I don’t think I can start with a title like that without a little bit of backstory.
It started in 2017. I was in a relatively good place, tasting freedom upon my release from an emotionally abusive relationship that consumed my early 20s, but alas that was fated not to last. The catalyst that decidedly shoved me down this journey of mental discovery was when my sister in law passed away in a car accident.
Her 3 week coma and subsequent death affected me and my family in ways I don’t think I’ll ever fully heal from. It was losing her that made me decide to see a psychologist for the first time a year later.
From the moment of her death I was sent down a spiral of mental uproar. A toxic and homophobic work environment, unhealthy coping mechanisms, literal rib cracking anxiety episodes, a depression diagnosis, debilitating side effects, an unfair dismal, suicidal thoughts and then; the straw that broke the camels back; an out of the blue break up.
That breaking point sent me reeling into a mental state I described in my diary as “a deep hole, one I couldn’t see the top of no matter how hard I tried.”
It was at this point that my psychiatrist suggested booking me into Akeso, a psychiatric clinic.
Here are the 10 things I learned in the 10 days I spent there.
1. It’s not how it looks in the movies
For decades the media has used the idea of psychiatric hospitals as some thing threatening and sinister, a place with stigma attached. The classic “Oh no! A lunatic has escaped from the asylum!”storyline where the patients are made out to be uncontrollable psychos has become a cliche. I hate to break it to you but Girl Interrupted and American Horror Story skew pretty far from the truth.
I went into Akeso terrified. I was super depressed, scared of people and appalled at the idea of sleeping in a room with strangers. What I was greeted with, however, was helpful nurses, kind residents and a host of the most wonderful therapists anyone could ask for. No people talking to themselves in corners, random outbursts and threats of harm that I had been sold by that season of House. No interrogative therapy sessions. Banter was yelled from one side of the cafeteria to the other, people chatted amiably amongst themselves. Everybody knew each other by name. The atmosphere was one of safety and camaraderie. I realized maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all. (Though I must admit that I am disappointed to have been deprived of my young, blonde Angelina Jolie.)
2. People aren’t so scary
I’ve always been scared of people. Years of loving people who made me feel worthless and 13 years at a school where your every move was watched and judged had instilled in me a sense of suspicion and gut churning fear.
The prospect of being surrounded by strangers at all times was bringing me to a point of near panic. The first meal I ate hunched over, headphones in, trying my best not to make any eye contact. However it soon became clear that this place didn’t have a sinister bone in its body. People greeted me, asked me about myself and respected my boundaries. In group it felt like we were in a safe, non judgmental bubble. I soon spent my free time with the other residents instead of holed up inside my room, which is my nature. We shared stories about ourselves, our therapists, what new meds we’d been put on, while they bummed cigarettes off each other. I found I could find something in common with just about anybody no matter our backgrounds, race or income bracket we were united by our multitude of mental illnesses and our urge to get better. And those strangers I was scared to share a room with? I’m still friends with one of them to this day and I’m so grateful to have her.
3. Therapy comes in many flavours
When most people think about therapy two things spring to mind: talk therapy and medication, but its so much more than that. Akeso and my therapists use two main avenues of therapy: DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) and CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy).
We had group sessions on different topics from our DBT workbooks, I was on new meds and I saw my psychologist and psychiatrist almost daily (I’m so grateful for these two, I owe them my life). But it didn’t stop there. We were taken to yoga classes, on walks and even on a hike around Table Mountain.
My favourite, by far, was art therapy. Its amazing what can come out of letting a group of depressed people loose in a room full of paint, decoupage and glitter.
I remember one small, unassuming woman coming into the art room and loudly declaring, ‘I’m in the mood to make some angry art!”She proceeded to paint a wooden box bright pink. It makes me laugh to this day.
Therapy comes in many flavours, flavours are made to be combined and this dish did me more good than I could have ever anticipated.
