Category Archives: Mental Health

Let. Us. Smoke.

Smoking in mental health units is in the spotlight at the moment, as a family and community grieve a woman who went AWOL from MidCentral DHB’s Ward 21 after being let out for a cigarette. She died, missing and alone.

When I was first at Te Whare Ahuru at Hutt Hospital as a day ptient in 2004, the octagonal courtyard was assigned as a smoking area for both inpatients and day patients. It was completely enclosed by the building, and it was a safe place for smokers. Fast-forward to 2010, and my short inpatient stay. The courtyard was now smoke-free in accordance with hospital regulations, and smokers had to hid down the side of the building. To get there they had to be let out of the locked ward and trusted to not do a runner.

I remember one day, I was feeling very intense suicidal feelings. I told the nurse, just like I was supposed to, and said that I probably shouldn’t be let out alone. As a result, I was not let out unless there was a nurse available to take me, and I waited a good ten hours for a nurse to come free. It wasn’t intentional – they were just so understaffed. My agitation built and built – the nicotine patch simply didn’t help. The ritual was my addiction – lighting up, inhaling, relaxing.

I spent the rest of the day and into the night highly strung and unable to rest, until they got so sick of me floating around that they gave me a lorazepam at 3am. It was Waitangi day, the 6th of February, and the next day my daughter turned six. I was too out of it to celebrate with her, wrapped in a benzodiazepine haze.

Meandering forward to 2017, I spent three weeks in Te Whetu Tawera, Auckland City Hospital’s mental health ward. The first week, I was first in ICU, where all smoking paraphernalia was banned, and then in Ward A, which had no smoking area. I had no leave. I was trapped, and the nicotine patch wasn’t helping. I needed my ritual. All I wanted to do was sleep to get through my hospitalisation, and it wasn’t til I was given my first escorted leave with  nurse that I turned a corner and started looking at living again. That leave was ridiculous – we went straight to the dairy so I could buy cigarettes and get my fix.

Ward B, which I was moved to after twelve days in the unit, had a smoking area. This small mercy made it a much nicer place to be. It meant that I didn’t have to leave the ward and the hospital grounds to smoke – a matter of about 10 metres, but an essential according to the DHB.

I understand the push toward a smokefree New Zealand. I really do. It’s a terrible habit, and it takes 8-10 years off a heavy smoker’s life. On the other hand, serious mental illness takes 10-20 years off the average sufferer’s life, and honestly? We have bigger things to worry about than our smoking habits.

Nicotine withdrawal is the pits, but nicotine isn’t the only chemical in cigarettes – however, it’s the only one dealt to be nicotine replacement therapy. Even with nicotine patches, or gum, or inhalers, or whatever, withdrawals are hell. What I find hard, though, isn’t the chemical addiction. It’s the social and ritualistic addiction that I have built around my habit. Roll, light, inhale, relax. Chat. Socialise. Be a member of a socially unacceptable club.

I know that many people who have a cigarette addiction get incredibly jittery and anxious when they can’t smoke. Why add that pressure to someone already in the terrifying ordeal of a psych ward? Especially someone in the ICU, where everything is so frightening. Zombies all around, demons in your head, and no ritual to banish the fear. Paper-pushers and box-tickers simply have no idea what it’s like.

When we come to hold someone to account for the deaths of people who are pushed outside the ward for a cigarette and go off to die, we need to start with lawmakers and the Ministry of Health and work our way down. This policy is putting vulnerable people at risk, and it’s taking away the basic human rights of people who are held against their will.

Let’s go on about those basic human rights for a minute. Smoking may be frowned upon, but it’s not illegal. It is a solace to the involuntarily incarcerated of our mental health facilities. Why on earth are we depriving them? What fucked up stupid idea is it to make being in a psych ward even harder than it already is? I have every right to smoke in the real world. How dare the state take that right away from me when they take away my freedom? I’m not a felon; I’m not incarcerated due to breaking any laws. I’m locked up already – what right do they have to make it worse?

One of these days I may be the one you hear about in the news, the one who’s gone missing after being let out for a smoke. For my sake, for the sake of people like me, review this policy. Aren’t people’s lives worth more than an auahi kore sticker? Aren’t the immediate concerns of the rights and lives of real people more important than the long-term risks? Isn’t the right to choice more important than bureaucracy?

