I couldn’t decide if I should write this blog post about the differences I found between a hospitalization for physical health vs. mental health. It seemed to cliche, but sometimes cliche ideas are what need to be explored the most.
This week I had back surgery to fix a large herniated disc. It was an interesting experience to be in the hospital for the first time for a physical illness rather than a mental illness. I immediately noticed differences. I was allowed real silverware, I could wear whatever comfortable clothes I wanted, and no one even searched my bag. At first I found the differences humorous. I took a silly picture holding a knife with the caption, “When you’re not in the psych ward for once.” But soon I started noticing more differences less visible from the surface.
The most striking difference was my ability to cope with hardship. The IV, going under anesthesia, and back pain didn’t really bother me. I had “my wits about me,” so to speak. I’m naturally a very resilient person, so when I’m mentally well I can cope with just about anything. When I was hospitalized for my mental health though, I had far less overt challenges. There was no IV and no physical pain, just intense emotional pain. Rather than having to get out of bed carefully and walk slowly, with the mental health hospitalizations I could easily ball up in an armchair. Yet, I was hardly able to cope with the smallest or biggest of stressors. I was having trouble figuring out my class schedule, I was stressed about being away from home, and I was obsessing over the nurses having touched my belongings. Through these in a way opposite experiences I’ve found that having stable mental health is incredibly important to being able to cope with both physical and emotional challenges. When the illness is your brain itself, all coping can go out the window.
Another subtle difference I noticed was the ability to see myself as “ill” or “fragile.” With both the physical and mental hospitalizations, my vital signs were taken several times a day. It’s standard hospital procedure. With the physical hospitalization, I accepted this easily. I had just had surgery, so it made sense for them to check things out. With the mental hospitalizations though, I felt uncomfortable as they took my temperature and blood pressure. It felt largely unnecessary. In a way, I was stigmatizing myself, telling myself I wasn’t really sick just because I wasn’t physically sick. Yet, when you really think about it I was much sicker for the mental health hospitalizations than this physical one. I was much closer to death, if you measure it that way. As much as I try to fight the stigma of mental health, self-stigmatization can sneak up on you.
I’d love to hear other’s thoughts on this if you have experienced hospitalizations for a variety of reasons. And for anyone wondering, I’m doing really well recovering! I’ve already taken several walks.