Friday, August 26th, 7 p.m.

The drawstring of a hoodie. As in, sweatshirt. No big deal, right? Probably not to most people. Maybe not even to most people in my situation. But I had given it quite a bit of thought.

I had been taken into protective custody roughly 36 hours earlier when the Amtrak Police called out my legal name and I made the ill-advised turn in their direction. Since then, aside from hospital staff, I had remained largely anonymous. Other patients knew me only by that same, legal, first name. A name I never used in real life. They did not know where I was from. Why I was here. What circumstances resulted in my arrival. A name. That was it.

In my mind, that would all change on this decision. Not reasonable or realistic, but any sane person with Bipolar would never claim to be (see what I did there?). Why would it change? Thanks for asking. The hoodie was representative of the university located in my hometown. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Up to this point, I had spent my time in the ward sporting that sexy double hospital gown look. Which, interestingly enough, I have no idea why I had never been taught earlier in life. Take note to save future embarrassment of the exposure of your parts. Arriving at Northwestern Memorial and taking my clothes off I was instructed to put the first gown on like a coat, and the second one on like stepping into a coat (in other words, backward day at elementary school). No more vertical smiles from my backside!

However, regular clothes were allowed. Which means that the hospital had in their possession the duffel bag of clothes that I had been admitted with. All available to me. And it was rather cold in those hallowed halls. As the weekend approached, I was being given the opportunity to retrieve some personal items and get a bit more comfortable for the coming days. With a caveat. Actually, a few of them, but the one relevant to this story is…no drawstrings. Yeah, you know why.

I could have my hoodie, but they would have to pull the string from it. Then I would have to sport the university sweatshirt in the potential face of questions. Questions about by my identity. At least, who I was going to purport to be over however long I would reside in this location. Would I give up my hometown? Would I explain how I got from there to here? Would I share why I was here? Would I share the name I truly go by? Family size? Job? Life history? Countless other things that all raced through my fractured mind in a tsunami of awareness that the awaiting group therapy and individual therapy would likely require significant stretches of transparency.

I choose the hoodie (and other clothing articles). Over the next week, I would divulge my nickname that is to me my common name. I would answer many of the previously mentioned questions. I would learn what parts of my life I am comfortable with, what parts I am humiliated by, and what parts I still do not know how to simply be honest about. Metaphorically or in reality…the drawstring of a hoodie was the tip of an iceberg.

I still wear the hoodie often. It still lacks a drawstring. It is a reminder of my time in Chicago. One of many, including one I will eventually add to serve as a daily reminder. But that is for another day.

For this day the ice was broken. My home revealed. In some ways, I had just truly arrived.

Thursday, August 25th, 9 p.m.

I entered the room with no idea what to expect. I had been in a psychiatric ward before. Maybe 20 years earlier to visit someone. Scared the hell out of me. I had been in a hospital much more recently. Could never stand them. I had even held a job that required regular visits to a local detention center and watched plenty of movies or shows involving prisons.

In other words, my mind had plenty of memorized context for the sensory input it was about to receive. Which may or may not be helpful considering I was only barely able to hold myself up at this point due to the combination of my peaked physical exhaustion and complete emotional meltdown.

The nurse opened the door, reached inside, turned on a light and I shuffled in behind wearing my stunning ensemble of matching hospital gowns with tan slipper-socks trimmed those indiscriminate white rubber zig-zags to keep my feet from sliding out from under me.

To my right the wall stretched the entire length of the room. This was the wall that the headboard of the bed rested up against. A much simpler bed for a hospital. Lacking all the up and down incline gizmos and buttons. Just a simple headboard and footboard with a typical twin size, blue plastic lined box spring and mattress. It was unmade with two pillows, folded sheets and a blanket laying on top of it. On the wall was also a dry erase board. Not like a typical 2 x 2 one that I was used to seeing in a hospital declaring who my doctor and nurse for the day were. No, this one was large. Very large. Maybe more like 5 feet tall by 4 feet wide. While it did list the medical professionals on shift, the majority of it was designed to provide a morning to evening schedule for my day. Most of which was blank. Made sense for a new arrival at this time of day.

