Life inside a Psychiatric Hospital

I had been feeling suicidal for a while and had to phone a friend for help.  I can’t quite put into words what these feelings are like but I was afraid because the impulse to no longer be in this world was too strong.  After spending 16 hours in A&E, we finally arrived at the hospital.  All I kept thinking was, what is this place going to be like? And what are they going to do to me?

The first person I met was Pedro, who had been at the hospital for two years.  He was the sweetest thing and liked to wave to me.  We had lunch together, where he let me sit on his table while he gobbled up his lunch and then dessert.  He had been out dancing the day before and looked very dashing in his suit.  He has been dancing for many years now – a combination of rock and salsa.  He comes from an affluent background and belonged to the boy’s ward upstairs.  Even though that was a closed ward, he was allowed to roam freely.  He had the mind of a child, and I can’t see him ever settling independently into a community.  I wonder what his future is.  Will he be in a psychiatric ward forever?

Everyone seemed to know each other and it seemed quite intimidating at first – feeling slightly like the outsider, sitting on my own.  We had to take our meds at 10pm each night and 8 in the morning, just before breakfast.  There were 17 rooms in this place, surrounded by beautiful greenery; it felt more like a retreat than a psychiatric hospital.  The sun shone a lot, and as we sat in the garden I got to know more patients, who quickly became friends.  People were there for all different reasons; depression, anxiety, self-harm, alcoholism, drug addiction, drug induced psychosis and Bipolar Disorder.

At the beginning of my stay, I woke up often feeling groggy and sleep deprived.  This was probably because when I was first admitted, I was on 15 minute obs.  This meant that during the night and day, staff regularly checked on me, possibly to make sure I didn’t hurt myself in any way. At the beginning, I didn’t know what each day would hold and often felt unsure of myself.

I often ate with Pedro and Sundays especially were my favourites in the restaurant.  A lovely nut roast!   Alex, the male nurse, sat with me with a colleague, and we talked about how I was settling in.  I leaned over and admitted to him that I thought it would be like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and he laughed and nodded.  I guess he had heard that before!  He had lead quite an interesting life from what it sounds, studying English Literature at the University of Arizona.  We discussed the stigma and government cuts to the mental health services – he was right; if they recognised the significance of mental health then surely the government would save money.  It must cost the government billions for sick pay!  He said that he was very open minded to more Eastern ideas of treatment.

After the first two weeks I felt calmer than I have done in years, but  I worry that I have let my family down by going into hospital and what mum thinks of a daughter of hers being treated in a mental health hospital.  How can I explain my feelings pre-hospital?  A complete belief that I wasn’t safe and that I shouldn’t be here; an intense feeling that I was going to harm myself or do something stupid.  There was no future, just pain; circles.  But things are turning around slowly.  And I felt safer than I have done in years.  Safe behind that big wooden fence, hidden from the dangers of the world and from the prejudice of others.

I gradually started to talk to more people.  I met Jennifer, who said I had a pink voice; nice and girly.  She liked to touch people’s arms and name them. Claire had Strawberry arms, I had Pink Champagne arms.   Crocodile Dundee (Patient) believed in Angels and said there is 1 angel to every 30 people – a bit like teacher-pupil ratio.  Crocodile was more of the ‘stereotypical’ patient, and often tried to hide from the big elephants, waiting for him behind the bushes.  He laughs hysterically, striding round the garden with his Crocodile Dundee hat on.  It was only much later that I found out he has a list of qualifications that are as long as his arms, and that he is a published poet.  He is at one with his madness.

I looked forward to the visits from friends and loved ones.  That was always a nice treat and I learned very quickly how to make a decent cup of tea!  I felt tired a lot of the time in the first week and often wanted to drift off to sleep.  Sleep helped to block things out and then I wouldn’t have to deal with anything anymore.  I couldn’t make decisions, life is a hurricane and I felt stuck in the middle – like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.  Life was going on and I just didn’t know how to deal with it all – it was swirling and I felt caught up, dizzy and sick.  It felt like something out of a Satre novel, where all the words are swimming around and life just doesn’t make sense.  Like the standard literary form and structure is screwed and it is all just words, tumbling, falling over each other.  Nausea, that is what the Satre novel is called.

Can it get any worse than admitting myself into hospital?  What do I want to get out of this and what are my goals?  I wanted to meet like-minded people and learn to be open about my feelings.  I wanted to recognise the signs before it got to the panic stage where I don’t know my own mind anymore.  I wanted to be able to have some control and feel in control of how I am feeling.  I wanted to be able to cope with my thoughts.  They are my thoughts, they are not me as Ekhart Tolle suggests in his book, The Power of Now.  I wanted to be able to trust myself, believe in myself and be confident in who I am.  I wanted to feel like I am living but not constantly in pain.

There was quite a strict timetable that we followed there and I enjoyed it.  Perhaps it was because it gave me a structure that I didn’t have I my life.  We woke up, had breakfast, went to our two group therapy sessions, had a break; which involved smoking far too many cigarettes! After lunch we then had two more group therapy sessions and then it was time for dinner.  The evenings were ours and we shared some great times, whether it was listening to music in the garden or watching the world cup.  We came together and bonded.

Most people in the ward hear voices in their heads, telling them to do something evil to themselves.  They aren’t a danger to anyone else, apart from themselves.  I saw Claire’s cuts and scars on her arms – wounds so deep that it hurts just to look at them.  The voices tell some of the patients to get angry with them and self-harm.   I liked the refreshing honesty but found it all so scary.  The mind seems so dangerous. But we cannot blame ourselves for other peoples’ actions in the past.

Group therapy was tough.  Although we were such a diverse group it soon transpired that we were frightened of the same things.  Those ‘things’ included the world outside of the wooden fence, the fear of relapse and what life on the outside would be like – would we be ready?  The groups included regular Creativity classes, CBT, Self-Awareness, handling our emotions, goals for the week and dealing with our recovery. The class that you take depends on your care plan and what the doctors recommend.

It took me a while to let anyone in or properly let go in those therapy sessions and I remember that one class where, for the first time in years, I expressed my anger towards people from my past.  It was an eye opener because for years I internalised that anger, which turned into self-loathing.  Perverse isn’t it?

The turnaround was quick, too quick for my liking.  As soon as you made a bond, then just like that, someone gets carted off to another hospital or released into the wild.  Before he went, I started to connect more with Crocodile Dundee.  He gave me a book of his poetry, which I read over and over again, and found it truly inspiring.  Especially the poem about the birth of his daughter.  When he was at the hospital, he never received any visitors, and now I wonder if his family abandoned him because of his illness?  I got a text from him recently, and you will be pleased to know that the angels still speak to him.  I hope they look after him.

Although in group therapy, they stressed that close bonds shouldn’t be formed, it was inevitable.  In such a tense environment, we all grew close.  I like to think that the people I met in hospital will be lifelong friends, and I often wonder about them now.

Most patients (including me) were NHS and a handful were private.  Some patients had come from as far as Birmingham and Cornwall because there were no NHS beds in the area.  This meant that that as NHS patients, we could be carted off at any time to a ward.  That was terrifying!  One of my friends had been ‘taken’ by surprise which made his Bipolar worse, and prompted an episode.

I responded well to treatment and changed my medication.  Life seems brighter now and finally there is some light at the end of the tunnel.  I am so grateful to have been taken to hospital, to have experienced what I have and made new friends.  I am grateful for the help and support I have received in and after hospital.  I know now that depression will always be a part of me, and that I can’t fight it because I will lose that battle.

For the first time, in a very, very long time, I am grateful to be alive.

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