Don't close Dix: A former patient speaks about his experience

| December 08, 2010

Editor's note: Dorothea Dix State Hospital admitted its last patients last week as it prepared to close after 154 years. State officials say closing the hospital could save as much as $10 million annually.

My name is Robert Bullock and my life has been forever changed by my mental illness. But now I am changing lives by telling my story.

When my illness began, I did not know I was sick. I started having major problems at home: My marriage was on the rocks and I had lost my sister.

It was more than I could bear. I had so much built up inside of me, but I would not talk about it. I was feeling angry, rejected, abandoned, helpless and worthless. I was spending too much time alone, having crying spells and being very hateful and aggressive to others. I was sleeping all the time. I had racing thoughts, suicidal thoughts.

I wanted to kill myself and was trying to think how to do it. My spouse said, "You need some help."

Finally I called the NAMI-North Carolina hotline and they told me what to do. A woman told me to come to Holly Hill Hospital. I was in bad shape so I called 911 and the police took me there. I stayed at Holly Hill for two months. Then my insurance ran out and I had to leave.

So when the doctors said they were sending me to Dorothea Dix State Hospital, I was afraid because I had heard so many bad things about the hospital. But boy was I wrong.

When I got to Dorothea Dix I was very weak from not eating. I had lost 58 pounds and was in a wheelchair. I met with a psychiatrist, therapist, social worker and a nurse, who started me on a treatment plan. I went on medication, began physical therapy and joined different therapy groups to get me out of that wheelchair.

In one of my classes, I began crying so hard that the teacher asked me if I wanted to talk about it. I said yes, and I let it all go. I told her about my home life and losing my sister and the voices telling me what to do.

I stayed in group therapy and things started getting better and better. The doctors found the right medication. They pushed me hard in physical therapy and I got where I could walk again. They set goals for me to meet each day. And at the end of the day, they asked me whether I met that goal. I was treated with the utmost respect. I made many friends and everyone made me feel like I had confidence in myself.

I joined the Learning Court Quality Council, which advocates for residents and brings concerns to the standards committee. The council studied modern research on severe psychiatric disorders and listened to the stories of survivors. From this we learned about, and gained hope for, the possibility of recovery from a severe psychiatric disorder.

With the advent of new medications and better therapies, some of us don't even consider ourselves sick but rather, challenged with something that, when managed, can be a great gift. Mania, when managed, reveals brilliance and creativity. Voices, when managed, provide insight.

Most of us were not born with mental illness. Some of us developed post-traumatic stress disorder serving our country or enduring another traumatic event. Brain injuries also cause symptoms of mental illness, and sometimes substances play a role.

It seems that people can't understand how terrible something is until they experience it themselves. Many of us changed the way we feel about the mentally ill after we became so. We ask that you change the way you feel about us without having to face the agony of being diagnosed. Consider that you are just one accident or life tragedy away from a mental health diagnosis yourself.

If you have never been to Dorothea Dix Hospital, you don't know what goes on behind those walls. They work very hard with patients and they love each and every one, and they treat everyone the same. I know that they really turned my life around. If it were not for Dorothea Dix Hospital, I would not be here today.

Dorothea Dix preserved that land for the patients and instituted policies in the hospital that were ahead of their time. Dix believed in recovery and that despite their illnesses, patients deserve to gaze at the beauty around them. It calms their nerves and makes them feel better about their circumstances. I know that the patients love that land; I know that I did and still do.

As a former patient, I am asking the General Assembly, please don't shut Dix down. That will be the biggest mistake you could make.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness-North Carolina helpline is 1-800-451-9682.

Robert Bullock is a presenter for In Our Own Voice, in which people affected by mental illness candidly discuss their issues and recovery.

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