Mental health famously has a stigma around it. We are more likely to call in sick with a cold, than to say we're depressed. We are more likely to get sympathy for a broken arm, than we are for a bout of debilitating sadness. But we know these things are real and they affect all of us in some form or another. Yet, because we can't see depression, it's easier to write off. It's easier for people to put a negative stereotype on you. This is one of the biggest lies in society today.
The very mention of mental health scares people. We hear the words "mental health," and suddenly that person is unpredictable and unreliable. People's lives and jobs become at risk.
We are not as in control of our thoughts as we would like to believe, but we are also in control of our thoughts more than we know. What a dichotomy. How can you be in control and out of control at the same time? My belief is, the less we know about our own minds and how they work, the more out of control we feel. The more scared we are of ourselves, the more we will judge other people and their struggles. We aren't responsible for our depression in that we are to blame, but we are responsible for our emotions, because we are the only ones who can change them.
I am not a mental health expert, but I can share with you one of my experiences with it. When I was 22, I willingly checked myself into a psychiatric hospital, and I have absolutely no shame about it. Looking back, it was the worst, best thing that ever happened to me.
It was morning; I felt as though I had been hit by a truck. Then with an almost hysterical acceptance, without thinking, I picked up the phone. It was one of those moments when you have a choice that goes beyond the initial choice you make by calling out for help: You can not die, or you can come back to life. "Mom?... It's me… I just tried to kill myself... I need to go to a hospital." When I said I needed to go to a hospital, I did not mean I needed to go for any physical injuries I may or may not have had. I meant a hospital for my state of mind.
Soon, I was in a car, taking me to my mother. Oh, the dread I felt in my heart. My poor mother. What was she thinking? How was she feeling? My god, she must be hysterical. She's going to be hysterical. When I saw her, I expected her to collapse in my arms in a pool of tears. I would hold her and tell her I was okay. This is how much I worried about others and not myself. I had almost died, but the guilt and responsibility I felt toward others was so extreme.
I hadn't eaten or slept in three days. I felt like if you'd dropped me I would shatter. I felt like nothing. But not in a way of despair like the night before. Instead, it was like I was a newborn who could barely open their eyes yet. I called my father. "Are you tired?" he asked delicately. "Yes, Dad… I'm so tired," I said holding back tears.
The beautiful thing about being at the bottom is there is nowhere to go but up. I wasn't supposed to be alive, so nothing I did at that point mattered. I had already proven to myself nothing mattered. So, I may as well surrender. I had to be vulnerable and give up some control. I had to put my shame and my pride aside. What did I have to lose? Forget the past, stop thinking about the future, and in the words of Beatrix Kiddo, just "wiggle your big toe."
For the first time in my entire life, I asked for help. I admitted I could not go on without someone intervening, to pick me up off the floor. I had collapsed under the stress and pressure of being alive. My white flag was up. But dying didn't work. Now, I must tell you, I don't recommend having a near-death experience, at all, but I can tell you that many people who do come back end up with a very different perspective on life.
I finally pulled up to my mother's car in a parking lot on the side of the road. We met halfway because neither of us could wait for the other one to get to them. I remember when I saw her it took my breath away. Just the night before, I had said goodbye to her in my mind. I didn't think I would ever see my family again. Now the first face I laid eyes on, like the day I was born, was my mother's. I was surprised because my mother looked more focused than I had ever seen her. She looked strong and protective. She wasn't hysterical at all. She walked right over to me and wrapped her arms around me, so tightly. My mother had held me before, but this felt different. She really had me. She had me, and nothing was going to hurt me. Not while she was there. I remember hugging her in shame and in shock. I hadn't thought I would ever touch anyone again. I heard her saying to me in a voice that was stern but comforting, "You're okay... You're okay." Turns out I would be the one who collapsed in a pool of tears. "What do you need?" my mother asked. After a moment I said desperately, "A burger. All I want is a burger."
Two burgers, two tacos, and a quesadilla later, at a truck stop, she finally asked, "Why? Why did you feel like you needed to do that?" After a moment I said, "I just wanted some peace." And that was true. My mind was not a peaceful place. My mind at the time was filled with scars and shadows and, most importantly, so much shame. I was struggling with PTSD and didn't know it. PTSD is considered a mental illness; it can be caused by a number of things and is not limited to brave service people. My PTSD was caused by multiple rapes and a severely abusive relationship that went on for years.
