My Mental Health Retreat

Years ago, a good friend of mine tried to commit suicide. Nobody recognized his cries for help. He was always joking, always laughing and making others laugh. It came as a huge shock to me that he, of all people, was struggling with something so serious and so foreign to me. Not too long after, he called me up and shared his story with me. I didn’t know how to react, other than to listen and try to understand (which, by the way, is the right thing to do).

Earlier this year, I found myself driving on Utah’s highway 6 from Spanish Fork to Price, where I had moved my family for my job. I had spent the entire day running errands and searching for the right materials for a project at work, and I was heading back to the office to try and finish this project instead of sleeping that night. It was January, the sun was setting, and I was struggling in more ways than I really knew. My job was demanding–I had been working 50-60 hours a week, doing the work of 4-5 positions as a single person, more was being demanded of me every day, and no matter how hard I tried to do my job well it was never enough and I felt criticized for it daily. My dear stay-at-home husband was doing his best to take care of the kids and our home, but it was inevitable that my weekends were spent cleaning the house because so much went undone during the week. My kids always needed my attention when I was at home, and as soon as they went to bed at night my husband needed my attention. On Sundays, I’d put on a happy face and make it to church with my family, but I occasionally just couldn’t get out of bed because I was too exhausted. I was tired in a way that sleep couldn’t help because no matter how much sleep I got I was always still tired.

The drive down Highway 6 is really pretty, going from alpine meadow to rusty desert with stunning mountain views the whole way. I was about 30 minutes into my hour-long drive and found myself fantasizing about driving my car off one of the steep cliffs right next to the road. It was strange. As soon as that first thought crossed my mind, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I kept imagining what that would be like, the relief that death would give me from my exhausting life. Those imaginings got stronger and stronger, and I had to really focus on keeping the car on the road. By the time I made it back to the office I was an emotional mess, but I put on my brave face and pretended that nothing was awry.

Luckily, my house was only five minutes from the office and there weren’t many places to fantasize about driving my car off of or into that would cause my death, so I just kept going like that. Long hours at work, no downtime at home, and working all the time. This is how people get ahead, isn’t it? This is how everyone who is successful starts out, right? You have to put in the time and effort early on so that you can have a good life in the future…right?

One morning I was showering and I couldn’t get the fantasies about dying out of my head. I realized that if the perfect opportunity presented itself, I wasn’t sure that I had the strength to avoid dying and to try to keep living. I knew I couldn’t drive through the Highway 6 canyon without trying to kill myself. I had even started imagining ways I could die on the five-minute drive to work. I sat down in the shower and started crying. I ran through all of the common ways that people commit suicide and they all sounded okay to try. It was like I could feel my wrists screaming to bleed, my neck to break, my heart to stop so I could find some relief from how tired I was. I never got rest from work, with my boss calling me late at night and the consistent long hours and my constant worrying about work because my boss was never satisfied with my output. I never got rest at home because I had to cook or change diapers or wash dishes or teach the kids how to do chores or get intimate with my husband or fix holes in clothing or any of the other gazillion things on my mom/wife to-do list. I just wanted to rest without anybody needing something from me, and the only way I could imagine resting was by being dead.

I don’t know how long sat on the shower floor crying. Bob came into the bathroom at some point and found me in there. I think he’d been suspicious that there was something going on with me for a while, but I didn’t know how to explain what was going on. It’s not like over family dinner I could casually discuss that I’d been fantasizing about driving my car off a cliff. I kept thinking it would go away or get better if I just continued pushing on. But there I was, afraid to get out of the shower because who knows what kinds of opportunities would present themselves to me during the day, and I couldn’t trust myself to be strong enough to not take advantage of one. I don’t remember what I said to Bob through my tears and mental pain. But he got me up and dressed, put me back in bed, and started making phone calls.

He didn’t know what to do. This was new territory for both of us. How do you help someone who is suicidal? Where do you take them? The ER? Do you go straight to the mental ward? Is there a specialist for this kind of thing? There are hotlines, but I needed to get away from the stressors of life, not just chat on the phone with someone. That afternoon Bob drove me to the hospital an hour and a half away.

We started with Urgent Care, and were told they don’t have mental health resources. So we went to the Emergency Room. I checked in at the front desk. A few minutes later a nurse called me over to take my vitals and ask about why I was there. After Bob helped me to explain that I was suicidal, the nurse began to explain that patients would be seen by the severity of their needs.

“Some patients who came in after you may be seen before you because of how serious their conditions are.”

Without missing a beat I replied, “So what you’re telling me is if I want to be seen sooner, I know what to do,” and winked at him with a grin.

The nurse looked horrified, laughed uncomfortably, and continued the paperwork. Of course I was kidding. Sort of.

