My Week at a Mental Hospital
By Alexia Tiches
Somewhere out there, a 15-year-old girl is reading a book about someone who goes to a mental hospital, has an amazing adventure and falls in love with a manic pixie dream girl or a brooding sad boy. My story could be like that, except for the handicaps of mental illness deterring my own YA experience. Maybe if I were less awkward and less self-deprecating I would be able to have something more exciting for the readers.Yet, real life does not have some indie soundtrack behind it to make sure it’s interesting. It’s grey, with fluorescent Hospice Care lights, crappy food, thin beds, annoying nurses, and the opportunity to change your life for the better.
I had my opinions about psych wards—a place for crazy people, I thought. No, I was not excited to go to the mental hospital. I was quite scared, and when they closed the doors behind me, sealing me in the ward for the next seven days, I couldn’t help but cry. Crying in a strange place is not fun. You feel naked, and exposed and crying just makes it worse because the other patients look at you in your blue gown and shake their heads, thinking, “look at that newbie”. I had no clothes, no possessions at all. I was in severe need of a shower and my roommate was simply a silent, blanket-covered lump in the bed.
I sat next to an older man with snow white hair, who seemed very comfortable. With tears still rolling down my eyes, I stared ahead. He leaned in and asked, “Alcohol?” I shake my head, no. He nodded and said, “I’m here for alcohol.” It was after they shut that door that I was told that I would be staying in the substance abuse unit. My mind immediately imagined meth-heads, cocaine sniffers, and pill poppers, all scuttling like some cockroach-human hybrid. I refused to talk to anyone or go to any group therapies all day. I felt like I was somehow above everyone else, wearing 100-dollar Birkenstocks, and coming from a private college that no one’s ever heard of.
After my week I would cringe on how I acted my first day, how pretentious and snobby my initial reactions were.
The first full day was definitely the worst, except for the surprise visit from my roommate and another friend. It was hard for me to accept their act of kindness without my paranoid doubts about their authenticity. Our college was an hour away and they really didn’t need to come visit me. But I was glad they came. It gave me something to talk about in group therapy when they asked us to say two roses and a thorn.
The next few days I learned about different breathing techniques and which feelings are good and which feelings are bad. We talked about our families and how they felt about us being at rock bottom. We talked about happy things. We talked about sad things. We talked about which celebrity we’d have sex with and which one we would kill. I remember talking with my roommate about running away from our colleges and becoming strippers. I told her that I was too awkward to strip and they would pay me to stop.
Every day I travelled to the other unit, the Willows unit, and went to group therapy with the other people who tried to kill themselves. I would ask one of the “not-nurses”, as I would end up calling them, to take me through the electronically locked door to the other unit.
One day, maybe my third day at the hospital, I went to group and a new guy was staring at me. He was wearing dress pants, loafers, and had a crisp button-down shirt. He did not belong. Before I could call him out for his creepiness, he stopped and I went back learning about my feelings.
When we lined up for lunch, I heard him say he went to my college. This was it. This was my John Green moment—meet a cute boy with the same mental illness and we’d fall in love. I played it cool. We talked about why we were there. I nonchalantly told him about the first time I was in the hospital in January; I was a pro. He told me about his relationship and how he tried to do it and how he didn’t want anyone to know. I, personally, could care less who knew I was in the hospital.
The more we spoke, the more I realized he was as crazy as I was, and I was not attracted to that. I was disappointed that he couldn’t be my teen romance depressed boy, but I was glad to have him as a friend. He would make my time in and out of the hospital more endurable.
There were others that made my stay more tolerable as well: my roommate, the man who always watched Tanked on the TV, the bisexual alcoholic, the bisexual depressed girl, the man that wasn’t supposed to be there, and the woman with the marital problems. I did learn to be appreciative from the random alcoholic or drug addict that passed through. They were mostly loud, and opinionated which made mealtimes funny.
I found the forced AA meetings interesting, but also unnecessary due to my lack of addiction, and Art Therapy was just stupid. I never went to any Music Therapies, except for one in which I had fun; my collegiate friend, the man who wasn’t supposed to be there, and I played musical games.
I guess my lowest point was when I had a panic attack in front of everyone. The audience made me panic more and I was on the floor in the middle of the unit, crying, hyperventilating, and screaming for it to stop. From the outside, you would think I was crazy. But afterwards, I didn’t get any daunting stares. I was welcomed with pats on the back and hugs and little comments like, “It’s going to get better”.
What I miss most about the hospital is the sense of community that emerged after being there for a couple days. I miss the little crimes we would commit for each other, like stealing a pen from the nurses’ desk or taking extra snacks to stash in our horde. I miss the support from people who were also at rock bottom. I miss ganging up on the nurses when they told us to keep the lights on in the Rec Room when we tried to watch movies. I miss that one “not-nurse” who was so kind to me when I first got there, not treating me any different from his colleagues. I miss the safety and the comfort.
I never thought I’d come to appreciate the hospital. When I first got there, I cried so much that I told myself I could never like, let alone love, a place like it. I’ve never felt so close to other humans. I’m normally a relatively closed-off person and was never really good at feeling comfortable around others. And yet in that week, total strangers knew my deepest worries and anxieties. They saw me laugh and cry and panic, and though we exchanged numbers and social medias, I know I can never go back to that environment.
It’s bitter-sweet. The bitter is the depression and suicide part, obviously. Leaving the hospital was also bitter. I cried, sad. I would miss the cold unit that housed me for a week. I don’t think my parents knew how much I liked it there in the end. When they came to pick me up, they assumed I was so relieved to be out. I went to lunch, got a haircut, and went back to school, a new girl. And yet, I wasn’t. I was still depressed and weird and socially awkward. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe not every experience has to be novel worthy or the most important event in your life. My time at the hospital has helped me, but it doesn’t define me and it shouldn’t define me either.