Straight across from the doorway was a wall that primarily consisted of three components. On the right side in the corner, joining up with the fairly plain wall I just described was a floor to ceiling wooden shelf unit. Sort of a closet with a door, but instead of a bar for hangers (or as I would later put together…for hanging myself) it simply had spaced shelves for folding my belongings and placing them in the closet. It was only 18″ or two feet wide, and then met a window that covered the entirety of the remainder of the wall. From desk height to ceiling. Looking out over the Chicago night. It was double-paned with the blind actually enclosed between the glasses. On the opposite wall was a switch that provided electronic control of the blinds. The panes looked extremely thick, which I am sure was also protective as in the days to come I would ponder throwing my desk chair through them and plunging myself to my death on the sidewalk below.

From the closet to the far wall was a single piece of marble or some stone. Interior design has never been my thing. It started about a foot lower than desk height and ran for about three feet as a sort of window seat. Over the next eight days, it would become one of my favorite places in the hospital. Then it rose to desk height and ran the remainder of the wall. There was a simple chair under the desk.

After a brief wall starting just to the left of the doorway was another doorway. This led to the bathroom. Similar to a handicap accessible bathroom at any other facility, this one was designed to provide everything in a single, undisturbed flow. As I discovered with the closet, this had to be very purposeful. No way to hang myself. No way to even harm myself. Even the toilet was of a very strange, almost indescribable form including a massive ring that would make it nearly impossible to even significantly harm myself with in any manner. If one wanted to hurt themselves in here, the primary choice would be bashing your head against the wall with whatever will you could muster. Otherwise, you were out of luck. No shower curtain. No hand rails. Even the place for soap or shampoo was a natural cut out of the material which the walls were made of.

The same held true for the sink, mirror, and beauty area outside the bathroom that consumed most of the rest of the remaining wall to the left of the door. Like the shower and toilet, no faucets or handles. Just small silver push buttons to provide the desired effect.

Strangely enough, there was an air of “nice” to it all at the same time. The subway tile in the bathroom, the small floor tiles, the marble (or psuedo-marble) material used for the desk, the electronic blinds with some amazing views of one of America’s largest cities. Yes, it was institutional…and clearly a hospital…but at the same time, I couldn’t help think a few days later that it was a few tweaks or modifications away from a reasonably impressive studio apartment. One not that much smaller than I had inhabited for 13 months of my life not that long ago. One that could probably fetch a pretty penny at this height in the sky and with these views in a city such as this.

All those thoughts would come at a later hour. At this hour the thoughts were simpler. More primal:

“I’m so tired.”

“How long will I be here?”

“What will tomorrow look like?”

…and the main one…

“No one here knows me. I don’t have to ‘be’ anyone in particular. Tomorrow morning, I get to define who I am and what I look like to these people. That seems very freeing.”

Thursday, August 25th, 10:26 p.m.

It is right there in the notes. The patient log. A direct physician’s order to provide me with 50 mg of Seroquel my first night in the psychiatric unit. Something to help me sleep, which I had basically not accomplished to a significant extent for more than 48 hours and to a healthy extent for weeks. Not to mention its assistance with depression and Bipolar Disorder.

However, it never came. In fact, I went to bed that night finding it extremely odd that after more than 12 hours in “protective custody”, emergency room care, and settling into the psych ward I had yet to place a single pill in my mouth. Not even a Tylenol PM.

Looking back, I fell asleep relatively quickly and slept relatively well. With significant emphasis being continually placed on “relatively.” Let’s face it, I was completely wiped out. Trashed. And I was resigned. For the moment. There would be future bouts and attempts to take back control of my situation, but not now. There was no way I was getting out of this room, in this ward, in this hospital, in this city on this night.

