There's No 'What to Expect When Your Kid Goes to the Psych Unit'


I’m thoroughly convinced there should be a handbook. No one prepared me for this. A month after her 10th birthday, my daughter was admitted to the psychiatric hospital. 

My Bipolar Princess, as she calls herself, is my third child. When I had my first daughter, I read every pregnancy and parenting book I could get my hands on. Twelve years later, pregnant with my son, I once again raided the store shelves for reading material. Three years later, pregnant with Princess, I knew what to expect. I simply perused the books, but no longer relied on them.

I lived and breathed by the words of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” and “What to Expect the First Year,” but by the time I got around to “What to Expect the Second Year,” I didn’t have time to read anymore, every minute consumed by a busy toddler.

There is no “What to Expect When Your Kid Goes to the Psych Unit,” and that’s the book I needed for kid number three.

Pregnancy and early childhood books offer tons of suggestions, such as how to pack the hospital bag, what to keep in a diaper bag. But no book told me I should have had a bag ready to go, with clothes (nothing with strings), shoes (with no laces) and slippers (patients leave their shoes at the door). 

These same books tell me when I should go to the hospital: as soon as your water breaks, or when the contractions are so-many minutes apart. But I had to simply guess when the time was right to take my daughter for an emergency psychiatric admission. Did an hour-long meltdown meet the requirements? Or would she have to break one of my bones first? There were no guidelines.

Baby books suggest always having a “lovey” on hand, an extra packed in the diaper bag. But she was not allowed a lovey in the psych unit. My daughter, who has comfort items, was not allowed to bring any of them with her. How could I have prepared her for that when I didn’t even know? 

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I was well prepared for how long my newborn and I would be in the hospital. There was no such estimated time-frame in the psychiatric unit. My child was admitted for as long as it would take to stabilize her. It would’ve been helpful to know we would spend eight hours in the emergency department at the hospital before we were transferred to the psych unit. It would be a full 12 hours before I arrived home again. It would be more than 24 hours before I had time, energy or desire to consume anything more than crappy hospital coffee, with nasty, powdered creamer.

No matter what the books say, every new mother finds it difficult to follow the advice to sleep when the baby sleeps, to accept offers of help and to forget about the housework. But no one warned me that the time she spent inpatient would be just as exhausting as when she was home. 

When the new baby arrives, friends and family come to visit, and they bring food or offers to help. This time, no dinners were sent to the house. One friend promised, but never followed through. For days we lived on chicken nuggets, SpaghettiOs and PB&Js.

Everyone calls to ask how the new baby is doing. Only one or two called to ask how my daughter – or I – was doing. The public oohs and aahs over a new baby. But when I mention to the Walmart clerk I’m purchasing things for my daughter in the psych unit, it gets oddly quiet around me. 

Every new parent spends hours dreaming up possible names. My time is spent penning her name onto all of her belongings so everything would come home again upon discharge. Kind of like going to the worst camp ever.

A new baby attracts visitors and presents. No one visits my daughter, except my fiancé and me. There were no cards or balloons, no bows or pretty presents. I brought the game of UNO and whatever snacks she could eat during visiting hour. At least that meant no thank you notes to write. 

The only thing I received was a nasty phone call from her school bus driver berating me for not calling her directly to let her know not to stop for my daughter. Silly me for thinking that between two superintendents, the special education coordinator and the bus company, someone would have alerted the driver and alleviated me of one tiny responsibility.

Now that we’ve survived, I could write that missing book, complete with gut-wrenching details. The reality is, I don’t believe that even a 2,000 page trilogy could prepare me.  At least I now know a little better; I will work on storing meals in my freezer and I will pack a hospital bag. And I’ll have to ask for help, not expect it.

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