I was hospitalized in late December, 2019 for acute stress disorder, PTSD, severe depression, and what I didn't know then was the onset of Bipolar Disorder. It was horrible. I hadn't eaten well for months before hand and was just over 100 pounds when I went into the hospital. They didn't know that I had bipolar, so I was prescribed an antidepressant (very, very bad for bipolar disorder) that made me hallucinate flashes of light and made my skin feel like it was on fire for days. The antidepressants made me switch to a manic episode, and I spent the rest of my hospital stay unable to sleep or sit still. I faked my way out because my dad was dying, and I needed to at least make it to his bedside before it happened.
After my 9 days in inpatient, I transitioned to what is called an Intensive Outpatient Program connected to the same hospital. An IOP program is where you go 3-4 times a week for 3 hours each day. It involves group therapy, individual therapy, different therapeutic activities (mostly meditation and yoga, but sometimes art therapy), and regular sessions with a psychiatrist who manages your meds. My IOP program focused on PTSD and trauma. It included an in depth round of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Cognitive Processing therapy, psycho-education on why all of our brains/bodies were completely malfunctioning, and mindfulness exercises for re-wiring our nervous systems. I had one-on-one therapy once a week with a woman who specialized in Somatic Therapy. In my first few weeks I kept nearly blacking out in her office, she helped me (slowly and painstakingly) address the core memories of my PTSD with out fainting.
I still tear up when I think about this IOP program. It saved my life. My therapist would sit with me, with a metaphorical hand holding my head just above the water, and help me stay present (and safe) while recounting memories. During our most intense sessions, I would go to a safe-space in my mind (a beautiful creek with a waterfall) where I'd visualize all the different parts of myself, fragmented and desperate for healing.
During the daily group sessions, 15 or so of us would sit in a circle, most of us keeping disassociation at bay by fidgeting with different objects from a box in the middle of the room. Women would cycle in and out as they completed all of the sessions. The IOP program was extremely effective for most of us. Some women cycled through twice before "graduating." We were forbidden from actually speaking about the events that gave all of us PTSD until our very last weeks of the program, after we had sufficiently processed the hell out of thought lives using CPT worksheets and were all adept at "coming back to the present" using a mix of sensory exercises and breath work.
The first thing they taught us at the beginning of the program was how to breathe correctly. All of us were amazed to learn that we weren't breathing... almost at all... PTSD will throw you into the past and make you forget to breathe. With PTSD, all that matters is adrenaline, and adrenaline doesn't need air. As we learned how to breathe correctly, those bad memories would boomerang us into the past less and less. Breathing is like an anchor to the present. When my friends would ask what the IOP was like, I'd answer with "It's breathing school."
I knew I was healing when my stomach would grumble while recounting progressively worse memories. "Rest and Digest" is the state of being when you're calm- homeostasis. When you're at rest, your body will start to digest. If your stomach grows often, congratulations you have excellent mental health. After I heard my stomach growl while filling out a CPT form about "The Thing That Happened" that gave me PTSD, I sobbed on the couch. The next day, I bought art supplies. I hadn't made anything in months, and my mental breakdown meant that I had to move out of my studio. I set up some things in the living room of our new apartment and started to create- first some slow lines- breathe in- and then some more slow lines- breathe out. I found dirt in our yard and ground up some natural pigments from rocks I collected from the neighboring house's construction. Breaking apart and grinding the pigments was literally- grounding.
I worked on a series of pieces inspired by my nascent recovery. I lived in a state of weeping gratitude for my therapists, for all the friends that came to visit me in the hospital. I made a series of paintings, the first one pictures in this series the magnum opus of my thankfulness and relief. I'm not allowed to say which hospital that piece is hanging in, but I donated it to my IOP program. I made sure they knew I wasn't experiencing any significant kind of transference, and I haven't spoken to my therapists from that program in almost a year. That piece hangs in an office, and I hope that someone else is learning how to breathe with the help of it's lines and shapes.