These are some of the symptoms of PTSD:
• Repeatedly thinking about the trauma
• Being constantly alert or on guard, and easily startled or angered
• Avoiding reminders of the trauma, like people or places
• Feeling emotionally numb, detached from friends and family, and lose interest in activities
• Panic attacks: a feeling of intense fear, with shortness of breath, dizziness, sweating, nausea, and racing heart
• Physical symptoms: chronic pain, headaches, stomach pain, gastrointestinal issues, tightness or burning in the chest, muscle cramps, or low back pain
• Feelings of mistrust in others
• Having problems functioning in your job, at school, or in social situations
• Substance abuse
• Problems with intimacy, or feeling detached from your family and friends
• Suicidal thoughts; thoughts about taking one's own life
I had struggled with anxiety and panic attacks during the course of my life, but this was a whole other level of fear. I heard my name in my ear while I slept, which would jolt me awake. In my hazy stupor, I would see shadows, figures of people in my room, I would scream and they would dissipate. I was afraid to be alone, but I also couldn't be around people. I could barely leave my own house. I was too afraid to go outside. I couldn't sleep because every little noise was deafening. I was defensive, I was impulsive, and I had no healthy coping mechanisms yet. I lost friends. I lost job opportunities.
From the outside, I was just a reckless trainwreck. I did a lot of things I am not proud of, and I own that now. But I also forgive myself. I had not equated this to the trauma I had suffered. Nor did I know this was a symptom of anything, except me being crazy. Most of the time my suffering was equated to just "being crazy." I felt like because I was successful I couldn't complain about anything, and when I did, no one would take me seriously. What we see on the outside can be so different than what's really going on underneath the surface. Which is why we need to understand that "bad choices" are often a huge cry for help. Especially in young people who haven't had enough experience to manage their feelings.
I have the great privilege and terrible burden of being in the public eye. So getting help for a mental illness, is not something I can broadcast, because people are quick to jump on a dying animal and rip it apart, especially when that dying animal is a child actor having a breakdown. My character had already been dragged through the mud quite a bit in the press, and the main consensus was: "She's crazy." I had really started to believe this. Most of the time we don't see a person with a problem, we see someone we can tear down to make ourselves feel superior.
But I wasn't crazy, and I didn't need to be kicked while I was down—I needed help. I needed understanding. I needed to feel unconditional love. I needed to not be judged. Unfortunately, most of these things are impossible if word gets out you have a mental illness and you are a public figure. So when it came time to find a psychiatric hospital, my first concern—which most people won't have to worry about—was figuring out a way to get help without anyone finding out about it, because if they did, any chance I had at rebuilding myself would be severely impaired by the cruelty of strangers.
Now, one thing to know is, it's extremely hard to get good help for your mental health in a crisis—to get "good" mental help. When my mother and I got to her house, she called so many places. Nowhere had a bed. Not in time. Unless I wanted to go to a state mental hospital, which I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. I needed to find a place that had the right treatments for me and could take me immediately and discretely. It's harder than you think. I watched my mother weep after hanging up the phone for the fifth time saying to herself, "I just want to get my daughter help, why is this so hard?" If I didn't shell out a significant amount of money to snag a private room at a decent place, I don't know what I would have done. It certainly wasn't fancy by any means, but it was decent and it was safe.
Mental health shouldn't be a luxury for the rich. It felt like I barely made it in by the skin of my teeth—and I am privileged. Imagine how hard it is with no health insurance or money or resources?
My mother and I set out into the night to admit me to the psychiatric hospital. I was like a baby bird, severely underweight, wearing my mother's clothes that barely clung to me, and so weak it was hard to walk. We pulled up to the door. My mother was still collected and focused, and seemed both relieved and anxious to get me help. The women at the door greeted and showed us both to the room I would be staying in. The whole thing was surreal. I couldn't believe that in a few moments my mother would leave and I would be here. Not only would I be here, but I belonged here. That was the part I couldn't wrap my head around. How did this happen?
My room had a bed, a nightstand, a bathroom, and a desk. The windows overlooked a small courtyard, but they did not open, in order to protect the patients from themselves. A woman whose name escapes me now proceeded to ask me in-depth questions about my mental health, my background, childhood, drug use, etc. She asked my mother a few questions, but all I remember is my mother answering, "She never gave us any problems, she was… the perfect child." I could tell my mother felt guilty, for perhaps missing something she could have helped. After a few more questions, the woman gave a quick look to my mother, then back at me, "I have to ask you about sexual abuse now," she said.
My heart sank, my mother politely excused herself so as not to make me uncomfortable, and probably for her own sanity, then I proceeded to share with this new person all the trauma I could remember or had processed enough to identify as abuse. A lot of it was still buried, but I did my best. It's always difficult saying those things out loud. I hear myself saying the words, but it doesn't register. It feels like someone else talking through me. That can't be MY story. She then told me they had to take a photograph of me for their records. She did. When I looked at the photo, I didn't recognize the person in it. My makeup was smeared, my eyes looked dead, it looked like a mugshot. My heart sank again. How, how did I end up this way? Who was this person I had become?
