Living with mental illness: The reality of being discharged from a psychiatric unit

Fiona Kennedy looks at the process of readjusting after being an inpatient...

Following on from her piece about being an inpatient in a psychiatric unit, Fiona Kennedy discusses the realisation and hardship of accepting that it's time to go home... 

About three weeks into my stay in the psychiatric unit at Galway University Hospital they started to talk about me going home. I was terrified at the prospect. I realise how strange that sounds and I’ve no doubt that the vast majority of people cannot wait to get out of hospital, but you have to understand – the state I was in at the time, and had been before my admission, meant I quite literally couldn’t function.

A huge part of the difficulty I had with that was managing my guilt around the impact it was having on my husband and our kids. Hospital wasn’t only necessary for me, we had reached the point where it was necessary for them, almost like respite.

The thought of us all being back in the house together, of my husband and I having to put our marriage back together, of me being a mother again – it was completely overwhelming. That said, it wasn’t going to happen straight away. Given that I’d been in for three weeks, and considering the reason why I was in, going home was a very gradual process.

The first time I went home was beyond surreal. We had agreed that it would be best if the kids didn’t see me, as we felt it would be too confusing for them to have me there for an hour or two, only to have me leave again (they were 2 and 5 at the time). So, Ronan left them to the crèche for a few hours, then came to pick me up.

Source: Zachary Staines

I don’t know what we talked about on the way home, or if we even talked at all. I wasn’t excited at the prospect of seeing home. I was scared, I felt guilty and I was ashamed. At the time, I firmly believed that depression was entirely my own fault.

When we got there I hadn’t the first clue where to put myself. I felt like a visitor in my own home, which seemed cavernous (it’s not), ridiculously quiet and completely alien. My parents were over, they had come to stay and give Ronan a hand, and I think we all sat down and had tea. I know I couldn’t handle making conversation, and went and hid in the shower soon afterwards (the showers in the hospital were horrible and frequently used as toilets). As soon as I had myself clean and dressed, I asked Ronan to bring me back. I think I only managed an hour at home.

The relief at getting back to the ward was immense. I felt safe there and looked after. The noise, the smells, the shared spaces, the artificial light – it felt like coming home. I didn’t have to try and pretend to be ok. The stress of maintaining some semblance of normality for even those few short hours had left me exhausted, although the very fact that I even believed I had to try speaks volumes about how much I felt I was to blame. I also felt that my family were better off with me back in the unit, that however difficult it was not having me around, having this zombie version of me at home would be even worse.

Source: Andrew Neel

Over the next fortnight or so, this pattern continued, with me going out for slightly longer each time. There were a couple of trips home, a trip to Salthill with the kids, and eventually an overnight. Once I managed the overnight, I was discharged to outpatients and so began the long and difficult process of readjusting to life at home.

I must confess that I have had to ask my husband about the finer points of those first weeks and months because I just don’t remember everything. Apparently I was incredibly agitated, and my mood would swing from low to furious in seconds (at this stage I had yet to receive the diagnosis of borderline personality disorder). I could manage only the simplest of household tasks, and used to get really frustrated when I couldn’t do something that I felt I should have been able to.

Our relationship had taken a serious beating in the previous few months so that needed a lot of work too, but in those first few weeks, functioning was pretty much all we could manage. It didn’t help that the extreme level of stress my husband was under had brought on a dose of swine flu, so he was flattened physically on top of everything else.

The only bright spot in all of this time was my relationship with my kids. Clichéd and all as it sounds, they kept me going, because they needed me. The last thing in the world I wanted was for them to suffer because of me.

It was a really, really tough time. It’s difficult to think about it, partly because of how little I remember, but also because for a quite a while there we thought our marriage wouldn’t survive. Hospital didn’t fix everything; it didn’t even come close. Drugs didn’t fix everything either. What those weeks gave us was breathing space. The real work started when I got home.

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Fiona Kennedy writes regularly about mental health issues on her blog sunnyspellsandscatteredshowers.org

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact Samaritans free any time from any phone on 116 123 or visit www.samaritans.ieto find details of your nearest branch. You can also find online information atwww.yourmentalhealth.ie