In 1972 in a State in the Eastern Time Zone, I went crazy and got locked up for 8 days in a local psychiatric hospital. I was hallucinating visually and auditorially and really enjoying my newly developed magical powers and mind-reading abilities, but distressing my friends and family with my more or less totally dysfunctional and bizarre behavior. At one point the police got called & esorted me to the hospital. I spent about half the time on the "locked ward" and more than half of that time strapped into bed. I was given a number of medications which made it difficult to communicate and impossible to play my guitar. I recall when they let me loose they said " if you leave against medical advice you can never come back here," which I found a reassuring promise rather than the intended threat.
I guess I was hopelessly naive, but in my mind this hospitalization was just the consequence of my behavior getting out of control and didn't mean anything in particular about my ability to function in the future. I was soon disabused of this notion, by my co-workers and business associates and that's what I'm writing about today.
I was working for a private non-profit agency (crisis center, medical clinic, counseling, drug abuse treatment) but was technically an employee of the local Community Mental Health Board. As a result, not only did I have good insurance that fully paid the hospital bill, I got put on a three month paid leave of absence. This was good, because I was not at all ready to function again. When I got out of the hospital I was still having auditory hallucinations and moments of paranoia. I noticed that these both got worse when I smoked marijuana, so I stopped doing that. I rested and tried to figure out what to do next. My family and close friends were supportive and seemed to assume I was the same guy I ever was (and they weren't particularly surpised or dismayed that I'd done time in the nuthouse.)
After a few days I had my first appointment with my new psychiatrist at the Community Mental Health Center. Someone I'd never met before who didn't particularly know me. He continued my prescription for a very large amount of melaril, which he assured me I needed to continue to take for the rest of my life. He suggested I needed to think about applying for Social Security Disability and that I should accept that my breakdown had proved that I was unfit for the world of work, particularly human services. I thought he was wrong, but instead of confronting him I went home and after a few days discontinued taking the melaril. I don't recommend abrupt cessation of these sorts of medications and offer in support of this position my personal experience which was three days of discomfort, including hours of "vermification" which is the sensation of worms crawling just below one's skin. On the other hand, I survived and after three days was back to feeling merely abnormal. I never returned to see that psychiatrist again.
I did keep seeing my therapist, and found talking about the problems I was encountering was helpful in my recovery. He didn't seem particularly upset about my discontinuing the medicine and seemed to share my belief that my psychotic episode was not necessarily an indicator that I was disabled for life. I think this attitude was instrumental in my continuing in therapy, for if he had attempted to persuade me to re-start the melaril (let alone making it a condition of seeing him) I would have quickly terminated our relationship.
The lawyer on the Board of Directors for my agency took me out to lunch. In a very kind way he urged me to resign my position and look for less stressful work. He believed that my "breakdown" had proved conclusively what he had long suspected, which was that I was emotionally unable to handle the stress of an administrative position. I explained to him my disagreement with this assessment (I believed I could learn to live with the stress without becoming psychotic) and my intention to continue working as the agency Co-Director when my leave was over. He soon resigned from the Board
One of our volunteer counselors at the agency I worked with, a Graduate Student of Psychology whose parents were professional Psychologists and who I had always thought of as a particularly knowledgeable person came over to my house and kindly explained to me that the world was divided into two groups Psychologists and Clients, and that I had permanently joined the Client group by spending 8 days in the hospital. He said he wanted to let me know personally why he was severing his relationship with our agency if I continued to work there. I was surprised and saddened, but there it was: clear prejudice against the folks he was "trying to help". He had been able to work together as long as I was just a drug using long haired hippie radical with a criminal record, but once I became a Mental Patient it was clear that my "us" was his "them". An he, too, left the agency.
One of the folks who had worked with my agency as a volunteer was now running a program training high school students and teachers in communications skills, and he let me come over to his office and do some volunteer collating and stapling of the printed materials used in the trainings. That experience (I had worked in the past assembling computer generated books) let me experience successfully a work activity at a time when I was hearing about my vocational incompetence often enough that I had begun to wonder if I was really as worthless and disabled as they said. After a few weeks (a few hours at a time) of helping at my friend's office, I was feeling much more confident and prepared to return to volunteer work at the crisis center.
The procedure to get back to being a crisis counselor involved a discussion at the weekly staff meeting. I got to sit out in the hall while 30 or so folks decided if I was "well enough" to return to working as a crisis counselor. I recall it took them about an hour to air all the arguments, but fortunately for me, the "we don't care if he was nuts, he's not nuts now" faction won out over the "he's a lunatic, you can't let lunatics work here" faction. A few more folks left the agency over this decision. I've always thought it was a blessing I didn't have to listen to the arguments, didn't particularly know who was for or against me and I figured I'd "won" and didn't need to worry about the issue any more. I interpreted the favorable vote as support for me from my co-workers and felt good about it.
I went back to volunteering at the crisis center and when my leave expired, I went back to work as Co-Director of the agency. The big learning I got from my trip to the loony bin was "You are not invulnerable, you can go crazy if you subject yourself to too much stress".
Over the next couple of years I developed a sense for how much stress I could stand and learned to take myself out of stressful situations, skipping meetings that I assessed as too dangerous to my mental health. Folks didn't particularly like this, but I didn't much care as keeping myself non-psychotic was more important to me than keeping the good opinion of everyone else in the world (something I had noticed I wasn't going to do in any event). I also made some dramatic changes in my use of recreational substances, also along the line of minimizing the stress I subjected myself to. As the years passed and I got more confidence in my own mental stability, the "mental health days off" became less frequent and the amount of stress I could tolerate became greater, but I had learned that I was not indestructible and that I needed to take care of myself. It's been almost 30 years now and although I've been taking antidepressants since before they invented Prozac, I'm still on "Discharged Against Medical Advice: Never Returned" status at the psychiatric hospital back East and have managed to work and support my family for all those years.
Good thing I didn't believe my psychiatrist, huh? Well, before the reader goes abruptly off his or her medications, remember that 1) I don't have schizophrenia and 2) I have a "mild " form of mental illness compared to a lot of my friends. What I'd prefer you get out of this story is that it's wise to question authority about their perceptions of your limitations but that it's also important to recognize both your abilities and your limitations and that it's possible to live your life so you stay out of the psychiatric hospital . Also important to me was the support that I did find among the "mental health workers" I encountered and among my friends and co-workers. I found that if I didn't define myself as "mentally disabled" and instead insisted that I was "excentric but able to work" that a lot (but not all) of other people would go right along with me.