The woman was very sensitive to my situation, so she let me choose an alias for both the staff to address me by and for my hospital bracelet. I thought for a moment about what I wanted to be called. I said the first thing I thought of, and that was it. The bracelet went on, my mother said her goodbyes, and I was alone.
I felt some relief at choosing this new name. I couldn't remember what it felt like to not be "Evan Rachel Wood"—so much of my self-worth was wrapped up in that. I didn't know who I was without it, more importantly, I was scared to find out if people still loved me when I wasn't something to be desired. When I was at my worst, was I still worthy? I was still unsure if people really loved me, for me.
At that moment two nurses walked into my room. They told me they needed to go through all of my belongings to make sure I wasn't smuggling drugs, weapons, or anything that could be used for self-harm. They took my foundation in the glass bottles, because glass can be shattered and used for harm. They took my mouthwash, because of the alcohol content, and the shoelaces from my Converse sneakers, which could be used to hang yourself. They gave me two rubber bands to place over my sneakers so they stayed on.
Then they told me I had to strip down naked, so they could inspect my body to make 100 percent sure I wasn't hiding anything. I did what they asked.
Although the nurses were very nice and put me at ease, I felt like I was being admitted to prison at this point. They proceeded to get on their knees and look closely at my body parts. I was cleared. I got dressed again. The nurses told me my things would be safe and returned when I was discharged. They gave me a rundown of the schedule—what time breakfast was, what time group meetings were, and what time lights out would be. You had to adhere to the schedule. No one was allowed out of bed when it was not authorized. They also told me that my door could not be completely closed and that someone would be checking on me every 15 minutes.
I said thank you, in a daze, and they left. The silence was deafening, but, I must be honest, I was so relieved to feel safe. To feel taken care of, and to feel like no one could find me and hurt me. I turned the lights off and crawled in bed. Before falling asleep, I noticed a night nurse shine a flashlight into my room every 15 minutes, like clockwork. Then I drifted off into a very heavy slumber.
I woke up to my mother stroking my head. She had put socks on my feet while I was sleeping and brought me some comfy clothes that fit. I remember feeling touched in a way I haven't felt in a while. I had rejected my mother's love while I was depressed. I was too angry and sad to accept it. But today, I couldn't have felt more special. I knew she didn't want me waking up alone my first night there.
When I was recovering, even the smallest act of kindness was like antiseptic on an open wound, I needed it, but it burned. It burned with shame and guilt. When you forget how to accept love it hurts when you finally do. Sometimes you don't know just how bad you felt until you start to feel better, and that can be a tough pill to swallow. You start to realize just how much you have been lying to yourself.
After my mother left, I didn't leave my bed all day. I was evaluated by two more people, one being a psychiatrist. After evaluating me she prescribed me some mood stabilizers and, because of my panic attacks, told me, whenever I was feeling too anxious or needed to sleep, I could ask the nurse who was in charge of medications to give me a pill that would calm me down. They told me about the group therapy, which at first sounded awful to me. I didn't want to see other people, and I was also too insecure to show my face. I slept for another two days.
After my eyes finally opened, I looked out the window. I saw trees and heard the birds. It was beautiful. Like I had never seen or heard them before. I had been too consumed with darkness to notice them for what seemed like years. I looked at the time, it was lunch. I was going to leave my room, which meant braving the other patients. I didn't know what to expect. All I had seen of psychiatric hospitals was Girl Interrupted and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I had no idea what I was walking into.
I decided I needed to reinvent myself for the time being. I wasn't Evan Rachel Wood, I was this other name. Who was I in here, without any of that hanging over my head? Without all of that pressure to be perfect? I put on some lipstick and pinned up my hair up in a way I felt looked tough. I didn't know if I needed to puff up a bit, so as not to be messed with. I had a pair of small sunglasses I put on so as to hide my face more. I hesitated for a second, Does this make me look weird? Then I caught myself, and laughed: No dude, you're in a mental hospital. You'll just be the weird girl who never takes her sunglasses off. That can be your thing. And it was.
