The psychiatric ward at Vancouver General Hospital looked to me like a prison with its stainless steel toilets and beds carved into the concrete floors. On the morning of April 16th, 2012, my heart was filled with fear. Fear of other patients and fear that I might belong there. I was exhausted and distressed by all my thoughts, but I nonetheless did not relate to the other patients who seemed disconnected from reality.
I met with a kind psychiatrist who listened to me while taking notes. Similar to the ER doctor and nurse, she did not show any signs of disgust as I was sharing my worst thoughts with her. I remember asking multiple times if she thought I was a danger to others and what my chances were for getting ‘fixed’ so I could eventually see my kids again. To my surprise and relief, she was adamant that I had never been a danger to anyone but myself and that there was no reason for her to contact the police or child services. In fact, she asked for my permission to call my husband and quickly returned to say that he was on his way with the kids.
The psychiatrist’s recommendations were to hospitalize me for a few days to fast track my recovery. She thought that I would not sufficiently relinquish my responsibilities at home and that it would take me months, if not years, to recover. She did not say what I needed to recover from, but I did not really care about it. I was lying in my hospital bed, in a hallway, with my baby tucked next to me and my daughter playing at my feet. I felt like I had just escaped a huge catastrophe and I was almost on a high from being allowed to see my children again. I know that it is hard to understand for someone who does not have OCD, but I was truly convinced that I had seen them for the very last time the night before.
I asked a few questions: Could I have visitors? Would I have to stop nursing? Would I be safe? All her answers satisfied me so I agreed to be treated as an in-patient. My psychiatrist miraculously convinced the Mood Disorder Unit of UBC Hospital to take me under their care even though they do not usually treat patients with anxiety as their primary mental illness. I was relieved to be transferred to a familiar neighborhood.
I was admitted at UBC by my assigned nurse, Suzanne, who treated me respectfully. I wanted to believe what the VGH psychiatrist told me, but somehow I could not as I was still convinced that I could hurt others against my will. I was provided with a tiny closet, a single bed, a desk and a locker. I was very thankful for the privacy and solitude. I laid down and uncontrollable tears started to run down my cheeks; I was overwhelmed by the turn my life had taken.
I had only mustered the courage to text my sister to let her know that I was going to the hospital and then, that I would be admitted. I blamed a low battery for not informing my parents because I was too ashamed to contact them. I would surely disappoint them that they would not want to see me again. I hoped that they knew I had sought much needed help because of how well they had raised me. However, my sister convinced me to call them and I did. To my surprise, not only did they want to talk to me but my mother wanted to fly to Vancouver the next morning to take care of the kids and me. I was convinced that she was doing it for the kids, to compensate for their ‘crazy’ mother because I did not deserve such kindness and generosity.
That first night, I slept like a baby for more than 16 hours. I barely woke up when they came to draw blood from me. Sleeping was a key element to my recovery plan. I was also given some medications and I was meeting daily with the team of psychiatrists to talk about my thoughts and feelings. In addition, I opted to see an offsite CBT psychologist who was highly recommended by my team of doctors. True to my personality, I had to participate actively in my recovery – I couldn’t just stare at the walls waiting for the medicines to do their thing.
The first meeting with my psychologist was a turning point in my recovery. She too listened to my whole story, but with even more compassion than all the physicians and nurses. Most importantly though, she asked me if I knew what I was suffering from. I did not and I have to admit that I was not really convinced when she said OCD. My misconceptions of the illness made me doubt that she was correct. As soon as I got back to the hospital, I went on Anxiety Canada’s website to look up the description of OCD, and I was astonished to realize that the description fit like a glove. All my life I had skipped OCD descriptions not knowing that the answers were right under my nose!
Knowing the diagnosis was critical in allowing me to truly believe that I had never intended to act on my thoughts. It did not matter that every single physician I had asked told me multiple times that I was not going to act on my thoughts; I needed to see evidence based information on OCD to finally focus on my recovery.
The mood disorder unit was what I needed. They had strict rules but I was more than happy to follow them. Deciding between eggs and oatmeal for my breakfast was the most I could handle. I had certain privileges such as not having to wear hospital pajamas because I was voluntarily there versus many others who were required to be there following a suicide attempt or during a manic episode. Gradually, I was allowed to go out accompanied and then by myself. The first outings were only for a few hours, but they slowly increased to full days, to overnight, to a full weekend. The small increments really helped me rebuild the self-confidence I needed to function again in the big wide world.
Another huge help was that I decided to inform a few friends of what I was going through. Their support and loyalty to our friendship reinforced that I had value and I was not alone. All of the members of my immediate family visited me from across the country and were directly involved in my recovery plan. My kids were more than welcome in the unit; we had sundaes on my bed, the kids wandered around the unit, and they charmed patients and staff members alike.
Overall, I spent one full month. My stay was the first step in a much longer recovery process, which I will describe in my last article. I am forever indebted to Dr. Robertson, Dr. Sun, Dr. Vic, Nurse Suzanne (and all the other staff for that matter), Dr. Melisa Robichaud and the VGH psychiatrist (Dr. B) whom I believe went by the first letter of her last name. Without these care providers, I have no doubt that my story would have had a tragic and terrible ending.
*Emmy is a mother of two amazing children aged 4 and 6. She is a volunteer Board Member for Anxiety Canada and agreed to share her experience with OCD to increase awareness about this disorder and to encourage others who suffer in silence to seek help because they need and deserve to get treatment.