4. Meditation is Magic
Meditation is something I’ve tried and failed to keep up for years. When I was home I would always put on an audiobook before I slept but sharing a room meant that I had no option but to switch up my routine and sprinkle it with a little meditation. I started by doing a short progressive muscle relaxation (basically tensing your muscle groups one at a time and gradually releasing) every evening before bed. When I woke up in the morning, before doing anything I would do a body scan. Just those few minutes in the morning and evening gave me a sense of calm in the moments of my day that I usually felt the most poignant anxiety. The difference it made to my mindset was something I’d never experienced before.
5. Feel all the Feels
“Just distract yourself”
“Don’t think about it.”
These are adages we often hear from others (and ourselves) when negative feelings come up. I thought this was the norm, its so widely practiced after all, but it turns out I’d been doing it all wrong all along. I was slowly taught that in fact when a bad feeling comes up you should sit with it. Look it over. Find its motivations, its sources, its reasons for being.
The process can be excruciating but they showed me that if I persevered I would learn things about myself, my behavior, my history and soon those feelings would lose their power over me.
By feeling the feelings I rise above them.
6. I can forgive my younger self
I was a bitch in high school. This is something I’ve said so many times I’ve lost count. A decade out of the oppressive air of my school and the memories of some of my harmful words and actions I threw out like confetti still hurt me, like repeated paper cuts. I was ashamed of her, that aggressive girl who hurt people with her harsh words.
Being ingroup and individual sessions so intensively and having others questioning my reasoning and thoughts about myself made me look at myself from a different angle. I had epiphany after epiphany. I realized the bitch was my brand of armour. Its what got me through childhood traumas, feeling like I never fit in, knowing I was different and being judged for it. It was easier to lash out and make myself big before someone could land a punch.
I was an undiagnosed little girl trying to protect herself. Was it productive? No, but it was all I had the power to do. I can finally forgive that poor scared little girl and start to live my life in an accepting, honest and kind way.
7. Its ok to be selfish
I have a terrible habit of saying yes to things I don’t want to do, even to my own detriment. One person had instilled in me a fear of saying no. If I did I could be berated for being selfish, boring, uptight. This went hand in hand with me feeling not good enough to prioritize. Developing a sense of self respect has been a hard and alien task but I’ve finally realized that simple cliché to be true: I am enough. I realized that I am worth putting first, worthy of being loved without being manipulated. I can put myself first and that’s totally ok.
8. I am comfortable in silence
Silence has always unnerved me. I did everything with some form of background noise, be it YouTube, an audiobook or music. As long as I wasn’t alone with my thoughts I was all good. A few days into my stay I was walking downstairs to an appointment when I realized I didn’t have my headphones in, in fact, I didn’t even have my phone on me. This was totally new for me but I knew what had caused it (don’t roll your eyes): mindfulness. This was a constant topic of conversation in the clinic, the technique of being in and experiencing the present moment. If you don’t know what I’m talking about this can teach you all about it. Finally being able to fully experience the present mindfully without ruminating about the past or stressing about the future meant that being alone with my thoughts didn’t scare me anymore. Silence, I found, is golden.
9. Radical Acceptance
This is a DBT term which involves “total acceptance of reality…seeing the good and the bad and just accepting that both are part of reality.”It’s only human to want to do the exact opposite, to live in denial and self pity, and that’s the path I had chosen without considering that there could be an alternative. When this section came up in group in blew my mind even though it seemed like something so simple.
Basically shit happens.
Fighting what you can’t fix just makes you tired, accepting reality and rolling with it makes you grow.
10. The solution to world peace?
I honestly think if more people were exposed to experiences like this the world would be a better place. Actively choosing to address your demons will change or life and the lives of the people around you. Not only that but being in a place of vulnerability with people with such different life experiences gave me a strong sense of empathy. There is no way of looking at someone and knowing what’s going on in their life, just as they don’t know what’s going on in ours, so why not treat everyone with a little more kindness? It could make their day. I think a world where everyone gave each other a little break would be quite the utopia.
I left the clinic with self-confidence, something I’ve never had before, a pocket full of notes from my fellow group members that make me cry to this day and a bracelet saying “One Day at a Time.”
And that’s how I’m going to carry on. One Day at a Time.