I slowly crept out of my room. There was a long hallway with a railing, and a small stretcher I noticed had straps on it, in case a patient needed to be restrained. I swallowed hard. It was still difficult to walk, so I started slow, holding onto the railing. I made it to the window, where patients were lined up to get their meds and have their blood pressure checked—a part of the daily routine. So far, everyone at least looked relatively normal. I made my way past the group therapy room, down the stairs, where the mess hall and the TV room was. The TV room had a big couch, and a piano tucked away in the corner, next to the coffee station. Past that was a sort of porch, with big windows, where crafts and games were. Painting, cards, Connect Four, coloring, things that you would find in an elementary school. Past that was our only door to the outside. The courtyard, which had a lawn, some park benches, and an area with tables and chairs, which was mainly for smoking. Lots and lots of smoking.
I went into the mess hall to grab some food. I immediately started talking to the girl next to me. We made some silly comment about the dessert and decided to sit together. One of the other patients quickly joined us. I was taken aback by how welcoming everyone was. I was a new recruit, and I could tell that was a big deal and people were curious about me. We went around the table getting to know each other a bit. I remember feeling immediately at ease. There was nothing to hide, nothing to peacock, no pressure to be liked. We all knew we were in the same boat, which wasn't a great one, so no one cared to put up a front. It was refreshing. I got the impression right away that all the patients held a special bond, which was almost instantaneous because we shared this one thing in common: We needed help to survive. It felt like we were the siblings, and the doctors and nurses were our parents. We loved them, but we were the rascals in a special fort of our own.
A woman came up to me and said she was cold and could she borrow my sweater. I said sure, she told me she would be back, and walked away. "Don't give her your sweater," the girl next to me said. "She's going to steal it." I found out later the woman who asked for my sweater had lived on the street for years and had a bad meth addiction. All her hair had been chopped off. She said it was because people had grabbed her hair and mugged her in the past, cutting it all off was a way of defending herself.
After that, I spent most of my time on the patio smoking. That's where the patients really get to know each other. We shot the shit, we were brutally honest, but, most of all, we were incredibly loving and empathetic to each other, even when we disagreed or someone lost their shit. We forgave, very easily. One day when I went to sit down for a cigarette, I was immediately yelled at by a woman, insisting I could not sit there because her husband was already sitting there. The chair was empty. My reality set in. We were not in Kansas anymore. I got to know the Vietnam vet, the young mother, the struggling artist, the yoga teacher. All with a deep dark painful secret they held. Some of them had been here before, some were doing court-mandated stays, some were addicts, But our wing of the building was for Mental Health. The alcoholics and drug addicts were kept in a separate wing. We would occasionally see them on the other side of the fence, but we all felt that we were looked down upon and feared.
Every day the routine was the same. Wake up, get your meds, eat breakfast, get your daily evaluation, watch a bit of TV, and go to bed, taking smoke breaks in between them all. I was told to drink Ensure to build my muscle mass back up, and, for the first time in a long time, I ate whatever the hell I wanted. Two desserts? Gluten? Dairy? Fuck it. Done.
My mother, brother, and a few of my friends made sure to visit occasionally. I was happy to see them but slightly shy. Someone always brought me a pack of smokes, which I happily shared with the other patients. Cigarettes can make you very popular in a mental hospital. We would play cards and have a few cigarettes. Then they would be on their way.
I tried some arts and crafts, but my hands were too weak to hold anything still. I colored a picture in for my sister, but it looked like a child had done it. I couldn't stop shaking enough to stay in the lines. It was a hard thing to accept, just how broken I was.
After a few days of meandering, I decided to give the group therapy a try. Mainly out of boredom and curiosity. I walked into a small room and sat down in one of the chairs that were laid out in a circle. Some familiar faces walked in. The yoga teacher and the Vietnam vet stood out to me. It was a day for sharing. Everyone was to go in a circle and explain how they got here. Shit. Here we go. I was embarrassed. I didn't think my story was bad enough. I thought everyone would roll their eyes and, in comparison, my story would fail to measure up to the others. I listened to the Vietnam vet speak about his heroin addiction and PTSD. My heart broke when the yoga teacher, who never stopped smiling, even when she had side effects due to wrongly prescribed medication and moved with a stiff body and hands, like a robot, for a week, told the group she had been brutally raped by a security guard. She explained the rape was so bad, her uterus fell out and, because she believed in homeopathic remedies, she healed herself by inserting an apple into her vagina to put her uterus back in place. I was floored. This woman had been through so much in such a short amount of time, and was still smiling. Her light had not gone out. She hadn't lost hope. I was beyond inspired and also horrified that something so awful could happen to someone so lovely. Then it was my turn. I took a breath and told the group a bit about my life, my abuse, and my suicide attempt. When I looked up, I saw a few faces in the room, crying. They were moved by my story. I was confused. Was I not as awful as I thought? Were my feelings, dare I say, valid? A piece of my soul returned. It's bad enough feeling sad, but feeling ashamed for feeling sad makes things so much worse. It was a great burden lifted from my shoulders that day.
