My stay in a psychiatric hospital became a running joke in my family, and that's not okay
It was a blustery, rainy October day eight years ago when I drove to a nearby psychiatric hospital and checked myself in. I still don’t know exactly what I expected to happen when I walked up to the receptionist desk that day, but I had packed a bag with clothes and toiletries, so I guess I knew I might be staying the night. I walked into the hospital feeling pretty confident about my decision. Chalk it up to being 19 and blissfully naive.
I was in my first semester of my sophomore year of college, and things were bad. I had been seeing a counselor at school, but I still found myself withdrawing from the world in an unhealthy way.
I had trouble making friends in college, so I spent most of my days alone. In fact, my 19th birthday had passed a week prior, and I spent the night eating nachos alone in the dining hall before attending a midterm review session in the library. I didn’t want to tell anyone it was my birthday — I felt awful enough as is.
I was also having boyfriend troubles — he attended school 1,200 miles away, and it was hard to love someone and only see them a handful of times a year. Plus, my two best friends from home had turned on me, wondering when I was “going to snap out of it”— as if my loneliness and depression were a burden on them.
The worst thing is, I was a burden on them. I felt like a burden on everyone in my life. I tried to explain my deep depression to my parents, but they simply didn’t see it. I guess as a coping mechanism, I buried my sadness in my schoolwork. My GPA was a 4.33 — I didn’t even know that was possible. Because my grades were so high, they didn’t really think anything was wrong. Depressed college kids let their grades slip… they skip classes, binge drink, party a lot. That wasn’t their kid, so everything was fine, right?
I had been successfully “hiding” my mental illness for 6 or 7 years, doing my best to mask my sadness with a smile. I begged the intake staff to just let me stay without calling anyone.
I ended up staying in the hospital for a week, and I felt proud of myself for reaching out for help when I desperately needed it. When I left, I was given a prescription for sleeping aids and an antidepressant, and orders to continue seeing my counselor.
I did continue seeing my counselor at school, but my parents weren’t encouraging of the medication, basically saying that I “didn’t need to be on pills,” so the prescriptions (that could have seriously helped me) went unfilled.But that isn’t even the worst part.
It doesn’t get brought up often, but when it does, my mom will make a crack like, “I’ll never forget the time I was grocery shopping and my daughter called to tell me she was in the psych ward,” or “Remember the time my perfect, blonde, all-American daughter drove herself to the looney bin?”
Worse than that? The reason why my family almost never discusses it is likely because they’re ashamed. They’re ashamed of me for being less than perfect, for spending “that week in the psych ward.” They’re ashamed that their daughter did something so drastic.
In the years after, I struggled just as much — but got even better at hiding it, burying it away as much as I could. It was only when I got my first full-time job after graduating from college that I resumed seeking treatment for my mental health. After all, being on my own health insurance and having my own income meant that I could make my own decisions about medication — and they didn’t have to know.
Over the course of two and a half years, I tried every medication on the planet, suffering side effects from nearly all of them. One pill gave me such a bad allergic reaction that I broke out in hives all over my body and my throat started to close up. I made it to urgent care in the nick of time. Because I still lived at home, I couldn’t tell my parents what was going on — my boyfriend went with me to urgent care, and I came home, hiding the hives and swelling under a scarf and coat.
I’m a work in progress, and I’m not certain that I’ll ever be “cured” of depression and anxiety — but I do know that I will never be able to discuss my struggles with my family, and that still makes my heart ache.
This past winter, I endured a similar depression to the one I felt all four years of college. But this time, I had my husband (the same long-distance boyfriend — we’ve been together for 10 years!) by my side. I wish all the time that I could tell my family exactly how badly I feel some days, but they’ve shown me that they don’t acknowledge my depression. It is a joke to them, so I keep it to myself. It’s painful, but it’s easier than telling the truth and being made fun of for it.
I’m now receiving treatment and learning how to care for myself, but I will always wince when my mom jokes about my “time in the psych ward.” That’s a pain that can’t be buried away in schoolwork.