The Year I Spent Christmas in the Psych Ward. Literally.

I told myself I would never talk about IT publicly – which means at some point, I subconsciously knew I would.

I thought, “Maybe when I’m fifty.”

Not, “Maybe three years later.”

Somehow, IT got brought up in a meeting with my publisher.

“You need to write a blog post about IT,” said the vice president. And my speaking manager. And my husband. And just about every other person in the room.

I’ve resisted…all week long, I’ve resisted.

Yet, here we are.

And this is it.

christmas 2007

***

Technically, it was a full psychiatric hospital. I’ve referred to it as “inpatient counseling” a few times in passing, but hey. Let’s just call it what it is.

I was admitted December 8, 2010 to a psychiatric hospital in southern Arizona.

My friend Brian drove me there from Phoenix. We listened to Elliot Smith and ate chocolate-covered honeycomb as we buzzed down the interstate pretending like we were two friends on a road trip; not that I was about to surrender myself to the most intensive counseling and loss of control I’ve ever experienced.

We arrived into a gated entry and a technician in scrubs promptly removed my suitcase from Brian’s car and barely let me say farewell before telling him to leave. I checked in and a tiny German woman searched every inch of me and the things I brought with me to make sure they were in “compliance”…nothing sharp, nothing with any kind of alcohol in it (like my facial cleanser, for instance…confiscated by the tiny German woman unapologetically.) My phone was turned off and taken away, locked into a safe. It would not be turned on again for the next month. I would now be on their schedule. No TV. No phone calls (except 8 minutes every other day) and no caffeine. Or sugar.

There was no way to escape, physically or emotionally.

The counseling process started right away with intake sessions and nosy psychiatrists asking about every detail of my life. Traumas. Any and all medication I’ve ever taken. Addictions. Fears. Family history.

“Why are you here?”

“I’ve had really bad depression for the last six years and I’ve been having suicidal thoughts for the last two months.”

Later, I was told I wasn’t suffering from depression. Instead, grief and trauma manifested as depression. Those sneaky little buggers. Some of the grief and trauma was from my past and some of it was as a result of my marriage ending months earlier. I started therapy to address those issues and finally received the diagnosis that had been hiding.

I had PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In the months before entering this psych hospital, I felt so down, so worn out from fighting through a marital roller coaster, from working in the middle of all this grief and anxiety, and I found a new coping mechanism.  Cutting – something I never imagined doing. The college students I spoke to and my younger friends wrestled with self-injury, but not me. Not a 30-year-old woman. But I did and it became my secret release for a very short time.

My appetite also failed. I stopped eating for the most part, and lost ten pounds in a month. Except for necessary trips to the restroom or to get tea, I stayed in bed asleep most days. Just walking downstairs to get a glass of water exhausted all my energy. My roommate was terrified for my wellbeing. I finally hit my breaking point right around Thanksgiving, and after telling a friend, was able to get the help I desperately needed.

Fast forward to Christmas Eve…

I sat with my new friend Sam. Sam was a twenty year old from the East coast who was cocaine addict in recovery. The small auditorium in the hospital was full of a holiday sugar buzz (it was the one time they let us have sugar), and I was about to get on stage to read a poem I wrote.

Xmas Cookies

I asked Sam to hold my two cookies – a Christmas tree and the other, half a snowman – while I was on stage. Sam agreed but only with the understanding he could have a bite. I gave into his compromise and he shoved the half snowman into his mouth. Kids.

Danny, a counselor and the emcee for the evening’s talent show, called me up to the stage. My hands were sweaty and I took a deep breath as I looked at the sixty patients in the room.

I felt like a nervous eighth grader reading a book report in front of her class. Speaking in front of thousands of people? Not a problem. Anytime. In fact, I kind of enjoy it. But read a small poem to a group of sixty patients in a psychiatric hospital? Terrifying.

Up on stage, I made a couple of remarks to bring in the audience’s attention. I looked at each person quickly as I scanned the room, now, after 18 days, knowing most of their stories and how they too found themselves in the middle of the desert, confined to a hospital that mends different kinds of wounds: Eating disorders, suicide attempts, compulsive behaviors, addictions, depression, anxiety, traumatic experiences, and mixes of all the above.

I thought of the stories I heard of murder, incest, violence, death, and unspeakable pain.

 Many people would consider finding themselves in such a broken place like a psych hospital the equivalent of hitting rock bottom. Maybe at first, I did too. There’s no questioning the uncomfortable pain I processed over the time I had been admitted.