Let. Us. Smoke. If you’re going to take our freedom, at least protect our lives.

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How society treats mental health patients

As a starting point, it would be wise to stop telling people to seek help and support that you know isn’t there. Austerity has gutted our communities of organisations that can make life liveable with mental health issues. Admit that it is not mental ill health that plunges people into crisis, it is the lack of support, protection and assistance that does that.

Mental health treatment is underfunded, so society needs to start paying for it. If people have to leave work because they are in distress do not punish them by forcing them into poverty and then make them beg for the tiniest crumbs of financial support in the form of benefits.

We need support. Real support. Not just nice sentiments, not just kind words. Real, actual support.

Support means services. Services that we can access. I am struggling to see my psychiatrist because the Taylor Centre only does psychiatric appointments between 0930 and 1530, Monday to Friday. I work full time. I can’t make it to these times. I’ve been lucky at my current job because they give me time off to go. But I am going to have to start a new job soon, and I can’t rely on that being the case. My private psychiatrist will see me out of hours – at $200 a pop. Once every two to four weeks, that adds up quickly. I am not well paid.

Support means money. It means that when the shit hits the fan, we don’t get pushed into penury. I spent three weeks in a psych unit this year, and a further three weeks off work afterwards. My benefit was $2 less per week than my rent. Without the kindness of friends and strangers, I would have lost my home. That is simply not good enough.

It’s not my fucking fault that my brain breaks. I don’t choose this life. I don’t choose brokenness; I don’t choose my reality being so very fragile. I don’t choose to be suicidal, and I don’t choose to be unwell. I don’t appreciate being treated like I’m not worth supporting. I don’t deserve to lose everything, over and over, because I’m a psych patient. I don’t want to have to rely on a few good people over and over until they give up on me.

We, as a whole society, need to do better. We need to get our shit together and treat people who are unwell and not ‘contributing’ as fucking people, not burdens. We need to give them their rights as people, to good and fulfilling lives, not to struggle and scrabble. We need to give them the keys to wellness by supporting them, caring for them, being kind but also being practical.

Three weeks from now, I hand my work keys back, and I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t want to have to fear that my disclosure of mental illness might count me out of a new job, or that I might be discriminated against because I’m not your average neurotypical person. I’m even more scared of needing a benefit, because the pressure and the work obligations are so hard, and because they won’t pay me enough to live.

Make the changes. Make our society a place that mentally ill people are supported, valued, cared for, loved, treated with kindness . . . accepted.

The Shape of My World

The shape of my world is splinters of depression, mania, mixed states, and odd periods of something close to normality. The shape of my world is held together with duct tape and superglue and falling apart at a moment’s notice anyway. The shape of my world is love and care, but the jagged splinters of everything else cut and I bleed no matter what cushions there are around me to soften them.

The shape of my world is moulding the soft parts of myself around the shape of other people in order to make them more comfortable. It’s padding the shards so they only cut me, if I possibly can. It’s service and care and love while I bleed inside.

The shape of my world is lopsided and confusing, and I’m the only one who can negotiate it with any safety. People who come into my world can end up confused and hurt and even scarred, and I don’t want that any more. I want to keep the people around me safe. Happy. Comfortable. I need to try and right my world before I let anyone too far into it again.

The shape of my world is ephemeral, ever-changing, wispy and smoky and insubstantial. It could be blown away at a moment’s notice, and grasping at it achieves nothing. I try to capture it in moments, in hours of pleasure, in little glass bubbles made of experiences. But glass is fragile, and a sudden wind can send them all crashing from the shelves that barely hold them to the concrete floor of reality, and in that wind I will be gone. If you hold a bubble of my happiness, hold it dear, it may be one of my last anchors in times of storm.

The shape of my world is bounded by my fears, my hopes, and my dreams, and when those fade the boundaries of me bleed into the nothingness, until the blood loss is so bad that I pass out of reason and into a living death, and I need rescuing before I bleed to death.

