Battling Suicidal Psychosis In A Psychiatric Ward (A Different Kind Of Artist Residency)

A Different Kind Of Artist Residency: Battling Suicidal Psychosis In A Psychiatric Ward
To stay safe, I colored a lot during my “artist residency” in the psychiatric ward.

This post is about the whats (and whens) of my sudden, ongoing battle with a suicidal psychosis, as well my 2.5-week stay in a psychiatric ward. The whys I’m just starting to understand and will likely not share publicly until a future book.

When I completed my 18-year project on October 31, 2016 (9 solo-biennial exhibits of interactive installation art in 9 abandoned Maine mill spaces), I entered into a 3-month depression.

I’d been working proactively since 1995 toward healing from 18 years of severe trauma (sexual, physical, emotional abuse): undertaking 11+ years of counseling; several years of healing body work; and 11 months of intense Eye-Movement Desensitization Therapy (EMDR)—all to recover from depression and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD).

I didn’t make the connection between the 18-year durations of my long-term work and my long-term trauma until 2016, while exploring interactive installation through the context of memory for my 9th and final solo biennial.

From the start, my counselors and I knew I might have unconsciously set out to keep myself busy with my 18-year project as a way to set aside aspects, feelings, even blocked memories from my trauma—things my mind felt I wasn’t ready to face.

As I approached the end of my 18-year project, I did unblock previously blocked trauma (through my EMDR), and felt that over the 18 years I’d worked as much as anyone could to process my trauma as a whole. I was happy, and free from the heavy weight of my past. 

However, I anticipated I’d have some sadness around finishing my opus.

A Different Kind Of Artist Residency: Battling Suicidal Psychosis In A Psychiatric Ward

Bringing each solo biennial in turn to completion had been my primary focus and discipline as an artist since 1998 (8-to-14 hours a day; 7 days a week; each exhibit 22 months of work), and now this process was complete as planned.

By the end of a 3-month, I’m-conscious-of-the-fact-I’m-depressed, post-project depression (from November 1, 2016 to January 31, 2017), when I felt I’d gone through the 5 stages of grief around finishing my opus (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), I had concerns I might still be in denial.

For the whole month of February 2017—as I started working again in my studio in our home in Lyman, Maine—I felt a veil of sadness, what I was calling “my last little bit of grief.”

My studio felt like I was moving into it for the first time, stepping into a room which was, until recently, another’s space. 

But, soon I was making new work, coming to new ideas, experimenting, in what was starting to feel like my own studio again.

A Different Kind Of Artist Residency: Battling Suicidal Psychosis In A Psychiatric Ward

On the second day of March, I made the decision to go on antidepressants. After all the work I’d done to heal from my trauma, I didn’t want to settle for anything less than to feel as happy and at peace as possible. 

I wanted to make my new work from this happiest place, rather than through this thin, sometimes thicker “veil” of grief.

I made a pact with myself to speak to my primary care physician within the next few months about trying my first antidepressant. I knew it could be a while before I started to feel its affects, also to know whether this particular antidepressant worked for me. 

However, just 6 days later, something was wrong.

On March 8, 2017, a larger part of my mind became determined to end my precious life. It set out to end all I had worked toward, to end my time with my beloved husband and family, to end myself, and to end my chance to continue to make all I could make as an artist.

This suicidal compulsion was not something I could control, nor something I wanted to have happen. This was a palpable “other” in my brain, the imposter, and it held only this one goal—to end me.

The smaller part of my mind, the me, became determined to save my life, to do all it could to sabotage this larger part of my brain before the imposter could take over, take hold, and drive my body to do the unimaginable.

My husband Bill, begged me to fight, never left my side, and called my doctor first thing in the morning.

A Different Kind Of Artist Residency: Battling Suicidal Psychosis In A Psychiatric Ward

I was prescribed my first antidepressant on March 9th, assigned a social worker who the next day would begin monitoring my progress, and we were told my suicidal thoughts could worsen before they improved.

My doctor encouraged us to call if things deteriorated, providing a local hotline number for after hours.

On March 10th the imposter seemed to calm and rest; it seemed even absent. I wondered if my mind just needed this simple new plan, to be on these antidepressants, to know I was in safe hands?

On Saturday, March 11th, the imposter had awoken by lunch, and by 7:30pm had set out to overpower me completely. However, the me, the smaller part of my mind, the saboteur, pulled me toward my husband, opened my mouth, and spoke: 

“We need to call the hotline.”  

The crisis worker on my phone suggested we come immediately to their center where she assessed I should just as quickly be admitted.

As we waited for a room to open in a psychiatric ward, I spent this Saturday night in an emergency room, then Sunday night in a security ward—a small, heavily-guarded wing with no windows and virtually empty rooms.

Any time I was idle, the larger part of my brain, the imposter, studied my environment, looking at every square inch of my surroundings, seeking every possible tool I could use to end my life.