But I wasn’t at rock bottom. Instead, on that stage and after that healing, I was completely centered, perhaps for the first time in as long as I can remember.

Before the Christmas Eve talent show, I sat down to write in my journal. I was over halfway into my treatment and after hundreds of hours of counseling (and prayer), I could see hope. And light. It was the first week in months I didn’t rationalize the thought of killing myself. The first time my body, mind, and spirit felt at peace.

How, in such a place of hurt and loss could I find joy, gratitude and 
peace?

My rock bottom wasn’t on the
 stage of this treatment center, it was on a stage where “The Anne Jackson: Author, Speaker and Advocate” stood. It was where bright lights 
shone on me as if I were enlightened with the answers. On that stage, I 
may have had the right look, the right words, and even the right 
intention, but my soul was empty and my body a container which held 
my identity that was crashing into a million tiny pieces.

Was it a paradox? Absolutely.

The year 2010 was full of monumental moments.

I rode my bike from San Diego to Myrtle Beach for Blood:Water Mission. I had a critically acclaimed book release. I was speaking almost
 weekly to rooms full of wonderful people. I traveled to far away lands to tell stories
 of beautifully broken hope and despair.

Reconnecting with your soul and your spirit and God isn’t a formulaic equation. There is no system, no
 perfect grouping of rules or steps. You can’t tiptoe into it. You have to leap
 into a vortex which will suck the life out of you until you are 
detached from the self you once knew.

As it spins you around, you become filled with a painful yet beautiful Gift that touches all who are near you. If you allow it, life as you know it will never be the same after you leap into arms that have always been ready to catch.

Such has been the case for me.

On the night of Christmas Eve 2010, I read my poem, took a bow, and sat
 down next to Sam, ready to eat my Christmas tree cookie.

Although it’s been over three years since the grief and trauma fired its lies saying I had no reason to continue living, I know the battle is not over. Now I really do live one day at a time, often simply one moment at a time.

Like a newborn, this life needs complete, uninterrupted care.

It needs nurturing. Acceptance. And grace.

Madonna - Mary & Jesus 08

Grace that a newborn child brought to us over 2000 years ago in a messy, putrid, glorious room of wood and straw.

Lord, have mercy on me. On us.

Amen.

Comments

  1. steph says

    Anne,

    Thank you for being so willing to allow the Holy Spirit to use you to bring His healing power to others. Thank you for saying “Yes!” to the hard things. You are such a powerful vehicle of the love of Jesus.

    xo

  2. Lars says

    thanks for sharing. I’m praying your freedom to express all of this helps people who are to ashamed to admit they struggle. As we say at Celebrate Recovery “It’s the safest place in the church” when you are with people who have the freedom to be transparent and not have it all together.

  3. Amanda Waldron says

    Yes, more of this. More stories of mental health, which the devil tried to shame us with, but God uses for our redemption. When mental health stories are brought to light, I see the grace of God. That’s why I try to be free in my own story of depression and anxiety and past suicidal thought. God is at work in these stories to break down shame and connect people to life-giving services. Yes, yes yes!

  4. Marie says

    Thank you SO MUCH for sharing this. I’ve had two very short stints in the psych ward at local hospitals when I was in college, the second one followed by a few weeks in their out-patient program. I don’t think I’ve ever really talked about what it was like to be in the psych ward with anyone except maybe my therapist. I feel fairly comfortable telling people that I’ve struggled with depression, even reaching out a few months ago to some friends and being honest about how deeply I was struggling. But I’m rarely honest about the things I use to cope, because too many of them aren’t nice. I struggle even to be honest with my therapist about the frequency of my alcohol use, about the ways I use and abuse food and my body, about the times I decide I just have to punish myself and go hunting for a razor blade. People don’t know how to respond to those kinds of details. It can be so lonely feeling like I’m the only one who hasn’t figure out how to cope without wanting or needing those things at various times.

    Anne, you have given me the gift of knowing I’m not alone today. Thank you.

  5. says

    I appreciate your openness and honesty. I went through a very dark couple of years from 2008 to 2010. I’m glad you are healing and taking one day at a time. Aren’t you glad for friends? :)
    Have a wonderful Christmas.

  6. Carlina says

    Thank you for being so transparent — in big and small ways.

    I know this is a serious post, but it’s only because I now feel like I know you more than ever that I ask the more flippant question of how in the world you could think listening to Elliot Smith on the way to a psych ward is a good idea ;)

    But in all seriousness, even that tidbit of transparency — what music you listen(ed) — is an example of your openness and vulnerability in letting others know you.

