Tuesday Tales: Searching for answers – Donna Thistlethwaite

Sure, I’d had some challenges in my life but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would spend time in a public mental health facility.

The nurse who I’d met a short time earlier ushered me through the door into a sterile looking hallway. We had just completed the admission process and I was about to discover the place I would stay over the coming days … weeks … months. I had no idea how long I’d be here. I had no idea what to expect.

I had come in search of answers. Would they be able to help me to make sense of my decision to attempt to end my life. How do I move on from this experience? How do I make sure it doesn’t happen again?

Half way down the hallway the nurse, let’s call her Brenda, slowed her gait. She guided into a room on the left in which there were a few laminated white tables surrounded by black, vinyl covered, chairs. Other than a squashed juice box in the middle of one of the tables, the room was deserted. This is where meals are served, she explained. “The meals will be brought across from the main hospital at designated times and are to be consumed in here”.

We continued down the corridor, passing a few people ambling in the other direction. Were they patients? Were they visitors? I wasn’t sure. I smiled hesitantly and was comforted when the smile was returned. We turned left then abruptly stopped in front a sparsely furnished room. As my gaze scanned the room, I noticed an open curtain framing a courtyard with some bushes on the other side of the dusty glass. It felt reassuring to be able to see natural light and some greenery.

After Brenda left, I clambered onto the bed. As I lay there staring at the ceiling, images of my family flashed across my consciousness. I already missed them.  I don’t know how much time had passed when I heard the tap on the door. The light had faded outside the window so maybe I’d napped.

A male nurse entered the room and asked how I was feeling? After I indicated that I was okay he promptly left. Little did I know then that such visits would be a constant during my time at the clinic. It quickly became obvious to me that the staff’s main objective was to keep me alive during my stay.

Over the next week, I got to know some of the other patients. Tracy, a friendly blonde, who was in her mid 20s and I did some art together in the library/craft room, creating greeting cards for our loved ones. She took a real shine to me for some reason and I was grateful for the company and chats.

At meal times we caught up with other patients. Many shared stories of their pasts and of their dreams. Some experienced paranoia and occasionally conversations were a bit difficult to follow but I saw fellow human beings who had been through and often continued to face, big life challenges.

My time in the mental health unit, personal experiences and mental health training has led me to share the perspective of Noula Diamantopolous, the psychotherapist in the ABC’s new series Space 22, regarding mental illness.

Noula believes mental illness is a term that should be dropped. She says “It’s not what’s wrong with you, it’s what happened to you.” Many of us affected by trauma, major and minor, experience symptoms of poor mental health. As we work through our trauma, we can often learn to thrive more in life.

As the days went on at the mental health unit, I concluded that the hopes I’d had for answers, for treatment, weren’t likely to be realised there.

One afternoon I was invited to a meeting with a couple of the staff. An Indian woman, who looked to be in her mid 30s, sat across from me. The male doctor I had seen around the clinic explained to me that Shradha, the Indian woman, was a doctor and psychiatry registrar. She needed to take someone through 50 hours of psychotherapy as part of her development.

“You seem like someone who is interested in becoming well”, the clinic doctor said, “would you be prepared to work with Shradha?” “This is a big commitment, if you were to stop the treatment, even if 40 hours have been completed, she will need to start again with another patient.”

“What do I have to lose?”, I thought. I agreed to meet Shradha every Friday afternoon for the next 12 months.

Two days later, I approached one of the nurses and arranged to be released from the clinic. I knew I was ready to start the next stage of my recovery journey.

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Donna Thistlethwaite is a Brisbane-based speaker and trainer specialising in mental health and resilience. She is an accredited Mental Health First Aid Instructor and Resilience at Work Facilitator with a passion for suicide prevention and for helping individuals, teams and organisations to THRIVE. You can find out about her next Mental Health First Aid courses here.

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