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From Psychiatry Inpatient to Harborview Employee

The first time Thai Nguyen admitted herself to Harborview Medical Center’s inpatient psychiatry unit, she was with her twin sister.

Just hours earlier, the sisters had been standing on top of a parking garage, ready to jump off. Instead, they climbed down and walked for hours around the city, trying to decide whether to end their lives or seek help at a hospital. They chose the hospital.

“My poor mom, we left a note for her in our apartment. It still terrifies me to talk about it,” Nguyen says.

Nguyen first dealt with mental health problems in college, when she and her sister were both diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and clinical depression. For years, the sisters relied on each other for support while hiding their emotions from others. In a way only twins can, they shared everything: physical features, a name (Nguyen’s sister was named Thai Hien) and mental health struggles.

“My sister and I were the queens of isolation. We felt a lot of guilt. We depended on our friends but felt we were burdening them. We were outgoing and didn’t want people to see this side of us that was so depressing,” Nguyen says.

Later, when her sister was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Nguyen suspected she too might have it—but fear kept her quiet. She’d seen how bipolar disorder led to her father living in group homes before taking his own life. She never experienced full manic episodes and her periods of depression were rough but they always dissipated, so she tried to ignore them.

That all changed after Nguyen gave birth to a baby girl and developed postpartum depression. Her doctor put her on a new antidepressant, but instead of helping, it triggered her first full-blown manic episode. She spent money irresponsibly, filed for divorce from her husband, temporarily lost custody of her daughter and ended up living in a group home because she had nowhere else to go.

She knew she needed help. So she checked herself in to Harborview Medical Center’s inpatient psychiatry unit, staying there for two weeks.

Three months later, Nguyen’s sister committed suicide.

“When it rained, it typhooned,” Nguyen says. “I felt like this was going to be my life from now on. How was I going to get through this?”

But some spark of resilience persisted, because Nguyen decided to start seeing a therapist at Harborview. This time she was determined to help herself heal.

“I realized I had two choices: End up dead or push forward. I have to be here for my daughter and myself. And my sister wouldn’t have wanted what happened to her to happen to me,” Nguyen says.

During her therapy sessions, Nguyen learned how to communicate her emotions instead of avoiding or hiding them, and started on a path to better self-care. It was the first time she focused on looking after herself.

Years before, as an inpatient at Harborview, Nguyen had participated in Harborview’s peer bridger program, which matches psychiatry patients with hospital-employed peers who have overcome mental health challenges and can provide inspiration and practical guidance. As an outpatient, she completed a six-month internship with the program.

Nguyen got her current job as a payee program coordinator at Harborview with help from Kristi Dore, an employment specialist. And while some may balk at the idea of working where they were hospitalized, Nguyen is grateful that Kristi and others advocated for her and that she already had a strong connection to the hospital. Many of Nguyen’s coworkers know her story and most have been supportive, she says.

This month—fittingly Mental Health Month—Nguyen has been thinking about how far she has come. It has been four years since she was hospitalized and two since she started working again.

“I still have drawbacks and bad days, but I live a normal and healthy life,” she says. “It’s a miracle.”

But she knows it’s much more than that: It’s hard work. She recognizes all the help she has received from fellow Harborview employees to get where she is now, but she is also proud of her own strength.

“We are so good at giving other people credit, but not at giving credit to ourselves. I know I’ve done a lot of work to get where I am,” she says.

Nguyen also knows her path isn’t typical. Society teaches us that anything deviating from the norm is failure. Instead of being ashamed or secretive about what she’s been through, Nguyen embraces it—and accepts herself.

“There are society’s standards, but who can truly hold up to them? Make your own rules and your own standards,” she says.

Acceptance doesn’t come easily. Mental illness is still stigmatized; Nguyen sees that stigma even among people who work in a mental health care setting. To counter this, she joined The Stability Network, a group of working professionals who set out to prove you can be successful while dealing with mental illness.

Aside from being open about her experiences and advocating for mental health, Nguyen works to teach her daughter, Zoe, the lessons she learned in treatment. She wants her to understand that what society tells us should be kept secret needs to be talked about.

Nguyen never forgets what could have happened. Survivor’s guilt still weighs her down at times, and she wonders if her sister would still be alive if she had also received outpatient care at Harborview. And sometimes when she looks at herself, she sees the face of her sister.

“It’s hard to look in the mirror,” she says.

But her life is also joyful. She regained custody of her daughter. She has a stable job and her own place. She regularly spends time with her twin sister’s son, who was adopted by a local family after his mom died. As he grows, Nguyen teaches him about his birth mother.

And when things get stressful, as they inevitable do at times, Nguyen runs. (She recently finished her first 12k.) Running is hers, a fragment of time and space in which she can focus on herself and let everything else fade into the background.

“They say don’t run away from your problems, but while I’m running that’s my time to run away from it,” Nguyen says, laughing before growing serious again. “Then I come back and deal with it.”


Resources

If you are concerned about your or a loved one’s mental health, here are some helpful resources:

UW CareLink

Provides free, confidential access to guidance counselors for PEBB-benefits eligible UW employees, their dependents and other household members.

Support groups

Many UW Medicine locations offer support groups, including groups for people who have experienced mental illness.

Forefront

The UW School of Social Work runs this suicide prevention program.


 

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