July 5, 2013

What It’s Like To Stay In A Psych Ward

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I’ve had depression off and on for years but never sought treatment before this summer, mainly because I didn’t have anyone to confide in and I was afraid to be put on medication. I had never been suicidal, just submerged in a world of darkness. By spring it became obvious to me that I needed medication because I could not continue to live my life indefinitely in such a state of pain. A month after I graduated college I ended up staying with a friend’s family because I was too depressed to handle life on my own.

On the night of July 3rd I had been on my first anti-depressant ever for about three weeks and I guess it had started to kick in. I had been counting down the three weeks my psychiatrist told me it could take to feel the effects of the drug. Some days I questioned if I could make it that long. I sat around the living room on bad afternoons crying, and most nights couldn’t eat dinner or sleep. I can’t quite pinpoint the moment when something changed in my body that night, but I remember leaving my dinner untouched and pretending to fall asleep on the couch where I was watching television with my friend and her dad so I could just disappear. I listened as they turned off the television and headed upstairs to bed, and then I could finally open my eyes. I felt as if I could never get off the couch.

I wasn’t being lazy, but the task of getting up and climbing the stairs to bed seemed simply impossible. And I was afraid that if I got into that bed I would never emerge back into the world. I was overcome with the strong feeling that I would die that night on the couch. I wanted to take all my pills and just die. Make the pain go away for good, finally. All the hurt that I had been through in my life was playing on a loop before my eyes, torturing me. I emailed a close friend and advisor from college about my suicidal thoughts. I thought, “It’s okay, I’ll die right here on this couch, on the blanket, and they’ll find me in the morning and call you.” I felt remarkably calm and clear, but the whole night was like an out of body experience.

At some point I dragged myself into bed but in the morning I didn’t feel any better. I texted my former advisor, “I just want to die.” I had had enough. At her urging, and despite my protests and crying fits, my friend’s mom took me to the local hospital, where I was admitted to the psych ward. By the time of the intake exam I was feeling better and was convinced the suicidal thoughts were simply an adverse reaction to Lexapro, as my psychiatrist had warned was possible.

My friend Allie and I were joking around, and I was so grateful she was there. I insisted that I did not need to stay there and never planned to kill myself and certainly wasn’t planning to at the present time, but the social worker countered with, “If you were thinking about it, that was the first step.” I had blood drawn for the first time in my life, learned how to put on a hospital gown, and burst into fresh tears when the social worker told me I would not be allowed to keep my cell phone. I was terrified. I had never stayed in a hospital before, and had nightmarish visions of being locked up in the psych ward with no end in sight and no contact with the outside world.

We rode in an elevator to the fifth floor, me in a wheelchair pushed by a guy that looked about my age. “He’s cute,” I mouthed to Allie. For a second I was embarrassed that this cute, normal-looking guy was taking me to the psych floor. I wondered if he thought I was crazy.

I ended up staying in the hospital less than 24 absolutely miserable hours. The floor seemed to be populated by middle-aged people a lot more screwed up than me, including a pregnant schizophrenic woman whose ranting about Jesus could be humorous if one could avoid being swallowed up by the sadness of a woman who could not recognize her own husband and the father of her baby. I didn’t talk to a single person, although most of them actually seemed pretty nice, and because the day I checked in was a national holiday, there were no group sessions held. The boredom was oppressive.

I mostly sat at a table in the “break room” trying to read the book my friend’s family had brought for me, and loitered at the nurse’s station complaining to the one cool nurse and trying to get her to distract me and tell me the quickest way to get discharged. I kept telling her I was fine and didn’t need to be there but the fact that I kept bursting into tears wasn’t helping my case. I clutched the sheet of paper with the phone numbers I had written down, like a security blanket, and dialed them incessantly on one of the several phones provided for patients. I cursed my friends for not picking up.

I skipped out on an “assertiveness” workshop, telling the instructor I was going to the bathroom and heading straight to the nurse’s station, because, as I explained to the cool nurse, I was already assertive enough. But I did attend a group therapy session. It was mildly interesting when I was able to stop being pissed at having to be there and depressed at the other patient’s marital and familial problems.

When you are in a psych ward the decision about your discharge is made by your hospital psychiatrist, so much of your time is spent waiting for him or her to come in. They are all supposed to come every day, but no one seems to know when exactly that will be. Some of the other patients complained that the psychiatrist they had was an “asshole” and never discharged anyone.

Luckily, my psychiatrist was very nice. He came in the day after I got there, and as the cool nurse explained I should do, I stated my case calmly. I explained that I had been suicidal two nights before as a result of an adverse reaction to Lexapro, as I had been told could happen, but I am off of it now and feel fine. He asked me a few questions and then said he was discharging me. I was elated. I felt like hugging him.

I left the room and headed to the nurse’s station, giving the cool nurse a thumb’s up. I called my friend’s dad to pick me up, and gathered my things together and packed them in a provided plastic bag emblazoned, embarrassingly, with the name of the hospital. While I waited for him to arrive I made small talk with the patients, finally not so consumed in my own anger to see them as real people, too. When I left the psych ward the cool nurse called after me, “I like you but I don’t want to see you here again.” I told her that she wouldn’t, and I was right, but it wouldn’t be my last psychiatric hospitalization of the summer.

I could tell myself that maybe I should have taken the first one more seriously, but the truth is I think because I was pissed off and in denial of my need for help the first time around, I was able to be ready for everything the next psych ward could offer me. Almost exactly one month later. TC mark

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