Continuing my surviving bipolar story.
TW: Suicide, self-harm
What’s it like to be in a psychiatric hospital? Would I go again if I needed to? Let’s continue the Surviving Bipolar series, and I’ll tell you about my experience.
If this is the first time you’re visiting Speaking Bipolar, you can learn a little about me and my bipolar journey here . You can also read the Surviving Bipolar series from the beginning by clicking here .
At the end of Part 7, my friends Patrick and Margaret insisted I go to the hospital. I was out of control, and they could no longer help me. My life was at stake, and so they did the right thing and took me to a professional care center.
Anger ruled as king
I remember being angry. I was angry at the doctor who signed the commitment order and angry with Patrick and Margaret because I felt like they were turning their back on me and leaving me in mental prison.
And I was angry at myself.
I knew I was out of control, and the thoughts in my head were running so fast that I couldn’t hold on to any of them. My pride was hurt. I was a strong man, and no thoughts or feelings should’ve been holding me down. It would be some time before I understood mental illness. But then, I felt like bipolar was killing me.
It’s a 45-mile drive from the medical center where the doctor signed the commitment order to the psychiatric hospital. In time, we came to call the hospital Happy Valley, but at that moment, there was nothing making me happy.
As we drove across the mountain between centers, I don’t remember saying a single word to my friends. I thought several times about jumping out of the car, but I knew that would only make things worse. Of course, I wouldn’t have been able to if I tried. Patrick had engaged the child locks on the doors and the windows before I got in the car, so I was a prisoner there as well.
We arrived at the hospital about 12:30 a.m. I was wide awake and boiling with rage, defiant with every question the intake nurse asked me. I didn’t want to be there, and I didn’t want any help.
The nurse was patient and calm. I remember nothing about him other than that he had black, round glasses and kind eyes. He was one of the few people at the hospital who treated me like a person and not a rabid animal.
Nurse guy asked me if I wanted anything to drink and then used his own money to buy me a Dr. Pepper from a vending machine. The gesture made me feel a little better toward him, though not much. I was an angry monster and refused to make it easy for anyone to reach me.
Confined to Level A
The intake process lasted forever. Most of the questions felt ridiculous and repetitive. I was snippy and petulant, and amazed now that the guy didn’t just smack me upside the back of my head.
It was after 3:00 in the morning before they finally put me in a suicide-watch room.
When they asked me if I was going to hurt myself, I replied, “Duh! Why do you think I’m here?“
No one thought I was funny, even though I probably laughed to myself.
The intake nurse escorted me to Level A, the high-risk ward, and put me in a suicide-watch room. It was a white room with one frosted window covered in wire mesh. The window let light in, but you couldn’t see anything on the other side.
There was a small mattress on the floor in the middle of the room and one small blanket that wasn’t even long enough to cover my body. I’m sure they were concerned about me hanging myself, but the tiny size only irritated me further.
There was no other furniture in the room, and they took my belt and shoes before letting me enter. We hadn’t thought to bring any clothes with us, so the only clothes I had were what I was wearing when Patrick snatched me from my house.
I wore that outfit for the next two days. Margaret brought me clothes the next day, but the staff prevented her from giving them to me. For whatever reason, my clothes spent all of that day and most of the next sitting behind the desk in reception.
Long hours in a white room
I paced the room for a long time, walking in circles around the mattress. I rattled the wire on the window and quickly learned there was no way to pull it off. The designers made the room to be safe, and I was sure from the marks on the wall that scarier men than me had tried and failed to get to the glass.
I walked in circles around the room for a long time. Each pass around that stupid, tiny mattress, I cussed it and everyone else.
There was a camera in the center of the ceiling of my room. When I finally decided I needed to rest, I laid down on my back on the mattress. I stared up at the camera on the ceiling and imagined the nurse who admitted me watching me from the reception desk. I hate being watched, and the more I thought about it, the more lava bubbled in my veins. So I spent the next hour using both hands to give the finger to the camera.
Not my proudest moment.
Regarding that room, I wrote this in my journal the next day:
“I had to sleep on a mattress on the floor in a small room. Sorry, no padding on the walls. There’s a wire mesh on the window and a deadbolt lock on the door. A camera overhead watched every move I made during the night.”
My first morning
Right before breakfast, the staff determined I was not high risk and let me out of my little cell to join to the other patients on Level A.
I remember little about my first morning in the hospital, other than being irritated that I was wearing the same clothes for over 24 hours. I’m no fashion plate, but I love clothes and obsess over them being clean. Wearing the same clothes a second day made me feel dirty, and I was sure everyone could smell me.
I wrote in my journal:
“This morning, they’ve drawn blood, and I’ve told my life story to about 100 people. Have you ever been abused? Uh, what do you think?”
