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How Having a Positive First Experience With Psychiatric Hospitalization as a Teen Inspired Me

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The experience of inpatient psychiatric hospitalization often elicits much fear and speculation. Stigma paints mental hospitals as “crazy houses,” and countless experiences of former and current patients do little to improve the picture. Books and movies such as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and “Girl, Interrupted” do not improve these impressions, either. Mental hospitals thus become a canvas for stories of oppression, repression and depression, and many of these stories are unfortunately true.

Yet, for me, I had a more positive experience with my first hospitalization.

As an adolescent, negativity haunted me, and I felt my life was worthless. I was tired of the laughing faces of my classmates at private school with their inside jokes, of which I was on the outside. Overall, my life up to this point was quite rigid. I was a highly-trained classical violist, and I used this talent as a way to shield myself from the influence of modern society and how fake it was. I eschewed modern music from my life, and I was convinced non-classical music was of Satan.

One night, I cried inconsolably in the presence of my mother. She took me to the emergency room, and I was assessed to be in psychiatric crisis. I was then sent to an adolescent unit at an entire campus of hospital buildings dedicated solely to treating mental illness.

It was an overall positive experience, if I dare say that. When I first arrived at the unit, I was greeted by large, colorful murals painted on the walls by former teenage clients. A majestic tiger. A rainbow emerging from a cloud in a light blue sky. From this first impression, the hospital seemed positive and affirming.

During the intake process at the unit, I put on a hospital gown, and my clothes and belongings went into brown paper bags. My shoelaces were removed, and my mother signed some obligatory papers. I did not feel particularly oppressed by this process, but was merely emotionally exhausted and glad to escape my previous private school and musician life. The nurse then showed me to my quarters. I was assigned a bed in a room with three other girls. One girl was already fast asleep, lying in an adjustable hospital bed with side rails, attached to a whirring oxygen machine. The other two beds were empty.

I walked to the main day room on the unit and saw a few tough-looking girls gathered around a boom box radio. Loud dance hall reggae music blared as they commiserated energetically. (It was 1999, so you can figure what the music sounded like.) Instantly, I was entranced. This was different from private school! I looked timidly in their direction, and they introduced themselves to me.

“Hey new girl, what’s up? Come join us! I’m Anna.”

“I’m Akeema.”

I responded, too. “Hey … I’m Neesa.” I was groggy.

As night fell, we were summoned to leave the day room and get ready for bed. In my room, I now encountered a redhead who greeted me and said, “Hey, how are you? I have a boyfriend! He’s waiting for me when I come back. See his picture? I love him!”

The next morning, I ate breakfast in the cafeteria room. The food was bland, comprising of a cup of sour orange juice, a bowl of cereal and a banana. I kept to myself, curiously eavesdropping on the other kids.

During that first day, I spoke to a psychiatrist and a social worker. Their formal evaluation determined that I had clinical depression with anxiety, and I began taking antidepressants. It was my 14th birthday when I started taking the pills, and I was glad to do so. I felt like taking medications was a brave gesture of self-care, refusing to succumb to the negativity of those around me.

I then befriended the girl in my room who was in the hospital bed. Her name was Lily, and she had a sad story.

“I’ve been in this hospital for 10 months. They want to put me in a long-term hospital, but no one wants me. I have too many physical health problems. I have fetal alcohol syndrome; my mom was on drugs when she had me. I also have lupus and bulimia.”

I suddenly realized there was a putrid scent of vomit in the air. My stomach turned a bit. Vomit has always been one of my greatest fears.

Twice a week, the unit arranged “school” for us kids. Certainly needed, given that many had lived on the unit for several weeks. We were divided into two groups by age, and I was in the younger group that had kids aged 11 to 14. One time, our teacher came to talk to us about basic geography. We listed the seven continents of the world, an activity which immediately elicited rage from one of the students.

“Russia is a continent!”

“Um, no, it’s not.  You’re mistaken.”

“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about! My father was in the war, and he said that Russia was a continent, you fat bastard!”

The kid stood up and started kicking chairs. A mental health worker came in and dragged him out, his sneakered feet scuffing on the floor. 

The days seemed to melt by with Sean Paul and Mr. Vegas blaring. These reggae songs became the sounds of freedom, a sword against my classical past. We never went outside, but this was fine with me. We were all “in this together.” Perhaps I speak blasphemy here, but I will tell the truth: I began to love the hospital. I loved how it served as a place of refuge. A place where I could escape my life. No more practicing the viola. No more disgusting smiling faces at school. Instead, I was on a vacation of sorts. It was a favorable place; the staff regarded us teens respectfully, and there was not much resentful harassment. The kids on the unit also were very nice, and there was no teasing or exclusive cliquey behavior that specifically estranged me.

One time, I played Connect 4 with a girl diagnosed with schizophrenia. Her condition was hard for me to understand at the time, and I admit she frightened me a bit. She had the reputation of being “creepy,” given that she talked to garbage cans and would interrupt families during visiting hours.  When first playing Connect 4 with her, she copied my moves by placing her pieces in the same column as I did, after each of my turns.  That was a game easily won. Then when we played a second game, more varied, she was unable to notice when I won the game.

“No, you didn’t win. I did.” Looking back, I now only feel sympathy for what she had to go through.

After two weeks, I was scheduled for discharge. On the night before I left, Lily had a heartfelt conversation with me.

“It’s great you’re leaving, I wish I could. By the way … you should take your retainer out when you sleep. It’s bad for you.”

I was confused. “My orthodontist told me to leave it in.”

“Neesa … don’t you trust me?”

“Yes, I do …” As she advised, I left my retainer on the dresser drawer. But the next morning, it was missing. I figured Lily stole it, so as to use it to self-harm.

The medications stabilized me, and so I left the hospital. When returning home, I decided to stop playing the viola due to its stresses. My mother was disappointed, but she respected my decision. No matter, for I now had a new sense of confidence: 

I take psychiatric medications. I have mental illness, and I am taking care of myself. I am strong.

When I returned to school, I had a desire to tell my teachers and classmates about my hospital experience. My English teacher kindly gave me time to give a speech in front of the class, where I detailed my interesting journey. But when I asked my classmates to see if they had any questions, there was only awkward silence. To my dismay, they had no interest in hearing my stories. Thus, I felt shamed into silence. For the rest of high school, I felt like an outcast because I had publicly disclosed, although I never resented my actions one bit.

I hope for a day when mental illness is not stigmatized. I hope one day, the general population will find stories of recovery to be interesting and uplifting, instead of awkward, inappropriate, boring or uninteresting. One of the worst parts of stigma is silence, when no response of empathy or concern is elicited from others. This is toxic behavior that needs to be challenged.

I am glad to have had my first hospitalization be a positive experience. With these memories, I want to stoke conversations that help brainstorm more effective ways inpatient psychiatric units can be run, instead of being places for enforcing prejudicial oppression. Let us challenge the silence and start the frank conversation.

Getty image by Iam Anupong

Originally published: February 7, 2020
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