“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.” –Natalie Goldberg
About six months ago I voluntarily checked myself into a psychiatric hospital. There’s a difference between telling people you suffer from a mental illness and telling people you have spent time in the hospital for said illness. The term “psychiatric hospital” is pretty much synonymous with the term “crazy house” to a good majority of people. We’ve seen One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest so we know what goes on in there. People drooling in the corner. Doctors dragging patients to have labotimies or to undergo electric shock treatment. Every space filled with someone muttering to themselves or yelling to themselves. All with that same “crazy” look in their eyes. We see what happens in television or on the big screen when someone is deemed inadequate to be in society. We’ve read about it. We’ve heard rumors about it. But we haven’t actually been in one. I haven’t been able to write about my experience since I was discharged from the hospital. I’ve tried, but nothing has come out sounding right. I think it might be because I wasn’t ready to talk about it publicly. I was scared of how people might think of me. I’m candid about my major depression, bipolar and anxiety, but for some reason I couldn’t be candid with my hospitalization. I’m still scared to talk about it so publicly, but I think it needs to be done. While the stigma with mental illness seems to be improving a little bit, the stigma regarding psychiatric facilities does not. And so I’ve decided that it’s time for me to write about it.
Six months ago I was suicidal, exhausted and terrified of not only myself, but of my life as well. Being alive was painful and there was only one solution I could come up with to escape the pain. I had reached my breaking point. I’d come close countless times before, but nothing like this. I sat with my boyfriend at the time after two nights of crying uncontrollably in the fetal position on the floor, creating scars on my arms and running barefoot around the block. I sat on the couch with him and looking down at my hands nervously wrung together in my lap and told him I think I needed to call a doctor. I realized that I was at the end of the shaky line I always teetered on, frightened to fall, and I was scared of what could happen next.
After finding the card that my psychiatrist had carefully written all the emergency numbers I could call on the weekends or afterhours when he wasn’t on-call, I made a phone call. I made a phone call that possibly saved my life.
“I’m so tired. I can’t do this anymore. I just want to stop feeling this way.”
“I think you need to go to the hospital.”
“I think so too.”
“Do you trust yourself to drive to the ER?”
“Is there someone who can drive you?”
“I will give you an hour to get everything together. I will let them know you are coming. If you aren’t there in an hour I will send someone to come get you.”
I knew what she meant. That someone would be the police, because suicide is very much illegal.
And then I was numb. In a monotone voice I told my boyfriend what she said. I didn’t know what she mean by get everything together so I just held my dog for awhile and told him I’d be back soon. And then he drove us less than a mile to the hospital. Two of my best friends met us there. After waiting only a couple of minutes my name was called and I was escorted through a side door secured by an electronic lock. The nurse told me to remove all of my clothing and put on what can only be described as paper pajamas. She told me to give her my purse and my phone. I asked if I could give them to my friends and she escorted me back through the doors and out to them. It was then that I realized what I had done. I realized that she had to go with me out there because I could have decided to bolt. Change my mind and run out the sliding doors. What she didn’t realize is that I was too exhausted to do that. I was so exhausted the thought didn’t even cross my mind.
She escorted me back through the secure door and I started to cry. I was still numb but I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t feel anything but I couldn’t stop crying. I cried as they took vials of my blood and took my vitals. I cried as I lay on the hospital bed that gave me the creeps. I cried when my friends were allowed to come back, one at a time, to see me. I cried until I felt there was nothing left in me. And then I cried some more.
I cried but I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t feel any emotion. I was too exhausted. So I just laid there. I lay there as my thoughts circled around and around. I lay there in a room with three other people in it, placed right in front of the doorway. No privacy because I had to have eyes on me at all times due to the nature of my visit. I spent two and a half days and two nights in a place that would cause a sane person to reach insanity, let alone someone who was already insane. After what were the longest almost three days of my life, a bed was finally open at the psychiatric hospital and I was going to be moved over there.
All I remember about the rest of that day was that it was raining. I remember that it was raining and I was only wearing socks. It was raining, I was only wearing socks, and I had to walk across a parking lot. I had to walk through the ER parking lot as students, visitors, doctors and a variety of other people could see me. I remember pleading with God to not see anyone who knew me. And then I was taken onto a small bus with one other person. It was the guy who was in the hospital bed outside my room who snored so loudly, 24 hours a day, that I was worried someone would suffocate him with a pillow. I later found out he was schizophrenic and hadn’t slept in days because of the voices in his head. We sat in silence as we were driven a few blocks away, to a back entrance and up to the inpatient side of the psychiatry hospital. I was taken to the third floor and he was taken to the fourth floor. I remember being terrified that this third floor ward would be just like the psychiatric ER. I remember sitting at the end of the hall as they explained the rules and I filled out the intake papers. I was then showed to my room where I looked around at its empty walls, devoid of any sort of personality or evidence that another person was ever in there. I had nothing. The clothes I had on didn’t meet the requirements of allowable items on the ward. My shoes had laces and my shirt had buttons. So I sat there, in shock, in the paper pajamas I’d had on for three days in a body that had not been washed in four days and a mind that had been broken and twisted until it had become unrecognizable to its owner.
I was finally able to move to walk over to the phone available for patients and called my mom to tell her that I needed a pillow, some clothes and my stuffed animal. And then I sat some more. I sat in my room until clean clothes arrived and then I was able to shower. A nurse stood outside the bathroom door while I showered. I was still on suicide watch. I stood under the stream of water, which I had made as hot as I could get it, hoping to scald my skin enough to feel something and to clean this reality off of me.
By that time, our dinner had arrived. I sat at a table alone, feeling the same way you do the first day of camp when you don’t know anyone, so you sit down at a seat and hope someone cool will sit next to you. A girl with long brown hair sat down next to me. I remember thinking how beautiful she was and wondering why she was there. I quickly found out and quickly learned that pretty much every conversation on the hall would cover first things first: why you were there, what was wrong with you and what meds you were on. She told me she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. And she was coming down off of methadone.
That night, I went to sleep feeling a little less frightened. When I woke up in the morning I felt disoriented and unsure of where I was. I dragged myself out of bed as the sun was coming up. There were a few other people already up and milling around or reading the newspaper or working on a puzzle. I sat in a chair, quiet, and watched the sunrise and thought I’d never seen anything so beautiful. I learned that this is what mornings on the third floor felt like. A quiet understanding and silence as we bathed in the first warmth of the sun for the day.
Our days consisted of a structured schedule marked by meals, group therapy, meeting with our teams of doctors, visiting hours and talking. We all talked. Really talked. When there’s not much to do besides color, put together a puzzle or watch whatever the person who was in charge of the remote had put on, you talk. We talked about our past. We talked about what it felt like to have a mental illness. We talked about our fears, our hopes, things we had never breathed to another person. We became a family. A dysfunctional family, but a family nonetheless. I slowly began to feel something. Halfway through the week, a nurse took us out to the little patch of grass and garden behind the walls of the hospital. It was out free time and the weather was warm for October. After throwing the football with a few of the guys, I laid in the grass with the girls. I felt the sunshine on my face for the first time in days. The talking felt lighter out there. It was understood that we didn’t have to talk. The silence was comfortable. We were disappointed when we had to go back inside for dinner, but we left feeling lighter, having gained a little hope for ourselves.
The night before I left, I sat up late with the people I had become closest with and I shared with them how frightened I was. How scared I was to leave the safety and controlled environment of the hospital. How scared I was that I wasn’t ready. And they understood. They understood and they gave me confidence. They gave me strength. The next morning I packed up my belongings that I had been sent while there and the letters that the other patients had written me. I put on shoes and marveled at how strange it was to feel something so solid around my feet after only wearing socks for a week. I hugged everyone goodbye and cried. I didn’t know if I’d ever see any of them again.
I signed my discharge papers and the doors closed on the third floor ward. I noticed every little noise, every little breeze, every little sensation. I held my dog tightly as he licked my face, and I didn’t mind his terrible breath at all. I rolled the window down and felt the wind and sun on my face and for the first time in a very long time I was excited to be alive.
There are times when I regret my decision. I can’t lie about that. I hate that I feel that way. That I feel as if the experience has ruined my professional life. That if I hadn’t been honest about why I was absent, things would be so different. It’s unsettling to know that in places where there needs to be less transparency and more discussions about mental illnesses that there is none. And worst of all, it’s not understood. I hate that I’ve had to learn that I can’t be honest with everyone about it, which makes me feel ashamed of who I am. Even though it’s not something I chose. Most of the time though, I am grateful of my decision. I don’t know if I would be here to type this if I hadn’t made the decision to commit myself. I feel grateful that I did, and that it was the first step of many in gaining control over the disease that has controlled important parts of my life for so long.