The imposter wasn’t interested in the ways I could hurt myself; it was obsessed with any and all the ways I could make myself dead.  

In the emergency room, any time I wasn’t talking to the nurses and other staff, the imposter was looking at all the wires and hooks on the machinery—planning.

In the security ward, when I wasn’t watching the television (built into the wall far overhead so you could not harm yourself with this distracting object), the imposter was designing a way I could hang myself from my bed using only the scrubs into which I was made to change after searched.

In the emergency room, a second doctor (through a “Skype Psyche” session) explained that typically, people don’t feel adverse worse suicidal thoughts until 2 weeks after they’ve begun taking antidepressants—that more likely, what was happening to me, was what was going to happen.

Monday, March 13th, a room opened in a psychiatric ward 2.5 hours from my home and my husband. I was transferred there by ambulance.

By the time I arrived at the ward (with nothing but time to think during the long ambulance ride), the larger part of my brain had progressed so far in its thoughts, that I’d said my goodbyes to my work as an artist, then my goodbyes to everyone close to me in my life, then goodbye to my husband.

Finally I said goodbye to myself.

A Different Kind Of Artist Residency: Battling Suicidal Psychosis In A Psychiatric Ward

Upon meeting the psychiatric ward’s receptive, caring staff, the smaller part of my brain regained a glimmer of consciousness and started to advocate again for my life.

As I was shown my room, and the orientation staff explained their every-15-minute room checks, the smaller part of my brain made me look up, opened my mouth, and spoke: 

“I am the best planner you will ever meet.”

The smaller part of my brain didn’t now explain I’d just completed a most-ambitious, 18-year, artist’s opus; 

but it made this I’m-the-best-planner point clear:

“Every 15 minutes, I’ll be moving forward with whichever plan I choose to pursue, what I determine as the simplest plan in this particular room, getting everything ready. And when everything’s in place, at the start of a final 15-minute check, I’ll set this plan in motion having all 12 or 13 remaining minutes in which to die.”

As soon as we had entered my room, the larger part of my brain was scanning every inch, seeking the tools: the bed on wheels, my new scrub pants, and the highest hinge on my bathroom door (well over my head). The imposter had a plan to end my life in this particular space in under 15 seconds.

The smaller part of my brain, the me still left, did explain I was creative, “I’m a sculptor” (assuming the psychiatric ward staff wouldn’t know what an “installation artist” was), “I can calculate a way to end my life in any room.”

“I cannot be left alone for any amount of time.”

So I wasn’t.

A Different Kind Of Artist Residency: Battling Suicidal Psychosis In A Psychiatric Ward

I would remain in the psychiatric ward for 2.5 weeks, confined for most of this time to a specific part of the floor (the “common area” in front of the nurse’s station), locked out of my room during the day, my bed at night directly across from all nurses’ eyes.

Whenever I used my bathroom, I was accompanied by a nurse or “tech” on the other side of the door. When I knew I’d be sitting a while, I offered to the nurse or tech a children’s book a friend had given me about How To Be A Cat.

I kept my mind busy (doing puzzles; coloring with crayons—it wasn’t until toward the end of my stay I felt safe to hold sharp objects like colored pencils and forks; and playing Scrabble with or without other patients, never keeping score, some patients building words, the most ill placing tiles randomly), to keep the larger part of my brain from focusing on all the things I could use in this common space to end my life (the imposter always knew the location of the colored pencil bucket).

Meanwhile, the staff tried to determine the correct ratio of drugs to keep the imposter at bay—a careful, trial and error process—to find the right mixture of sleeping (to sleep more than 4 hours total), antidepressant, and antipsychotic drugs.

As I reported how I felt each day, the staff adjusted my meds accordingly. 

A Different Kind Of Artist Residency: Battling Suicidal Psychosis In A Psychiatric Ward

By now me and the staff were all calling this sudden, larger-brain imposter a “suicidal psychosis.” I appreciated this term, as it made clear that I didn’t want to kill myself. It was a part of my brain that wanted to end my life. 

A “drug-naive” (when the patient has never before taken drugs) and mind-body-connection-sensitive person, I seemed to feel each new drug’s side effects as well as its progress through my body.

Upon taking the smallest dose of Vistaril (a sleeping med), I thought I was having an allergic reaction. I was actually feeling its buzzing, tingling spread from my mouth, to my tongue, to my throat, to the front of my neck, to my torso, to the inside of my legs, to the inside of my arms…

My tongue wasn’t swelling; I was feeling the whole of my tongue for the first time. It seemed huge in my mouth…

The smallest doses of Risperidone (an antipsychotic drug) now keeping my psychosis behind a floor-to-ceiling brick wall in my mind, caused for 2 weeks of my stay, a severe, involuntary movement of all my muscles, as well as a disconnect between my brain and my speech. 

