How I survived my dark night of the soul

Suzanne Milan: I remember him telling me the psychiatric system is very easy to get into and very hard to get out of

Tue, Apr 30, 2013, 14:01

I was 24 years of age when I suffered burnout and exhaustion that left me with severe depression and psychosis. Hence I entered the Irish psychiatric system in 2000.

I spent about eight weeks as an inpatient, which was an eye-opening time in my life. I was on a mixed ward with about 20 other patients.

When I asked the staff in the first week about going home, I was repeatedly told I wasn’t well and the nurses didn’t know how long I would be in hospital.

All I wanted was to be around my family, people who loved me.

For the first three days in hospital I was heavily medicated and very unwell. This was followed by about 10 days of experiencing virtually no emotion.

I simply felt empty and scared by the whole experience of having had psychosis, brought on by vivid nightmares and exhaustion. I wondered if my mind would ever get back to normal.

After some time, I made a friend who was another patient and our conversations became my therapy.

Our talks had their own gentle rhythm and I told him how I came to be in hospital and he told me how he had become a patient some years earlier.

I remember him telling me the psychiatric system is very easy to get into and very difficult to get out of. I feared I’d never be allowed home.

There didn’t seem to be anything seriously wrong with so many of the patients and that just reinforced my doubts about ever being let out again.

Thankfully my friends and family came to visit me, I felt awkward seeing my friends in the hospital.

I was under the care of a team of professionals, yet I never knew which doctor was in charge of my care.

This only added to the feeling of being lost in the hospital.

In the early days I was often called into a room to be interviewed by the multidisciplinary team.

Some of their questions unnerved me, especially at the outset. I was asked if I was hearing voices, if I had thoughts about suicide and if I had any special powers. All of which seemed kind of strange to me.


Daily medication
My blood pressure was regularly checked and I took the morning and evening medication. I used to query the medication, but it wasn’t until I was an outpatient that I actually did my own research and began to understand what I was taking and what the drugs where doing to me.

I must have been a difficult patient as I asked questions and would hold up the medication queue.

One day when my emotions returned I found myself in tears and I was told I would have to go to the adjacent locked ward if I continued crying.

I would get into bed at night and within a few seconds be asleep and the night would pass in an instant. There was no time to process the day’s events and in the morning when I woke I was filled with dread, simply because of where I was.

We were all observed at meal times. Conversations were usually quite limited between patients at these times.

Yet I can still remember some of the conversations with fellow patients.

There was another man on a similar dose of some of the same medication, he said he was “mad” and so couldn’t take part in woodwork. Was I “mad” too, I wondered?

It was Christmas time when I was an inpatient and I was told I could stay home for one night on Christmas Day. However, when the day came, I was told to be back in the hospital around 8pm that evening.

I felt like I had little control over my own life, the doctors were in charge now.

I became well again and, strange as it may sound, I began to enjoy being in hospital. I wanted to stay in longer to finish a woodwork project!

When I was discharged, I had a couple of outpatient appointments. There was no explanation of my diagnosis, which was given to me at the end of one of these appointments. Neither was there any discussion of early warning symptoms for future management of my health.

In 2004, I suffered a far more severe episode, while living in the UK. I became totally withdrawn and I was catatonic.

I had stopped eating and drinking and became seriously unwell. I had ECT treatment as I didn’t respond to medication and took some time out upon discharge.

Following that episode, I worked for many years with people recovering from mental illness.

My life has taken some unusual turns on its journey as a result of mental illness.

I have found meaning and comfort in my career choice and I continue to manage my mental health.

My family, friends and husband are a great support to me and now we have a son, who is a great source of joy.

My life is enriched by all of these experiences and the wonderful friendships I have.

If you know someone who is experiencing mental distress, do not be afraid of spending time with them if you care about them.

They may find it therapeutic just to be around another person whom they care about.

There are lots of self-help strategies that I use regularly these days to stay well.

I take a low dose of medication that helps to keep me on track, but medication is not the whole story.

I meditate, keep a diary, keep a self-management book to hand, all of which help me to stay in touch with my inner self.

Quality time with friends
I do things that are good for the soul like walking in the fresh air, having reflexology and healing, and taking things slowly and spending quality time with friends.

Someone once said to me “when God made time, he made plenty of it”, I have learnt to spend my time in a more meaningful way and to appreciate life so much more.

There is so much stigma about mental health, especially in Ireland. People often struggle to know what to do to help a friend or family member.

Everyone’s journey and recovery is different; sometimes it can take weeks, for other people years.

While I recovered quickly after the first episode, the second episode was so severe I needed a longer recovery time and developed a new approach to managing my health and a different career.

I’m glad of the recovery journey I’ve been on as it has been a learning curve.