The shape of my world is unstable, shifting, changing. It is difficult to deal with, challenging, confronting. This is me. I lay myself raw before you. Enter the mists at your own risk. I will try and pad the splinters, I will do my best, but there are so many, they are so scattered and disparate and sometimes I don’t know they’re there until they’ve sliced me or you to the bone.

I see, I remember, I imagine

CW: Suicide

I see

Washing that has been hanging on the clothes horse for nine days. It speaks to my skill as a housekeeper – now that I live alone, only the barest minimum gets done. The dishes get rinsed, but they pile for three or four, or maybe five or six, days before I wash them. The floor that I lie on gets vacuumed perhaps once in a month.

Summery air flows around me, slowly turning cool with the evening darkness. The taste of Port Royal lingers in my mouth, a reminder of a habit I keep swearing I’ll break, until the next crisis comes along. I sigh, and roll another . . .

The air out on the porch is cooler, and the darkness wraps around me like good dark chocolate around a ripe strawberry. I smoke a slim cigarette, rolled deliberately thin to conserve tobacco. Taxes on tobacco are getting wildly out of hand, but still I keep the habit. The comfort of half a lifetime is hard to break.

I see the lights of the west of the city, stretching right back to the hills. The trig point on the top of the hills flashes red. On, off, on, off, I have no idea why. The men watching over me do not come out to accompany me. They both hate smoking equally. I don’t care much. It gives me space from their difficult and overpowering presences.

The men in my living room are a mass of past and present. They look quite alike, ten years apart, and are similar in many ways. One is my ex-husband. The other is the boy I’m sort-of-not-really seeing. They are both here for one reason only. To see that I live through the night. You see, I’m a suicidal wreck.

My ex-husband knows me well. He knows that he cannot sleep until I am asleep, because I will not be safe. The boy, not so much. He cares for me deeply, but he’s not got much of a grasp on what he’s putting himself in the middle of.

I finally wander back into the living room, to find them discussing politics and online voting. The boy is being thoroughly schooled by his elder. I try to stretch out on the floor and do a writing exercise, but I can’t stop the floods of memories. So I go back to my room and lie in the dark, and let the memories come.

I remember

Hours upon hours of men sitting in my lounge, drinking beer and discussing all sorts of things. The faces and the topics change, whirl, meld into one long string of regrets. These are all men I have cared about in some way, all gone from my life, mostly through poor choices in periods of unwellness on my part. I have been more a spectator in most of these discussions – I do have a bit of a shy streak in me. Plus, men tend to talk over me anyway.

Tears flood down my cheeks as I remember all the people who have passed through my life. I have loved so many of them so dearly, and they are all gone. Gone, because I’m so messed up. I make terrible decisions, I push good people away, and I lose everything. Over and over again. My bipolar disorder is a reason, but not an excuse. I have to take some responsibility.

I sob.

It takes the men a good ten minutes to notice that I’m gone, so absorbed are they in their discussion. There’s a moment of panic – not a long one though, as the apartment is so tiny that it takes all of thirty seconds to locate me. The boy sits on the bed beside me, momentarily at a loss, before wrapping his body around me. My ex-husband turns away.

“I’ll be in the living room if you need me”

The boy holds me until the flood of memories passes and the sobs still. It’s sweet of him, and the comfort is welcome. I turn to face him, kiss him, draw a deep breath, and return myself to calm. We return to the living room, and I calm myself further by rolling another cigarette. Pulling out the paper, wiggling the filter out of the little hole at the top of the bag, pinching out the bare minimum of tobacco, patting it into shape, rolling, placing the filter, licking the gum, rolling it all together, all the while concentrating only on this task and breathing steadily . . . peace returns to me.

Again I smoke, and again the men do not follow me, but I am included in their conversation this time as I stand close to the door. As the cigarette burns down, I realise that I am weary beyond belief. I have been holding this pose of being fine, being ok, being normal, for so long, and it’s starting to break down.

The boy and I tuck up in bed, but my ex-husband stays in the living room. I return to the living room a couple of times for various things, and in that time the boy falls asleep.

The pose breaks.

I don’t remember much. I remember sobbing, screaming, begging, over and over,

“Let me go. Let me die. Please”

To which, the answer was always,

“No.”

