By Paola Andrea
“Yes, I am bipolar and I experience depressive episodes. No, my diagnosis does not define my life, but explains much of what I have done, felt, said and experienced in life.”
When I first came to the clinic I did not want to live anymore. I isolated myself from the world, waiting for the next catastrophe. Although everyone has a bad day every now and then, my life did not make sense any longer and it was anguishing me since a long time.
The symptoms I had when I first arrived at the clinic were typical for depression: listlessness, fatigue, insecurity, sadness, lack of concentration, anxiety, panic attacks and even suicidal thoughts. They were afflicting me all at the same time. Unfortunately, where some people find other easier ways to get around these feelings, when the sickness and its symptoms are somatic, professionals need to intervene.
In the clinic I was diagnosed with “severe depression”. Through therapy and my reaction to the medication, I was found to be bipolar and experience depressive episodes. The exact terminology is: F31.6-Bipolar Affective Disorder. Yes, I am bipolar and I experience depressive episodes. No, my diagnosis does not define my life, but explains much of what I have done, felt, said and experienced in life. I learnt my symptoms were enhanced by my disorder but also caused by other reasons – very soon I was to find out that some childhood and youth traumas together with my past and present environment had shaped me throughout life, leading me to this point of acute suffering.
The diagnosis explained why I had so much energy on some days, when I did a hundred things, talked very fast and laughed a lot, moved so rapid and felt extreme joy and euphoria. People asked me: “Where do you get that energy from? How can you do two jobs, university, and other things?” I’ve often explained it as “I’m Latina, that’s how we are.” Do not get me wrong, Latinas are very passionate, euphoric and even dramatic, but my behaviour was exaggerated and pathological. The same diagnosis explained why I could not get out of bed on other days and why I was suddenly afraid of everything. I was scared to go grocery, meet people, or even go to university. Everything made me cry or angry. Some days were so bad. I once ran in front of a car, numb from the chaos inside me, and I realized I was in the middle of the street only when the car started honking at me. I felt so miserable that I even researched what where the easiest and fastest ways to commit suicide. If my boyfriend had not stayed with me, urging me to go to the clinic, I could have taken my own life in one of those days.
The Sternbuschklinik saved my life. It is an open depression clinic, which means I stayed there overnight but, with the doctor’s and caregiver’s consent, I could occasionally go out into the city or home to my cat and boyfriend.
The clinic is relatively small. There are two stations, stations 1 and 2, and I was placed on station 1. We had a maximum capacity of seventeen patients per station, so it was easy to build a relationship with the others. Each station has a kitchen, a dining room and a living room. The room distribution is strongly influenced by how well you are insured. Patients with private insurances have private rooms with more amenities. Since I am state insured, I shared a room with a lovely young woman.
Our daily routine was very structured, we were woken up at 07:00 and had time for breakfast from 07:15 to 07:45. The table is set by the patients who were assigned to this duty. Between 08:15 and 12:00 o’clock we had therapy. The therapies vary from patient to patient, depending on the needs of each person. I had occupational therapy, mindfulness training, skills training, self-esteem training, sports, dance therapy, drama therapy, etc. Lunch was served at 12:00, from 13:00 o’clock onwards we had either therapy or free time. I often went out, but I also liked to stay in the living room spending time with the other patients. Shortly before 18:00 o’clock, the patients who had dinner duty, would set the table.
Morning, noon and evening we picked up our “Smarties”. I found it amusing when I first heard that term, it made the experience a lot easier. I just had to take a small dose of antidepressants in the morning and a small dose against the bipolar disorder in the evening.
Every Monday we set goals for the week, every Tuesday we went swimming, every Thursday night we had a station meeting where things were discussed and a weekly station spokesman was elected, and every Friday afternoon we thought about weekend goals. Every day except Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays we had visitation, which meant talking about our progress with senior physicians, the ward doctor, a nurse and the psychologist. On the weekend we were allowed to go home. In the beginning, I had to go to the clinic for every meal, but after a few weeks I was able to go home for the whole day. Sometimes I was even allowed to stay overnight.
Although the clinic saved my life, I was very afraid at first. I only knew psychiatric clinics from movies and my preconceptions of this place were scary, but absolutely not true. I cried the first days, feeling shy and reserved. I must also confess, initially the medicines threw me completely off track. I was wrongly diagnosed and therefore, I got prescribed the wrong medication. In the morning hours I felt like I was on speed, full of energy and my heart was beating fast and after a few hours I was extremely tired and exhausted. However, that improved very quickly when my diagnosis was changed. From then on my life developed in a more positive way, including the relationships with my fellow patients and my experiences of the therapies.
I am grateful to all the caregivers, social workers, therapists and doctors who have taken so much care of my psychological health, but my biggest thank goes to
the fellow patients. At first, I was terrified of them. On the one hand, they were all much older than me, on the other hand they were German and from small villages near Kleve. “What about racism here?”, I remember asking the doctor. Me, with my brown skin, black hair, and strange accent, would most likely not go unnoticed among all the European-looking patients. In retrospect, I realized that this fear was unfounded, because I received nothing but acceptance and understanding. The political views of some patients were very conservative, but I quickly learned to ignore them.
I was the youngest in my station and was named “Küken” which means “little chicken” – a sweet German term for “the youngest”. The other patients were significantly older than me and diagnosed with different degrees of depression, but each with a unique story and a lot of understanding for the others. A granny quickly won my heart by bringing sweets every day and cooking for us from time to time. Some patients taught me crochet and the middle-aged men made me laugh with their stories every day.
My roommate Julia quickly became my friend. When I saw her the first time, I thought, “Oh my god, she looks like a bat bride.” Covered with tattoos and with her hiking boots she really intimidated me. I did not know at that moment that this young woman would become my friend. Having many things in common we laughed and sang. Julia became a main contributor to my recovery. Sometimes we were very emotional and rather sad, but this is not uncommon in a depression clinic. We laughed together but also cried, we shared our grief and softened our anger, we were there for each other like a big family for five weeks. Of course, it remains a clinic, but it somehow felt like a second home.
I was discharged from the clinic on February 13th. At the beginning of my hospitalization I was in tears for how quickly I wanted to leave that place. Again, moved to tears at the end of my stay, I no longer wanted to leave the clinic.
I now feel I got a new chance and I am motivated to successfully resume my life. No one should ever feel like there is no chance anymore. There is help in Germany, but you have to be able to accept it. If you do not want to get better, even the best psychologist in the world cannot help you. Unfortunately, the language barrier is a problem for many of the students, but in the clinic I was offered to talk to a Spanish therapist, which means that solutions can be found.
The social and cultural acceptance of psychological illnesses is another problem. My traditional and religious Colombian family thinks that psychological problems are for “white rich Europeans with too much time” and I should “find God” instead.
Nevertheless, I made the decision to accept help. I decided to leave out my family and environment and focus on myself instead. I was ashamed but now I accept my illness and want to motivate others, that go through something similar or worse, to seek help and to not give up.