matters to me in this life. 2020 was a rollercoaster ride from hell for a lot of us, and although I faced more obstacles and trials than all of my previous 25 years of life combined, I could not be more grateful for all of the ups and downs and every step I have taken to create the life I have always dreamed of.

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