From when I woke until just before lunch (what I’ve always considered my peak creative-juice time), the line between my brain and body was fractured and twisted. My legs, arms, and head, rocked, shook, and twitched. And, when I tried to talk, each word was a struggle to free. 

This was the scariest part of how this particular drug mixed with my particular make-up.

When I spoke, I thought of what I wanted to say at my normal pace. The words would then come out in the order I thought of them, but the durations between each word were much longer and never the same, chaotic.

This was much like the 9 marbles in flux I—1 of 9 interactive installations presented at my 2nd solo biennial MOVEMENT (Old Sebago Shoe Mill, Westbrook, Maine, 2002)—participants asked to insert 9 marbles at a consistent pace into a 150-foot circuit of pipe, and to listen to their 45-second return.

No matter how consistently the marbles were inserted, they exited the end of the pipe randomly, this chaotic sound filling the mill.

As I heard words exit my mouth and fill the space of each room, each word alone in air, I wondered if I would get my regular way of speaking back.

From ~11 am and ~4 pm, the line seemed to connect again and to untwist. I could walk, move my arms, legs, and head voluntarily. And, my words came through my lips as fast as I could think them.

From ~4 pm to bedtime, the line disconnected and twisted once again, with the added symptom of losing time. I would lose myself for long moments, staring beyond a point in this space. I don’t know where I would go.

At its worst moments, I lost control of the muscles in my face, as well as all ability to think, terrified the first time this peak side-effect occurred. 

I went up to the nurses’s station (with great difficulty; I was the herky-jerky-est zombie having to steady myself with every table, chair, and counter between where I sat and their desk) and asked:

“Do you understand the words coming out of my mouth?” 

I thought I was having a stroke, my face pulling right, over and over again sometimes freezing there, unable to hold a thought in my head (remembering my grandmother’s multiple “mini-strokes” and my mother’s warning “If you keep making that face it could get stuck like that!”).

When the staff took me off this particular antipsychotic drug to potentially try a different one, it took several days for the movement in my body to stop. 

On the last mornings of the antipsychotic’s side effects, my skin was a bottle, my head the cap. A fourth drug, Cogentin, was administered a few mornings to temporarily cease my tremors. This drug only contained my movement, trapped and shuddering within my body like a vast puddle vibrating with sound. 

A Different Kind Of Artist Residency: Battling Suicidal Psychosis In A Psychiatric Ward

Whenever my name was called at meal times along with each other patient’s name—so we could collect our food trays and eat together in the common room—I thought:

This is the most important “artist residency” in which I will ever take part.

As we sat and ate, we supported each other’s work. Whichever patients I sat with, we took turns listening without interruption. When it was your turn, you shared where you were in your own work process.

My hope was that with all my hard work I would leave this artist’s residency with the imposter gone from my mind—from wherever this imposter stemmed—or to have its thoughts under control, all without losing any of my physical, cognitive, nor creative function.

The night the antipsychotic drug was out of my system, I felt the bricks pull one-at-a-time from the wall in my mind, and the imposter’s suicidal thoughts return. 

But, the antidepressant seemed to be keeping the imposter’s thoughts pressed below a line above which I could act on them.

I was discharged from the psychiatric ward Thursday afternoon, March 30th, my psychosis still active. 

Whenever I’m still (and interestingly, riding in a car, and walking) the imposter thinks about ending my life. But, these thoughts are below that line. As long as they remain below the line I know I won’t act on them.

So, we are waiting and seeing. Meanwhile I touch base regularly with doctors, nurse practitioners, social workers, and counselors. And they touch base with me.

We are waiting to see if when the antidepressant takes larger effect (it can take 6 weeks before you feel an antidepressant’s full benefits), the antidepressant will press the imposter further down, so it’s a flash, a momentary picture in my mind. Or maybe it will be gone.

Or, perhaps like the Nobel-prize-winning mathematician John Nash, I will learn to live with the imposter as he did his hallucinations. 

Perhaps I will coexist with the thoughts and plans the imposter keeps finding and showing me, until we convince her there’s no need to end my life; I’m happy now. 

Or maybe I’ll learn how to ignore her, turn her into something else, or to switch her off.

We are hesitant to try a second antipsychotic drug, as we suspect I’d have another impossible-to-live-with side effect. 

But, if the imposter does rise again in my mind, above that line, putting me in I-feel-I-might-act danger, or if sharing my mind with the imposter is just too difficult, we have a second antipsychotic in mind to try.

Whatever happens, we are trying to take one day at a time. It’s all we can do right now. Thank you so much for reading and sharing this.

If you have interest in making a donation: gofundme.com/living-and-medical-expenses-for-amy (there are also several drawings available as well as “Perpetual Yard Sale” items).
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (24-hour): 1-800-273-8255