This is my third piece on having a mental breakdown at the beginning of the year. These posts discuss mental illness experiences in detail and may be triggering to some readers. You may wish to read the first two pieces, one on the breakdown itself and the other on my experience in the emergency room. Today I discuss the hospital psych ward itself, and this will be a bit long. Of course, my experience is in no way representative of everyone’s experience. There’s another hospital here I’ve heard horrible things about.
Imagine every movie and TV depiction of a psych ward you’ve ever seen. What do you think of? Dark hallways? Institutional green walls? Padded rooms? Where I went, there weren’t any padded rooms, and the hallways were well lit, but the walls of my room and the hall trim were definitely institutional green.
Because the hospital of the ER I went to didn’t have a psych ward, I was transferred by ambulance to a hospital in the same faith-named network downtown. By the time I walked through the two sets of locked doors with security, I was much quieter. This place was new. Newness is not something I’ve traditionally dealt well with. I was still under the impression I’d be going home as soon as the sun was up, so my initial intention wasn’t to blend in too much. I had told myself I didn’t belong there. Of course, I was delusional. To be quite honest, the psych ward was exactly where I belonged.
Off the main corridor were the visitation room, then the common room, and across the hall were employee-only areas and the vitals room. At the end of the hall was a T-intersection. The medication room, social worker office, and rooms for men were on the right. On the left was the nursing station and rooms for women. Initially, my mind balked at this cissexist setup, but what I didn’t realize is that I don’t live in a utopia of equality – the people with penises were still overwhelmingly male, mentally ill, and potentially violent.
My room was to the end of that hall, in a corner. I don’t think I could have handled sharing a room. It was empty and plain. There was a small bathroom, with a public-style toilet and a hands-free sink. There was a tiny stand-up shower with a used wash cloth on the soap dish, and mold growing in the corners and on the curtain. I decided I wouldn’t shower while I was there. The bathroom door didn’t lock. It has a roller that “snapped” into place. The bed was plastic, bolted to the ground, with a vinyl-covered foam mattress. The bottom sheet was made out of a mesh material, and it came with a hospital sheet, blanket, & pillow. I clung to the blanket I’d brought with me from the emergency room. In one corner was a tiny doorless wardrobe with a shelf. The bar for clothes hangers had been removed. There were windows along the far wall, but a mesh grate across them obscured what was on the outside from up close. I could make out part of the roof of the middle of the hospital, and another tower on the other side. It was noisy, a white industrial noise that played guitar music in my brain.
The whole experience was almost like something out of a movie, only with multi-hour stretches of boredom, especially at night. It was full of interesting and colorful characters. Names have been changed.
Laura didn’t think she was sick, but my guess is she had borderline personality disorder. She was in her 50’s, tall and round, with large pendulous bosoms that hung down to her stomach under her hospital gown that she often referenced. She was brash, judgemental (except when it came to drug abuse), homophobic, and took charge. She hoarded snacks to feed her much younger boyfriend. I gathered they were homeless, temporarily staying with his sister. She hogged the short-corded phone, the both of them accusing each other of cheating. Laura thought she was an independent, wealthy model who could sue the place if she didn’t get what she wanted. She took to me immediately, and for that I was grateful. I saw her turn on one patient, Jasmine, who got all our trash cans removed by throwing hers at the staff. Laura laid into her one day when the staff weren’t around, asking the poor girl what the hell was wrong with her and calling her crazy.
Seth was short, thin, and blonde, with a moustache & beard. The first time I met Seth he was wearing a hospital gown over scrubs, yellow hospital socks on his feet, a green hoodie, and a second pair of yellow hospital socks on his hands. He was flirting with the girl in front of me in line to the medication room. He left the same day I did, thanking the staff for treating him like a human. He was homeless, having been in and out of the local shelter. He said he always kept hoping he’d get a second chance at life.
Tom was older, white, and very tall. His hair was white, with a salt & pepper moustache. He had PTSD. He used to be a soldier. He’d been homeless for some time, doing odd jobs and living where he could. Sometimes he’d get his life together, and then out of nowhere the flashbacks would come. He’d lost more than one job that way, which eventually put him out of a place to live. His finances were a wreck. He just wanted to work and be able to see his kids. His ex-wife had them. Tom patrolled the men’s hallway and the main corridor constantly. He’d pace that L-shape dozens of times per hour, hour after hour. While the rest of us watched afternoon TV, Tom patrolled like he did the only time in his life when he was successful.
Maria had big, curly hair. She didn’t leave her room much. She was quiet. She didn’t talk, and no one seemed to know much about her, other than they thought she might not be able to speak at all.
