Hard Work

I haven’t said a whole lot specifically about my time at Menninger, mostly because it hasn’t been a focus for me in the last month or so. I’ve been trying to focus on moving forwards, not staying in the past. But it has been a very important part of my treatment and recovery – not just for the people I met there, but also for the work I, and other people, did while we were there.

Our days started at 7:30 AM with breakfast. As any of you who know we can imagine, that did a number on me; I am more a night person than a morning person. But I woke up at 7 every morning (except for Saturdays) for 8 weeks. After that, we started groups at 8:30, and were kept busy until 5:25, when we had dinner (there was lunch in there somewhere, too). After dinner, there were typically activities like going to the gym, or arts & crafts, which we were encouraged to go to. 

These groups were on a variety of topics. Twice a week, Monday and Friday, we had Goals Group, where we established some goals for the week, and then talked about whether we had accomplished them and what that meant for our treatment. We had Wellness Planning twice a week as well, because it helped us to work on our Wellness Plans – sort of guides to our recovery once we left Menninger. We worked on them all throughout our stays, and read them to the assembled patients when we were nearing our discharge to see what others had to say.

We also had CBT and DBT, twice a week each. CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, works on a long-term basis; it is, essentially, trying to teach your mind to think in a completely different way. Instead of allowing your thoughts to get stuck in negative cycles, it is meant to help break out of them. DBT, or Dialectical Behavior Therapy, is more concerned with handling things in the short term, especially in the moment – it tries to teach you methods to deal with unpleasant situations that you can’t get out of right away so that your brain doesn’t go to bad places. There was also a group for Perfectionism, because many of us struggled with perfectionist impulses, and this group was meant to help us identify them and try to control them.

Twice a week, we split into two groups for group psychotherapy, where we, the patients, got a chance to talk in our groups about anything that was bothering us or was on our minds, or about any feelings we might be having. There were staff present, but only to keep us from going off on tangents; otherwise, we ran the groups. It was part of the group that nothing said inside it would be revealed to people outside the group, so I can’t say anything specific. We also had groups on Power Issues, identifying the imbalance in power in relationships, and Family Issues, helping us to deal with the issues many of us had with our families.

There was also a group called Mentalizing, which involved taking time in our interactions with others to examine the thoughts and feelings of both ourselves and others, and to do so without judgement, but with curiosity. It’s an interesting technique, and can help a lot, though it takes a fair amount of time working on it to make it happen unconsciously. Then there was Yoga, which wasn’t mental, but it was very relaxing; I’m still trying to find a relative beginner’s group on the outside to keep up with it. There were also other groups I didn’t go to, because I didn’t have the background for them: Chemical Dependency/Co-occurring Disorder Education, Trauma Education, !2-Step Recovery, and Values Group. I knew others in these groups, but since I didn’t attend them, I can’t describe them.

They also tried to get us to express ourselves creatively, and to keep our bodies in shape; both going to the gym on the campus and just walking around, to keep us physically active. All our food was prepared for us, and most of it was relatively healthy; I don’t think I’ve eaten food that healthy for that long in my life. Once a week we had a community meeting, where all the staff and patients on the unit got together to discuss issues in the community, and then also a patient government meeting, where we elected patient government officials and decided what outings we would plan fr the weekends.

Weekends were relatively relaxed, and often pretty boring. On Friday night we got an outing from around 6-9 pm, most of the time going to see a movie. On Saturday, we had an outing from 12-3, and that often didn’t actually seem to happen because people would decide at the last minute not to go or have visitors. Sunday, we went necessity shopping, for clothes, snacks, real pillows, and other things for basic living in the unit. Other than that, on Saturday and Sunday we usually only had one or two other activities, like going to the gym, arts & crafts, or just watching movies as a group. The rest of the time was ours to fill, which was hard when so much of the rest of our time was so strictly scheduled.

In addition to all this, during each week we met with our team – our psychiatrist, social worker, and nurse of the day – for rounds, to talk about where we wanted our treatment to go, then with our individual therapist, or IT, to talk privately about issues we felt a need to discuss, and then usually with our social worker to arrange or have calls with family or friends to try and work out various problems we might have. Every day, on each of three shifts, we had to meet with our nurse on each shift to give them an update of what was going on. The staff had to check on the whereabouts of each patient on the unit every half-hour, even at night, so we were constantly monitored, and had very little privacy.

This went on for eight weeks for me; I know people who were at Menninger for as long as 13 or 14 weeks. With all the groups, and all the homework (because several times, we had homework), and all the thinking we did on various things between groups… I won’t lie. It was hard. It was an enormous amount of work. For me, it was probably the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life, and while there are fewer groups now int he step-down, it isn’t much less tiring. It isn’t physical, but mental and emotional, exercising parts of myself that I have ignored and neglected for decades. 

Staying in a secure, private compound with prepared food for eight weeks may sound, to some people, like a long-term spa. But some of my fellow patients likened it more to a prison, one that we had voluntarily admitted ourselves to. We had almost no privacy, were constantly working on our minds and emotions, and had little contact with the outside world. While there were four other units at Menninger, we were discouraged from any interaction with the others; it was, essentially, just the patients of our unit (up to 24), the nurses, the MHAs (mental health associates), doctors, and occasional cleaning staff. 

We worked long and hard, and even when we were discharged, there were no guarantees that we would retain what we had gained; that was a large part of the reason I came to this step-down program, to help make the things we had learned at Menninger, and continued at the step-down, habitual while also trying to re-acclimate ourselves to the outside world. Some of us didn’t do so well, and many of us are still working very hard, and often very frustrated at what can seem a terribly slow rate of progress. But despite the setbacks we are facing, we are still trying, still working, still trying to move forward.  It’s the hardest work we may ever do, but it’s worth it.


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