It didn’t take more than 10 minutes to be called back to a room. Maybe my morbid humor helped. Nurses got me settled. A psychiatrist visited with me. A friend who was working as a doctor in the ER that night came by to say hello. There were long stretches where it was just Bob and I waiting in that room. Finally, in the dark morning hours, I was informed that they’d found a space for me at a hospital in Salt Lake City. Within a few minutes, I gathered my things, was buckled onto a gurney, escorted to a medical transport vehicle, kissed Bob goodbye, and was whisked away. Bob stood there and watched us drive away, hands in his pockets and sadness on his face. I quietly cried the entire hour-long drive. Was this really happening? Am I just overreacting? Surely I’m actually okay and I can just go back home and get back to work. What was Bob going to tell everybody? How would I explain why this is happening? To my parents? My brothers? My kids?

We arrived and went into a small, back entrance to the hospital. Everything was dark and quiet. I was escorted to an elevator, then taken up to the seventh floor, where a couple of nurses were waiting for me. They talked and went over procedures with me. I filled out paperwork while they went through my bag to remove anything that patients were not allowed to have (nothing sharp or pointy, no drawstring pants, etc.). It was all a blur until I finally found myself alone in my assigned room. The tired fluorescent lighting revealed a bed, a built-in shelf, a private bathroom, and standard hospital linoleum floors. I turned off the light and laid down in my bed. It had been a long night and I was still tired from life as well as this crazy (literally) adventure.

I woke up later that morning to a nurse coming in to take my vitals. I found my breakfast tray. I walked around the halls. I read the announcements and schedule that had been scrawled on a whiteboard by the nurses’ station. I avoided people. I found a book in the tiny library to read. I went to group therapy sessions. I met with the psychiatrist and doctor. I took my first ever depression and anxiety medication. I talked to Bob on the big, clunky phone in the hallway. I went through the motions all day. As soon as it was night I went to bed.

On the second day there, I finally had my clothes given to me. After confiscating anything not allowed from my overnight bag, the nurses had to launder my clothes before I could have them back. I took a shower and changed out of that awful hospital gown and put on my comfy leggings and a tee-shirt. I sat on my bed that morning, lost in my thoughts as I admired the beautiful sunrise. I hadn’t sat still and just looked at the mountains in… over a year? I wondered what was happening at home and at work without me. I wasn’t allowed to have my cell phone, so I couldn’t contact anybody. I hoped Bob would contact people for me because I wasn’t functioning enough to put any words together to explain what was happening.

I also got to know a few other patients there. Some had serious mental imbalances. Others were a lot like me: fairly normal but current life circumstances made them crazy. My nurse told me, “Honestly, anyone can end up here.” I still couldn’t imagine my well-balanced parents or brothers ever struggling with what I was going through. I always compare myself to them, because I admire them and view them as role models in so many ways. But I have started to realize that I’m very different from all of them. I’m definitely the black sheep in my family, but I’ve come to like it that way. I can be weird and different, and it has become expected–almost endearing. If I wasn’t my weirdo self, I think they’d all start to worry.

One day I found crayons and paper on a table. I immediately sat down and started drawing and coloring. Stuff just flowed out of my head and onto the paper. I remembered how much I love creating art and using bright colors. I found crayons and paper every day after. Other artistic patients joined me or I joined them. We didn’t talk much. We didn’t need to. We just needed to heal through a creative outlet.

The group sessions were good. Hearing from other people and what they were willing to share helped me think about what I needed to do to get myself well. My first appointment with my psychiatrist was quiet, with him doing most of the talking and me answering with as few words as necessary. I had to fill out a suicide prevention plan before I’d be discharged. All of the patients I had met had discharge dates that they were working toward as a goal. I didn’t have a discharge date. I wasn’t ready for one. My stay was indefinite at that point, and I honestly needed that. A goal like that reminded me too much of work and would send me into a tailspin.

I started seeing my stay there almost as a vacation. I started calling it a retreat. It was a necessary break from the stressful aspects of my life (so, everything about my life at that point) so that I could recover and get my brain right. There is still a bad stigma surrounding psych wards, so it’s not something many people talk about. But mental health has become a serious challenge for a lot of people. The way society runs is very different from 50 years ago, even 20 years ago. The types of jobs available and work expectations are different. Social media drives perception away from reality. The expectations about my life and future that I developed in childhood from my parents and teachers made me think that I should be this unstoppable, powerful woman who accomplishes everything. Growing up, I never saw my mom take the time or buy anything for herself, always helping others, taking care of the needs of our family, cooking and cleaning all the time. I thought I was supposed to be exactly the same. When I was in college, I was working and taking classes full-time and having babies, and was often told, “You’re doing it all! You’re amazing!” But the one thing I wasn’t doing was sleeping. I wasn’t taking care of myself. I had been conditioned to believe that I could get by without time for my needs and wants, that taking care of myself was lazy and a waste of time. In order for me to continue being amazing and doing great things, I had to keep doing all it all.

Under a certain combination of circumstances, anyone really could end up right where I did. It’s no surprise that I wound up there myself.

