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

29 Comments

  1. As usual, such a fiercely courageous post. So relieved to receive your blog email…the Sunday mornings without them were like a punch in the gut. Thank you for sharing your experience & strength. Sending so much love your way, Amy (and Bill)….grateful for you both beyond words.

  2. Dear Amy,
    I saw your last installation. Memory, in Lewiston and was deeply moved by it. I have written and spoken about and treated people with flashbacks and memories of horrible abuse, and it did not go unnoticed by me that I was rendered totally nonverbal by your powerful work. I wanted to speak with you as a fellow artist (I’m a writer) as I might have when I was working the field of abuse, exploring shamanic and artistic responses and being an activist, but I could not get out of my skin. Saying that, I am not surprised but so so sorry that you are going through such a wretched and rough time in the aftermath of the 18-year series completion. You must be mentally, physically, and spiritually exhausted.
    As a survivor, former energy healer and support group facilitator (20 years ago at ChildHelp USA in Los Angeles) for adult survivors, I have some notion of the pain and altered reality you’re struggling with( indeed, your show mirrored it to me in fascinating ways). Including how lonely and frightening it feels in the body and spirit, alternating with how fascinating and mysterious to the mind. I encourage you to get some bodywork/energy work and/or deep embodied ceremonial engagement with another/others who are comfortable in the Void, along with all the other things you are doing in the medical and therapeutic fields. I promise you it will help. Never forget that healing is possible.

    In solidarity with healing and art,
    Kathryn Robyn

  3. Amy,
    Thank you for sharing your words of courage on your latest “artist residency.” You are one of those people who show us the fear and trials so many live with. You are an amazing artist story teller. I left with tears in my eyes when I heard you speak at the conclusion of your last installation. Perhaps the space you are in currently is a summary to that project. An artist’s work is never done. Glad to know you are back on the path with those who love you. The studio will wait for you.

  4. Thank you for sharing the fears and trials so many experience. You are an amazing artist story teller. I left with tears in my eyes when I heard you speak of your last installation. Perhaps the place you are in is the conclusion to this last project. Good to know you are on the path with those who love you. Your studio will wait.

  5. Hi Amy, thank you for sharing. How courageous you are. Keep fighting for yourself the light within, understanding and accepting the shadow parts. My prayers are with you.

  6. I feel the connections that link Artist Residency to How to be a Cat to John Nash. I love you, your mind, and how you share your beautiful self.
    Peace and catnaps
    xo kris

  7. Amy,

    L.O.V.E. you!!

    Peter just read this post to me, and we both send you our deepest love and friendship. And care. We are thankful that you are on the other side of this, and that Bill is your constant companion. It takes such strength not only to go through what you’ve been through, but to do clearly write about the experience.

    Your honest and clear words will help many people, and that’s a gift few have.

    Thank you for that, and know that we are here when and if you ever need us.

    Xxxoooo
    Laura

  8. Now I know my sense of “something’s wrong” has come from a very real place. Holding you and Bill close in my heart and so hoping you find a path to peace that includes self-acceptance, love and creativity.

    1. Jill, thank you for expressing that. You’ve captured what I couldn’t make sense of, but it has been gnawing at me over the past month. Amy and Bill, I am without words but so love you both.

  9. Yes. You are never alone with the dark place voice.
    I’m speaking here for many. Amy, Bill, just ask— we are all here.
    Here for you both.
    I will donate this morning.
    Keep asking for whatever help you need.
    I love you both.

  10. Amy we all care for you. And respect and admire your installation work. So sorry you are going through this difficult time. Thank you for sharing this crystal clear explanation of what its like.

  11. Wishing you a little more pink and two and one half pounds or one kilo of sparkle. May blessings fall around you like a soft rain.

  12. Amy, I am so sorry that you are going through this desperate time. I’ve been there…you describe the feelings so perfectly…it could be me. I’m so glad you have Bill. I have Steve.
    The brick wall and what lies behind it will be dealt with and destroyed. The light will come again. Today and tomorrow are new and those things from the past will be but a memory. You will be in my thoughts.

  13. Dear Amy–

    I acknowledge and commend your courage in sharing so openly about this painful development in your life. As always, you respond as an artist. This is what I admire so much about you–your commitment to your art and how it shows u in your life.

    I’m not surprised that you experienced depression following the completion of your 18 year series of biennials, but I did not expect the depths of despair that it led you to. I commend your commitment to seeking the support you need and I eagerly await the next phases of your artistic career.

    Know that your life, your example, your art are important to me personally and to so many others. I am sending prayers and good vibes your way and looking forward to future installments of the artist plan.

  14. Amy…warm thoughts and love in your direction. You have touched and inspired many, artists and the public, with your epic art installations. This activity/past work of yours continues to resonate through the many who have been fortunate enough to experience it first hand. We all live and breath together with you. As an artist I understand the difficulties of post-exhibition depression. I wish that you could reward yourself by indulging in pampering, relaxing and letting go of the impulse to create for a period, so that you can heal. Please know that we all love you!!!!!