    That’s helpful and encouraging to me both as a Christian and as a writer who seems to continually miss the Lord’s full blessing in both realms (both as a believer and a writer), because of my great pride and tendency to hide.

    Thank you for sharing ALL the little details and for having the courage to show the rest of us how!

  7. says

    Anne,
    I was one of the many people you met on the ride across country. I’m reminded that we all have stories. We don’t know who’s hurting and to what extent. Praise God that He’s done great things through you – your salvation, your healing, the bike ride, the book(s), the influence of your blog. Christmas IS messy. Without a mess, we’d never realize God’s offer of healing and ultimately His love. Thanks for the post – Merry Christmas!

  8. says

    Wow, Anne…what an amazing story you have. You inspire and make me want to brave with my own story and I really mean that. I’m just, without knowing what to say, and that doesn’t happen often! Thank you…just thank you for sharing this very intense part of your life. I am so honored to hear and be blessed by your story.

  9. says

    Thank u, for sharing this part of your story. I know what it’s like when the mind is screwed up and telling u lies…and I am so grateful each time someone raises their hand and says “me too”. Your story gives hope in Christ.

  10. says

    Thank you so much for sharing this. That took much courage. I am coming out of a very dark season that involved 1 stint inpatient and two outpatient treatments. Thanks for sharing your courage and healing and letting those out there that they are not alone and that there is hope. :)
    – EmmySofia.

  11. says

    Thank you, Anne. You are a remarkable woman whom God continues to use in ways which speak to so many. It’s hard to admit those things in our past but oh the people you are helping today by doing so. Many, many blessings dear sister.

  12. says

    Thank you for sharing! Makes me think of the phrase, “Out of the depths…” from Psalm 130. Thankful for friends who put feet to your cry out to God “out of the depths.” And thank YOU for sharing from your “out of the depths” season. I love how Ps. 130 ends… “There is faithful love with the Lord, and with Him is redemption in abundance.” I am blessed as you have reentered the social media/blogosphere to see His redemption in abundance. <3

  13. Abby Walls says

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I remember the Christmas of 2010 pretty vividly for sort of similar reasons- I was 9 months pregnant and about to find out my husband was having an affair. It’s amazing how incredibly isolated you can feel when going through something like that but there are so many with a shared experience. It’s good to not feel alone.

  14. Carol says

    God is good, all the time! So thankful he surrounded you with good friends to convince you to take the first steps to healing. So thankful you were brave enough to take those steps. And so very thankful that you shared it with us! Mental illness of any kind is an illness and we need to help people receive treatment just like we would if they had heart disease. So glad that you have found peace and happiness. Merry Christmas!

  15. says

    Hi Anne

    Thanks for this encouraging post . Going through that worse part of life . It is that Christmas for me this year . Going through a marriage failure and depression , restlessness , destroyed career and health . But still here by grace of god .

  16. Darcie says

    I get this…the hurt, the weirdness of “how did I get here?” the healing…Maybe I haven’t grasped the one-day-at-a-time thing because inevitably after a year of two my life crumbles again. But grace never runs out, and so far I’ve kept fighting.

  17. says

    Thank you Anne! I was in that dark, ready to throw in the towel place last Christmas. I am now regularly attending recovery meetings where “No Perfect People Allowed” thank God. Although I’m not where I was, I still feel like I’m in “just make it through the day” mode.

  18. Roy McKinnon says

    “Like a newborn, this life needs complete, uninterrupted care.
    It needs nurturing. Acceptance. And grace.”

    Thank you so much for your truth.

  19. says

    Thank you for being so transparent. You will have no idea how many people will be helped by your transparency. I haven’t been to church in 2 years because of PTSD. I’ve tried to do this mostly on my own. Quite frankly, I think (after reading your piece) I’ve left Christ out. Maybe Christmas is the time to lean onto Jesus and accept his grace.

    • AdropInTheOcean says

      Broken vessels that’s what we all are. Your story is really gut-wrenching. Mine is just another drop in the ocean or planetary pain, not even worth mentioning.I can relate to the aspect you mentioned about hitting the rock bottom. You, the author, the public face. I can’t gather up that much courage to do in front of an audience, even on line. You turned out your pain into beauty and use it to help others. I’m not even at the beginning of that journey, too scared and weak to even step on.
      Just an obscure, mediocre words mingler.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *