Wednesday, May 11, 2016

A week on a locked psych ward

This post has been a long time coming. I realized that I haven't posted in ages but I want to get back to writing. This seemed a good place to start, because a few folks were curious. 

Back in the summer of 2014 (a long time ago, now!), I voluntarily committed myself to a psychiatric hospital for five days for treatment of my Bipolar Type II disorder. After years of treatment for my eating disorder, I no longer had it as a coping mechanism for the highs and lows of the bipolar. I was also on a bad cocktail of drugs that had made my mood swings worse. I was suicidal, yet I didn't want to die. I just wanted the emotional pain to end. 

I went to the emergency room. They took me to a room with a gurney, furniture that was made entirely of foam, and nothing else. I stayed there until two in the morning, when I was taken by ambulance to a psychiatric hospital. I was checked in, my belongings taken from me, and I was given a blue, one-time-use jumpsuit. I felt like a prisoner. I was already horribly depressed. The nurse handed me a pillowcase filled with a few items: shampoo, soap, a pencil, a few sheets of paper, a comb, hand lotion, tissues. 

Kit in hand, I got led down the hallway, pretending that I was Piper from Orange is the New Black getting led off to prison. An amusing fantasy, it kept me from crying because it felt like prison, though it didn't look like one. 

Yeah, it felt like this. 
From, screencapture of Orange Is the New Black

Funny thing is, psych hospitals don't look like hospitals. They look more like dorms that have hallways like hospital hallways. I got a room like this, with a roommate, a 16 year-old-girl who was on her second bout of drug detox treatment.  When we woke up the next day and I got to meet her, I found that she was pretty nice and I liked her. 

Note: this is an example, and not the hospital where I stayed.

A lot of people have asked me if I was chained to my bed. 
I enjoy the Hunger Games, but no, I wasn't Peeta. 

While in many ways modern psychiatry hasn't changed much since the days of the Yellow Wallpaper, I was not restrained. I never was. No one on my ward was. I never saw any of the other wards though. Yes, there was a padded cell. Room. Room, cell, call it what it was. One patient got aggressive, but not violent, and had to be sedated, and was placed in the room for a few hours to calm down. I actually slept in there one night when the a/c unit in my room had a mold problem and it was the only open room. No big deal. 

What was a big deal was the night checks. Each hour, through the entire night, someone would shine a light in the room and check that we were both there and still breathing and alive. A necessity, when everyone's there because they've either tried to kill themselves or wanted to. It unfortunately made sleep hard. The Chief Engineer brought me an eye mask two days in. 

I spent about four hours each day in group therapy. This was discussion about struggles in our daily lives, about how to handle our emotions. I saw a psychiatrist or social worker each day for individual therapy. My psychiatrist was charged with getting my medication adjusted so that I wasn't suicidal anymore, the social worker with evaluating whether or not it was working well enough to send me back out into the real world. 

The rest of the time, I made friends. We played games. We improvised yoga, or ballet. We braided each others' hair. We did art projects. We watched TV. I read Fifty Shades Darker and the nursing staff amusingly referred to me as "Ms. Fifty Shades." We all thought it was funny, but it was really my escape, my fantasy, my solace. Until the new medication kicked in I was terrified of myself and this brand new place. I was in a place where I knew no one. I needed somewhere to hide, and that was inside the book I'd brought. 

Again, not the hospital where I stayed, but a comparable depiction. 

This is also not the hospital where I stayed, but gives you a good idea of what group therapy looked like.

We got lunch in a cafeteria after the first two days. At the beginning I wasn't allowed off the ward so food was brought to me. Eating in the cafeteria was a privilege I had to earn from good behavior (eg. taking my medication, not fighting with the staff, not trying to escape, and not making any suicide attempts.) I'm naturally compliant when threatened so this was all easy.

Again. Not where I stayed. But it's a cafeteria. 
However, where I stayed, we had The. Worst. Food. Ever. Enough said. 
After day 1, my blue jumpsuit was traded in for yoga pants and a t-shirt. But because all belongings had to be reviewed by the staff and removed of any potential self-harming devices (sharp objects, strings, etc) my favorite pair of yoga pants had their drawstring cut out of them. I couldn't put makeup on because the 'mirror' in the bathroom wasn't made of glass, it was polished metal. I didn't get enough sunlight because the blinds were embedded in between the panes of glass in the windows and you couldn't open them all the way. When I was released after five days, the Chief Engineer said I stood outside for ten minutes just soaking up the sun. I made us go out to dinner at an outdoor cafe because I refused to go back inside. In five days, I'd only been allowed outside for 1/2 hour. 

There were a few good things. 

I played piano for the first time in years. This was important later, because when the Chief Engineer left last Spring piano became my solace. I lost him, but the piano let me start to find myself. And finding myself became everything.

I made a friend who I still talk to and visit. She's helped me make some very important decisions in my life that again, have helped me figure out who I am and what I want out of life.

The suicidality was put back in the bag. Unfortunately I traded one bad cocktail of meds for another in the hospital, but ultimately we picked the right one in October of 2015 and it's worked well for me since then.

I wish I hadn't needed a stay on a locked psychiatric ward. But unfortunately I've never met a person who was diagnosed with bipolar, type I or II, who hasn't done it. It is the safest place to be while the meds are getting straightened out. It's pretty hard to hurt yourself there.

And every time I see the sunshine now, I appreciate it that much more.

An important note about the hospital photos: I found these online over a year ago but have since been unable to locate their source; it appears to have been taken down. I'll gladly provide attribution as soon as I can find where they came from! 


  1. I'm glad to see you back to writing. I check here from time to time, wondering if you're still doing well since the switch in meds. I know how hard it can be to try to create stability in life. Also, I love the new site design! The color really makes it pop!

  2. Thanks for sharing something so personal. It reminded me of my own time in the hospital in 2007 - it feels like such a long time ago now because so much has changed for me. I think decreasing the stigma surrounding treatment for mental health issues is extremely important and that posts like these help enlighten people.


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