When I signed up to share my struggles with anxiety on the internet, I had to choose how much information I was willing to share about myself and my treatment. My decision was to hold nothing back as long as I felt I could help people, but I still chose to keep certain aspects of my treatment private even when I knew they could help people. But I recently watched a Smart Girls hangout where they joined forces with the Child Mind Institute to speak up about mental illness, and they inspired me to finally talk about the part of my treatment I was afraid to share.
I want children, teens and adults struggling with mental illness to know that there are places to help them. I want parents to realize that their kids might need more help than they can give. It’s possible to treat mental illness with therapy or medication, but sometimes people, such as me, need extra help. For me, that help came when I was 14 and spent about a week in the adolescent psychiatry unit of a hospital.
Before I went to the hospital, my parents were enabling me. They would try to push me to leave the house or see my friends, but they’d drop it as soon as I started sobbing and having a panic attack. Eventually they realized that they couldn’t help me. My parents sat me down with a psychiatrist who told me I could admit myself into the psych ward or be sent against my will. Even though it was phrased like a choice, I didn’t really have an option. I felt trapped, but I conceded and signed the forms and was whisked away in an ambulance. (No, they did not turn on the sirens, and yes, I was a little disappointed about that.)
I spent the first couple days in an isolated room because, apparently, if I’m in enough distress, I put up quite the fight. And, as an agoraphobic who was ripped from her comfort zone, I was in a lot of distress. It was a small room with a bed, a bathroom, and a window into the nurse’s station. After a couple days, I was moved into a regular room, which I shared with another female patient. That room felt much more homey. In addition to a bed and a bathroom, there was a dresser, nightstand and corkboard, which my roommate had decorated with brightly colored pictures of flowers.
I’m not sure how long I stayed in the hospital. Because of the medication I was given, most specifics of my stay are fuzzy. I think I was there for a week. I think I got there on a Wednesday and was there full-time through Monday. On Tuesday they let me leave in the afternoon to attend a special school for teens struggling with mental illness, but I was back in the hospital in time for dinner. I think I went home the next day. Most of the other patients were in the hospital longer than I was. I don’t know what snapped into place in my brain to help me recover so quickly, but I left that hospital ready to resume a normal life. Maybe it was the time spent in isolation that really helped me. Until then, I was used to being coddled, but isolation was all about tough love to help me realize that I needed help.
Every hospital is different, especially those for adults. The hospital I went to was only for adolescents. At 14, I was one of the youngest patients. Most of them were around 16 or 17, but one patient was only 11. Even though I don’t remember all the specifics from my visit, but I want to share some key things that stuck with me:
- They inspected our belongings as soon as we got there. The nurses had to remove any drawstrings from our sweatpants and sweatshirts. They also took away my cell phone. Anything a patient could use to harm themselves or others was taken away. I spent a year with sweatpants that fell down to my ankles because I was too lazy to replace the strings once I got home.
- They checked our vitals (blood pressure, temperature, etc.) every morning, and every evening they asked us the same three questions. I only remember two of the questions (Have you thought about hurting yourself or others today? Did you have a bowel movement?), but my roommate taught me that the “correct” answers were no, no and yes. They would also ask if you needed to see a doctor. They’d literally call any doctor in the entire hospital to come see you if you needed them. Our mental health was questionable, but we were all in excellent physical health during our stays.
- I only met with the hospital psychiatrist once or twice. The focus wasn’t on individual therapy. They cared more about group therapy, which initially freaked me out. I hated talking about my problems in front of people, but I eventually learned to embrace it. We would support each other and lovingly tease each other. It was the perfect environment for me to work through my social anxiety. We just sat in a circle and took turns talking about life free of judgment because none of us would ever meet again outside of the hospital.
- We spent 24/7 confined to a hallway in a gray building. To combat the boredom brought on from our surroundings, we had dance parties. I’m talking daily dance parties. We’d put on the top 40 radio station and dance for an hour or so every day. Our favorite songs were “My Humps” by the Black Eyed Peas and “Golddigger” by Jamie Foxx featuring Kanye.
- Other ways to combat boredom included coloring books, recreation time out in the courtyard and movie night on Saturdays. I was only there for one movie night, and we watched Happy Gilmore. Judging by the groans from the nurses, the kids chose that movie every Saturday. I also got a lot of reading done. My mom had to bring me a new book every day during visiting hours. She also brought along an issue of People magazine, which the nurses had to remove the staples from for safety purposes. The nurses also insisted on reading it first, but not for my protection. They just wanted to be up-to-date on the hot Hollywood gossip.
- We had to go to tutoring Monday through Friday. The hospital was in touch with our schools so our homework was always sent over. I usually worked on my own, but a tutor was there to help us out if we needed it. They also had a couple computers available for kids who needed the internet for their homework. That was in 2005. They probably have more computers now.
- We weren’t allowed to have gum, but I needed something to chew on, so I would gnaw on my styrofoam water cups. It freaked the nurses out so much that I got special permission to chew gum. I also had a nurse assigned to carry a bottle of Tums for me because I had stomach issues. Any time I needed an antacid, I would go up to her and she would give me one or two.
- Hospital food is kind of delicious. I was addicted to their chocolate cake, and since I was allowed to order my own meals every day, I had chocolate cake for dessert every night. I also had french fries and chicken fingers every day. (Gee, I wonder why I had stomach issues.) We even had access to a soda fountain! Once again, it was 2005. They’re probably a lot more health-conscious now.
- There was no privacy. To make phone calls, we had to stand in front of the nurse’s station so they could listen to us. I happened to get my period while I was there, so I went over to the nurse’s station to ask for a pad. The nurse was helping out someone else, so another nurse came up to me and asked if she could help. She had a male patient by her side, and I blushed and said it could wait. I didn’t want him knowing that I needed a pad! But she insisted on helping me, and I had to tell her, and the male patient, that I had my period. At 14, that was the most embarrassing thing that could happen. The lack of privacy was probably my least favorite thing about the hospital.
I did what was best for me, and I’m so grateful that I had parents who pushed me to get the help I needed. But not everyone has parents who can accept that their children are suffering from mental illness, and not everyone can accept their own illness. That’s why it’s important for people to speak up and let others know that they’re not alone. People should be encouraged to seek help, not shamed for it. I was afraid to talk about this for a long time. Some of my best friends still don’t know about this experience. I carried my hospitalization around as though it was some dark, shameful secret, but it’s not. I got the help I needed and am a better person for it. Hospitalization may not be the best option for everyone, and not everyone will have a great experience with it. I’m so lucky that I was able to treat my anxiety and receive such wonderful help.
If you’re comfortable doing so, please share your story in the comments, and make sure you support Smart Girls and the Child Mind Institute’s mission to Speak Up for Kids by tweeting #ISpeakUp.
If you want to privately talk about anything you read here, please feel free to contact me. I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t give you advice or tell you what to do, but I can answer questions and give virtual high fives.
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