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What It Was Like to Turn 20 in a Psychiatric Hospital

Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

When I was younger, my parents would host elaborate birthday parties for me and my brothers, with silly games and unforgettable family outings. When it was my birthday, I always requested my mom’s famous lime punch alongside my favorite chocolate cake. I would often invite my friends over for a sleepover, and we’d watch movies or go to the bowling alley. We made crafts and ate pizza or hot dogs with French fries. In the morning, my mom would make homemade waffles topped with fresh strawberries and Canadian maple syrup. And before my friends left, I always took pleasure in handing them a goodie bag filled with treats bought at the dollar store. In short, my childhood was filled with pleasant celebrations. I have fond memories of feeling myself flush with excitement and embarrassment as my loved ones sang me happy birthday.

Although I have always associated my birthdays with happy memories, last year something changed and my birthday now has a different meaning than before. Because you see, last year I got so depressed I made the decision  to kill myself before my 20th birthday.

The thought of celebrating my birthday was unbearable. I didn’t — and couldn’t — picture myself turning 20. I didn’t want to live another day, and I certainly didn’t want to enter the so-called defining decade of my life. The thought of officially entering adulthood was frightening, and so the idea of turning 20 years old only added to my suicidal ideation. The thought of a new year, a new beginning, was too much to handle. Turning 20 meant facing a whole new bunch of challenges. After all, a lot of people got married in their 20s, people began their careers and planned to have kids. I didn’t feel ready. The thought of finding a partner, achieving financial security or even just finishing my degree left me feeling afraid and overwhelmed. Life, I believed, was too hard and too much to handle. I wasn’t strong enough, and I believed I needed a way out.

It turns out what I really needed was help. And I did get the help I needed, just a few hours before my birthday. The night before I turned 20, my friend Christina and her boyfriend Nick walked me to the nearest hospital, which was located in downtown Vancouver. They sat with me in the waiting room as I waited to be assessed by a nurse and an emergency room physician. I sat in a chair, knees pressed against my chest, barely saying a word. Christina and Nick, gentle and supportive as they were, sat with me and respected my silence. After all, they didn’t have to say anything; their presence was enough.

After a couple hours of waiting, I told them they should leave and go home. They offered to stay with me, insisted it was no problem, but I knew their presence wasn’t necessary anymore. I told them to leave and promised to call them in the morning. Before they left, they sang me happy birthday. I had to blink back tears. I hugged Christina, feeling small, scared and vulnerable. After all, I asked myself, what was I doing in the ER a few hours before my 20th birthday? Shouldn’t I have been out with my friends celebrating instead? In reality, here I was, exhausted and suicidal, alone in an urgent care center.

Not too long after my friends left, I was assessed by a psychiatric nurse who wanted to give me medication and send me home to my friends. But the doctor on call disagreed and wished to see me admitted overnight. So I woke up the morning of my birthday, lying on mattress in an otherwise bare room. I woke up staring at blank walls and wearing a hospital gown. I woke up alone, and when I realized where I was, I wanted to scream. But I didn’t. Instead, I curled up into a ball wishing I hadn’t woken up.

I didn’t want to celebrate being alive — in fact, I wanted to be dead. I didn’t think, “I made it another year, go me.” No, I thought, “Another year, another 365 days of suffering ahead.”

I spent the morning of my 20th birthday answering questions, sitting in the middle of a narrow hallway. I sat across two males — a psychiatrist and his resident — as they assessed me and deemed me incapable of maintaining my own safety. I turned 20 in the hospital, with no sense of personal agency and feeling drowsy from the medication given to me the night before.

I did not get to spend my birthday surrounded by my friends and family. I got to spend my birthday stuck in a psych unit, against my wishes, eating disgusting and soggy hospital food. I did not get to spend my birthday opening presents or receiving gifts I’d asked for. I got to spend my birthday pacing around in a room with nothing to do but stare at walls.

The hospital staff, nurses and doctors alike, made a point of wishing me a happy birthday. I didn’t smile back at them — in fact, I got angry. How could they be highlighting the fact I was supposed to be enjoying my special day, while all I could do was visualize killing myself?

I didn’t want to be stuck in the hospital, but when I really thought about it, if I had been given the choice to leave, where would have I gone? The thought of being with friends, eating out or just hanging out, made me incredibly sad. So I assumed I would have been curled up in bed or most likely dead.

Today, as I reflect on the past, I wish I would have spent my 20th birthday surrounded by my loved ones. I wish I could have eaten a slice of chocolate cake with extra icing. I wish I could have spoken to my parents on the phone, but I was too scared to tell them where I was.

Spending my birthday in the hospital absolutely sucked. But you know what? Turning 20 was a big deal to me. Turning 20, regardless of the location, meant facing one of my biggest fears. It meant saying yes to life.

I know from now on, I will celebrate each of my birthdays with an awareness of where I could be, and a reminder of where I once was. Here’s a secret: when I opened my eyes the morning I turned 20, I whispered to myself, “Happy birthday, Daphnée. Congratulations. You made it.”

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via faustasyan.