It took four weeks for my breakdown to happen – like a slow spiral, my sanity slipped out from underneath me. But in my memory, it doesn’t feel like such a long time. It’s as if I blinked, and suddenly I was in the emergency room with an IV in my arm and a security guard watching me sleep.
From there, I was committed, and driven an hour and a half by ambulance to a hospital in some city I’d never heard of before.
It took seven days before I was deemed fit to return to the “real world” – a world I was not prepared for, a world that I did not assimilate back into so easily.
Everything was the same as when I left it – yet none of it felt familiar. My bed felt too soft, like it could swallow me whole; my apartment felt like I was visiting someone else’s place; and my friends felt distant, like I hadn’t seen them in years. I could never seem to relax, waking up five, six times a night and greeting the morning exhausted, as if I hadn’t slept.
Even now, there’s almost constant anxiety when I’m with the people that I love. Spending time with friends is unnerving; knowing that they’ve seen me at rock bottom makes me feel exposed, like there’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to go.
I can’t be myself or let my guard down. I used to feel at ease socially, but now, I feel safer when I’m alone.
Everywhere I go, there are reminders of my pain, flashbacks of the breakdown that sent me to the ER. The voices, the suicide note, the delusions, the alcohol, the intervention, the doctor’s disappointment (“I’d hoped this wouldn’t be necessary”), and the IV stuck in my arm – a blurry haze of shame and despair and fear.
To say that being hospitalized changed things for me doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface – I have spent the last five months as a visitor to my own life.
Going back home after my psychiatric hospitalization was one of the most alienating experiences I’ve ever had, and like many people who have been hospitalized, finding the support I’ve needed to feel secure during this transition has been difficult.
There’s a lot to be desired when it comes to supporting folks who were recently hospitalized, especially when that hospitalization, like mine, is traumatic for them. And that support begins with how we talk about the experience.
To start, here are seven things that were said to me after my hospitalization that didn’t feel so supportive – and why you really shouldn’t say them.
A lot of people didn’t know what to say, so they didn’t say anything at all. To be honest, I didn’t know how to ask for their support, so I didn’t say anything, either.
In our own ways, we were both just scared. We didn’t know how to process or where to begin. We didn’t know how to be vulnerable around each other. There was no cultural script for how to have these conversations. And for many people, I think they were afraid that if they said the wrong thing, I might fracture and break.
And yet, even though I understood this, I think the silence is still what hurt me the most.
Everyone is different in how they deal with emotional pain. Some people will explicitly ask their loved ones not to ask or talk about the experience. That’s a very valid reaction to trauma. But for others, saying nothing can suggest that you don’t care, that you’re pretending it didn’t happen, or that their hospitalization has scared you off – any of which can be very painful.
I think it’s important to ask your loved one what they need, so you can act accordingly.
If you want to say something but you don’t know how to approach it, here are some suggestions that might be helpful:
“How can I help support you?”
“Would it help if you talked and I just listened?”
“It sounds like you’re going through a lot, let me know if you need a friend.”
“Do you want me to bring some food over?”
“Can I send you a care package in the mail?”
It’s also true that after supporting someone through a mental health crisis, you may need to take some time apart. I was just as appreciative of the friends who stepped back, but still took the time to say, “I need some space to take care of my own mental health, but I want you to know that I’m proud of you for committing to your recovery.”
Your response doesn’t need to be perfect. All we need is some indication that you care.
2. ‘I’m Glad You’re Better Now’
One of the most common things people said to me when I left the hospital was telling me how relieved they were that I was “better.” Never mind that I’d never said things were better; never mind that I’d never said that I was recovered.
I could tell that the people in my life were relieved to see me, and glad that I seemed steadier than before. So they expressed it the only way they knew how – with gratitude.
I completely understand the impulse. Because I was glad to see them, too.
But it still doesn’t feel good to have everyone around you assume that you’re okay, especially after something that might have been traumatic. I found myself swallowing my grief, feeling like there wasn’t any space to not be okay – and when post-hospital life became more and more difficult, I didn’t feel like I could talk about it.
Many people assume that being out of the hospital means that we’re cured. But in reality, hospitalizations are often just the beginning of our healing, and much of the work we do to regain mental wellness happens outside of the hospital.
Recovery is not simple or linear, and mine certainly wasn’t. It took so much emotional strength to cope with the nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, and not to mention, the intensive therapy program that I attended three days a week when I returned home.
I don’t think anyone knew the burden I was shouldering, and just how brave I was to face it all.
So the idea that I should be “back to normal” – without understanding how hard I was working to stay afloat – only made me feel more distanced from my loved ones. I felt like there was an unspoken expectation that I would be stable and untroubled from here on out, which was impossible with all that I was still dealing with.
I felt like I had no permission to express what I was actually feeling – because there was now an assumption about how I should be feeling.
