When I got into the mental health field and became a therapist, I knew that it would be hard. I have bipolar disorder II and PTSD, and I was aware that working with people with similar diagnoses might be difficult for me to handle.
I wasn’t prepared for working in a psychiatric hospital. In the hospital, everyone is in crisis. I’d run a therapy group for 12, 16, sometimes 20 people, all of whom had experienced trauma and all of whom were in a great deal of pain.
As an empath, it’s difficult not to take on the struggles of those around me. As a therapist, I just want to help people. In a hospital setting, because it’s meant to be short-term, it’s difficult to feel that you’re making a difference. Especially when a patient returns within days or weeks of their last stay.
Being a therapist in a psychiatric hospital is difficult for anyone, but when you combine the setting with your own mental illness, it can sometimes feel impossible to get through the day. Every therapist knows that self-care is one of the most important things you can do to ward off the feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and pain that you absorb throughout your day.
I spent several years working in inpatient psychiatric hospitals. My grad school internships were in those settings, and my first jobs out of grad school were part time and per diem positions in two different hospitals. I felt accomplished when I landed a full time position at a different psychiatric hospital. But then things started to change for me.
I spent a year working at that hospital, and my mental health began to suffer. I stopped making dinner or going to yoga or dance class, things that feed my soul and bring me joy. I didn’t want to do anything but watch TV and drink wine and often fell asleep on the couch without preparing for bed. I started bingeing and purging. I became unhappier by the day.
Throughout my time at the hospital, I continued meeting with my therapist weekly. I’ve been in therapy since I was 15, and I found that our sessions were helpful but not enough. I was sent to the hospital one day for chest pain that turned out to be costochondritis, an inflammation of the cartilage in the ribcage that is caused by severe stress. During that year at the hospital, I was on a slow decline into what turned into a complete meltdown.
A few days before I went on vacation for the winter holidays, I woke up one morning and threw myself down a flight of stairs. I realized then that something was really wrong and I called out of work. After vacation, I went on short-term disability for a few months to sort out what was happening. I dutifully went to therapy weekly and saw my psychiatrist often. We upped my medication and added a new one. Things continued to get worse.
I was never allowed to be alone. I probably should have been admitted to the hospital, but I couldn’t bear the idea of being a patient in hospitals where I knew all the staff. By this point I had worked or interned at four different hospitals in the area, and was running out of options for anonymity.
Between my therapist, my husband, and my parents, I stayed out of the hospital out of sheer will. I needed therapy then more than ever. I wasn’t ashamed of being in therapy, but I was ashamed of what I was doing to myself. The self-harming behaviors continued for a month or two, until I finally decided to leave my job at the hospital.
The way I left my job was strange. Many of my coworkers knew about my diagnosis, but to my knowledge, no one knew why I was gone for two months. It was as if I disappeared. When I went to empty out my desk, I saw only three people, and no one spoke about what had happened. When I worked there I tried to be very transparent about my mental health, especially because sometimes I would get very affected by a group or an interaction with a patient and it would make me upset or give me anxiety to the point that I couldn’t run my next group and someone would have to cover for me.
As a group of therapists, we didn’t talk enough about being in therapy ourselves. We had one certified peer specialist whose job it was to talk about her experiences, but other than that we stayed away from the topic. When I was in grad school I spoke up about my time in therapy and my struggle with my mental health because I thought it was important to talk about and to try to destigmatize mental illness.
It’s been two years since I stopped working in inpatient psychiatric hospitals, and my mental health has improved greatly. I make time for myself now. I cook healthy meals (and eat three meals a day), I go to yoga, I choreograph dance pieces, I walk my dog, I spend time with my husband, and I enjoy life.
It took a long time to get to this place, and it’s certainly not all perfect. There are days when I think about hurting myself and there are days when I get panic attacks. There are also days when I feel so depressed I can’t get out of bed. But those days are fewer and farther between. And the way I manage is self-care and therapy.
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Author Bio: Allie Linn is a therapist living and working in Philadelphia, PA. She is also a freelance writer who writes about mental health to spread awareness and destigmatize mental illness.
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