I continued to walk up and down the hall holding onto the railing. Every day I got a little stronger. I finally made it to the stairs. I walked up a few steps, then a little more, then a little more, until one day, I reached the top. I burst into tears. If I could climb these stairs, I could do anything! Another piece of my soul returned.
The most solace I got was when the piano man would visit the hospital. Everyone would gather in the TV room, and he would sing for us. He also had a stack of sheet music the patients could go through in case they wanted to belt out a song. I hadn't been able to sing well for a while because of nodes on my vocal cords, which also contributed to my depression. Losing my voice was like losing my soul. It's how I expressed myself the best. I finally got up the nerve to go up and sing with a couple of patients who I now considered friends. The struggling artist was my favorite. He would often sketch rooms and other people in the hospital, and he was quite good. His personality was just a little… off. That was his only problem. He couldn't quite function well enough on his own. He didn't seem violent. Maybe just too sensitive for this world. When we got up to sing "Old Time Rock 'n' Roll," he held one ear and belted out slightly off time and out of tune, but it was amazing. He just went for it. It was great to be around. Afterward, a few patients commented on my voice: "Do you sing? Because you should."
I was taken aback. A compliment from people who had no idea who I was. That was new and special to me, because it was genuine. I knew that no one wanted anything from me. Another little piece of my soul came back.
One night towards the end of my stay, someone asked me to get up and sing a song. I was feeling a lot on this night, reflecting on my time there so far. I sifted through the stacks of sheet music and landed on one of my favorite songs ever written, "Smile" by Charlie Chaplin. I closed my eyes and started to sing. When I opened them, this room of pained souls was quiet and listening to the words: "Smile, though your heart is aching/ Smile, even though it's breaking/ When there are clouds in the sky, you'll get by."
Time stopped and, for a moment, I felt my soul come back. I was starting to feel like me again.
When my time was almost up, I felt conflicted about leaving. Of course, you want to get out of there, but it's the first place where I had felt safe and taken care of for some time. It's scary to imagine going back into the world to fend for yourself again. You worry about the future and if you can sustain a normal life. I was also going to miss the other patients. I would most likely never see them again, but we had just shared a space so intimate and personal.
I made a bracelet in crafts for the Vietnam vet, which ended up being too small but he insisted on wearing it. I could tell it meant a lot to him and he was moved. This man and I were separated by age and had very different experiences, but we also had so much in common. Being at this place showed me I had much more in common with people than I realized. It also taught me that people could love me, for me, and nothing else. It taught me I was much more resilient than I thought, and that I could laugh again. It taught me that all I needed to feel safe, was a roof over my head, good company, and some warm socks on my feet.
On my last day there, while I was having a cigarette outside on a bench, the psychiatrist who gave me my daily evaluations came over and sat beside me. She asked me how I was feeling and if I was ready to leave. I told her I was scared but that I felt like I was in a better place and ready to do the work I needed to do. At the end of our conversation, she leaned over and said, "Can I tell you something now that you're leaving? I didn't want to mention it before." I said, "Sure." "When I was in school, I saw the movie Thirteen, and it made me want to get into this line of work to help people. You're why I'm here."
I had felt worthless, and like the world was better off without me. But it turned out I had helped myself in a way I never thought was possible. I gave to someone who then gave back to me. And for the first time in years, I felt like maybe things did happen for a reason. Maybe there was a reason why my attempt didn't work. Maybe I was supposed to be here.
"Thank you," I told her. My belongings were returned, I said my goodbyes, and took my first steps into a new life.
Sometimes I feel like a version of me did die that night, but a new me was born. Now my life is in a place I could have only dreamed of because I committed to do the work and I continue that work every day of my life in every step I take.
I have continued my therapy. Eventually, I weaned myself off of medication, because I felt like, once I was on my feet, I didn't like the way it made me feel, or how it made me not feel. It got me where I needed to be, and now I am able to cope on my own. This is not true for everyone, but it is not something to be ashamed of. Everyone is different and needs different things.
I am not always perfect, I am not always at my best, I still struggle with my PTSD, but I know that I will get through it. I have better tools now to get through what seem like the impossible times, and most importantly, I know my worth.
There is no economic class, race, sexuality, or gender that is safe from their own mind. We know success doesn't cure depression, we know that people telling you they love you doesn't cure depression, we know that just thinking positively doesn't cure depression. Depression isn't weakness, it's a sickness. Sometimes a deadly one. And sometimes all people need is to know that they are loved and that others are there for them. They may not take your hand right away, but knowing it's there could save their life one day.
Or who knows, you might help save your own.