It was a cool, brisk afternoon. The sun casually peaked between thin, overcast clouds. It was a chilly, yet rare nice day for the middle of November. I had spent thirty minutes sitting in my work van, trying to find the motivation to visit my next customer. It was an “I really don’t want to be here” kind of day. I did not want to be at work, to be a part of existence. As I texted my wife, I attempted to not let on how truly bad of a day it was. The “fake it, ‘til you make it” philosophy I had spent the vast majority of my life perfecting had finally expired.
Until recently, I never let on what was roiling inside me, the black ichor of thoughts and emotions forced into the deep recesses of my mind and spirit. Every day was a struggle, to wake up, to get out of bed, to go to work, to care about myself, to care about anything, to feel, to be alive. Yet, I stayed upright and breathing. I had a sense of responsibility to my family, my friends, and my co-workers. This tenant of love and duty for others was greater than it was for myself. People relied on me. I could not fail them. I was the rock that people could cling to when life would smash down upon them, tossing them about in the life chaotic sea. I was here for others, not myself. My pain, my suffering paled to that of those around me, it was mine alone.
In the fall of 2000, I began treatment for depression. I played the game, followed the routine, knowing what to say to be “properly” treated, but leaving out the important details that would get me the treatment I needed but feared would put me into an inpatient mental health facility. To me, being an inpatient at a treatment facility was death. If I walked through the doors, I feared I would never walk out. I lived in a constant state of dread. Medication took the edge off, but those edges were frayed and frail. I had managed to tie some lose strands together to keep from completely unraveling. How long were those frayed edges going to hold, until I snapped, pushed everyone away, descended into a state of darkness, falling into the Well of Oblivion?
Every day, several times a day, I thought about death. Instead of taking my own life directly, I prayed to be a fatality in a car crash, for a piece of steel on the flat bed in front of me to slide off and impale me, get caught in an explosion at one of the factories I travelled to. I wished the Universe would finally put an end to it, to no longer hurt and disappoint those I loved. If something tragic were to occur to me, my family would be better off. I did not like myself, detested myself, undeserving of the life I had and love that surrounded me.
While the emotions were a maelstrom of darkness, there were moments of light that broke through the suffocating clouds. The light revealed the truth; I was not healthy, those feelings were irrational and unjustified. I knew and understood that I had value in the Universe but I did not feel it. My mind and spirit had been in a constant state of war, where battles ebbed and flowed between rational truth and emotional reality. Every few months my rational side would gain a short-lived victory. For a few days, I would be on the verge of feeling “normal,” in a heightened state of creative and physical energy, a blinding light after being in the darkness for so long. Weeks and months would pass by as I slowly slipped back into a pit of despair, guilt, loathing, unworthiness, anxiety, isolation and loneliness.
My swinging highs and lows, a lifetime of poor coping skills, and learned negative behavior, made for a volatile stew. I was angry, frustrated, depressed, lonely, and inadequate. In the days and weeks leading up to sitting in my work van, I had become completely frustrated with the healthcare system. I knew my medications were not working. I had not been completely honest in all my years of treatment, not with the doctors, not with myself. I never let on that the frayed edges were slowly giving way. My anger was deepening, my depression taking greater hold. My frustration was causing me anxiety to the point of paralysis. I began to detach and isolate myself.
A few months before I had reached this breaking point, my psychiatrist left the provider network. Several months passed before a replacement staff was hired. For weeks, I struggled and fought with my mental care providers, as I tried to get in to talk to someone, anyone, about my treatment. Then, they were waiting on my insurance company to approve the newly hired replacement as an in-network provider. I was not able to see another provider in the network. They laid the blame on my insurance company. They recommended that I see my primary care physician instead of one of their behavioral and mental health specialists. Fifteen years in the same provider network, at the same facility, there was nothing they could do until the insurance company authorized the new provider. I was in mental healthcare limbo.
My next option was to pursue treatment through my health insurance company’s facility and physician search feature, a clunky search that provided little to nothing for mental and behavioral health. At this point, my wife had to do a lot of the investigative work as my anxiety had put me into a near frothing rage. Other local health care networks required a series of steps that would likely take weeks, if not months, to see someone about my concerns. I had neither the time nor the patience to resolve my near crisis state. I felt as though the only way I could get any help was if I ended up in the emergency room or jail. Neither of which I could afford. I had to continue to work. I had to be an ideal employee. My coworkers were relying on me. I had to provide for my wife and son. I had to be the perfect husband, the perfect father.
For years, I had been using those excuses so as not pursue the help I needed. I had been looking into intense outpatient programs, but those were several weeklong programs, several hours each day. There were partial outpatient programs that met for a few hours a few days of the week but I could not take off work for several weeks. How could I possibly adjust my schedule to make it work? My coworkers would have to take on the extra responsibilities left in my absence.