Zoe was bipolar, like me. She was tiny, only 20 years old, with freckles and dyed black hair. She was privileged, like me. Her dad ran a different psychiatric facility, but this one was on their insurance. She’d gone off her medicine and had a breakdown at her 20th birthday party. She had been out with friends and lost it, so they brought her there. Her parents were livid, and blamed her boyfriend during visitation. It was clear that while she was well taken care of financially, she wasn’t from a supportive environment. We became fast friends. She had to share a room with Maria.
Jesse was stocky, Mexican-American, and had tons of tattoos. Jesse scared me a bit. He mumbled whatever came to mind. He referred to snack time as “snack attack” and got aggressive when we didn’t have snacks or meals on schedule. Jesse sexually harassed the other women. His family was poor, and couldn’t afford the medication he needed. He had spent a lot of time in jail.
José was slender, awkward, and didn’t wear underwear. His family couldn’t afford his medication, either. He had lice, and found the beds to be very uncomfortable. He had schizophrenia, and was generally quiet. The first time I interacted with him, he was trying to decide whether to put his second gown, which was supposed to go on like a robe, on the floor or on an empty chair at breakfast. I thought it looked better on the chair. He was totally bottomless, but I pretended not to notice.
Antoine was the only black person there. He had schizophrenia. He was homeless, but often felt called to travel. He was from Louisiana. He traveled between here and there, working until his illness made it too difficult. He tried hard not to spend all his money or get robbed. He just wanted to fix his car, take care of his Mama, and make the voices stop. He knew he’d never be able to afford the medication he needed, so he just kept on keepin’ on, doing what he had to. He wasn’t a danger to anybody but himself, but that was rare.
Vanessa was young-ish, maybe mid 20’s. Of average height and build, she was aggressive and demanding. She swore she had a doctor who had prescribed her Oxycontin for her ankle, which constantly hurt. She liked to threaten the staff if she didn’t get her pain pills, or get them on time. She left the second day I was there.
Jasmine did not want to be there. She threw a trash can at the staff on her first night. It missed and hit Laura’s door, making Laura her enemy. She wrapped a hospital gown over her head like a hijab and stood in the shower, fully clothed, for hours. She vacillated between mourning sobs and violent outbursts. Eventually, she was strapped to a wheelchair and taken somewhere else “to calm down.” She didn’t come back before I left.
Then there was me. I was the fat, white, middle class, middle-aged mom that had a caring family and owned a home. I was stable, educated, and well spoken. The staff liked talking to me, because I could articulate what it was like to have a breakdown. I identified faults in the system. I knew a lot about medicine and science, especially sexology. They did treat me like a regular person, whose brain just got real sick one night.
There was a relatively strict schedule. Breakfast was served at 8am. Morning medications were handed out afterwards. We’d take turns having our vitals taken, and a medical doctor would make the rounds. At 10am, the social workers would do a class on life skills. At 10:30 we had snack. At 11, the social workers and psychiatrist would visit with everyone individually. At noon, lunch was served. At 1, there was another class. At 2, the social workers and doctors saw everyone that hadn’t yet been seen. At 3 we had snack again. 5pm was dinner time, with medication time right after that. Visiting hours were from 7-9pm. Lights out was at 10pm.
The food was decent, but they wouldn’t allow us even plastic knives. Everything was designed to keep us from hurting ourselves or someone else.
The psychiatrist I saw was very helpful. She said there was a new medication out there that was just approved. Since I had health insurance, I was a good candidate for it, since it was very expensive. There were a few side effects, but we’d know right away if I could tolerate it. Within an hour after taking it for the first time, I finally crashed. I had slept maybe 10 hours in the past week, and hadn’t slept for 3 nights prior to my breakdown. I crashed hard and woke up before breakfast the next day. It was as though a light switch had come on. I could think in 3-D. The music had stopped.
After a few days, it was determined I’d tolerated the medication well and would be a good candidate to go home, and into a transitional psychiatric program that was grant-funded. It helps people get appointments, counseling, and medication in the months they usually have to wait for an appointment. To put that in perspective, I had my breakdown in January. My private psychiatry appointment is in May.
The staff there were great people, and treated us with incredible humanity. The system worked like clockwork. On my last day, Seth and Zoe were also headed home. Zoe and I said somewhat tearful goodbyes. I haven’t made any attempt to contact her on the outside. Seth gave me his snacks, since he was the first one out the door and hopefully into a new life. Laura was feeling abandoned. I gave her the snacks Seth gave me to say goodbye. She had taken me under her wing, and like most of us, was a fallible human who’s got a chronic illness, and is often misunderstood. It meant the world to her.
Humans are social creatures. Mental illness is incredibly difficult because it affects how we socialize. We don’t make it through these experiences alone. Help is out there. In my case, it was compassionate, structured, and I knew I wasn’t alone in my struggles. To be perfectly honest, this was the best thing to happen to me. For the last 10 years, Carrie has been in caretaker mode, almost parenting me. Since then, the whole dynamic of our relationship has changed. It’s much healthier. I’m healthier. I’m glad I accepted help.