Eventually I take some lorazepam and fall asleep. I don’t know if my ex-husband slept at all that night.

The next night was similar, except that the boy was not present. I begged, I pleaded.

“Let me go”

Lorazepam gave me sleep again. My ex-husband sat on the bed and watched over me until the drugged sleep came to me.

The next morning, Thursday 2nd March, I was admitted to the ICU of the Auckland City Hospital psychiatric unit under Section 10 of the Mental Health Act 1992. I was transferred to the main psychiatric ward the next day, and I have been there ever since.

I imagine

Being free from here. I’m allowed leave now, two hours at a time out in the world, and I die a little inside every time I walk back through the doors of Te Whetu Tawera (the Maori name for the ward). I know that discharge is only a few days away now, maybe around a week or so, but my soul is being crushed. I cry every day in frustration, wanting my own things around me, my own bed, my own damn unvacuumed floor. Out there are many pressures, but at least I have some control over my life out there. In here is regimented and my soul is dying.

There are plenty of people that worry about me leaving this place and just killing myself. It’s not going to happen. I’m reminded every day how much I mean to people, and how much it would hurt them if I died, so I will continue on in spite of my problems, for everyone else. It’s not ideal reasoning, but I am not a selfish person and it’s enough to keep me alive until I find my own joy in living again – something that I’m never going to find inside the confines of Te Whetu Tawera.

 

And the shit sprayeth further still

TW – suicide

When I wrote my last blog post, I at least had a head space that was fairly strong. Well, that’s dissolved to the point that my ex-husband says I’m more fragile that he has ever seen me. I’m millimetres from being inpatiented, after a stint in respite last week. I can’t keep myself safe any more. They took my stash of medication, so I’ve come up with a couple of much more lethal plans.

I planned to end my life on October 31st, but I broke down and told my partner, and he convinced me to seek help, which led to the stint in respite. But he’s not around to save me from myself again. So today, after a medication change set me to less than five hours sleep, I decided to make a go of dying.

I made a series of promises of what I would do before I died, and I started on the checklist. I called the Taylor Centre, my local community mental health centre. I was trying to tell them that I was going to go and step in front of a train as soon as I’d completed my required steps. I was advised to make a cup of coffee, have something to eat, and read a book, and they’d call in a couple of hours.

Ahem. What?! Apparently this is something to do with distress tolerance, but I was beyond sitting with my distress and letting it subside. I’ve been doing that for a good month now. I’m beyond that capacity, I was reaching for help, and I was told to make a fucking cuppa. So I made a cuppa, and went on to Stage Two – writing to the people I love and telling them they are loved, individually and personally. That’s where I’m currently at – it’s a longish process.

Meanwhile, my partner, who’s overseas now, knew what was going on and convinced me to reach out – to Mum, and to my ex-husband. Both came through for me – my ex called and didn’t hang up until he was on my doorstep, and didn’t leave until Mum arrived. He supported me, good man that he is. Meanwhile, Mum called the Taylor Centre and repeated verbatim what I had said to her, which was that I was going to write what I needed to, make the calls I needed to, and then go kill myself. The Taylor Centre, to their credit, decided to send someone over in the next couple of hours. And so the process with them begins again.

When the Taylor Centre people arrived, Nigel was there. I spoke to them, and they started talk of how I needed to practice more problem solving. Nigel intervened and told them that he had never seen me so fragile before, and that keeping myself safe was just not going to be practical. It was only when he spoke that they took me seriously.

What is it with mental health services and minimising the voice of the patient unless they have an advocate?

They Taylor Centre said they would talk about my case and get back to me in the evening. Which they did, but they smoothly talked me out of the hospital where I would be safe, and elected to give me enough benzos to knock a horse off its feet. I took those benzos at 9pm, and here it is, midnight, and I’m writing this to distract myself from writing goodbyes.

I don’t know what to do here. All that’s in me screams to keep writing, so I can check that off the list and it’s shorter so I can through more of it next time the impulse and the opportunity arise.

It’s very simple really. I want to die. Life’s downs are far more common that its ups, and the ups that I get, the hypomanic highs, destroy my life over and over. What does it matter whether this low is the one that kills me, or the next, or the next? I may as well go before I hurt more people. Yes yes I know, dying will hurt people, but it’s inevitable sometime and living is hurting a fair swathe of people too.

