What My Stay in a Mental Hospital Taught Me About Life
Editor’s note: If you struggle with self-harm or suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.
When people hear, “I’ve been admitted to the mental hospital,” their automatic response is usually to stutter, change the subject or frown apologetically. It isn’t exactly typical water cooler conversation. The problem with this response is that it would usually trigger shame in someone. I’ll let you in on a little secret.
I am not ashamed of having been in the mental hospital.
When I entered the mental hospital, I expected to fight the monsters inside my mind, but I didn’t expect to fight alongside the bravest and most genuine people I’ve ever met.
I awake to the sounds of chattering nurses, high-pitched beeping machinery and rolling aluminum wheels against the grainy carpeting.
“Time for vitals!” I hear as I will my eyes to open to the nightmare that is my reality.
Another day. I survived another day. I wrestle with whether I am grateful or disappointed about this fact.
My sleepy eyes try to adjust as I sit up, offering up my arm to the nurse who shows no empathy for awakening me in such a manner. When she finishes, I drag myself from the bed and quickly examine my attire for the day. The same sweatpants from yesterday meet my baby blue hospital socks. I wear an old shirt and my only jacket (with the strings cut out) due to the icebox that is the day room. No makeup. Disheveled messy bun. My inhibitions were left at the door. I routinely walk out to the day room and sit until we are called for breakfast.
My mind returns to the day I admitted myself to the mental hospital.
It was a beautiful day outside. Fitting, as I would not see the outside for quite some time after that. The sun was shining. Birds were chirping. Inside, I was dying. How could the outside world look so deceivingly beautiful while my world stung with contrasting darkness?
As I changed my clothes into baggy, scratchy, maroon-colored paper scrubs, I tried pretending I didn’t care that someone else had to be in the bathroom with me, watching to make sure I didn’t have anything dangerous on me. As I willed myself to say goodbye to my best friend and was taken back to the observation room, I tried pretending like this wasn’t a big deal. I was fine. Everything was fine.
I ate my first meal in the darkened room with only a recliner to my name and the fluorescent light that beamed down on me. I stared at my tray of food. The meatloaf, potatoes and asparagus looked back at me, taunting. I peeled my eyes off of my food long enough to take in my surroundings. A rumbling, noisy TV hung on the wall. Rows of recliners lined the room with bodies in them, sleeping or blankly staring. White, sterile blankets laid on my lap. The public phone sat on a table to my right.
Tears welled hot in my eyes and refused to obey as they fell, lonely and afraid.
Everything was not fine. What was I doing here? How did I get here? What was going to happen? I was alone.
The next 48 hours were a blur of nurses, fluorescent lights, TV noise, hospital food, drugs and fear of the unknown. I tried to predict what exactly they were looking to observe in this “observation” room.
When I discovered they did not want to admit me, my muddled mind became frantic. The psychiatrist’s words echoed in my mind. “I don’t think you are sick enough to be here.” Those words stung me at my core and would play over and over again in my head throughout the coming weeks.
The social worker took me aside to talk about options, while my eyes filled once again with hot tears that I tried to choke back. But then a remarkable thing happened.
And the next day, I found myself being admitted to the inpatient behavioral health center.
And now, here I sat with 15 other strangers at my side every hour of every day — each one of us with a different story. Different chains bound around our hearts, but everyone showing their cards to each other. Showing up to life honestly and more bravely than ever before. I quickly learned in my first group therapy session that we were expected to be blatantly transparent here. Before I had even met anyone, we sat in a circle and were prompted to state our name, what brought us here to the hospital and our goal for the day.
“Goal for the day? I could barely get out of bed today. Wasn’t it enough that I was here? How could I bear my soul to these strangers?”
I stopped caring fairly quickly, after realizing that everyone here was at rock bottom.
“My name is Amanda. I am here for depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal thoughts.”
Ironically, this would become the easiest part of the routine during group every day. Depending on my mood, I would leave it at “I’m here for depression.”
Sometimes it takes too much energy. Sometimes people aren’t really asking to hear the answer.
Life in the hospital was simpler than expected. My accomplishments every day consisted of completing puzzles, coloring pages, making it out of bed and taking my medications. If I hadn’t isolated at all that day and had stayed out in the day room surrounded by other patients, I was especially proud of myself. If I had managed to have a conversation with someone who was in front of my face instead of at the other end of the phone, I had achieved a great victory. And if I had been so bold as to tell the nurses when I felt like harming myself, I had achieved so much that I might as well be set free to go home. My work here was done.
If only it were that simple.
I had expected to stay a few days in the hospital. Assess the damage, prescribe some meds and send me on my way. But a couple days turned into a couple more. And a couple more days turned into a week. A week turned into two weeks, which in the confines of the white hospital walls felt like an eternity. By the second week, I was convinced that the sheer fact I had been there for so long was contributing to my depression more than it was helping.
I had watched people come and go through those doors, and by my last day, I only knew one other person who had been there longer than I had. This was not what I had expected. This was not what I had signed up for.
Long nights were made longer when I had no visitors. Days were stripped of joy once my friends had gone home. Motivation was lacking and hope was dwindling. On the day of my discharge, I looked into the faces of those who sat across from me. I looked into their eyes, I opened my ears and I heard their stories. Some people told stories on their arms. Some told stories with drugs. Some told stories with their eyes. Some even told stories in their silence. Stories are always there; we just have to pay attention enough to know how to listen. It turns out that everyone just wants to be known, and loved anyways.
While I struggled with my time in the hospital, there was something I will never forget: The hospital is where people defrosted.
They would limp inside, wounded and cold and shut off. They would look for the exits, hide in their rooms, wrestle with running to and from the life they had created for themselves. And when they realized none of those things were working, they would slowly but surely crawl out into the light. Their hearts would flicker.
Maybe it was the camaraderie as they talked and colored outside the lines of their coloring books. Maybe it was hearing a key on the piano or a string on a guitar that made their eyes dart and souls perk up a little. Maybe it was their favorite song they hadn’t heard in years or memories of doing puzzles with their grandparents as they concentrated hard on putting the pieces together. Maybe it was seeing a show on TV or being able to have a conversation about something they genuinely enjoyed.
Each person slowly received a spark — a sliver of hope — that brought them back to life, if only for a moment. That is the most beautiful and honorable thing in the world to watch.
As the days passed, my medications were changed and things began to look up. Talk of discharge carried my hope through the days, yet there is a fear that comes with being released. It is the fear that though you have changed, the world has not, and it will be sure to envelop you again in its snare of impending doom. It is the fear you will never be strong enough to stand on your own two feet outside of those four walls. That is the moment when you pull out that sliver of hope. Whatever got your heart beating, whatever made your eyes light up, whatever moment made you realize you are still alive and not going down without a fight — that is what will save you from yourself. That is the hope that will tell you that you can do hard things, and there is a purpose for you in this world.
That is what the mental hospital teaches you.
That we are all human, we all matter and we are all fighting for our lives. We show up — trembling and fighting — and we win, because we are all worth the fight.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.
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