What a Stay in the Psych Ward Taught Me
It was seven days before my 20th birthday and my life was in shambles. My OSAP hadn’t come in yet due to a complicated application process as a result of a complicated family situation, I’d run out of Ativan, and falling out with two of my friends put me in a suicidal, depressed state. After days of never-ending dread- my brain convincing me that death was the best option and gracing me with daily panic attacks that left me feeling like I was actually dying, I knew something had to be done. And so, on Sunday, October 8th I called my dad and asked him to take me to the hospital. I was kept in the crisis unit of the Peterborough Regional Hospital overnight, before being admitted to the adult psychiatric unit the next day. It was here that I was kept for 16 days, and a journey of recovery and self-discovery ensued.
My first few days in the hospital were a whirlwind of emotion. I struggled tremendously, and two days into my stay I almost left against my psychiatrist’s advice. For those who know what it’s like staying in a psychiatric ward, it’s no wonder why I had such a rough time. I had absolutely no privacy- my room was shared with a 61 year old woman with severe bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. She followed me around the ward, stole the sheets off my bed when I went out on passes, and alternated snapping at me and accusing me of stealing her things and telling me that I was beautiful and God would bless me. The first night in the hospital my roommate and another patient walked in on me while I was attempting to relax in the bathtub, and I refused to use the tub for the remainder of my stay. The food was awful- portions were scarce, everything tasted bland and industrial and was highly processed. The days went by slowly, and I found myself plagued with anxiety as I wasn’t allowed to leave. I also had an initially negative experience in psychotherapy, as a male social worker called me out for my apparent lack of facial expression when talking about negative experiences, a coping strategy I hold to help deal with the severe anxiety I face when speaking up in groups.
Furthermore, I was genuinely terrified of the people surrounding me- I hadn’t recognized the stigma that I apparently held onto for the “scarier” mental illnesses: namely severe psychosis and schizophrenia, but even bipolar disorder, which I have, held a sort of stigma for me in my own mind. I decided to keep to myself in the hopes of staying safe- I ate meals alone, talked to no one, kept my head down and kept to myself. In this time I was a model patient, making no trouble for the nurses, taking my high dose of Latuda at night and my newly prescribed Zoloft in the morning, and attending all groups throughout the day.
Things started to look up when I connected with a lovely occupational therapist. During our one-on- one time, I confided in her about how my severe anxiety impacted my ability to live on my own. She encouraged me to look at recipes and attend classes at Loblaws to overcome my fear of cooking, taught me some natural relaxation techniques, and helped me make a plan to get my finances and academics back on track. The goal of returning to my home and starting a happier, healthier life seemed much more attainable with her help.
Though I found psychotherapy to be somewhat triggering, it was in there that I began to come out of my shell and connect with the other patients. After sharing my experience of a recent sexual assault, which partially triggered my relapse into depression and some substance abuse, I learned that others in the group had been through similar experiences. Everyone was supportive, and one social worker encouraged me to work towards letting go of the shame that I felt after being assaulted. Here I learned that those around me had issues just like my own- they too struggled with trauma, overwhelming negative emotions, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation among other things. I learned that I truly wasn’t alone, and I began to feel at home among people who shared similar disorders and life experiences. Slowly but surely, I opened up to the other patients. I started by saying hello to people who spoke up in psychotherapy, and then sat at lunch with them. In speaking to the other patients, I received the most beneficial part of my stay in the hospital. In my interactions with the patients and nurses around me, I learned four important lessons.
Lesson one was that mentally ill people are regular people. The girl with self-harm scars on every visible part of her body was a young, single mother who had recently left an abusive husband. She gave the best advice, and sat with me on the couch in the TV room while I rambled on about my various neuroses and endured traumas. The man with the face tattoos also had bipolar disorder, and a dog named Lotus that he loved dearly. He became a friend, a confidant, and someone to eat jalapeno chips and watch Step Brothers with, making me almost forget that I was in the hospital. The girl with bright red hair also had a drinking problem in addition to borderline personality disorder, and though she didn’t want to be there, she wanted nothing more than to get better. Plus, she gave the best hugs. The attractive boy who hogged the phone had depression and a cocaine addiction, but he was the most self-aware person I have ever met. I could relate to these people, and I found friends in these people. They made my hospitalization a much more bearable, and hopeful experience.
Lesson two: Mental health nurses are some of the most compassionate people on this planet. Two of my favourites were the cute, blonde nurse with bright red glasses who talked me through numerous panic attacks, and the vivacious nurse who helped me write a safety plan and congratulated me when I was finally discharged. These women and men got me medication every day, kept me safe, provided a listening ear when I was anxious and hopeless, and inspired me to be my best self and fight for my recovery. These individuals helped make the ward a safe place for me to continue on the path to mental wellness.
Lesson three was that talking about your issues helps tremendously. In my impromptu therapy sessions on the couch with fellow patients, I learned that when I drink to excess, it’s in an attempt to numb my anxiety. In psychotherapy, I learned that while opening up about my sexual assault is highly uncomfortable, it’s necessary if I ever want to truly heal. Talking through your problems is not easy, but it can be extremely cathartic under the right circumstances, and I find nothing beats spilling your heart to a truly good listener.
The last lesson I learned is that you don’t have to fear your illness. Bipolar disorder doesn’t get to rule my life. Panic disorder and social anxiety disorder won’t shorten my days on this earth. I will take my medication, go to therapy, and do everything that I possibly can to get better and lead a full life. There is hope to hold onto, and as long as I remember that, I can continue to fight my illnesses.
My hospitalization was far from easy, but it was necessary. I missed school, parties, outings with friends, and spent my 20th birthday in a locked ward, but I will never regret the time I spent there. I learned the skills I needed to survive and thrive, and each day I wake up and make the decision to continue on the path to recovery. I met and connected with some of the kindest and strongest people I’ve ever encountered, and they serve as inspirations to me as I fight to recover. I hope to one day sit with my psych ward friends around a dinner table and share our tales of losses and wins in the daily battles of life with mental illness. I don’t have to do it alone, and neither do they, and neither do you. I’m a more self-aware, strong, and compassionate person after my stay in the psych ward. It’s been two weeks since I left the psych ward, and I can honestly say that I’m feeling the best I’ve felt since the symptoms of my mental illness first began to emerge. I’m living on my own and thriving, working towards my goals, trying new things, and leading mostly happy and productive days. Each day I think of those I met in the psych ward, and I hope we all get better. May we never have to go back.