'24 hours before this photo was taken, I was in a psych unit.'

This story discusses mental health and self harm. 

"You missed the turn-off," I told Mum as we veered away from the city.

"I’m not taking you home. You’re staying with me," she answered; the buildings now shrinking behind us.

My heart sank, but I didn’t argue. Because we’d been here before, on this same drive – a patient ID bracelet dangling from my wrist and a haze of benzodiazepines dulling the edges of everything.

I was 26 when I was first sectioned to the psychiatric unit. I didn’t know I was mentally ill; just that I was constantly terrified everyone I loved hated me and would leave me.

Whether it took the form of scraping untouched meals into the bin or deliberately inflicting pain on my body, my hospitalisations were always preceded by a riptide of self-loathing that hit after a rejection – a rejection that was embarrassingly sometimes not even real, but a type of abandonment my mind had convinced me was happening.

The psych ward was ironically, extremely depressing. Lying alone in a room stripped of anything someone might possibly Macgyver their way into using as an implement of self-destruction felt like being carried further out to sea, but somehow unable – or unwilling – to yell for help.

Watch: Let's talk about mental health. Post continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

A year after my first visit to the mental health unit, Brené Brown’s TED Talk, 'Listening To Shame', went viral. In the final minute of her speech, she talked about the power of empathy.

"If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can't survive."

At the time, I couldn’t grip onto it. Empathy and self-love seemed like things for people who posted motivational quotes to their Instagram grids and got revenge bodies following breakups. Not someone who’d had to have a psych nurse shadow them to the toilet after a love interest stopped answering their texts.

Eventually, I learned there was a name for this. A psychiatrist told me it was Borderline Personality Disorder, a mental illness characterised by an intense fear of abandonment, chronic feelings of emptiness, emotional dysregulation, and an unstable sense of self.

On the trip home from his office, I remember thinking over and over, "This isn’t me! It’s a thing IN me I can fix!". Separating it from myself was liberating and motivating.

From that point on, I devoured every book, podcast and article that might help me make sense of it. I enrolled in a year-long out-patient treatment program, attended therapy, and filled out at-home worksheets with the dedication of an athlete preparing for a competition; all the while yo-yoing wildly between body weights from different meds with varying side effects. (No big deal, but besides a rampant or non-existent appetite, you’ll also have to choose between being depressed or having a sex drive if you want pharmaceutical assistance. You can’t be greedy and have both.)


It sounds horribly cliche, but recovery really isn’t linear. Even after you learn the skills to let your body find the surface in a rip, there’ll still be occasions where you impulsively thrash against it and almost run out of air. They’ll usually happen when you forget the disorder is a thing IN you, not who you are.

The day after my last trip to Mum’s from the hospital; a backward step sparked by a breakup, I shimmied into a pink latex dress, applied a full face of makeup, blow-dried my hair, and attended a media event. I networked, danced, smiled for photos, published them to social media, then lunged into an Uber and cried hot tears of rage.

Not because I was angry at my ex for leaving me, or for any of the arguments or unanswered texts that preceded it, or even the fact it happened unexpectedly over the phone an hour before a planned weekend together.

Image: Supplied.


Image: Supplied.

I was angry at myself, for not having fixed what felt unloveable in me a decade on from my first night in the psych ward (and thousands of dollars in therapy bills later).


There’s a line in Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, that best describes this moment; "It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn't in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get."


I’m quite sure Plath was talking about shame, which Brown calls, "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging", because it was ultimately my inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to trust I was worthy of love that was fuelling my relapses.

Confronting that kind of pain – pain that exists in all of us in varying degrees – requires vulnerability; a deeply uncomfortable space we’re never taught to sit in.

Social media pop-psychology tells us anything that triggers us is a "red flag", relationships should be "easy", and partners who bring our wounds to the surface are "toxic". We’re fed content on how to practice "detachment" and taught to equate success with hyper-independence and workaholism (read: "Never depend on anyone", "Winners don’t quit", and "Go it alone") – which are the literal antithesis of vulnerability.

Vulnerability calls us to risk emotionally exposing ourselves. Being distracted and alone keeps us safe from the discomfort of allowing someone close enough to our wounds to be able to touch them.


If spending time in the psychiatric unit taught me anything (besides the fact McGyver would be screwed in there, because Swiss Army knives definitely aren’t allowed), it’s that no amount of benzodiazepines, therapy sessions or emotional regulation skills will fix you.

Mostly, because you’re not broken. But also because shame isn’t resolved in a hospital bed. And wrapping it up in a cute dress after you’re discharged won’t make it go away either.

I haven’t been back to the psych ward in a year, but there are fresh marks on my limbs that remind me I’m still learning what self-acceptance looks like. It’s scary and painful to wade in the unfamiliar space of being soft with myself, especially after the shame of a relapse. But I’m trying, day by day, not to run from it. As Brown says, "True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world. Our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance."

Nadia Bokody is a queer sex columnist, YouTuber and professional over-sharer. Follow her on Instagram for more.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, 24-hour support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636. 

Feature Image: Supplied.