As I sat in my work van on that cool, brisk November afternoon, I texted my wife about my “rough day,” trying not to let on the planning of my death. She said we would talk that evening. I did not tell her that I was thinking of ways to funnel the exhaust fumes into the van’s cabin. I would go find a secluded location at a nearby park and slowly put myself to sleep, slowly fade into the ether. Then, I questioned the idea of work being a part of my plan, so I relocated the execution of my plan to my mid-size SUV. There were a few parks on my way and nearby home. One of them would be an ideal location until I pictured the police coming to our door and telling my wife what they discovered. Again, the plan changed. Instead, I would enter into a haze of liquor, cocktails, and pills – a bottle of rum and case of coke to wash down a selection of painkillers, muscle relaxers, sleeping pills, and anxiety meds. A grand vision of a painless death that would allow me to rest in my own bed where my wife would find me in a state of gentle repose, knowing it in fact would be a scene of abject horror. There was no need for a note. Recently, I had not hidden my pain and my suffering as well as I had liked. The final action was the only message needed.
When I got home that evening I was absent, my mind elsewhere, preparing for what was to happen that night. Once our son was in his bed for the night, my wife followed through on her promise, we talked. I slowly let my wife into my mind and its state. She knew the point I had reached. She knew how I operated, how I planned, and needed to have all the information available to me before making any decision. She presented the inpatient care options that were available in the area, the very programs I had looked into. Hearing her words, I knew I had to go that night but I was “the strong one” that everyone could rely on. I could not fail to uphold that fantasy. She was hoping that I would finally get the help I needed on my own terms, though she was fully prepared to call the police if I chose otherwise. Those were the only options.
Then, I told her about my plan, feeding her more excuses to postpone what I needed to do. I had to take care of a few things at work first. A close cousin who lived states away was finally in town for a visit. I could not miss our son’s second birthday that Saturday. I knew though that work would take care of itself and my cousin would visit me no matter where I was. Then my wife said to me, “He’s only two. He won’t remember why you weren’t there for his second birthday, but he will wonder why you’re not there for the rest of them.” The decision was instant. I needed to go in that night.
My worst fear was about to come true. The nightmare scenario I had created of an inpatient mental health facility was a large reason why I never completely told my doctors the truth. I had visions of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and American Horror Story: Asylum; a place of communal living that allowed for no privacy, a place that would put me into a near medicinal comatose, a place that would keep me for weeks, months, maybe even years, a place that would kill me if I entered. I knew the fallacy of my fear. I realized I could die on the outside, finally succumbing to the darkness, or I could risk the unknown and fight to find the Seedling of Hope and the Grove of Light.
On the evening of Wednesday, November 11, 2015, my wife drove me to a nearby hospital with an inpatient behavioral health unit. At 1:38am on Thursday, November 12th I signed the “Consent for Inpatient Admission.” There was no turning back.
What I feared most was the complete opposite. Once I became a patient, I heard from friends and family that I was in a great facility. Even my companions that were frequent visitors said it was the best place they have ever been. The staff was genuinely kind and caring. All the patients had their own room with bathroom and shower. There was a washer and dryer to keep your clothes clean and fresh. They provided the three essential meals that were of great variety and quality. In addition, there was a nightly snack time. There was an abundance of leisurely activities to occupy your time and reduce anxiety. Several group meetings each day provided us with a voice and tools in which to help us heal and progress through our various illnesses. I quickly befriended a number of my fellow residents, which kept me from my usual isolation and loneliness. It was not an easy stay. It was fraught with pain, anxiety, restlessness, guilt, and shame. However, that is where I needed to be. It was time that I finally took care of myself instead of those around me. I needed to finally believe and act on what I already knew for years.
During my inpatient stay, I realized the deafening silence that surrounds mental and behavioral health, the struggle our society has kept hidden for generations. Because of the stigmas and self-induced fears of inadequacy, shame, guilt, unworthiness, and much more, our society only talks about mental disease in hushed tones. I will no longer be silent. My past, present, and future travels through the labyrinth of pain and darkness will bring hope to those who suffer with mental illness. I will be a vocal advocate for those who cannot find the words, for those who feel isolated and alone, for those who unfortunately do not have the support system to speak up and seek help.
A lifetime of treatment and recovery lays before me. Though there will be rough days and downward phases, using my strengthened and newfound skills, I will fight, continue to move forward, to live. With hope and purpose, I will become the voice to help break the stigmas of these invisible illnesses so that our communities can begin to provide help and hope to family, friends, and strangers alike, to transcend cultural and religious barriers. I am determined to tear down the walls of silence, to shatter the mirrors that we place in front of ourselves and others point at us. None of us is ever truly alone. The road to healing is not as far away as it may seem. We are in the chaos Life and the Universe together. In healing ourselves and helping others, we can plant and lay root Seedlings of Hope within our Groves of Light.