Vacation Home: My Week in the Psych Ward

 Photo: Canva

Photo: Canva

While most people were moving out of their dormitories and embarking on adventures at the start of summer, I ended up checking myself into a mental ward. I sat in the waiting room of Western Psychiatric Hospital for seven hours before I was even evaluated, not getting assigned a room until three o’clock in the morning. There were no windows, just the light of the vending machines and televisions playing on loop. Occasionally, an orderly walked through with small, individually wrapped sandwiches, boxes of juice and milk, and bags of Rold Gold pretzels that I scarfed down anxiously as I filled out my paperwork. Blood was drawn periodically and I attempted to sleep on the hard wooden chairs between sessions.

I didn’t know that this was going to happen. It all just became so real for me, sitting there, thinking I wasn’t sick. My girlfriend had noticed that I was exhibiting signs of suicidal behavior, which was correct. The night I checked myself in, I was planning on killing myself. If she hadn’t called the police, I may have been dead. She corresponded with my mother through the entire process of my check-in and she blamed herself for it months after the incident.

I will just start off by saying, a psychiatric hospital is nothing like what you see in the movies. There are no cell phones, websites are blocked, and essentially there are few outlets to the outside world. I woke at seven AM daily for my pills, and was assured that I would not be there long. The unit I was in was the Acute Trauma and Mood Disorder section, and almost every person on the floor had checked themselves in. About half of the fifteen people were twenty-five or younger though there were some people with grown children and some with grandkids. It was a wild mix, but I was still the youngest person there.

My first day in the ward, my girlfriend came from her campus to see me. I felt like I was in some sort of sad movie with her running into my arms and embracing me, tears running down her face. My girlfriend does not cry, so seeing her do so was sort of terrifying for me. For a moment, time stopped. All I could focus on were the scars on her face and the tears dripping down her cheeks. Her arms quivered around me and it seemed like she was afraid to let me go, even for a moment. She told me it was her fault. I couldn’t bear to let her think that my disease was a result of her. I loved her greatly (though she didn’t yet know) and I refused to let her think this way.

Finally, it all clicked. I had spent so much of my life blaming myself for everything that had happened to me. All of the assaults and trauma and relentless torture, I had blamed myself for all of it. I never laid the fault on the perpetrators of my destruction. I had always labelled myself as the reason that negative things happened. Of course, this was neither her fault or mine. It was a cruel turn of events that her worry for me and my anger towards my disease had grouped together to create. Her incessant desire to be my knight in shining armor was often times met with my insane detestation for my illness. It was her truest desire to save me, and the one thing I wanted out of this relationship was to not be fetishized as being sick. In the past, my partners found this sickening pleasure in having an ill girlfriend. However, my current love wanted nothing more than to heal my wounds, instead of putting them on display.

We both struggled with the fact that she would blame herself for everything that happened. She believed she was the straw that broke the camel's back, when really she was just a catalyst for a greater future. The amount of guilt she felt was unbearable and it took me every fiber of my being to admit, for the first time in my life, that I am not invincible and needed to let someone help me. To feel guilty when someone you love is hurting is inherently human, yes, but this was not her fault. It was not my fault either. It was the fault of my disease, a burdening situational gravity that neither of us had control over.

She stayed with me till nightly check-in to see how the day had gone. On a scale of one to ten, I fluctuated so much, my feelings all over the place and my mind still denying that I was in a hospital. My headspace was somewhere else, trying to act as if this was a way to purge the depression out of me, a break from reality. I couldn’t force myself to believe I needed help, I didn’t think I was the same as the people that shared the floor with me. To me, at first, it was an experience that I felt I needed to have in order to understand my problems, to see that I didn’t have it as bad as I thought.

But I realized soon after that I had it much worse. 

After filling out workbook after workbook, trying to dissect my problem, I realized that the diagnoses I had been given in the past did not match up to my symptoms whatsoever. Doctors from my old office had labelled me as a bipolar depressive with a penchant for nervousness. Never had they looked into post-traumatic stress disorder as being the cause for the majority of my issues. Though, lo and behold, that was my diagnosis after leaving the hospital. That along with major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and acute obsessive compulsive disorder to compensate for my trichotillomaniac tendencies. To finally have a real list of why I was acting this way was a bit of a relief. I found my niche quickly, befriending another creative writing major and participating in every group therapy session I could. I noticed quickly that the therapy I had gone to before checking myself in was incompetent and unhelpful. I learned coping mechanisms that, in my eight years of psychiatric guidance, I had never heard of. Between breaks for snacks and meetings with social workers, milieu therapists, and nurses, I pretended like this was my summer vacation. I described it to myself as preschool for adults. There were crafts and sing-alongs and movie nights, but there were also life skills learned that I hadn’t quite gotten a grasp on in the past.

I keep in touch with many of the people in the hospital, and we still communicate via Facebook. I try, however, to distance myself from the causes of my entrance to the hospital. During my week there, I assumed everyone would look at me differently upon my discharge. I thought I would forever be the sick girl. It has been four months and I am still struggling to come to terms with it. It feels like ages since I’d been there, but sometimes it feels like I was just there yesterday. Sometimes, it is very difficult not to harm myself. Sometimes, I forget what it was like before I had gotten the help. I embarked on six weeks of intensive outpatient therapy. I quit my job. I withdrew from classes. I felt like my world had crumbled around me solely because I had decided to take a week for my own mental health.

Yes, we had some fun times. We sang karaoke and ordered pizza and I went to church seven floors down. Sometimes I stared out the atrium window and watched the birds fly past. It made me realize my own mortality. Even though I had attempted to take my life and I was sitting in a box of incomplete suicide attempts, I wanted to do nothing more vividly than to live. I have found beauty in the small things, love in unfamiliar places, and a strength inside my soul that I hadn't known existed.

If you or someone you know is dealing with suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.