As a writer, I get to spend a lot of time in what I call my “soft clothes”— basically my sweats or PJs. When I’m feeling particularly contemplative, I put on the hoodie and pajama bottoms that I wore in the hospital. The drawstring’s been removed from the hoodie, as per instructions on the ward, being that I was suicidal at the time and the string could be seen as a weapon to use against myself. When I got home after being discharged, I removed all the drawstrings from each of my hoodies as a sign to myself that I wanted to be safe. Something symbolic. A way to remind myself that I’m still here and my story’s not over. Some people might get a tattoo of a semicolon, which is cool. I found the significance of the drawstring removal to work for me.
When I’m in my hospital togs I feel connected to those days when I stayed in the wing with ten other patients, each battling their own demons, each stronger because of it. For many of us, the common denominator was suicide. So much sorrow in one room could prove cathartic once the sharing began. The stories would start and the faces would change from withdrawn and sullen to hopeful and brave. Maintaining that quality was hard once group was over, but I tried in earnest to keep the faith, to believe that life was worth it somehow. Seeing hope on the faces of the other patients was infectious. I couldn’t help but feel optimistic, too.
Anything that I could possibly hurt myself with had been removed from my reach. Shoelaces and dental floss. Keys and fingernail clippers. My belt and bathrobe tie. In a monastic sense, reducing my possessions to their safest level offered comfort of a sort, a vacation from the preoccupation with self harm and worse. I never felt any authority imposed upon me, even in my paranoid state. This was for my own good, and, considering that I had tried to kill myself, I obviously didn’t have a firm grasp on what was or was not good for me. I was more than happy to comply.
Pencils were kept at the nurse’s station for when we needed to fill out our menu requests. Craft supplies were kept to the day room, and their use supervised by the staff. Here at home I have a wireless keyboard and mouse. My kitchen is only a few feet away, and I have the customary utensils, including a butcher’s block with a half-dozen knives in it. I am cautious when I use them. There was a time when contemplating other uses for the knives was foremost in my mind. Thankfully, those days are behind me. My medications help with that. I was initially reluctant to take them, believing that I was strong enough to combat mental illness alone. I realize today that, without the chems, I’d be vulnerable to attack from myself. That’s a hard thought to accept, that I could be my own worst enemy, but an unstable mind on a one-way course is a powerful foe.
I am grateful for my team of friends and my therapist who helped see me through that dark episode. We’d come up with a plan in the event that I would experience a schizophrenic break and might not come back on my own. Through their efforts, I wound up hospitalized and safe. I owe it to them to keep up my end of the bargain today and share my story at every opportunity. A psychotic break and a suicide attempt combined to cloak my world in desperation and despair. I’m alive and stable today and more willing than ever to openly advocate for a stigma-free world. It’s not just soft clothes and a wireless mouse. I take the time to talk with anyone willing to listen when the topic of mental health comes up. I share my story honestly and from the heart, and people listen. Because it’s time to listen, to speak, and to act. Our social worlds need to expand to include those dealing with undiagnosed disorders. Our medical system needs all the help it can get if it’s going to be there for us when we need it the most. There is so much work to be done, and who better to do it than the people closest to it? Clients, caregivers, friends, and family all.
I put on my hoodie and I pause to remember why it’s stringless. There is something that each of us does to remind ourselves of the times when things were dark and we needed illumination. Find that light and keep to it. You’re worth it. Pause and reflect. No matter where you are on your personal timeline, your story’s just beginning.