We never really know how our stories will affect the stories of another person. Sometimes we become so caught up in our own narrative that we forget that we are all part of a greater book of stories weaving in, out, and around each other’s tales. But it’s important to remember that no matter what stories we tell with our life choices they do in fact effect our fellow man. I would like to tell you a story today about how depression and anxiety wove its way through the personal story lines of myself and several of my family members.
My niece is a beautiful, talented, funny, and brilliant young woman with a very promising story ahead of her. She is also living with depression and anxiety; they are the antagonists in her personal story. She is only sixteen years old and that antagonistic duo has already spent years writing half-truths and lies all over her heart. But the influence of that terrible duo isn’t limited to its twisted narrative in my nieces’ story. Not so very long ago, their influence affected our whole family.
The day that this all started my niece woke up feeling negative and not quite right. As she began to get ready for her school day, she found herself looking at various items around the house. She was barraged with unwanted thoughts of how she could use those items to hurt herself. She didn’t understand why she was having these intrusive thoughts and she could not make them stop. Understandably upset and distressed to have her brain attacking her this way, she tried to push past it.
By the time she went to geometry, a class that she always found stressful, she was reaching her limits. The panic was rising and her emotions were very raw. Feeling vulnerable and scared she sent me a text asking me to help her. After speaking with her, I realized that my niece needed to be taken to the hospital for a mental health evaluation.
I picked her up from school and I took her to the NAMI office to wait for her mom who was out of town. I knew that my friends there would be able to help me keep my niece company and support her while we waited for her mother to arrive. It was a good choice! We played a game and relaxed together. She was able to let go of some of that panic building inside of her because she didn’t feel alone. She knew she was safe.
When her mom arrived, she was feeling moderately better. However, those intrusive thoughts were still trying to wreak havoc in her mind. My sister and I took her to the hospital and several hours later when all was said and done, the evaluator determined that my niece was not at risk because she didn’t have a plan to commit suicide. An appointment was set up to check in with us the following day and we were all sent home.
The next day my niece told me that she felt safe because the hospital had determined she wasn’t a danger to herself. She kept her hospital bracelet on for about a week after that because it reminded her of the hospital said she was not at risk. She used it as a shield from the bad thoughts. I kept close tabs with her over the next two weeks and those intrusive thoughts went away. So, we all began to breathe easier again.
About three weeks after my niece’s initial hospital trip I received another text from her, this time it was even more serious. The text read “Jenn, I really messed up.” She told me she had taken too many of her pills. My heart dropped right out of my chest and I felt like I could not breathe as I processed the information. She was at work and her supervisor was taking her to the emergency room. I was out of town and it felt like the longest forty-five minutes of my life as I raced to the hospital. When I arrived, my niece was being monitored for heart troubles in the ER. Thankfully she was doing well, although a bit loopy and tired. I was so incredibly relieved; it could have been so much worse. Her mom and I sat with my niece for hours before we found out she would be transferred to the ICU for the night, so they could continue to monitor her heart. Protocol required them to wait for the medication to be out of her system before the mental health evaluation could be done.
The next morning my niece told us all her story. She had been dealing with another bad day where she woke up feeling wrong and depressed. Just like before, it got worse and worse as the day progressed until that evening at work, she felt overwhelmed by panic. She took her emergency anxiety medication but in her panicked state of mind it wasn’t working fast enough for her. She took more and more as the panic continued to beat at her and tear her to pieces. She told us she didn’t mean to hurt herself she just wanted the panic to stop. But in her mind, she had dissociated to a place where she thought of it like a school chemistry experiment. Take the controlled amount, wait the prescribed amount of time, check results, and re administer test if results were not the desired outcome. It wasn’t until she began to feel sick and her hands were shaking badly that she came back to reality and understood she had made a huge mistake.
The evaluator determined that my niece needed to be admitted to a psych ward. My sister and I were grateful that action was being taken this time. Whether or not my niece meant to hurt herself she was in crisis and needed help. I expected things would move pretty quickly after the evaluation was completed. She had already waited hours the day before and spent the night in ICU with no incidents or issues with her heart. Unfortunately, that was not the case. The evaluator informed us that my niece would need to wait a full twenty-four hours from her arrival time at the ER. Then all her blood work would be re-done before we could even begin the process of having her transferred to the children’s psych ward. She then told us she would be back later after the blood work was completed and left.
It was a very long day before my niece was finally transferred to the psych ward. By the time she was finally checked in, it was 1:00am. She was well cared for and her heart was monitored but no one came to check on my niece’s mental health. If she had not had family or friends available, she would have been alone all day with only a nurse who was monitoring her physical health. Can you even imagine how scary that would have been for a sixteen-year-old girl? She would have been alone all day with her thoughts as she processed the fact that she was going to a psych ward for the first time. Alone, as she thought about the fact that she lost control of herself and accidentally overdosed. Alone, with nothing but her anxiety and depression as company.
Not long after my niece was hospitalized, I discussed this very topic with my own psychiatric doctor. My nieces’ story had deeply affected me and left me with a lot of questions. I mentioned that I had met a peer specialist in the hospital that worked with patients living with addictions. I wondered why the hospital did not offer this same peer support for patients dealing with a mental health crisis? The answer I received was shocking! The doctor informed me that peer support for mental health was nothing more than an accessory. He then stated that there was no proof that peer support offered any advantage to mental health at all. I was told that in cases where parents or loved ones visit their relatives who had attempted suicide and brought them cake and cookies, that the patient was even more likely to end up attempting suicide again. Finally, I was told that the suicide attempter was best left alone with their thoughts to think about what they had done.
I was stunned by the cold callousness of those statements and I profoundly disagree. I honestly feel sorry for that doctor. Somehow, he seems to have completely missed the point. We are all part of the same book of human kinds’ stories. We have this beautiful capacity to help one another navigate the plot lines and twist of our life stories by sharing our own. We are able to offer support by sharing in the burdens, offering our wisdom and just being there in solidarity. I can’t help wondering how differently my nieces’ story might have ended if she had not had our love and support. Would she have had the courage to reach out and ask for help?
Thankfully my niece wasn’t alone that day in the hospital. Instead she was lifted up by the positivity surrounding her. She had family and friends come and keep her company. She also had a peer who understood what she was going through to talk with about her experience. She shared with me, that having someone who understands what she is going through, has made a big difference in her mental health. It has been several months since her overdose and she is doing really well! She learned coping techniques during her hospital stay that she continues to develop during her therapy sessions. She has found medication that works for her and is managing her symptoms. Both peer and family support are a constant in her life. Her beautiful story is back on track and I know it will be phenomenal.