I’m going through all the motions of rebuilding my life, but I don’t believe in any of it. The black dog alternates between sitting on my shoulder and gripping me by the throat with iron jaws, shaking and trying to rip that throat out. One day he’ll win. Why not now?

Suicide attempts in the elderly

The New Zealand Suicide Prevention Strategy had a little to say on suicide among the elderly. It says

While suicide rates in the elderly have been declining over time, they remain relatively high, and the risk is often overlooked in this population. This is a concern because elderly who attempt suicide usually have a strong intent to die and are more likely to make attempts that are fatal; elderly people who attempt suicide usually choose more lethal means and more often live alone, which decreases their chances of being discovered. Because of their physical frailty, an elderly person may be less able to survive or recover from a physically serious suicide attempt (p.19)

Suicide in the elderly seems to me to be a complex problem. Much of the ‘problem’ may be a simple case of checking out before the pain gets any worse, before the confusion takes over, before they have to go into a home. Should we be trying to prevent that?

Suicide due to mental illness should be fought at any age, because dying before your time when things could get better is a tragedy at 17 or at 70. Intervention strategies for mental illness should be designed for people of all age groups, and screening for mental illness should be applied to the elderly as much as it should to any other age group. Losing anyone to mental illness is tragic, and it should be actively prevented if possible.

What should we do about people who are making the calculated and conscious choice to check out? I think we should be respecting that decision, not finding ways to make people who have lived their life and have a reason to go live on against their will. Sure, it’s probably impossible to make someone who really wants to die safe, especially one who has made a logical conscious decision to die, but interventions can make it more difficult, can change minds that were made up for good reasons. When someone wants to die on their own terms rather than waste away to a cancer that will cause them debilitating pain and disability, who am I to say that their choice is wrong? Or someone in the early stages of Alzheimer’s wanting to die before they become a shell of themselves, alternately blank and distressed, and no longer the person their loved ones remember.

In short, instead of preventing elderly suicides that are not the result of mental illness, I believe that we should give them the choice to die with dignity, on their own terms. Not putting barriers in their way, not judging their reasons for dying and finding them wanting, but allowing and even facilitating a good death. Perhaps a thorough mental health check – one that does not include ‘wanting to die’ as an automatic symptom of mental illness – but then, freedom and means to die on their own terms.

Assisted dying campaigns focus on allowing the terminally ill to end their lives gracefully. I think that being old and intensely aware of your mortality, as well as the reality of the way your life and death will play out, is reason enough to allow people to die in the time and place of their choosing.

I have no practical answers for how this would work, having not thought about it in much depth before now. I do know, though, that I want to be able to die rather than lose my body or mind to disease or frailty. I want to live a good life, and have a good death.

Society conditions people to be disgusted by suicide

I read that quote, that ‘society conditions people to be disgusted by suicide’ somewhere recently (but failed to write down where). It really resonated with my experience of suicide. People really are disgusted by suicide, and that’s a shitty reaction – but it’s the one we’re groomed to have by our society.

I do not feel disgust at people who commit suicide. There’s a deep sadness, sometimes anger if they’re close to me, but disgust just isn’t on the radar. I don’t think it should be, either. Someone being so unwell, so desperate, so sad, or so angry that they cannot see another way out if tragic, not disgusting. Why is there so little compassion?

I feel like I should have some deep insight into why people are conditioned to react with disgust, but I don’t. I’m just disappointed in society for having such a stupid and useless reaction. When I lost a friend to suicide several months ago, I resented people who thought of it as the easy way out, who showed that disgust. They have no idea what that place is like, and yet they spit on it. For shame.

When someone is suicidal and they see the reaction of disgust to another’s suicide, or just ot the topic in general, it communicates to them that because they have these thoughts, they are disgusting too. It’s not often going to be a deterrent – if you’re having disgusting thoughts anyway, then you are disgusting, and what does it matter any more? It’s just another layer of self-loathing to add to a person who is already very unwell.

People who die by their own hand are a tragedy, and a lesson. Not an object of disgust. Our society needs to grow up and gain some empathy around the matter.