Everyone deserves the chance to recover on their own terms; try not to assume that someone is “back to normal” if they haven’t told you so.
3. ‘This Could’ve Been Avoided If You Had Just…’
It’s understandable that our loved ones, who presumably care very much about us, find themselves wishing that the hospitalization hadn’t happened, or feeling scared about what we went through.
It’s also understandable if there’s anger about the hospitalization, because sometimes it’s traumatic for more than just the folks who end up hospitalized.
So trust me when I say that I get it – fear, anger, and sadness were just a small slice of the spectrum of emotions my loved ones were feeling, too.
In the bigger picture, we are a part of a culture that so often blames victims for their own suffering – that tragedy or violence could be prevented if we had only made different choices. We blame rape survivors for having drunk too much, we blame poor folks for not spending wisely, we blame victims of police brutality for not “following orders.”
This kind of attitude is ingrained in our everyday lives.
With all of the emotions that you might be feeling, and the cultural script of blaming the victim, you may find yourself wanting to tell someone how their hospitalization and subsequent trauma is their fault, a result of poor choices that they made.
And I know that that assertion might feel very true, very real, and very justified.
But the truth is that it’s too late. What’s happened is done. When people pointed out that it was my choices that led to my hospitalization, they resurrected the pain, the memories, and the self-blame that had already been tormenting me.
My wounds were still fresh – and prodding at them only made things worse.
It made me feel like I deserved to go through the traumatic experience – like I should be punished for having a mental illness.
I had already spent every night in the hospital, thinking about what I should’ve, could’ve, or would’ve done. I already knew what choices were the wrong choices, because I’d replayed them in my mind a hundred thousand times. And I was not in the emotional state, when I left the hospital, to hash it out all over again.
No matter what the circumstances are, it’s triggering to blame someone for their own trauma, effectively forcing them to relive it.
It’s important to remember that mental health is far more complex than just individual choices. There are so many factors – psychological, biochemical, and even political – that can steer someone’s mental health in one direction or another.
Maybe there’s a conversation in the future which can involve prevention strategies and reconciliation. But for now, a person recovering after a hospital stay has one priority and one priority only: themselves.
4. ‘Please Don’t Tell Anyone’
A number of people discouraged me from writing about my hospitalization. Friends told me to reconsider how openly I’d posted on social media about it. Family members told me not to tell other family members. The underlying message was that I should be ashamed of what happened to me, and that I should keep it a secret.
I chose to write about it on the internet instead. Because frankly, as a queer person and as a mentally ill person, I’ve spent most of my life in the closet and I’m not about to go back in.
The reality is, it’s up to the person who was hospitalized to disclose or not disclose. It’s up to them to decide what they feel comfortable sharing and what they don’t. And it’s up to them to tell this story on their terms – because what happened belongs to them, and not to anyone else.
It’s true that there’s a very real stigma around psychiatric hospitalizations. And when my loved ones asked me not to share, I know they only wanted to protect me.
But frankly, I never asked to be protected – and their attempts at shielding me only revealed their discomfort with my hospitalization, not mine.
There are always potential consequences when talking about mental health struggles. But it’s up to the person who was hospitalized to weigh those risks, and decide what makes sense for them.
Instead of telling people how to navigate their disclosure, it’s more important to support people in whatever choices they make – because it’s about their safety, their comfort, and their needs… not yours.
5. ‘What Was It Like?’
I think that the people who have asked me this wanted to be supportive and give me a space to process the experience, but they failed to acknowledge that I might not be ready to share.
(For the record, this goes for “what got you hospitalized?” and “did you hurt yourself?” inquiries, too. Ugh.)
Many people felt entitled to details about what happened to me in the hospital – entitled because they were family, or because we were close, or because they were curious. They seemed to suggest that what happened wasn’t mine, to process on my own time. That, instead, it belonged to everyone else but me.
And as people pushed and pried for details, I felt violated – I felt like they were exploiting my suffering because they had a morbid curiosity about being institutionalized, not about my healing or well-being.
It started to feel dehumanizing.
The reality is that many of us leaving psychiatric facilities may not feel safe sharing, aren’t in a place to relive what happened, or just don’t want to talk about it. And that should be respected – we should never be putting anyone on the spot, as if their hospitalization is just an entertaining story instead of a very personal experience.
6. ‘When Are You Going Back to Work/School?’
Being asked when I was going back to work was by far the most stressful question I was asked.
I promise, every single one of us wants to go back when we’re ready, so this is a question you don’t even need to ask. And if we need to go back sooner, it’s a decision that’s ours to make.
What many people don’t understand is that hospitalization is often the beginning, not the end, of recovery.
It will take its own course, on its own time – there’s no absolute formula for knowing when a person will start to return to their baseline mood and functioning.
If you want to support someone’s recovery, it’s far more important to be patient and understanding than to push someone to do something they may not be ready for.
