This is essentially a reprint of my original blog post, for those who don’t want to have to wade through several months of posts. I think it serves as a pretty good introduction.
Hi, I’m Jamie. I’m male, white, 33 years old, and single. I got my BA in English from Kenyon College, my MA in English from Saint Louis University, and I am three years into getting my PhD in English from the same place. I like dogs, fantasy literature, role-playing games, alternative music, and a variety of other things that most people would probably describe as ’nerdy’ or ‘geeky’.
I also tried to kill myself in January of this year (2013, for anyone using the wayback machine). It’s not a new thing for me, sadly; I tried once before in 2007, using much the same method – over-the-counter sleeping medication. I have suffered from depression, diagnosed, I believe, as Severe Clinical Depression, since I was about 20 – making that 13 years, at this point. Almost half my life. I’ve been on a lot of different medications, and tried a number of different treatments – talk therapy, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), electro-convulsive therapy (ECT, more commonly known as electro-shock therapy), and even surgical implantation of a vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) device. People around me have seen varying degrees of effectiveness in these therapies, but personally, I’ve always had kind of a hard time telling whether I was better or worse – the improvements tended to be too minor and incremental for me to notice on a day-to-day basis.
But back to my suicide attempt in January. After I survived, I was in a hospital for observation for a few days – to make sure I hadn’t done any lasting damage with the sleeping medication, even if it was over-the-counter and relatively ineffective, as well as figuring out if the medications I had already been on – mostly lithium – had caused damage to my kidneys. Then I was sent to the attached ‘acute care facility’ for 5 more days. ‘Acute care facility’ is what they call the portion of the hospital where they keep all the recently hospitalized mentally ill patients for observation until they can determine whether they are still a danger to themselves or others. This means that someone like me, for example, who suffers from depression, can, and most likely will be, staying in close quarters with people who have much more unfortunate, aggressive, and pervasive problems. Anyone who has been untreated for long periods of time, or who has just manifested symptoms of mental illness, whatever it is, from acute anxiety to total inability to control one’s anger (I don’t know the clinical terms, sadly), is placed here for at least a short period. It’s not a fun place to be; I was there long enough for the doctors to determine I wasn’t going to attempt suicide again right away, and to start ECT again, for a course of 6 treatments. While I was there, my family was looking up more intensive ways to help, because clearly what had come before hadn’t helped as much as they had hoped.
For my part, I spent much of my time in the acute care facility in a sort of daze; I talked to people who I had told of my attempt, like friends and family, and stumbled through my days, going to the therapy and observation sessions that were set up for me. My roommate at the time was a quintuple felon with anger issues who snored, which made my sleep difficult – but I wasn’t about to bring that up. I didn’t want to be felony 6, especially when he had such a great defense – ‘but your honor, I was already in a mental hospital. Of course I was too crazy to know what I was doing.’ I took them up on their offer of ECT so I could get out quickly. I was strangely at peace; I wasn’t happy that I’d attempted suicide, but my reasons were now out in the open, and I had, essentially, with various e-mails, told everyone I knew about what I’d done. I just wanted to get out and see what I could do to move on and try to improve my mental health, and thus my life.
Luckily, my sister, who is in the social work area, had found an intensive care facility to check out in Houston, Texas. It was called the Menninger Clinic, and they specialized in intensive inpatient therapy and treatment for nonviolent patients with mental illness. Now, being from (currently) St. Louis, it was a long way to Texas, but after two suicide attempts, I was willing to try just about anything – statistics told me that eventually, if I kept on the road I was on, eventually I’d be successful. So in mid-February, down to Texas I went with my sister to check the place out. We weren’t allowed in any of the areas with patients currently staying there for confidentiality reasons, but the tour we did get, and the answers we received to our questions, made me feel that Menninger seemed like a good bet. So, on February 25th, 2013, I came back to Texas and checked myself in.
I spent a total of 8 weeks there, give or take a few days.While there were certainly downsides to being at Menninger – no smartphone, limited computer access, limited availability of reading materials, limited contact with the rest of the world, and little to nothing in the way of privacy – there were more than enough positives to balance that out. All our meals were prepared, and most of our options were relatively healthy, something that had been lacking in my diet for a long time. There were always professionals there to help us if we needed it, whether mentally or physically. We had access to exercise facilities, and were encouraged to make use of them – which I did because, really, there wasn’t anything better to do with that time.Our days were filled with groups that tried to help us learn skills to cope with our illnesses in ways that medication can’t – to retrain our minds to think in ways that would otherwise be foreign to us. Things like CBT, DBT, Mentalizing, and Power Issues became part of our daily vocabulary.
Really, though, I think the strength of Menninger, at least for me, was in the other people I met there. For once, I was in a community of people who had all voluntarily admitted themselves to a treatment program. Many of us shared similar diagnoses, and those who didn’t at least had some idea what the others were going through. We were in a group of people who all had similar problems, and wanted to get better, and we didn’t have to keep explaining to other people how our illnesses felt -because they knew. While few of us were admitted at the same time – and our stays at Menninger were of varying lengths – we were in close quarters, with only the staff and each other to talk to. And so we formed friendships, friendships that became surprisingly close for the short amount of time we were together. We shared things that we had never really told anyone else before; we laughed and cried together. That feeling of being able to relate to people who had suffered similar pains and agonies made me feel trust in a way I hadn’t really before. Before Menninger, the people I could trust and call friends I could count on one hand. In 8 weeks, I formed friendships and shared trust with twice that. That may not sound like much, but from someone who has always had difficulties getting close to people, it was a massive leap. Even though I knew that, once I left, it was likely I might never see any of these people again, I felt safe with them, and that even if we could only communicate by phone, e-mail, or even text messaging, we would still be able to talk to each other and share parts of our lives and help each other out.
It’s hard to really describe this, at least for me, because I’ve never really been an emotional person, or one given to trying to talk about relationships. I’ve always been better with the written word than speaking in person. I’ve always had a fear of getting close to other people, because the fear of rejection, and the pain that follows, has been a constant in my life. It’s a large part of why I am, as I have so often mentioned to friends, ‘terminally single’ – because my few attempts to start any kind of romantic relationship have failed so utterly that I just withdrew from the pain. And so I think the relationships with my fellow patients at Menninger, more than the therapy groups and coping skills, were what helped me the most. Finding out that there were places and people who I could share with, and open up to, who weren’t psychology professionals, but people suffering from problems like mine, made me feel much better about the people I was around, and also myself. In 8 weeks, I went from a guy so scared of talking to new people that conversations more than 2 minutes were almost painful to the president of our unit’s (admittedly, relatively powerless) patient government.
After 8 weeks inside Menninger – and after having to watch virtually everyone who had been there when I arrived leave before me – I, too, was told I had gone about as far as I could, and that I needed to discharge. While I hadn’t considered it when I started in February, it had become clear to me that a step-down program – a program spending 3-6 months in an environment midway between the strict, regimented order of Menninger and the relative chaos of going home, learning to get back to life outside of a care facility while also continuing to work on the skills and ideas we had been introduced to at Menninger – was the next step down the road for me.
So, that’s where I am now. I can’t really say much more, because I value the confidentiality of the people I’ve come to call friends, and the decision to reveal what is going on with them is their choice to make, not mine. But I think that, right now, there are few people – aside from a very choice handful – who I would rather be going through this with. If they asked me to punch you in the face, I’d probably do it and ask why later, if at all (well, unless you’re one of those people, but you should know that already.) While I’ll avoid mentioning any of them by name, or anything too obviously identifying, they are an important part of my treatment, what I’ve learned, and where I hope to go.