The Friend Zone

People often ask me if I have made friends in here. I always give the same response:

I am here to get better, not to make friends.

That’s not to say I am not polite to people, that I don’t pass the time of day. I have no prejudice against anyone here…after all I am just as much an “inmate” as them.

But I know myself. I worry, I take on other peoples baggage. And quite frankly I have enough of my own baggage to deal with. It’s not snobbery, it’s survival. Swapping phone numbers, day trips out together….no. It is not what I need.

Despite my best efforts to remain aloof, a few of the the older women have taken it upon themselves to take me under their wing. Like mother hens they have held me as I cried, passed me tissues, checked in on me and expected nothing in return.

One night as I was trying to sleep I heard some quiet sobbing coming from my mother hens cubicle. I lay there awkwardly not knowing what to do. Then I got up, and walked into her cubicle. Wordlessly, I lay down next to her and held her as she cried.

After a while she calmed down and she turned to me. “thank you…no one has held me like that in a long time.”

“it will be ok” I told her.

“yes it will ” she said.

She was discharged the next day and I never saw her again. I hope she is doing well.

Advertisements

Group Therapy

 

As a psychology student writing a thesis on group processes I suppose it was only inevitable that I became quite interested in our group in hospital. Eight mothers with serious mental health issues living together must surely result in some friction. But no. In the eight weeks I was there I don’t recall any altercations or even complaints between patients. Remarkable really considering the stressful circumstances. Then again, perhaps we just took it out on the staff.

When I was first admitted I was scared of being out in the public areas. I stayed in my room and avoided other patients (my fearfulness was probably not helped by the community psychiatrist who saw me prior to my admission and told me that the MBU was “not a place he would want to be”, and that it was full of patients who were so far gone that they “would think you were a martian”). At the beginning of my stay there were quite a few younger patients my age, and after a while I began to sit near them. I enjoyed being part of their group, but not necessarily having to contribute to any conversations.

One day I found some knitting needles and a ball of wool. I found knitting really helped with my agitation level. I was knitting away, eavesdropping as usual, when one of the girls asked me where I found the wool. It was one of the first times I actually conversed with another patient. Before I knew what was happening I was teaching her how to knit, and the other patients wanted knitting needles as well. For a few weeks we would spend the evenings knitting and chatting and watching TV. Sometimes nurses would ask us what we were knitting.

“I’m knitting my baby a hat!” said one patient.

“I’m knitting a scarf.” Said another.

“I’m knitting something which shows that we are not perfect because nobody’s perfect, and you can see this has holes so it’s not perfect, because none of us is perfect and that way it’s not a lie….” said another girl.

“I don’t know.” I said.

But all in all we were comfortable with each other and any eccentricities we may or may not have. We were readily accepting of each other.

 

Then one day one of the girls had a meltdown. I can’t remember the specifics of the situation but there was lots of shouting and crying going on. Eventually two burly security guards were called to control the situation. Predictably, in my delusional and ever egocentric state I dissolved into tears as soon as I saw the guards. “They’ve come for me!” I cried.

 

There was chaos after that. Everyone was upset. Afterwards most of us went to our rooms and stayed there. The whole weekend was horrible. Nobody talked to each other. Everyone was in a bad mood. I suppose the incident with security reminded us about where we were, and how easily our control could be taken away.

 

Later on in my stay I was part of a different group of women. But these women were very depressed and rarely talked. As a group we sat silently at the dinner table eating. No knitting here. One day a younger girl arrived. Despite her problems she had the most remarkable sunny personality. People couldn’t help but open up to her. No matter how you presented, or what you looked like, she would come over and have a chat with you. She asked us to join her when she walked to the shops, or baked a cake. We started taking an interest and talking to each other. All it took was one person to make us a group again, rather than eight individuals.

 

Perhaps, though, it was the stress of the situation that brought us together. Ever been to an exam and suddenly people you haven’t talked to all semester start conversations? Or witnessed a shocking incident in public, and suddenly you are talking to all the strangers around you? It’s cohesion. It’s solidarity. It’s “us” against the exam, the bank robber, the system, the “them”. It’s only natural really.

And you don’t mess with the people who are on your side. You don’t fight with your own team. I felt both joy and sorrow with every discharge from the hospital. Happy that they were feeling better, sad that I wouldn’t see them again (and that I wasn’t the one going home!). I felt apprehension and curiosity with each new admission. Would they be nice? What will they be like? But most of all I felt a sense of comfort that there were others who were going through this too. That I wasn’t alone. And maybe, just maybe, if they had been able to get to a point where they were doing well – perhaps I would be able to as well.

 

Girls, Interrupted

 

Having spent a fair amount of time at the MBU, I was able to see many different women come and go. As much as I was happy for the women that were discharged, I was hit by unexpected jealousy as well. Jealousy and then self incrimination. “What is wrong with me?! What can’t I get my act together and get better like everyone else?!”.