So I laid on the bed. The door was cracked with a stream of light coming in from the darkened halls. At the time, I assumed I was not allowed to close it completely. Subsequently I would learn otherwise, though leaving it open sure made the periodical nurse visits to check my vital signs and bed checks a bit more peaceful.

A mattress, sheet set, and pillow that would have on almost any other night of my life made sleep nearly impossible felt unusually comfortable compared to the lawns, benches, and train seats I had attempted to rest upon for the past two days on the run. The blinds had been left open to my right. A window that largely covered the entire spans of that wall in my room. The night lights of Chicago that could find their way to the 14th floor twinkled and flickered.

I do not remember all my thoughts of that evening, nor how long I remained awake. This one thing I do remember feeling deep down inside my heart…I was a mere shell of whoever I was born to be. The seven-year-old boy playing Little League. The 8th-grade member of the Junior High basketball team. The High School All-Northern California Honor Band trumpet player. The honor student. The Master’s Degree recipient. The husband. The father. The sole proprietor. They were all titles. All history. All accomplishments that seemed to belong to someone else.

Not a different person. The same physical body. But someone else. Someone other than this man lying on this bed in this room on this night. What was left of the mind of this man. What was left of the emotional stability and strength of this man. It had once again been fractured and broken in a more profound way than any of the times before.

And I had no idea if there would be found even enough left of “me” to truly constitute the person that was me.

Thursday, August 25th, 6 p.m.

I had been duped. At 3:45 p.m., still in the psychiatric emergency room, I believed I had mustered enough energy to put on a mask and pull it off. The psychiatric resident had sat across from me and indicated that I would not be put in the psych ward. I would receive a regular hospital room. I would be placed close to a nurse’s station so they could keep an eye on me, but in my mind I had once again avoided revealing the greatest indicators that I had totally lost my fucking mind.

It is right in the hospital notes. I did not merit “CVO” (constant visual observation). Then the damn attending psychiatrist had to go and meet with the resident to review my case. Had to go and show him the realities of my case. Had to review the intense suicidal ideation I had been experiencing. The thought out plan I had to kill myself and possibly harm others along the way. The lifelong history of depression and manic behavior. The phone conversation with my wife indicating her level of concern over the rapid flip of my mental and emotional switch…yet again.

So here I sat. Sitting at a small round table across from a diminutive woman talking to me very softly and gently as she took out a packet of forms and a pen. I had entered yet another state of shock when they placed me in a wheelchair downstairs and informed me that I would be taken to the 13th floor and placed in the care of the psychiatric unit where I would get the care and help I needed. This was NOT what we had discussed!

The shock had deepened into a very dark depression as I was escorted to this table in this “living area” across from a large nurse’s station. Into disbelief as individuals in hospital gowns walked by checking out the newest member of their community. Some of them offering gentle smiles. Others talking out loud to demons located somewhere in the deepest recesses of their minds.

This was not yet rock bottom, but I could see it from the point of my current downward float. I was provided a “Patient and Visitor Information” brochure to look over as the small administrator ordered her items to begin checking me into the Norman and Ida Stone Institute of Psychiatry.

Meal schedules. Medication schedules. Telephone schedules. Television schedules! It had been at least 35 years…if ever…since I had been told when I could or could not watch television. I know, strange thing to stick out in my mind and pop up at that moment. It gave procedures for laundry which I remember finding significantly startling. How could I possibly be here long enough to need to do laundry! Details regarding group and individual sessions. I don’t know these people. I can’t share with them my thoughts. My places of brokenness. My pains!

She could see me looking over the brochure and it seems was attempting to verbalize key points related to the sections my eyes seemed to be passing over, but she sounded like the teacher from a Charlie Brown episode as my mind raced out of control with dark frightening images of straight jackets, syringes and injections of unknown fluids to attempt and control my thoughts and behaviors, and fears that I had finally been locked up…and would never be fit to get out.

 

Monday, August 29th, 6 a.m.

