When I look back on my high school years, most of my memories probably match those of any other middle-class American. I was a theater geek, put face paint on every Friday for the football game, and slept through every study hall.
One memory I have that most others probably don’t share is my stint in a psychiatric ward. The word “seventeen” doesn’t so much conjure memories of the magazine or my first car, but how the head nurse made my time in that hospital a living hell, and of the little boy who ripped chunks of his hair out at every morning meeting.
It was my sophomore year of high school and I was becoming increasingly stressed over little things like homework or extracurriculars, and began to feel that I didn’t want to do anything anymore. I cried every night, and began to fantasize about suicide.
One night, I considered swallowing a bottle of pills I found in my parents’ medicine cabinet, and broke down about it to my best friend the next day as we changed for our “Footloose” dress rehearsal.
Before I knew it, she told our director/English teacher and that night a phone call was made from the school to my parents. By the next day, I had an appointment with a therapist.
After that, everything progressed — or perhaps I should say fell apart — very quickly. Just being diagnosed (bipolar disorder, naturally) wasn’t the magic bullet I thought it would be. Within the following months, I unsuccessfully slit my wrists and overdosed on painkillers. Ironically, neither of these situations got me committed.
One evening in the summer of 2003, I was sitting at home, when I suddenly found myself becoming what I can only describe as increasingly, helplessly “upset.”
My heart began racing and I started shaking uncontrollably, overcome with something I couldn’t quite identify or stop. I called my therapist and explained what was happening. I remember telling her I felt I had no control and that “something bad was about to happen.” She asked to speak to my parents, and an hour later we were in the car en route to the hospital.
Little did I know that I was in for the worst experience of my young life.
After triage, we were directed to the floor of the psych ward. I actually still thought I was just in the regular hospital. It wasn’t until I took a look around that I realized where I was. I saw the boy pulling his hair out, and another talking to a wall. Most were just sitting alone, crying or staring into space. This was the pediatric unit, and there were children as young as five.
I had that age-old psych ward epiphany: This was the wrong choice. I wanted to go home. I spun around to see my parents disappearing behind the closing elevator doors. I was taken to a stark white room and searched for drugs and harmful objects.
When I asked the nurses to call my parents, they refused. I kept thinking, “It will be OK. Someone will realize I don’t belong here, and then they’ll come and get me.” Then I had the terrifying realization that I was the only one who knew I wasn’t supposed to be with these kids.
I wasn’t able to sleep that first night, not only because a nurse came and checked my vitals every few hours. Eventually they administered something intravenously that put me out. A scary part about being a kid in this situation is that nobody ever told me what any of the medication was — the whole time I was there, I never knew what I was swallowing or being injected with.
The next morning we had to attend a meeting. It was there that I learned one kid was in for setting his house on fire and another for attempting to stab his sister. I’ve never felt more out of place in my life.
The fact that all kids are lumped in together regardless of why they’ve been hospitalized continues to trouble me. I was scared and felt I had nothing in common with these kids.
I was a teenage girl with bipolar and anxiety disorders, and I was here with five-year-olds demonstrating sociopathic tendencies. When we were told to “sculpt our emotions” using a ball of Play-doh, I had never felt so demeaned and humiliated.
I raised my hand and told the nurse (in so many words) that I thought the exercise was bullshit, and could I please be excused to call my parents. They put me in a room by myself, and told me I could see my parents during visiting hours.
Still, I had to attend group therapy everyday, which in this kind of setting is problematic at best. It’s like putting somebody with TB in a chair next to someone with third degree burns and telling them to share medicine.
I’ll never forget the 14-year-old kid who said he had dreams about shooting his aunt every night. Another wanted to know why rape was illegal. When it was my turn, I told everyone that I suffered from anxiety and suicidal thoughts. I thought this would be more of a common problem, but I guess all the other suicidal teens got put in the afternoon group.
When I finally got to see my parents, I could tell that they were having just as hard a time with the situation as I was. Visiting hours were uncomfortable because there was no privacy. I remember asking them in a hushed voice to get me out of there because the nurses and other kids were all out to get me.
Looking back on this, I realize that it was statements like those that KEPT me in there, but I had no way of articulating the actual problems, because I wasn’t kept in the loop on my treatment. So it goes without saying that when my parents left the visiting hour, I did not get to go with them.
Every meal I ate (which were just as disgusting as you might imagine they’d be) was monitored. As I took bites of my “food,” a nurse sat beside me observing me and taking notes, which was not really conducive to eating or not being horribly anxious.
At the time, illness had whittled me down to 90 pounds, so they felt they had to make sure I was nourished while under their care. I remember this little girl asking me in a tiny voice if she could have my potatoes because she was still hungry. I tried to give them to her, but it only resulted in each of us getting in trouble. There is no sharing in the hospital, particularly not of food. It feels as if kindness is prohibited in places like that.
After five days (which felt like an eternity) I finally felt some hope. I was coloring my damn feelings again when a nurse called me over to the front desk. To my surprise she handed me the phone. My mom was on the line and said that if everything went smoothly, they would be there to get me that afternoon.
As I hung up, I grinned and told the nurse that I was going home. She actually replied, “Don’t get your hopes up.”
But I was lucky; I did get to walk out of the hospital then, and it was like I had never seen the sunshine before. Everything was brighter.
I’m not saying all my problems were instantly cured — it’s taken a lot of medication and therapy to get to a stable point, but being hospitalized was certainly a low, unhelpful point in my mental health history.
Looking back on it, I realize that the nurses in these places have to be tough and indifferent, because it comes with the territory. Some of those kids WOULD hurt anyone. They had to watch me eat because I WAS starving myself.
Nevertheless, it was an horrific situation that could have been a lot less painful than it was if mental health were treated differently, particularly in children. I was lucky to have the limited experience in the hospital I did — I just hope that therapy and health care will continue to evolve, so that other girls going through what I did will have it better.
This article originally appeared on xoJane.