What Is It Like To Go To A Psychiatric Hospital?

It starts out scary and uncomfortable. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to be there. I was already suicidal, and here I was voluntarily giving up every comforting thing I had in my life, people, places and things, in order to commit myself to not dying.

Fuck. I should have killed myself, this is going to be unbearable. My soul is on fire and we haven’t even completed the intake interview. Yes, I am suicidal. Yes, I do have a plan. No, I’m not on any medication. Please make my mother my emergency contact. Yes, I understand that I will not be released until the doctor determines that I am no longer in danger.

I’m on the ward itself, and I hurt all over. I’m in a mixed-state episode: irritable, hopeless, suicidal, full of energy, thoughts racing, sad beyond measure. I’ve never felt these things before; it’s one of my first mixed state episodes and I have zero in terms of coping skills, as well as zero self-knowledge of what is happening to me. I pace the hallway for a while, splash my face in the bathroom, spy at other patients from my bedroom door, lay on the bed, try to read a book my mom brought for me. My soul is still on fire.

I’ve been here for three hours, and I’m in agony. I can’t take one more minute of this. I have to get out. NOW. I take my phone charger, tie it as tight as I can around my neck, making sure I can’t breathe, get up on a chair next to the tall bathroom door and wrap the other end of the charger around the hinge. I kick the chair out from under me. The chair makes a thud on the carpeted floor, I hope no one heard. My vision starts to go white. I feel hope bloom inside me. Yes. I get to leave. I am so grateful.

A nurse bursts through the bedroom door, sees me and calls for help. She hoists me up to take the pressure of the cord off of my neck. Someone else cuts me down, and with the first breath I take, I start screaming. They cheated me. I was so close. I remember feeling that part of me was standing outside of the situation looking in, thinking that I sounded like a wounded wolf. Screaming and wailing like an animal.

I was given klonopin and brought to a conference room, where my new doctor, my parents and my two best friends were waiting for me. The doctor talked and then my loved ones talked. I have no idea what they said. I kept my eyes locked on the Chinese man covered in blood holding a gun in the corner of the room. I guess they couldn’t see him. Everyone gave me hugs, and I was escorted into the one-to-one portion of the ward, where a nurse was required to be within 12 feet of me at all times, including during bathroom breaks and at night. I was started on a combination of Seroquel and Carbamazepine and given a temazepam for a sleep aid. I slept for 14 hours.

When I woke up, I was very drowsy. I went out of the bedroom and around the corner to watch TV. Since I was being kept by myself, I got to choose what to watch. I picked Comedy Central, which was showing repeats of That 70’s Show for most of the day. At meal times, food was brought to me. I snacked on pudding cups and Cheez-Its in between meals. The two nurses who took turns watching me were nice. One was a young man who had only been in America for three years and was going to school for psychiatry. The other nurse was a middle aged woman from my hometown who had worked at that hospital for 35 years. She happened to be the same person who found me during my attempt. She called me “baby” and said comforting, motherly things to me. She made me smile a few times. The kindness they showed me went a long way toward making me feel comfortable. In my newly-medicated daze, I didn’t feel much of anything, but I didn’t feel bad. I was getting relief. My soul stopped burning. It wasn’t boring being on one-to-one, either. It was like stopping to breathe after running a 2 minute mile: you’re not doing anything but breathing, and that’s exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. It’s not boring to just be breathing; it’s crucial. For the first time in six months, my soul was not on fire. For the first time in two months, I had thoughts outside of detailed plans for suicide.

On the morning of my third day on one-to-one, I got up and ate breakfast in front of the TV. Breakfast was French toast, scrambled eggs, hash browns, milk and orange juice. I definitely did not go hungry while I was at the hospital. I ate my French toast at a table under a skylight while I watched That 70′s Show. The sun was coming in through the skylight window, and the light was reflecting off of my forearm resting on the table in front of me. I observed the light on my arm for a minute. It was pretty. It seemed important somehow. My foggy brain finally settled on why: it was warm. I could feel the heat going into my skin, and it was warm. I hadn’t felt anything comforting in 6 months, physically or psychologically. I hadn’t felt much of anything that didn’t come from inside of myself. I started to cry, big, gulping sobs of relief. I was getting better. I was going to feel good things again. I told my nurse I thought I was going to be okay. She said “Of course you are, baby. I can see it in your eyes.”