I tend to move through emotional states and stages rather rapidly. Jovial one minute. Angry as all get up the next. Cruising through my day before lunch. In deep depression after. More so off medication than on (duh). But I have yet to say anything unusual for an individual in the throws of Bipolar II.

While Friday had seen me quickly transition from denial to anger (as previously discussed as part of the Five Stages of Grief in my Friday, August 26th, Early Evening post) today would provide another opportunity to knock out a few more stages. Though I didn’t know that at the time.

Having survived the rather ‘less structured’ and thinner staffed weekend of a psychiatric ward, I awoke Monday morning ready to get on with life. I sat on my bed, grabbed a pencil and began drafting a plan for escaping the walls of this institution and returning to my life as I knew it prior to my little meltdown (yeah…I know, still some echoes of the “denial” phase hanging around). Phrased another way, I began to map out my “bargaining” (Stage Three) plan.

The plan was to serve a couple of purposes. First, to show that I was cognizant and aware of the realities of life. Family. Friends. Work. Looking back at the page of notes, it is almost comical to see that there is not a mention of aftercare. Almost.

Second, the way I figured it, anyone able to so clearly delineate his responsibilities, obligations and commitments couldn’t possibly be crazy (there’s that ol‘ “denial” again).

Third, I knew whatever was going on during my stay wasn’t free. In fact, the tab had to be running hard and fast. With an insurance policy carrying a $5,000 deductible and a few more grand in out-of-pocket maximum charges, I needed to get moving (little did I know those numbers had been blown by some time ago!).

Fourth, and most importantly to my well rested and to be quite honest somewhat bored mind,  it would get the ball rolling. While this was my first go around with mental health inpatient care, it was not my first go around with a hospital. A little over 18 months prior I had suffered a heart attack and spent a few days catching my breath at a half-dozen grand a day. Therefore, I was well aware that getting checked out was typically about as slow a process as getting admitted. If I wanted out before Thanksgiving (or say…Wednesday), I need to get things moving to help encourage others to do the same.

Anyone seeing why during my stay, evaluations and subsequent therapy it will be highlighted that I might have control issues?

I went to breakfast and came back to see what type of schedule had been written on my white board for my day of treatment. It was significantly different than the weekend. Namely, it was jammed with group sessions, treatment, teaching, and structure. Oh my.

I grabbed the handy dandy patient folder that I had been provided and began to notice there was a sheet for Monday. For Tuesday. Wednesday. Thursday. Even Friday. There was a form explaining the “week long” format for recovery and treatment structure.

What already felt to me like Day 5, they were seeing as Day 1. What felt to me like a good time to start packing, they were seeing as time to get to work.

What felt to me like the opportunity for Stage Three Bargaining…was giving way to Stage Four Depression.

Thursday, August 25th, Midday

I had never been in the back seat of a police car. I was not cuffed or restrained. However, my hunch is that was largely due to the catatonic and therefore seemingly cooperative state I was in. I had been escorted from the Amtrak Police Department office, out into the public terminal under the watchful eye of hundreds of passengers thinking I was anywhere from a thief to a terror suspect to an unruly passenger being escorted from the building as we passed through a labyrinth of hallways to an underground parking garage. That is when I was placed in the back seat, complete with the “Watch your head” command, and the reaching around me to seat belt me in (as if I was cuffed).

In hindsight, I’m guessing the drive was likely in the 15 minute or so range. Guessing this because upon my release from the hospital my wife and I would actually walk the same path in about that amount of time. However, traffic was heavy. And this was midday Chicago. Regardless of the ‘actual’ time it took, it seemed like hours. Long enough for my mind to pass through a number of different scenarios, not necessarily in this order.

