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I’m Not Crazy; I Have a Mental Illness
I spent three weeks in the hospital and learned to accept my diagnosis
V.N.
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I was sitting on a couch in front of a table, staring at the other kids wearing the same green cotton gown that I was wearing. It tied on the side with strings. I assumed the kids were already used to wearing the gown because they walked freely with it on, while I wrapped my arms around my waist because I felt naked. I was very tired and I started crying. It was my first time in the psych ward of a hospital.

A lady came toward me and asked to see my name tag. She introduced herself as Dr. Lisa, and she had a black binder with my name on the top. She asked if we could speak in my room, and we went in. She took a chair while I sat on my bed.

“Are you nervous?” Dr. Lisa asked.

I looked down and played with my fingernails. “I don’t want to be here,” I said. “I’m not crazy.”

‘Do I Need to Take the Pill?’

I’d been admitted that afternoon. My therapist had brought me to the emergency room after she noticed the deep cut marks on my left wrist during our session. She said she was really concerned about me and in order to keep me safe she would need to take me to the hospital.

I knew for sure I was staying after I overheard the doctor and social worker. Because the cuts were near my vein the hospital workers thought I might have been attempting suicide. They called me “self-destructive” and said I was not going to get discharged from the hospital. Instead, I was going to be placed on another floor. Hearing that, I felt scared and trapped.

Dr. Lisa said that no one really wants to be in the hospital, but I was there to get the help that I needed and that I would be leaving as soon as I got stable and started feeling better. She gave me papers to fill out and said, “We are going to start you off on a medication called Zoloft; it will help you with your depression. Tell me, Virgen, do you feel like hurting yourself now?”

“No,” I replied. As much as I wanted to cut myself more, I knew not to say yes. “Do I need to take the pill?” I thought only people who are crazy take medications. I was afraid it would make me weak and helpless.

Dr. Lisa then told me that my primary nurse, doctor, psychiatrist, and my therapist would all meet tomorrow to discuss my treatment and I would be involved as well. I thought, “If they really want to help me, they should get me out of the hospital.”

How I Got There

Cutting myself and trying to kill myself were why I was in the hospital, but to me those were not crazy actions. They were an attempt to escape the pain of my father’s abuse. He’d molested me from the time I was 10 till now, when I was 13. At the time of this first hospital visit, I had been taken away from my parents and was living with another family member.

I felt angry and confused, but did not think that meant I was crazy. I was angry because I wanted to be in control of my life and not be afraid of my own father. I was confused because it didn’t seem like it was only my father’s fault. I felt like I had to be responsible, because he’d been such a good dad when I was a little girl. As a 13-year-old, I thought I deserved it. That’s the only way my life could make sense.

I never thought of cutting myself until my father betrayed me and then my mother did, too, by not standing up for me. That made me feel like I meant nothing. I didn’t think anyone could understand unless they had gone through the same pain I was going through, so I kept it to myself.

image by Sara Goldys

I met twice a week with my therapist, Mrs. Jackson, but I never shared with her everything that I’d experienced. I knew she already knew some facts, but I still wasn’t sure if I could trust my therapist. As much I wanted to, I was scared to tell her how often my dad really abused me or anything about my cutting or suicidal thoughts.

I stayed in that hospital for three weeks. In one of our early sessions, Dr. Lisa asked me why I cut.

“I cut when I am angry,” I told her. (That’s not the only reason, but it’s the most common.)

“Angry at who?” she asked.

Cutting

It’s complicated. I tried to explain that I was angry at myself and angry that I was still alive more than I was angry at my parents. Part of me blamed myself for the abuse; another part of me couldn’t face that my parents played a big part in why I was hurting myself, and that they didn’t even care about it. So I turned my anger on myself, which was easier.

I first started to cut after ACS took me out of my parents’ home and put me into kinship care. I’d sit on the bathroom floor and cut with a knife so I’d do as much damage as possible. I wanted to feel the burn in my left wrist and I wanted to see blood pouring out. I cut with my eyes open. Seeing the blood on my skin was like seeing my own tears—they were both part of me that I could I let out.

Anger would become sadness when I cut. The anger controls me, makes me want to cut myself, while sadness makes me want to cry. So cutting makes me safer by transforming that anger into sadness. After I cut, I can feel concern for myself. I’ll say, “Virgen, you just hurt yourself.”

I never thought that cutting was going to change anything. It wasn’t going to erase my memories. It just made me feel better.

Different things make different people feel better. A person who likes herself might go get her hair done to make herself feel better. But I didn’t like myself so I’d cut myself. I’d be hearing my father’s voice in my head; when he’d abuse me, he’d say, “You deserve it.” When I started to cut, I’d be saying to myself, “You deserve it.”