After I saw the doctor that day, he approved me to go back to the open ward with the rest of the adults. He was sincerely pleased to hear my story about feeling the sunlight, and assured me that that was a sign my new medications were working, and that I should continue to improve rapidly while the medicine built up in my system to full strength.

When I got back on the regular ward, I was still drowsy, but didn’t really mind. The people were friendly, and I made friends with a guy named Dax who was taking the same medicine and was on the same schedule as I was. We watched South Park in comfy wing-back chairs and were given our medicine at the same time. After half an hour, we were heavily sedated, slumped in our seats, grinning at each other because of the absurdity of how we felt. There are way, way worse feelings than being sedated, by the way. Sedation serves a purpose.

There were activities throughout the day. There was game therapy in the morning, where we grouped up to play games like checkers, Sorry, Uno, or poker. After a 20 minute break, we had group talk therapy, focused on the topic of dealing with anger. There was another 20 minute break, and we had lunch. An hour after lunch we had art therapy, where we could paint, draw, or make things out of clay. I painted a plaster ashtray shaped like a turtle. It reminded me of summer camp.

We took another break, during which I met with my assigned social worker so that we could build a plan for my treatment once I got out. She established me as a patient of the hospital’s psychiatrist, so that I could continue to see him on an outpatient basis once released. She also made an appointment with a psychologist that she felt would be a good fit for me. We talked about the importance of taking medicine on time and keeping to a sleep schedule. I was underwhelmed at her efforts at the time, because I thought she was supposed to be providing emotional support. Later I found out that she was doing exactly what she was supposed to do -build a plan for me to follow once released- and she did it well. The emotional support I needed, in addition to all the coping skills I needed, would be delivered by my psychologist later. You can’t fix such a monumental problem in one 20 minute session with a person you’ll never see again.

Back with the other inpatients, we had group therapy about coping with suicidal thoughts, followed by guided meditation, where we all laid on the carpeted floor with the lights off and were led through a relaxation meditation that was easy and peaceful. When we were finished, everyone seemed to be doing better, and some people smiled, including me. Meditation is a very powerful tool. I still use it today.

All of our time on the open ward was structured like that. Every patient saw the psychiatrist every day to be assessed. We saw the social worker to develop a care strategy. We were well-fed. We were kept busy with various types of therapy, but allowed breaks in between sessions. Everything we did was designed to help us feel better in the present or future. Being in the hospital, once I was no longer suicidal, was pretty great.

When I was released a few days later, I was somewhat at a loss. I had to return to the regular world and try to learn how to wrestle with bipolar by myself. New to my diagnosis, but armed with medicine and a care team, I had to move forward in my efforts of self-care. I didn’t know if I could do it, but thanks to the hospital I no longer wanted to kill myself, and I was now medicated properly. The five days I spent in that hospital made the most drastic shift in my health that I have ever experienced. Five days. I had been suicidal for months, and all it took to fix me was five days. I kicked myself for not doing it sooner. I suffered for way longer than was necessary because I was so afraid to go to the hospital, when the hospital was exactly where I needed to be.

Going to the hospital is never a fun decision to make. I’ve had to go two other times, once voluntarily, once involuntarily. I know some hospitals have very bad reputations, and I can’t speak to any but the two I visited. One was fantastic (the one I spoke about) and the other was very scary. But in both cases, it was the fastest way for me to get in to see as psychiatrist and get established on the right medicine while being kept safe from myself, and in both cases, it kept me alive.

People go to the hospital to get better. If you get suicidal, seize any moment of doubt in your plan and TELL SOMEONE that you want to kill yourself and you need help. If you don’t want to tell any of your loved ones, go to the Emergency Room and tell them you are a danger to yourself, and they will get you a bed in the nearest psychiatric unit available. They will handle the paperwork. Just show up and admit to being suicidal. They’ll probably even give you a klonopin to relax you while you wait, especially if you ask for one.

Mental illness is so hard that sometimes it kills people. That’s why we have hospitals. Due in part to my hospital stays, I got better enough to make a beautiful life that I get to live in during the times between my episodes. When I come out of an episode, I get to come back to my beautiful life. Seeking treatment is worth it. Remission is a beautiful goal that is worth the work it takes.

If you need the hospital, go. Please. Just go. It’s not as scary as you think