Mid morning that first day, I attended my first group activity. Here’s what I wrote:
“Well, we just had group. Oh goody! We drew a leisure coat of arms. A shield divided into four sections. Each section had a question.
- What leisure means to us: I put rest.
- What we like to do: I put be outside.
- What we’d like to learn: I put the piano.
- What we could teach someone: I put reading.
It was pretty worthless, in my opinion.”
That’s the only memory I have of that first group session. I don’t remember any of the other people who were in it, mostly because I left Level A before the end of the day.
The anger refused to subside
I was still raging inside. There was nothing the staff could do to make me happy.
I wrote on:
“I still haven’t seen a doctor, and there’s a few patients here on Level A that haven’t even ventured out of bed yet. If this is what the hospital is like, I’m in the wrong place. This is not benefiting me one bit. The one good thing is I don’t feel self-destructive today. Maybe I’m on my way to a high again. Maybe not.”
I have to interject here. While my initial reaction to the hospital was all negative, looking back, I’m glad I went. I fully believe that hospital stay saved my life. Had I not gone when I needed to, I wouldn’t be here today. I have no doubt about that.
As I’ve written before, a lot of the experience was rather harsh . Yet, even so, it was the best thing to do at the time.
They never assigned me a bed in Level A. When it was time for breakfast, they let me out and then locked the door behind me so I couldn’t go back in. It forced me to spend the day out in the common areas with the few patients who wanted to be up and about. I was tired and wanted to lie down, having been awake for almost two weeks by then. But there was no place to do that unless I wanted to lie on the floor. And I thought about doing just that several times.
My mind was chaotic
Anger continued to boil inside me, and I was bored out of my mind.
The next journal entry I wrote later that day, I said:
“I’m sitting outside in the sun on a bench chewing on ice cubes. I’m sweating like a pig and still have the same clothes on I’ve been wearing for 2 days. I need someone to bring me something.
I don’t even feel like I’m in the hospital. The food, of course, sucks, but everything else is plain old ho-hum. This unit is very boring. We’ve had group three or four times today but mostly it’s just been geriatrics.
This one old woman I feel sorry for. She talks to herself a lot and is obsessed with investigators.
I’m still shaking a lot. They were supposed to give me something to stop shaking a while ago, but so far they have not. Oh well.
It is nice to be here, though. No kids. No excessive noise, and the telephone only works a few hours a day.
I guess part of me is glad I didn’t kill myself. The sun does feel wonderful, and the sky and flowers are beautiful. At the same time, I don’t understand why I’m alive.
I hope they arrange for me to have a therapist soon. It’d be nice to ask someone some questions.”
Yep, my thoughts were all over the place. I’m honestly surprised what I wrote is as coherent as it is.
Too much alone time
Just like being in the hospital for a physical illness, you spend a lot of time in a psychiatric hospital alone. Although I don’t remember talking to many patients that first day, I evidently talked to a few, because I wrote in my journal about our conversations.
Mostly I talked about the hospital and what I should expect, and was horrified that some people were there for their third, fourth, or fifth time. One poor woman had been there for a month already.
I kept thinking to myself, “I don’t want to be here for a month. A few days maybe, but a month? No way!”
Transfer to Level B
Late that first day, they finally moved me to Level B. They decided that even though I said I was going to hurt myself, evidently, I wasn’t an immediate risk. Or, at least, not as high of a risk as other patients who needed to be in Level A.
Level B was easier for two reasons.
One, they finally assigned me to bed. There was a place I could go lay down if I wanted to.
Two, there were only two people assigned to a room. On Level A, the regular patient rooms had four beds in a room. I was thrilled to see only two beds in my room.
I had a roommate that first day, but he didn’t stay long. I never found out what happened to him.
Throughout my first day, my mind continued to race, and I struggled to be still. Even when people talked to me, it took all my concentration to understand what they were saying. And going so long without sleep made my body weak and shaky.
Just before dinner, I wrote:
“I feel rough, and I’m feeling rougher by the minute. They still haven’t provided me with any information.
My room isn’t too bad. It’s a lot like a double in a hotel.”
I wrote my last entry just after 10:00 that night.
“Today has felt like a complete waste of time. I’m sure I’ve been observed all day, but I’ve accomplished nothing. Tonight, they started me on another new medication. This one starts with a D. (I learned later it was Depakote.) They told me it’s for manic depression. (In the mid-90s, doctors called bipolar disorder manic depression.)
I’m finally starting to feel a little less jumpy inside, although one of the other patients just said hi to me and scared me half to death. Soon it will be quiet time. I guess I’ll sign off for today.”
I didn’t feel like my first day accomplished anything, but the staff had managed to keep me alive. That’s a lot better outcome than if I had I stayed home. So, all in all, it was a success, but I still had nine more days of inpatient therapy to go through.
I’ll share more of my story in the next post.
Until next time, keep fighting.