  15. Amy…you don’t know me but I know of your work. Months ago I tried several times to get to your Memory exhibit in Maine and was unable to make it happen. An artist friend of mine had experienced it and said I needed to go…I started following you on Instagram and commented occasionally on your posts. Because my work (I to am an artist) often addresses memory I found myself thinking of you again last Fri and Sat. I looked up your site, ordered your biennial catalogue, started making a list of stuff to order from your Perpetual Yard Sale…I didn’t realize you had a blog..and once discovered I signed up to receive it and started to read it from the beginning. How generous you are! I was, quite literally, in the middle of writing to you (to thank you for your generosity, to order the professional development essays and explain how I was making my way straight through your posts)….when your latest blog post popped into my email. Stopped me cold. What a powerful, rawly honest and courageous post. As a former social worker/therapist I find your willingness to speak openly and truthfully and with such clarity about what you are experiencing remarkable. I hesitated to post…you are clearly loved by many…and I do not actually know you. But I want you to know that you are important, your work is important, in ways in which you might not even be aware. I send you so much powerful energy and hope that you continue to squelch the imposter and find your way back to yourself, to emotional and physical peace and equilibrium, and to your work. I also fervently hope our paths cross in the future.

  16. This is such an honest and open-hearted account, Amy. I’m sorry for all you and Bill have been through, and wish you healing and peace as you recover. Much love, Dudley

  17. Dear Amy…my heart aches to hear of your struggle with such compelling thoughts of taking your life. Thank you for your utterly honest, brave, and articulate sharing. It sounds like you have caring support and I believe you will keep feeling better and get through this very difficult time. Much love and hugs, Sheila

  18. Amy, I am heartbroken to hear of this horrifying transition in your life. I believe the “after” will be filled once again with art and hope. Having gone through this with a loved one, I know how terrifying and discouraging this can be, but believe me, it DOES pass, it just takes time. I hope you have not ruled out ECT, which worked a miracle for my loved one after months of side-effect-ridden meds. I wish you peace, my fellow artist. I will be praying for you and your husband. With affection, Monica Wood
    P.S. “All will be well in the end; if all is not well, it is not yet the end.”

  19. We are here for you Amy. Thanks for being so brave and sharing your struggles. Much love from us and if we can do anything please ask and we will do what we can. Love from us to you, O+K

  20. Amy, thank you so much for your beautifully written post. I deeply appreciate the courage required to share this level of personal experience. I am also an artist and have experienced various levels of the “imposter” throughout my life. It’s a nasty creature that can mimic many things. Please know that you are supported and loved. I have the highest hopes for your recovery and wellness, and I am thinking great thoughts for you. 🙂

  21. I just wanted to thank all who have and will comment here. Your words give Bill and me both strength. Your words also pulled away the fear I felt when I uploaded this post. I knew that even though I was afraid, sharing this information was important, could help someone. Love to you all. Amy

    1. Amy, Your courage is as epic as your work. Richard and I read your recounting of your struggle together and are both deeply moved. Thank you for sharing so vividly. No matter what happens you are still you, the brilliant, sensitive creative spirit who manages to communicate on a deep level. My heart is with you, stay well, feel loved. Nora

  22. Amy:
    You are courageous.
    You are stronger than you know.
    You are a Survivor and a Warrior.
    You are a Champion of your Soul.
    You give us all Hope.
    You arenot Alone.

  23. Dear Amy,
    Even when we feel alone in the enormity of our suffering and may not know it, that suffering is held by a larger field of care. I feel that field in the responses to your courageous post. I am adding my voice and love and support to that field. Thank you for connecting with all of us from that dark place that feels so isolated. I feel your post as a great act of love from your big courageous heart. With love and all the support I can offer.

    1. Dear Arline and Amy:
      I so agree with you Arline. I’d like to add my support to the Universal field of care and compassion for the deep and dark places that feels as you said so isolating. Blessings, Nanci

  24. Dearest Amy, thank you for bravely sharing this important writing. I hope and pray that it will work for healing for you, and will help others who are struggling with this cruel illness. Please know that you and Bill are loved and held up in prayer this day and always.

  25. Amy, thank you so much for this post. I cried through a good section of it, transported to the time my husband took a new medicine prescribed to him and on the same day told me that he was afraid he might take his life; he asked me to take him to the emergency room. He had to spend a couple nights in the ER security ward (guarded rooms without windows) as well before a room opened up at the psychiatric ward..
    Him and I have not been brave enough to share what happened with our friends or family except for his mother and one of his siblings. It has been very lonely.
    I think it is so important that you have shared this post with the public. I hope that you and Bill find healing soon – much much love to you both. For my husband, it took a couple years coming off all medication he was prescribed (before and after hospitalization) – and that made him well.
    Thank you so much for using your beautiful writing skills to share this with the world. This means a lot. Thank you.

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