Thanksgiving had always been a holiday I would look forward to all year. Family meals, watching the parade, and eating my grandma’s pecan pie were traditions I had kept since I was a little girl. The holiday as I knew it changed when I was 21 years old. In 2013, I spent Thanksgiving in a psychiatric hospital four hours away from home, struggling with a severe anxiety disorder. When I was admitted that November, I knew I wouldn’t be home for the holiday for the first time in my life.
What I thought would be the toughest day of my life ended up being the day that taught me the most about the strength of my support system, the importance of caring people who work on the holidays, and my ability to remain thankful for what I have even in a difficult situation.
These are the 5 things that helped me through spending Thanksgiving in a psychiatric hospital:
1. Keeping traditions
One of the ways I could take some control of my Thanksgiving was to continue some of the traditions that had made me happy each year. I spent time with the other patients doing things I would’ve done with my family. We all watched the parade and football games together, played cards, and watched a holiday movie at night. It was helpful for me to keep my mind busy with activities, and I was also able to keep my favorite traditions alive.
2. Keeping connected with loved ones
Even though I was far away from my family and friends on Thanksgiving, they figured out a way to make me feel included and loved all day. I received calls from different people in my support system throughout the day, and I never knew who would be on the other end of the phone when I answered. I was able to speak to everyone I cared about and would’ve wanted to celebrate with. Just hearing everyone’s voices and knowing people were thinking about me provided the comfort I needed and reassured me I wasn’t alone in my struggles.
3. The hospital providing normalcy
The big Massachusetts psychiatric hospital I was in did their best to make Thanksgiving in the hospital feel like Thanksgiving at home. The staff wore casual clothes, ate, and watched TV with the patients. We knew it was part of their job to provide extra support, but they felt more like friends on that day, and that feeling of people genuinely caring was what most of the patients needed. The hospital administration also contributed to the day. At lunchtime, they organized a feast for everyone with all the food you’d find on a Thanksgiving table, including various desserts. That night, we all had leftovers from the feast made into sandwiches. The people at the hospital really wanted to make the day feel like a normal Thanksgiving, and for many people, that was the best Thanksgiving they had since becoming ill.
4. Wanting the best for my family
Being four hours away from home on a holiday is difficult, and as much as I wanted to see my family, it was important to me that they still celebrated Thanksgiving like every other year. My whole family had been through a lot of stress since I developed my mental illness in May. I wanted my parents and two younger siblings to relax and enjoy the day as much as they could. I know my family would’ve driven to spend the day with me, but I truly wanted to keep the holiday as normal as it could be for them. My family and I decided together that they would come to visit me on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, so even after the holiday was over, I still had something to look forward to. Although other patients had visitors that day, it was comforting to know my whole family was safely feasting together at home.
5. Remembering what I was thankful for
Every Thanksgiving, I would reflect on what I was thankful for in my life. Being in the hospital made it more difficult to focus on the positives, but throughout the day, I realized that even during the hardest part of my life, I had a lot to be grateful for. I had family, friends, and mental health specialists who supported and believed in me, a home I would see again in just over a week, my physical health, and I still had my whole future ahead of me. Finding things to be thankful for, even while hospitalized, reassured me I will never lose my hope.
That Thanksgiving was was of the most defining days of my life. I learned how devoted my support system was. I saw people who worked at the hospital who did all they could to help the patients have a happy holiday, and that inspired me to begin educating people about how they can show support to those in psychiatric hospitals. Spending Thanksgiving in the hospital made me realize the depth of my strength, and for that, I’m thankful every day.
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