…being as I was heavily entrenched in a severe battle with paranoia, there was a point in the trip when I became confident they were not taking me to Northwestern Memorial Hospital as indicated. Rather, they were transporting me for a transfer to “real” police. The kind that could throw me in jail. Maybe I had done something illegal without realizing it. Or people were just tired of dealing with my life and had asked the authorities to take over from here…

…fearing the ultimate in humiliation, it seemed possible that they were simply the first carrier in a subsequent line that would be returning me home. Amtrak to Chicago Police. Chicago Police to a plane with a personal escort. Or held in custody until someone from home arrived. Or Illinois State Troopers to home state troopers. No one said I was thinking rationally…

…at one point in time, I remember considering reaching forward, grabbing the shoulder strap of the police driving the vehicle, and pulling as hard as I could to choke him. What would I do then? Like I said, I wasn’t thinking rationally. There was a second officer in the passenger seat, and I can only assume my inside door handled wouldn’t work. However, it did seem like another shot at death, literally. I had thought a similar thought at the station, “What if I charge the police? Will they just shoot me like we so often see happening?”

…the most logical thought to flutter through my mind was that I was on my way to being hospitalized temporarily. Which I could really live with. Surely I could pull myself together enough to temporarily fake it. Spend a few hours in the ER. Convince them I had come to my senses and was ready to return home. “Sorry about the scare guys, I’ll be fine. If you’ll just point me towards home, I’ll be on my way.”

…I know what thoughts dominated the majority of the trip though. My plan had been undone. That plan. The one I had put together to kill myself. And now, exhausted and lacking what it would take to navigate a cover-up. Without the energy to launch a Plan B.

Once again I had overcomplicated such a simple task and failed. Fucked up my own death. And was now the one thing I most definitely did not want to be, alive.

Present Day, Thanksgiving Day, 2016

Three months ago to the date my mind came unhinged. Three months ago to the day I was taken into protective custody. After more than 24 hours on the run. After the involvement of law enforcement officials from at least two different states. I was determined to be a danger to myself, and therefore to others. I was detained. Admitted to Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Checked into the Psychiatric Unit. Began my first even inpatient treatment for Bipolar II.

Today in America is Thanksgiving Day. A day of mass family gatherings. Mass eating. Mass focus on what we are “thankful” for.

So, the question is asked, and the response is in many ways almost expected –

“What are you thankful for?”

“I’m thankful just to be alive.”

Except, and I know this will not be popular with many or even understood by most, it just isn’t that easy.

I look at it this way. There is this vast spectrum. On one end of the spectrum is “I am thankful to be alive.” On the other end of the spectrum is “I wish I was dead.” But in the middle is this massive gray area. The area where I, and I am guessing many people with mental illness, live many of our days.

Don’t jump too quickly to conclusions. This is not a declaration of being suicidal. In fact, maybe quite the opposite. It is a declaration of being alive enough to be honest. To be real. To be transparent. To recognize that “thankful to be alive” is way too simple of a response to describe where we live. Mentally. Emotionally.

Than what am I today? I have thought about that throughout the week. I am tired. Staying mentally and emotionally healthy is exhausting. To say the least. For each warning sign I have previously written about [Saturday, August 27th (Hospitalization Day 3)] there are seemingly countless activities needed to combat them.

And there are therapy sessions to attend. Meds to take. The financial implications of both to fret over. Books to read for their daily practical applications. Reminders to set. Situations to avoid. All while attending to work, family, and spouse. Fulfilling the roles that life brings the way of any given individual. Roles that don’t get suspended just because one struggles with a mental illness. And just like those roles grow tiring for the common person…as I see it through my bias eyes, exponentially so for someone living daily with Bipolar, or Schizophrenia, or Borderline Personality Disorder, or Manic Depression, or countless other diseases.

Is it possible to be thankful that I am not dead without being thankful that I’m alive? To be thankful for the many daily experiences that bring me joy, or peace, or love, or happiness, while simultaneously having the occasionally wandering mind to the eternal rest of simply no longer being?

For me, and I venture to guess many others, the answer is “Yes”. The answer is that there is this gray area in the between. A gray area that fills that space of pause when someone looks at me and says, “So, what are you thankful for?”