(Continued from Part One)
At 6:45 a.m. someone came by to take my blood pressure. This wasn’t how I envisioned waking up that morning, but I also did not envision being a patient in the acute psychiatric ward (or “the unit” as its patients and staff called it). After the initial shock of remembering where I was and why this nurse aide had taken my vitals at dawn, I tried going back to sleep, but couldn’t. Instead, I laid in bed thinking about everything and nothing: “Will my husband be able to get my son to school on time?” “Should I call my parents?” “Am I still actively suicidal?” It’s easy to ruminate when you have nothing to do and only have the clothes on your back.
My day nurse came by around 8 a.m. to give me my schedule for the day. The agenda included meal times and the recommended activities for the day. She was very friendly, and despite my complete antipathy toward her (and anyone else involved in this current state of events), I couldn’t lash out at her. I simply nodded and answered her questions. I even asked questions about the schedule. After she left the room, I went to the nearest lounge and called home.
I talked to my son while my husband was driving him to school on time. After hearing his voice, I begrudgingly walked to the cafeteria to try eating. The disgusting meal I was served in ER and the bland snack I received at the unit the night before were the only things I had eaten in the last 48 hours. So I was hoping that breakfast would be better. Sadly, it wasn’t. I’m not a food snob, but I have certain standards when it comes to scrambled eggs, which were not met - they should at least taste like eggs for starters. I ate alone in a corner observing the other people who were locked up in the unit with me. There were no actively “crazy” people. I noticed some young adults, talking with each other as if they had been friends forever, a smattering of people looking stern and muttering to themselves, and people who looked and acted “sane”, just like me. We had all been deemed “a danger to ourselves or others”, but based on the atmosphere in that room, you would think we were just in some office cafeteria. This one, however, happened to have nurses wandering about with medication carts.
At 9 a.m. there was a morning check-in, similar to a school homeroom, with a nurse and a small group of other patients. During morning check-in, there was a skills-based therapy topic introduced, and it was also a chance for nurses to check in with their patients for the day. Morning check-ins are technically required, but like everything else on the unit, if you don’t show up, no one will force you to attend. I attended just to see what it was about and also because I was bored with waiting.
I did a lot of waiting around that first morning. I had told my nurse that I wouldn’t be attending any group activities until I had a real toothbrush and some fresh clothes. My husband was bringing me a bag packed with clothes, books, toiletries, and the most important thing: my watch. There were no clocks in my room, and I had no idea what time it was or how much time had passed. While waiting for my stuff, I was also waiting for the doctors. I wanted to put in my request for discharge immediately. I also wanted to argue that I’ll be fine and that I’d be better off not stuck on the 13th floor of a hospital.
My stuff came first. The staff had to search everything for contraband and things that can be used to harm yourself or others. They thoroughly searched my things, and the list of banned items is quite long. I understood they took my pants with drawstrings and shoes with shoelaces, but they also took away my electric toothbrush (to change out brush heads, you expose a pointy metal tip). Also, instead of giving me my original luggage sans the prohibited items, they put everything in paper bags, which they handed to me to take back to my room. As I was returning to my room, I saw a staff member was putting my nametag on my door. That was not a good sign.
I unpacked and changed my clothes. I had been studying for the CFA at the time and was working through questions on corporate finance when the knock came. The attending physician, her resident, and two medical students entered my room and tried to make themselves comfortable despite the limited seating. They proceeded to ask me how I was doing and a lot of other questions similar to those which I’d answered the previous day at the emergency evaluation. I answered everything more stoically than the previous day, knowing that I was being evaluated for weakness. They then asked if I had any suicidal thoughts and I admitted that I had been thinking about it, but more in the context of that being the catalyst for my admission. Subsequently, the attending, Dr. A, recommended that the dose of one of my medications be adjusted, and the team would check in with me again the next day. No one had an answer to when I would be discharged nor an answer about what criteria I’d need to meet to be discharged. I agreed to the medication change (I would have agreed to a lot of things if it meant I would get out sooner) and they left. I went back to the lounge and called home for the third time that day.
Afterward, I decided to give lunch a try. The lunch staff provided every patient with a menu to fill out in the morning for the following day. Since I had just been admitted, I hadn’t made my food choices yet, so I just ate whatever they had brought up. Lunch was not as bad as breakfast, but I was definitely missing my kitchen and Whole Foods. For this meal, I was joined by a patient who was delusional. He would wear a blazer over a hospital gown and wander around. Sometimes he’d also wear a pair of Ray-Bans. Although he was the classic example of who I expected to see in a place like this, he stood out quite a bit compared to most of the other patients. He told me how he just was woken up from a coma and saw Jesus. I did a lot of smiling and nodding as he talked because I did not know who was a “danger to others.” I did not want to find out the hard way.
The staff on the unit tried hard to keep people connected to the real world. The unit had three lounges with networked computers, free phones, and TVs. I mustered up all the courage I had and sent open and vulnerable messages to my friends. I told them I was in the unit, safe, and hoped to be back soon. I kept checking during the day to see whether anyone had responded. At this juncture, I was playing with a mental game with myself: if everyone ignored my messages, I could justify my fucked up perception that no one cared about me, but if everyone showed their support, then I had to accept that people cared for me. The outpouring of support was real and heartfelt and shattered my perception that my world was a cold and unfeeling place. I made phone calls to some friends just to hear their voices - just to know that there was still a world outside the unit.
After lunch, I attended my very first group therapy session. A day prior, if anyone had suggested that I go to group therapy, I would have considered punching them in the face. But with no other choices to pass the time, I decided to give it a try. This was a patient-led therapy, instead of facilitator-led, meaning the floor was open to whoever had something to share or talk about. I had skipped everything else leading up to the group therapy, including socializing with anyone except the Ray-Bans guy. So there I was sitting in a circle with other strangers who were all in the same situation as myself. The hospital was good about ensuring that the patients participating in my group were all high-functioning depressives with a grip on reality. At the end of their time in the unit, these patients would be discharged to their homes, rather than a long-term care facility.
After a minute of sitting in silence in this circle of strangers, I finally decided to ask a question: “How do you get used to being here?” The response came back fast and succinct: “You don’t.”
I “voluntarily” admitted myself into a really shitty sleepover camp.
Continued in Part 3
about the author
My name is Dana Johnson and I am the creator of the Mood Check-In blog.