In January of 2016, I spent twenty five days as an inpatient in a locked psychiatric ward of local mental hospital. The cause of my hospitalization was that my psyche and my life were disintegrating, and my partner wanted to get me into a safe place. The hospitalization served a twofold purpose–to place me in a safe container and to provide a way for me to do ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). The purpose of this post is to provide an account of what it means to be hospitalized in a psychiatric ward. If some viewers are considering hospitalization for themselves or a loved one, I hope that what I say can give you an objective account of the mental hospital experience.
What was a typical day inside a psychiatric ward like? The day began at 7:45 am, when a voice on the PA system announced, “It’s time for breakfast.” Not being a morning person, I would stumble into the day room to join the other patients. For me, breakfast consisted of yogurt, oatmeal or cream of wheat, and scrambled eggs. I don’t understand how, but the hospital made scrambled eggs taste like mud. The eggs didn’t even look real. Unfortunately, a simple hard boiled egg was not on the menu and thus could not be ordered. Lunch and dinner were no different, with overcooked vegetables and overdone chicken or salmon. This was true hospital food, in every sense of the word. After breakfast the day began. The day consisted of a series of groups that went from 9 am to 9pm, with titles such as mindfulness, coping skills,distress tolerance, emotional regulation, self-empowerment, recovery tips (for alcoholics and addicts), and my favorite by far–art therapy. While I found most of the groups boring, with art therapy I could work with my hands and produce something tangible.
Aside from the poor food, another limitation of being in the psych ward was the lack of exercise. There was no gym—only a decrepit stationary bike that I could only ride for fifteen minutes. Neither could I go outside and exercise. Being that this was a locked ward, one had to stay inside. If you were put on a special list, one of the staff could take you outside to a confined space with a rock garden, but only for ten to fifteen minutes. This is more confining than jail, as many prisoners spend far more than ten minutes exercising in the yard. There was one important difference however—anytime I wanted, I could sign out, since I had entered the hospital on a voluntary basis.
Another thing that drove me crazy about being in the unit was the overhead lighting. Evidently there was a ban on regular lamps because the staff thought that patients might use the chords to strangle themselves. This “no strangle zone” extended itself to cell phone charger cords. Thus whenever my phone battery was low, I had to bring it to the nurses station where one of the staff would take it to a special room and plug it into an iPhone charging cord.
On the other had, there were some positive things about being in the mental hospital. The other patients, who suffered from the same maladies as myself, were generally approachable and kind. I made two friends on the ward. In addition, the staff were gentle, compassionate and helped to create a feeling of safety. They were the complete opposite of big nurse from the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Whenever I needed special attention, they were there to support me.
Finally, a blessing I received from my hospitalization was all the people who came to visit me. I had a total of twenty-six visitors, and many came multiple times. This reminded of the film “It’s a wonderful life” when Jimmy Stewart’s friends showed up at his house and donated money to help him repay an 8,000 debt. My visitors made me appreciate that I was very much loved, an antidote to the thoughts of suicide that continually flooded my mind. If I hurt myself, I would bring pain to these and many other people.
After being discharged from the hospital on January 30, I noticed that I began to feel better. My overall anxiety and depression had decreased. I felt calm. Friends told me that my voice was stronger and clearer, and that my affect was less flat and more vibrant. In short, I had gotten some relief from my symptoms. So while the hospitalization and ECT have not created a total cure of my depression and anxiety, it has reduced the symptoms enough that I can work on them using other tools.