I started just sitting quietly more often. I drew and colored whatever was in my brain. I read a 1000+ page fantasy novel. I watched movies. I relearned how to connect with other people. I even made a few friends by making morbid jokes together. I watched the sunrise every morning. I stretched and did yoga. I ate my meals slowly and enjoyed dessert.

On my seventh day there, my doctor finally set a discharge date. It was for the following day. I knew I couldn’t stay forever, and I don’t think I wanted to stay forever. But I was worried about going right back into everything that put me there in the first place. I wasn’t sure how to live my life any differently than I had always done. My doctor prescribed me at least four more weeks off from work. I wasn’t sure how we’d pay our bills and mortgage, but I knew those things were not worth me abandoning my loved ones.

In the following weeks, I started seeing a therapist again. I hadn’t had time to go to therapy for over a year. Other things had taken priority over my well-being. I learned that I actually do need time for my needs and wants, and I learned that it was up to me to make it happen. Nobody will set my boundaries for me. Employers will take all the work their employees are willing to put in, so I’m the one who must assert my needs. I’m required to work 40 hours a week, not 60 (especially if I’m salaried and don’t receive overtime pay, but I won’t get on that soapbox right now). If I am meeting the legal requirements of my job, it’s up to me to set the rest of the boundaries for my own mental health and well-being. So, no work calls after 6pm. Working 8am-5pm with an hour break for lunch. If I need to adjust those boundaries occasionally, that’s up to me. If I need some time to myself some evenings, I let my family know and I take it. If the house is messy, it’s okay and it can wait to be cleaned until later. As a habitual overachiever, these kinds of boundaries are what will keep me from spiraling back down to that suicidal rock bottom that I don’t want to revisit. I need to manage these boundaries for the rest of my life, and if I ever catch myself overworking and backsliding again, I need to take some time off to reset myself.

I hope that the negative stigma surrounding mental health continues to change toward more acceptance, support, and understanding. Everyone needs a chance to thrive in life, and mental health holds too many people back in too many ways. I don’t want my kids to grow up without a mom, or my husband to become a widow. My parents shouldn’t have to bury any of their children. I don’t want to cause that kind of pain and sorrow to anyone. I want to thrive and love my life and be present with my loved ones. I may not feel that every day, but I’m going to try for it as often as I can. No career, clean house, social media presence, debts or loans, reputation, or other aspect of life is more important than anyone’s mental well-being.

If you want to know more or talk to me about this experience, please reach out to me. It’s important to be open and discuss difficult or taboo topics like these, because suffering in silence is no way to cope. I’m happy to discuss more if you have concerns about me, yourself, or someone else.

6 thoughts on “My Mental Health Retreat”

  1. Thank you for sharing. So grateful you were able to find some peace and know how to move forward. I have struggled with mental health my whole life. I need daily hard exercise and an 8:30 bedtime. When I let these slip to frequently I start sliding down. You can do this and you are needed!!

  2. Thank you, Janae, for this very well-written description of your experiences. You are a gifted writer. I was hospitalized in April for similar reasons. Can I take you to lunch one day soon? Jeanette Lloyd

  3. This is so generic but I really mean it… Thank you for sharing this. I have a million things I want to say and talk to you about (…more like mouth vomit so much TMI that you’ll be like..whoa, calm down I didn’t mean all of THAT lol…)
    and all the hesitation in the world preventing me. I backed away from social media because I learned that so many people who call themselves your “friend” genuinely do not care about your struggles. So I became a bit of a recluse. Your Christmas card, however small the gesture, reminded me that people do still care. Even after all you’ve been through this year, you took the time and that meant a lot to me. I could go on and on so I will just reiterate, thank you.

    1. Courtney, I’m so glad that something I wrote struck a chord with you. And I’m glad our Christmas card made it to you! I regularly take time away from social media for very similar reasons. I can’t keep up with wishing everyone happy birthday or anniversary and I don’t get on every day so I often miss a lot of what my Facebook friends share. It makes me feel like a bad friend. But after this year, I’ve realized that the people who mean most to me know that I’m living my life in the real world and not online. And I recognize the same about them! I consider you one of those friends. We may not know what happens daily in each other’s lives, but honestly, that’s best because you and I both know we’re not high maintenance enough for that kind of friendship! You befriended me when I was the new girl and I was still figuring out who the heck I even was. The fact that you simply cared enough to be kind and talk to me was all that I needed to know in order for me to want to be friends with you. Our similar opinions and senses of humor definitely helped that. I do regret that you and I weren’t closer friends back then, but it also doesn’t surprise me that here we are 20 years later and you’ve kept in better touch with me than anyone else from back then. You’re my people. We’re a weird bunch, but we sincerely care no matter how far apart we are or how long it’s been. You’ve always been a phenomenal human and no amount of TMI will change that. I’m always here for you to word vomit all over. 🙂

  4. Thank you so much for sharing your heart and your experience. I relate with a lot of it. Being so honest and real is so helpful for lifting stigmas and misunderstandings. You are a blessing. ♥️

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