By Barb Full
My entire story is much longer than seven weeks. It is a whole lifetime. My most recent episode of major depression with OCD was the 5th one in my 60 years.
In 1987, I had the great fortune to be treated by Dr. David Burns, the author of the best-selling book about depression: “The New Mood Therapy.” He worked directly under Dr. Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), which revolutionized treatment for anxiety and depression.
During my 1987 episode and for the following three, I was always able to recover with a combination of medications and CBT. When I couldn’t sleep and started my obsessive ruminations in March, I knew I needed help again. Due to COVID-19, my visits with my psychiatrist and my psychologist were virtual. Despite consistent treatment, my stressors and triggers continued in my life, and I was not able to get my illness under control.
In August, I told my husband of 31 years that I needed to be hospitalized. I started researching the best facilities for OCD. From my past experiences, I know that going to a good facility makes all the difference in recovery.
The two facilities that were a drivable distance were McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA, and Western Psychiatric Hospital in Pittsburgh. One Sunday in August, while my husband was golfing, I left him a note on the kitchen table that I was going to McLean. He was alarmed and called my psychologist, who said “let her go; she’s trying to get well.”
So, my journey to get well began.
After going to an ER near McLean to be admitted, I found out there were no available beds and ended up driving the eight hours back home. The very next night, I entered Lancaster General Hospital’s ER and tried to get admitted to Western Psychiatric. There were no beds there either, so, again, we returned home.
I was out of resources and barely able to get out of bed. The next day we went to Wellspan York Hospital’s ER. I was admitted to Philhaven, their psychiatric facility for adolescents and adults in Mt. Gretna, PA.
I had a terrible experience at Philhaven. I was in three different units during my two-week stay. After I told them I was suicidal, I was put in their high security unit. No one talked to me, they just took my sheets, my pillow, and all my belongings and moved me. I honestly thought I was being punished.
Even though Philhaven was a part of Wellspan’s health system that I had been with for the last 27 years, they never consulted my psychiatrist, who knew my history. He could have told my new doctor at Philhaven that I had been inquiring about electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) before I was admitted. I was also never offered the cutting-edge transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) therapy that they had on their premise and that I had asked about a few days earlier.
Even though I was suicidal, and clearly very sick, I never saw the therapist more than once a week. I asked to see my therapist a third time when I saw her in the hallway one day, and she said “I’ll try to work you in.”
Even though we were in beautiful, scenic Mt. Gretna, no patients were allowed to go outside. I told them I was not suicidal even when I was so that I could be released. Then, less than 24 hours after I came home, my husband and son had to call 911 because I had attempted suicide.
I was admitted to a medical floor in Wellspan’s York Hospital for two days before they switched me to the psychiatric unit. No one on the medical floor spoke to me about my emotional state, I just had sitters in my room around the clock.
At least in this psychiatric unit I learned a little about dialectical behavior therapy for the first time while in group therapy, so that was a step up from Philhaven. I don’t remember much else about my stay because I had four bilateral ECT treatments while I was there. I was relieved to later find out that my psychiatrist eventually consulted with the unit doctor.
After two treatments, I told my husband a “fog had been lifted.” After four treatments, I told my doctor that I did not want any more. I was experiencing too much memory loss and disorientation. He seemed a bit annoyed with me that I did not want the six they had recommended. Once I told them I wanted no more ECTs, I was discharged the next day.
On the way home in the car after my 2.5 week stay, I asked my husband, “Where are we going?” My brain was clearly still scrambled. In hindsight, I don’t even know if I was healing from the ECT treatment or if I was still sick. I was so disoriented that my husband called the unit doctor who said, “You may bring her back into the hospital if you want to.” He decided against it.
Thank goodness I had family support. My son and his wife called facilities all over the country to try and get me somewhere. Luckily, my husband had a friend who had worked high up at the health care system who owned Western Psychiatric. Without our friend’s connection, I would have never gotten into their top-notch facility, which only has 236 beds and serves the entire city of Pittsburgh and all surrounding towns. I was admitted into the hospital on a Friday night and on Sunday morning I woke up, looked at my hospital bracelet and said to myself, “Where am I now?”
My brain was beginning to heal from my ECT treatment. One thing I loved most about the facility was that they made it easy to meet peers with similar experiences. I was on a floor with patients who all had anxiety disorders, major depression, and had either attempted suicide or had suicidal ideations. I met very nice people who were just like me. Their group therapy was high-level, and I continued to learn more about DBT. I was discharged after 10 days and finally began to feel like myself again. I believe my recovery was the combination of ECT, new medications, DBT and my previous knowledge of CBT that I could finally start applying.
As I started to process all that had happened to me, I had many questions, especially about Philhaven and my treatment there. My psychiatrist asked me if I wanted to speak to the facility’s CEO.
In the beginning of November, I went up to Philhaven and met with him about my experience at his facility. I wanted to make it better for people coming behind me. He told me that Wellspan wanted the care to be the same across all their facilities, including Philhaven and York Hospital’s psychiatric unit, the second facility I was in. I assured him it was not.
I concluded by saying, “I guess I was too sick to be in Philhaven.” He said to me, “No, no, no, we failed you and I am sorry.”
As we were walking out of the building together, he said, "I know I need to do something with this information." I will most likely never know if sharing my experience with him helped to make a difference at the facility; but I am thankful I was given the opportunity and that my voice was heard.
Although my recovery has not been linear, and six months later, I am still processing all that I have been through — I am now doing very well. I am so thankful I did not take my life, and I have much hope for the future.
Barb Full is from York, PA. She is retired after 25 years of sales in the graphic arts industry and then 10 years in medical coding for various health care facilities. Barb is married and the mother of two sons, ages 27 and 30. Barb is also a NAMI In Our Own Voice presenter and am a big sister with Big Brother Big Sister.
We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.
Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.
Find Your Local NAMI