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What It Was Like To Be a Patient in a Mental Hospital, pt. 1

[Trigger warning for frank discussion of mental illness.]

A year and a half ago, I was very mentally ill and couldn’t stop fixating on suicide. One day I realized I wasn’t going to make it any more, and my therapist suggested I check into a psychiatric hospital in town. She called ahead and made sure they had a bed open for me, and after going home to pack an overnight bag, my husband drove me to the mental hospital.

Long curving driveway leading to a nondescript building surrounded by trees
On the long driveway from the road to the facility, I texted my sister-in-law and my best friend to tell them what I was doing, telling the latter, “It looks reassuringly un-Shutter-Island-ish.” It looked like any ordinary, one-story medical building, surrounded by tall trees.

I had to wait a long time in the waiting room. I started thinking it would have been better if I had gone ahead and killed myself–then I wouldn’t have had to sit here in a vinyl chair bored out of my mind. Never go to a hospital without something to do.

Finally a woman interviewed me at length. When she asked me if I had ever attempted suicide, I said, “No. If I had, I wouldn’t be here.”

I learned later I was wrong about that. Two of the patients had made earnest attempts: one had dived headfirst off the top of a tall building, and the other had disabled the airbags in his car and driven at top speed into a brick wall. They lived anyway.

She concluded I was a threat to myself, and checked me in. The guy at the check-in desk looked through my overnight bag. “I’m going to have to confiscate your laptop and your iPhone,” he said. “We’ll keep it safe for you.”

I straightened up. “Why?” I rarely spent a waking minute not touching one or the other.

“They can get stolen. You can’t have a power cord anyway. And that drawstring on your dress”¦ you need to take that out and give it to me too.” I found out later that other contraband included belts, shoelaces, any type of pills, bottles of mouthwash, and bottles of perfume.

They gave me a binder and a workbook and lead me to a room with two skinny twin beds. On one of them sat a duffel bag and a big stuffed purple unicorn. “Your roommate should be back soon,” she said.

I had imagined I would be by myself, in very white room, where I could lie quietly until my craziness seeped away. Instead, this was sounding horrible. No computer. Sharing a room with a stranger. When my husband said goodbye to me, I said, “This is ridiculous. I am not spending more than one night here.”

A white, stocky woman of maybe 30, wearing sweat pants and a baggy tee shirt, came into the room. “Figured I wouldn’t have the room to myself,” she said. “I’m Beth.”

“Hi. I’m Bryn.”

“What are you here for?”

“I kept wanting to kill myself,” I said.

She nodded. “Fucking social worker got me put here,” she said. “I mean I’m depressed and crying a lot, but shit.” She is crying right now. “They took my babies away from me. Like that’s supposed to make me better?”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

She sat on the bed and put the stuffed purple unicorn on her lap. “Have you been here before?” I shook my head.

“Try to do a lot of the group things. That way they’ll let you go sooner.”

“I decided to come here,” I explained. “I’m pretty sure I can go whenever I want.”

Beth looked skeptical. “I’m going to take a shower.” She pointed at the door to the bathroom. “See how they cut off the door? That’s so you can’t hang yourself from it.” The top of the door has been sawed off to a 45 degree angle. “And the towels are tiny,” she went on. “So you won’t hang yourself with them. It takes three of them to cover your ass.” She went to the bathroom and held up what looked like a gym towel.

As she took a shower, I got in bed under the thin blanket. It was a little chilly in the room. If you go to a hospital, bring a quilt and warm socks.

I was very tired, and I still sort of wanted to die, but there was no simple way to do it, and this came as an enormous relief. I was safe. I could finally get some sleep.

In a couple of hours, maybe, a couple of nurses woke me. “It’s OK, it’s OK,” one of them said, as though I might punch her. “Sorry to wake you up. We need to take some blood, and we’re going to give you something to help you rest.”

That sounded great to me. I felt taken care of. “Sure, do it.” I fell back asleep before they were done.

By Bryn Donovan

Romance writer, poet, quilter, and dog cuddler.

14 replies on “What It Was Like To Be a Patient in a Mental Hospital, pt. 1”

ahhh dude, are you me?  this JUST happened to me last week. they tell you it’s voluntary then they don’t let you leave! and everyone around you is nutso city!  it’s the most suicide inducing environment ever to be checked into a mental hospital.  fortunately I got along with my nurse staff and was able to leave sooner than everyone else, despite my delayed discharge.  I also had a good roommate experience, but overall the political scheme of the place was disheartening and many patients were getting sedated at 8am or ignored and belittled by the staff.  I can’t wait to see part 2!

I’m sorry you had a bad time at the hospital. My experience was different from yours, but that’ll be clearer in the next parts of the series.

I didn’t think everyone around me was “nutso city,” but of course, I wasn’t doing very well myself or I wouldn’t have been there!

I hope you’re doing all right. Mental health problems can be a bitch to deal with.

I totally and completely sympathize with what you’ve been through. I’ve never been there, but I’ve heard some pretty bad stories.

Can I also put forward a little bit of friendly prodding? Saying things like “everyone around you is nutso city” sounds pretty ableist to me. I figure that was not your intent, but as someone who has also struggled with mental illness, that bit made me tense up.

I don’t know much about social work, and I was surprised when I had one assigned to me in the hospital (which I don’t think I mention in this series.) She was great, though.

Although of course I don’t know for sure, I suspect my roommate’s kids were neglected and not safe because of her mental state, even though she loved them. Being a social worker has got to be a very challenging job.

I’m a case worker in the community, not the hospital, but I work a lot in concert with the hospital social workers. mostly the job is making sure that the patient/client/consumer is hooked up with community resources to keep them stable and hopefully thrive, and collaborate with family & doctors too. in my experience each patient in the behavioral health units is assigned to a social worker’s caseload while they are there.

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