And it’s critical to understand that going back to school or work when we’re still trying to recover may make things worse, not better.
I’ve known people to end up right back in the hospital because they returned to a toxic work situation or stressful semester at school before they were truly equipped to handle it.
The question shouldn’t be “when are you going back?” The right question is, “How are you feeling? How can I be supportive?”
Because if you’re really that interested in their return to work or school, you should be focused on how you can support them in getting better – valuing their humanity and wellness first and foremost, instead of their productivity. Pressuring them won’t get them back to “normal life” any faster.
7. ‘Try Not to Dwell on It Too Much’
A lot of well-intentioned people told me that instead of ruminating about what happened, I should “try not to dwell on it,” stay busy, go out, and keep it off my mind. But it felt like such a careless thing to say – that if I ignored what happened, it would just disappear.
I knew that their mindset was something like, “I can see that you’re in pain when you think about this, so maybe you should find a way not to think about it.” Logically, I can see why it would feel like this is sensible advice.
But the reality is that for many of us, we couldn’t ignore it even if we tried. Sometimes we’re dwelling on it even if we desperately don’t want to be. And being told not to think about it sounds a lot like saying, “Why can’t you just move on?” or “Why are you making such a big deal out of this?”
I developed post-traumatic stress after my hospitalization – and the sheer tension that my body carried at every moment made my trauma not just an emotional experience, but a physical one, too. This wasn’t just a train of thought I needed to redirect. It was anguish and fear that I held in every cell of my body.
I wish people would’ve just asked, “How can I be helpful right now?” rather than instructing me on how best to deal with post-hospital life, especially when that advice didn’t resonate with me.
It’s better to never assume that you know what’s best for someone – especially if you haven’t experienced hospitalization firsthand.
Truthfully, as much as we don’t want to dwell on it, so many of us who were hospitalized are not “over it.” But it’s okay not to be over it – and letting people know that can be a powerful way to support them, affirming their right to take this recovery at their own pace.
Most days that I was in the hospital, I had spaghetti and veggie meatballs with green beans for dinner. It was one of the more edible of the few vegetarian options, I was told, and with experience I quickly realized they were right.
After all this time, it comes back to me. I can be with a friend or sitting at home and suddenly taste it. Unexpectedly, its texture and smell and stale flavors will overtake me without warning.
It takes me back to the meals I stared down, remembering the way the nurses would inquire about how much I ate and write it down, clipboard in hand, like I was a specimen under observation. I’ll recall the faces of the other patients, waking me up with a jolt when they threw their bodies against the doors in the middle of the night, screaming LET ME OUT, desperate to escape.
And if I close my eyes, I’m being escorted to a room, I’m throwing punches, I’m being handed a cup of pills that I can’t name, I’m disappearing involuntarily into a wave of dreamless sleep.
So how do you explain that the panic all over your face came from phantom spaghetti?
How do you explain you can’t see an ambulance without flashing back to your body in restraints? That you have nightmares about the night you spent alone in the emergency room, in a drug-induced haze, bombarded with questions you can’t answer by people in white coats, tormented by voices only you can hear?
How do you tell someone that most days you still don’t feel real? That you feel robbed of something that you can’t define? That something – your identity, your safety, your connection to the world – was taken away and you’re afraid you’ll never get it back?
How do you explain to someone that realizing you weren’t invincible made you lose any trust in yourself you ever had?
That every moment inside your mind is like walking through a cluttered room where everything is breakable?
That you’re still breakable?
I’m not over this. But sometimes, the things that people have said about my psychiatric hospitalization made me feel like I was supposed to be.
It felt like there wasn’t any room for my pain when I emerged on the other side. It felt like I wasn’t allowed to be shaken, to be lost, to be shattered. I don’t think they realized the impact their words had on me – in fact, I think most people had the best of intentions when they said what they did – but I walked away feeling like I had to carry this burden alone.
That’s why I wrote this. Because if our loved ones really do care, they can and should do better.
There’s something to be said for holding the space for someone’s struggles, giving us permission to feel whatever it is we’re feeling. In a world that wants us to be silent about what happened to us, acknowledging that we’re hurting and bearing witness to it is an incredible gift.
I wish I had a triumphant conclusion for this article – about how, against all odds and with the loving support of my community, I am whole again.
I’m not whole.
But each time someone reaches out to me – saying something caring, something sensitive, something thoughtful – it feels like there’s a stitch that wasn’t there before, helping to hold me together.
Sam Dylan Finch is a Staff Writer and Editorial Coordinator for Everyday Feminism. He is a transgender writer, activist, and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area, exploring the intersections of mental illness and queerness. In addition to his work at Everyday Feminism, he is also the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, his beautifully queer blog. You can learn more about him here and read his articles here. Follow him on Twitter @samdylanfinch.