But aside from that, what struck me was just how different we all were. I began to see that postnatal mental illness spared no one. No cohort, no demographic group, nobody. There were older women, first time mums, black women, white women, Catholics, Muslims, professionals, teenagers, city women, country women, single parents, smokers, vegetarians and everyone in between. This is why I feel it is so important for EVERYONE to be aware of mental illness, particularly in the postnatal period. You never think it’s going to be you. Your partner. Your daughter. Your mother.

Anyway, although I was in the MBU for a significant amount of time, there was one woman, let’s call her Sophie, who had been there longer. We didn’t really speak much, but we were always kind of aware of each other. Every time I had a meltdown I’d glance around and see her in the background, pretending to ignore me. But that’s ok I pretended to ignore a few of her outbursts too.

One night, increasingly frustrated by my lack of sleep, I stormed out to the nurses station to try and get some sleeping pills. Sophie was waiting there too and we awkwardly stood next to each other for a few minutes.

Finally Sophie asked: “can’t sleep?”.

“What’s sleep?” I replied with a wry smile. Sophie laughed and then gestured to our dressing gowns.

“We should swap” she said. I looked down and noticed we were both wearing purple gowns. She was short in stature and wearing a long gown trailing the ground, I’m tall and was wearing a short gown cropped below the knee. I laughed and then saw the nurses arriving back at the station.

“You should take this,” she said, thrusting a magazine into my hands. “If you can’t sleep. It always helps me sleep.”  I thanked her. I was willing to do anything to get some sleep, and read whatever this magazine may be.

Later back in my room, having been denied medication, I took out the magazine and started to read. And would you believe it? I actually fell asleep! I kept it in my room for emergencies. Nightmares. Insomnia. It was a first aid kit for the weary. When I left the MBU I made sure to leave my magazine on the nightstand, just in case someone else should need it.

Sophie and I were both discharged within days of each other. I still think about her a lot, and I hope that she is doing well.

The magazine? It turned out to be a Coles advertising booklet. Perhaps it was the boredom of reading it that worked so well for us. Or perhaps it was just the comfort of knowing someone else was going through the same thing. Either way, I do remember having a fair few dreams about cooking… 😉

 

 

It’s So Much Friendlier with Two

 

While I was in hospital, my dearest friend Leanne was undergoing chemotherapy for Ovarian Cancer. A horrendous journey that she and her family went through, and although she has finished her chemotherapy (and is now cancer free!!) she still walks the tough road every day while she recovers physically and emotionally from the cancer.

 

 For the best part of three months Leanne and I were unable to see each other (the longest time we have ever been separated), and although we had conversations on the phone and by text, we weren’t able to physically be there for each other. The funny thing is, our friendship and our bond has grown stronger by our experiences. As Leanne put it today “no one out there understands what it was like for us to go through hell this year”. And she’s right – they don’t.

 

I may not understand what it is like to go through chemotherapy, but I do understand what it is like for no one out there to understand what you are going through. She may not understand what it is like to be bipolar, but she knows how it feels to be depressed and alone. We understand each other in a way that others may not.

 

And now, although the fire has been fought, there is still work to be done for both of us. This is something I think a lot of people tend to forget. Just because you have finished chemotherapy does not automatically mean you are cured. Far from it. The body needs time – a lot of time – to recover from the hell it has endured. The mind needs time to process all that it has been through. Likewise, just because you have been discharged from hospital does not mean that everything is suddenly ok. At the moment I feel I am in a constant juggling act, trying to keep on top of my emotional wellbeing.

 

But despite the past year, when I get together with Leanne I laugh more than I do with anyone else out there. We have the exact same warped sense of humour that I’m fairly sure nobody out there understands. We bake and we laugh and we watch TV, and yeah we talk about the hard stuff, but we talk about the fun stuff too.

 

Friends are the family you choose, and I think I have chosen well. Bipolar, and many forms of mental illness, carry such a social stigma. As much as I should be honest and comfortable with what I have been through, when I am faced with someone I’m not sure I trust I find myself telling them that I suffered post natal depression, and conveniently skip over the psychotic, neurotic, manic bits. I don’t want to be remembered as ‘the crazy one’. But with Leanne and her family (who I trust wholeheartedly), I’m not the one who went crazy, I’m just Rachael. Just like Leanne to me is just Leanne – not the girl with Cancer.

What I am trying to say is that one thing that has helped me on this journey is my friendship with Leanne. The road is much less lonely when you have someone to laugh with, talk with and cry with. Life is so much more enjoyable when you are sent amusing texts and facebook posts (or voicemails that merely say “we’re doomed!” ;)) And as Pooh Bear once proclaimed “it’s so much more friendlier with two!”

 

So thank you Leanne for everything you have done for me, and for all the ways you have helped me. I appreciate it more than I can express. Love you lots my sister from another mister 🙂