Here's What It's Really Like Inside a Psychiatric Hospital | 22 Words

If you Google images for “psychiatric hospital,” you get the stereotypical pictures that show dark, cavernous hallways and things like you see in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: padded walls and straight jackets handed out like electric shock treatments. But in reality, the two psychiatric hospitals I’ve been in for depression, OCD, and an eating disorder have been much less sensationalized than that.

I will grant you that there was a "quiet room" where the seriously ill were sometimes put and restraints were a necessity for some patients, but fortunately for me, that was on the other wing of the floor. The people that I was around were dealing with bi-polar disorder, eating disorders, schizophrenia or any other variety of mental health issues and usually admitted as a last resort. Maybe there was a suicide attempt, maybe it was a stop-gap for medical stability before being sent to somewhere more intensive. For the most part, even if we didn’t want to be there, we knew that we needed to be there.

While I was in no way "cured" after my two weeks there — I was forced to leave against medical advice because insurance ran out, which is a whole different issue — for my $1,500 a day, I can tell you exactly what I experienced.

You’re stripped of most of your possessions and privacy.

Upon admission you're required to check all baggage except the emotional variety for inspection. You’re not allowed to have things like belts, shoelaces, drawstrings on hoodies or sweatpants, nothing with violent images, tweezers, gum, or anything sharper than a dull pencil. However, you could totally wear a prom dress if you really wanted to, as long as you didn’t mind the accessories being a hospital bracelet and slippers. There’s a narrow window in which you can shower while a nurse sits outside the stall, something they also do when you use the bathroom to ensure you’re not purging or self-harming if you’re on the eating disorder wing. Someone comes by to check on your location every half hour, day and night, and there are 6:30 AM weigh-ins, so good luck getting a full night’s sleep.

You have little control over your time.

While you’re technically in control of your time, you’re put on a schedule. There are groups to attend at certain times, activities you’re encouraged to participate in, and therapy meetings you’re required to make an appearance at, and for me, medical tests that were done. In a way, it’s like you’re thrown back into elementary or middle school as you do art projects, complete puzzles, or partake in a highly entertaining occupational therapy session that includes a dozen patients doing karaoke to "Brown Eyed Girl" and "I Will Survive" like they're auditioning for American Psychiatric Idol. Yes, that happened, and it was kind of amazing. Even the nurses were dancing up and down the halls.

You have to advocate for yourself.

When you’re on the eating disorder end of things, everything is multiplied because you’re faced with food six times a day. While it was extremely uncomfortable for me because I was eating so much food and drinking so many supplements I would break out in hot flashes at night — not to mention the lack of my OCD routine and exercise of any kind — I did it. I was never one to starve myself and looked forward to meals, if only to break up the boredom. But the majority of the women did anything they could to hide food, purge or exercise in secret in their rooms, so much so that some had an alarm on their bed that went off if they left. The temptation to follow suit and cave to peer pressure was strong, but I had to remember why I was there — for me, for healing — and that I had to ask for what I needed. If I knew deep down something wasn’t working or that I was cutting corners, I had to tell a doctor or a nurse. No one could do the work for me, and despite the medication I was given, there was literally no magic pill.

Even psych wards have cliques.

On that note, there are cliques from the minute you walk through the locked door. While certain patients are rude or keep to themselves — and to be honest, some are a bit too far out there for social convention — others naturally gravitate to each other and help make the sometimes unbearable boredom and stress more manageable. There were late nights talking with some of the women in the lounge like girls in a sorority, mornings spent watching SportsCenter with a fifty-year-old high-powered manic depressive lawyer, and an elderly man that became fast friends with the youngest girl on our floor. Before his admission, he refused to talk to anyone or get out of bed. By the end of his first week, he was coloring with the teen and showing up for group therapy where we learned he had recently lost his granddaughter, which sent him into depression. In fact, some of the people I met were more insightful and genuine than a majority of the people I knew "on the outside." When you’re that raw, literally opening yourself up to complete strangers who “get" what your issues are and are maybe in the same boat, you make genuine connections and learn empathy that you take with you when you leave.

Most people feel relief — not anger — at being there.

While it’s in no way fun to be in the hospital, you're forced to let go of unnecessary complications. You spend time talking and trying to work through things in a place where an 84-year-old man, a bipolar opera singer, and a teenage girl paint trinkets and try and do crafts with dull scissors. No one cares what you look like because you’re all in the same boat and just trying to make your way back upstream. In a sense, it’s a relief. You don’t have a choice: you can’t stress about work, exercise, running here or there or keeping up on social media. Your job while you’re there is to reclaim your life, to learn skills to better handle the things that might have brought you there in the first place. While it’s stressful, it’s a different kind of work — it’s internal — and without the external pressure there’s a sense of unfamiliar freedom. The challenge is keeping that sense of self and perspective when you walk back out the locked doors and step back into reality. It's hard, but most things worth fighting for are.