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The To-Do List Changes When Your Daughter Goes to a Psychiatric Hospital

From the beginning, our goal was to help our children safely experience the world while simultaneously protecting them from it. Bed rails, outlet covers, the best car seats, the best car, handmade lead free toys, quality shoe wear measured to size. Basically whatever it took to get our babies the best the world had to offer on two public school teachers’ salaries.

That September was notorious.

The day it happened had your basic to-do list:

  • Change sheets.
  • Walk dogs.
  • Pick up toothpaste.

But what mattered changed.

Revised to-do list:

  • Save a life.


September stunk.

School had just started, sophomore year. And with it came noise, assignments, anxiety — all the things that had derailed my daughter one summer a year prior. That time she went to a half day program at the local hospital for strategies to cope. This was a healthy experience for her. It was a parent’s nightmare. “My daughter is in the mental health facility” is not something you easily share… which means you’re pretty much left in silence, beating ourselves up daily. Bottom line, being there helped her to deal with her illness. People taught her coping strategies and showed they cared and believed in her.

This time that hospital was full. She was adamant that she needed to be somewhere and actually said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do if I can’t go somewhere now!” So I started calling around, talked to her doctors, talked to insurance. We finally decided on a hospital about an hour and a time zone away. It was recommended by the former hospital, her psychiatrist, and they assured us this hospital was able to help children with depression and anxiety issues.

As soon as she was admitted they sent me a list of rules. The items she couldn’t take scared me. No tags, no deodorant, no strings, no shoelaces, no hair ties, no combs, no toothbrush, her shoes were to be zip tied together. I felt like she had committed some crime and was being punished for it. But we understood it was for her safety.

The day we took her in was unforgettable. As soon as we sat down they asked about medications. We had brought them all but the nurse was asking me dosage questions.

I think I need to insert here that before my daughter was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, we were a minimal meds family. We always tried to push ourselves through illnesses, aches, pains, unless there was a fever involved. Having to take daily medication was something foreign to us. A year into her illness, my daughter had six prescriptions.

I did not under these highly stressful circumstances remember the doses of the plethora of meds my daughter was taking, but I had the bottles and brought them out when asked to answer the questions. This apparently infuriated the nurse who felt it appropriate to say, “You’ve brought your daughter to be admitted to the hospital and you don’t know what she’s taking?” My daughter hates confrontation, looked at me and saw my rising anger. I was aching to say, “Of course I knew what she was taking! Have you ever had to take your child to a facility like this and tried to think logically? Can you imagine how we might feel? How the ride down here was like death?” Somehow I was able to contain it, but I believe my expression kept the nurse from continuing her line of questioning. This was our first warning sign that our daughter might not be in the right place.

We signed the papers. We cried. My sweet baby was emotionless. We left.

While his sister was gone, we tried to make home as regular as possible for my son. Though asked repeatedly how he felt about this situation all he would ever say is, “I know she’ll be better soon, can we please not talk about it anymore.” I had to admit, I was starting not to want to discuss it either. We were a very somber group. We’d all go to work and school, do what we had to do, then pass out, sometimes before 5 p.m. God bless the friends and family who called, made us food, sent me uplifting messages. All these pieces helped keep us together.

I couldn’t really let myself think about what my daughter was going through during the day. Fear would overtake me. Who was with her? Could they be trusted? How long would this take? It was truly a form of hell on Earth to try to function in our normal routine, to do our jobs at work and to not completely fall apart.

Being on the outside, you couldn’t call or visit anytime you wanted. During the first phone call she shared that she had slept in her clothes the night before because the hospital staff hadn’t time to look through what she had brought to wear to approve it. I complained. Excuses were made. Second warning sign.

I called her psychiatrist at the hospital. I told him I was worried. She sounded drugged, tired, beaten down.

I told him I didn’t think this was the right place for her. I said, firmly, I wanted her released to another hospital or home, that she seemed worse every day.

On the way home from the hospital my daughter was tired, but happy. She was so relieved to be back in the world. When she asked me if she could go to homecoming I was so relieved to hear a regular teen request I almost cried. We got a dress, she went, had an OK time and we were back to routine.

Six months later we finally had an appointment with a doctor in Chicago. At our first visit, I explained the last few years. She listened, nodded, took notes. When I was done she put her pen down and said, “I want to apologize for the people in my profession you have had contact with up until this point. For the millions of children in the U.S. with mental health issues, there are only about 8,000 child psychiatrists to care for them. We will take care of your daughter here.” I cried. My husband cried. My daughter was embarrassed.

She’s now on the road to recovery and there are days, many in a row now, where we see glimpses of the girl that was. Laughing and joking, smiling, making cookies, writing, watching movies with us. Mary Oliver said it well…“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”

It is a gift. I am grateful for my daughter’s “box of darkness,” how it’s taught me to handle tremendous fear and adversity, to appreciate small things, to know amazing people who are in our corner, and to really see, more than I thought I already understood, that life is a precious, delicate blessing.

The Mighty is asking the following: Parents of children with mental illnesses – tell us a story about working within the mental health system. What barriers of treatment have you experienced? What’s a change in the system that could help your child? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.