Living in the Sun and the Shade
Mental health crisis, self care, and the garden
(*trigger warning—indirect reference to suicide ideation and descriptions of psych unit)
I don’t know how to write about this, and I don’t know how not to write about this. Here goes.
Last summer, I got Covid for the first time and was given Paxlovid (not sure why since I was vaccinated and not high risk). I had a rare, psychological allergic reaction to the drug, including extreme claustrophobia (even drinking from a cup would cause it) and depersonalization (my arms didn’t look like mine). I couldn’t eat or drink, and the passage of time lost all structure. Thankfully, family kept me occupied at home while the drug wore off, and after two days I felt better, although shaken up from the experience. I was so grateful to have family around me to pass the time and assuage my anxiety.
Fast forward to this spring, I’ve had a family member in crisis for the last two weeks after they were discharged from a five-week hospital stay without proper follow up care. The doctor had also forgotten to send one new prescription to the pharmacy, so a week went by without it until we noticed something was very wrong.
You can talk to me all you want about your opinions on prescription drugs for mental health. Are they sometimes unnecessary and overprescribed? Yes. Are they sometimes abused by patients? Yes. Are they sometimes a lifesaver? YES. Do they sometimes have bad side effects? YES. Is it dangerous to suddenly stop taking them for a week? YES. Is it dangerous to be on a high dose of the wrong one for you? YES.
I don’t want to post too many specific details due to privacy, so I’ll try to write about the rest indirectly (which is hard for a writer since the truth often lies in the details).
Things I learned over the past two weeks…In a psych holding unit, lone paper bags on the floor serve as trash bins because they cannot be thrown at staff or used to suffocate. Also, the plastic furniture in the room is filled with a type of sand to make it too heavy to throw. The mattress and bed contain no springs or screws, and the base is also filled with sand. There are no pictures or decorations on the walls, and no windows, only a TV behind a steel box so it cannot be pulled down.
After my allergic reaction last summer, I can still feel lingering claustrophobia at times, and I had to ignore those feelings while waiting with a family member for six hours for the crisis team to arrive. I wondered if the holding unit felt like a jail cell to patients? Did they feel the walls caving in like I did? Did they crave sunlight? Fresh air? Or were white walls a safe cocoon to shut out the outer world when their inner world became too much?
Returning home each day, I sowed seeds under a crisp blue sky, the sun unfurling my arms and reminding me that I was alive. I was safe in the wide open world of possibilities, and my mind was quiet. The ability to straddle the two worlds temporarily is a gift and a responsibility.
My irises and peonies began to bloom. The garden keeps moving forward, knowing there is time to rest and time to bloom.
Returning to teaching each day, my high school seniors, AP juniors, and colleagues were a respite. One of my colleagues, another avid gardener, divided and shared a bunch of hostas with me.
I planted some of them under the tree in my yard. The rest will be squeezed into my shade garden.
I waved to seniors, signed yearbooks, and wished them a bright future.
After school, I visited the crisis center and played gin rummy to help pass the time and provide something external for my family member to focus on each day.
We put so much pressure on the word HELP, but often in order to help someone get through a tough time, you just have to show up and do ANYTHING and talk about ANYTHING as a temporary distraction while they wait for professional care.
Then on my drive home, I jammed to 80s rock and 90s pop because laughter and movement are the best medicines and forms of self-care.
By the end of the week, I watched my youngest head off to the senior prom in an emerald green gown, smiling and ready to spread her wings.
Life in the contrasts. Expanding and contracting. Reaching for the sun. Resting in the shadows.
Feelings are like clouds. You watch them drift past, experience the change in temperature, acknowledge their arrival, and then expect their future departure. Feelings aren’t forever, although in the moment it often feels that way. This too shall pass.
Every day, I made time to return to the garden. I stuck my hands in soil to ground myself to this earth and this precious and resilient thing called life.
My family member is now back at their home and more stable. I will continue to visit and find small moments to pass the time together.
I hope they remember the sun, soon.
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