What Happened in the Hospital

Dr. Lisa told me that medication, going to groups, speaking to others, and setting goals would make me get better. She said those things would help me understand that cutting myself is not good for me and that I needed to find ways to keep myself from thinking negative thoughts or harming myself.

We talked about the things I most like to do, and she had me make a list of my coping skills: write in my journal, draw a picture, sing. She said talking to someone was also a coping skill, but I wasn’t sure if I would use that one. It was hard for me to trust someone after what my family did to me.

That first week, they started me on the Zoloft. A nurse explained that it was an antidepressant and handed me papers to read. I saw “side effects” underlined in dark letters: drowsiness, diarrhea, dry mouth, and many others.

image by Edwin Yang

I didn’t feel any side effects, and I started to feel less down. I didn’t cry as much. But I still didn’t want to be on medication. A week later, my team of doctors and social workers and nurses all met with me. I asked them why I was on Zoloft and Dr. Lisa said, “You have major depressive disorder and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).” I felt that everyone there was criticizing me and so I ran to my room before they could see I was crying.

Dr. Lisa came into my room and said, “It’s OK, Virgen. It’s not your fault that you have these illnesses. Here, read these handouts and they’ll tell you about PTSD and major depressive disorder.”

“But I am not crazy,” I told her.

“Virgen, the only crazy person is your father. You are here to get help, and there is nothing wrong with needing help or having someone make sure that you are safe. You have gone through so much, and it’s important for you to understand that you are not the reason for everything that has happened to you. Read the handouts and they’ll help you understand.”

After she left, I lay in my bed and thought, “It can’t be true that I really have these stupid things.” But then I read the papers. They said that PTSD is caused by a trauma such as rape, abuse, a car accident, or being in a war. As I read along I recognized the symptoms, because I had them all: flashbacks, nightmares, trouble sleeping, and depression. I also recognized the description of major depressive disorder—I cried a lot, slept all the time, and didn’t feel like eating.

Still, at first I only took the medication and talked to the therapists and groups because I knew that being compliant would get me out of there. I knew that the only way to get discharged was to show everyone at the hospital that I had made progress and would be safe out in the community. I also had to prove that I’d learned coping skills.

Accepting It

I was in the hospital for three weeks. As I met with other kids for group therapy I started learning to accept myself and my illness. At one of the first group sessions, everyone had to introduce themselves and say why they had been admitted. When it was finally my turn to speak, I said, “My name is Virgen Nuñez, I’m 13 years old and I am here for cutting myself. I have major depressive disorder and PTSD, and I take Zoloft.”

My heart was beating fast, but when I felt like stopping I looked around at all the others in the group. As scared as I felt, I knew they felt the same way. They were hospitalized and they had mental illness and they had to learn to accept it, too. I remembered everything that was in the papers that Dr. Lisa gave me. I began to consider that maybe I do have post-traumatic stress disorder—and that that doesn’t mean I’m crazy.

The word “crazy” doesn’t define a person—it’s only used to hurt a person, to make them think they’re not normal anymore. But what makes people normal? Everyone experiences things in life that makes them who they are. Cancer can cause changes in a person that makes them not normal. There are causes for mental illness, just like there are causes for cancer—even though scientists don’t understand all the causes or why certain people get those illnesses.

Cancer and mental illness both have treatments, too. Chemotherapy treats cancer. For major depression there are antidepressants that can help with the chemical imbalance that causes the illness. Having a mental illness, like having cancer, is hard for people to accept. I didn’t want to accept the trauma of my father’s abuse or the fact that it affected my brain.

Managing My Illness

Five years after that first hospital visit, I still take antidepressants and a mood stabilizer. Every Monday I meet with my therapist, and during the week I speak to my crisis counselors, who teach me self-soothing techniques like counting slowly and rubbing my ear to calm myself down when I’m upset.

Over the past five years, I have learned a lot about medication and therapy. Zoloft and the other pills make me tired, and sometimes I just want to feel my feelings like a regular person and not have meds controlling them. Sometimes I feel like going off my meds so I’m the one in control. But I’ve learned that medication helps with my moods and controls my suicidal feelings.

I prefer talk therapy, because the therapist isn’t just telling me what to do, she’s helping me find ways to make myself feel better. I also like how therapy makes me feel less alone. Sometimes when I’m alone, I hear those messages from my father that I deserve to feel pain. Hearing the therapist say supportive things erases those messages. Someone caring for me heals that pain.

I am managing my disease and that is not crazy. I’ve learned to accept myself as a girl who went through a lot and has a mental illness and needs a little more help.

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