Reporter's Notebook

Living in a Mental Hospital: Your Stories
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Readers share their personal experiences. If you have your own to share, please send us a note: hello@theatlantic.com.

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Making Friends in the Psych Ward

A reader writes:

My name is Emily, and I’m writing in regarding your series on experiences under psychiatric care. On October 25, I was admitted to an inpatient hospital after having suicidal thoughts. Although I did not attempt suicide, there was definite ideation. For 15 years I’ve been dealing with anxiety, depression, and an eating disorder (which goes back and forth between bulimia, restricting and purging, and just restricting).

I spent 11 days inpatient, and I just “graduated” from an intensive outpatient program yesterday. I could go into lots of detail about what I went through, but here are the major bullet points I’ll remember for the rest of my life:

  • Bawling myself to sleep the first night, but then experiencing a calm in being isolated and separated from my daily life and the outside world. (There was joy in not having access to my cell phone or a computer; the break from social media was freeing beyond all belief.) While most people around me were talking about when they would be discharged, I felt an emotional and physical release, which ultimately turned into very deep revelations about myself and my core beliefs. Among them: I am unworthy of love. Arriving at that understanding as an inpatient allowed me to work through what it truly meant and to figure out a strategic plan for combating that line of thought once I was discharged to “the real world.”
  • There were actually some fun times in the hospital. One patient told me a story about how he was pulled over by a cop who asked if he could walk in a straight line. The patient’s response? “No, but I can snort one!” It was one of those “too soon or not soon enough” jokes on a psychiatric ward that made me chortle. Later on in my stay, I became friends with some women my age, and we sit together drawing in adult coloring books, sucking on the straws you use to stir coffee for the oral fixation, sipping on actual coffee, and pulling out of our coloring trances to discuss whether we were feeling anxious, angry, upset, depressed, etc. I also remember trying to do the worm in the common area, and every patient in the ward was laughing to the point of tears, myself included. I was told I looked like a fish flopping around on the land. I hadn't laughed like that in ages, and it felt so good to just naturally laugh like that while making a slight fool of myself.
  • Having my meds changed multiple times in a short time span and feeling like a guinea pig.
  • Seeing people detox off drugs and alcohol was terrifying and saddening, and it also made me reflect on my own drinking habits. I’ve now been sober for 46 days.
  • Making Girl Interrupted jokes to my best friends when I would call them on the patient landline—our only source of communication.

From a 67-year-old reader:

When I was 40, I had simple shoulder surgery that somehow went wrong—improper oxygen intake, most likely. By the end of that year, my IQ dropped from 132 to 78. I had cognitive problems, long- and short-term memory glitches, and some physical symptoms as well. For the next six years, I was in and out of the locked psych ward in my local hospital for major depression that was eventually deemed resistant to treatment. I was under suicide watch, so my room was filmed to ensure my safety.

I got to know a few patients very well over the years. Our paths would cross in a group or in outpatient therapy, and I found each patient’s story fascinating. We really wrestled with ways we could reshape each other’s thinking strategies.

An especially heartbreaking story from a reader:

In an airport I came across your writing prompt for stories and started crying. I haven’t been a patient at a psychiatric facility, but just a few weeks ago I spent one of the worst days in my life at one.

I had been dating a guy for barely a month, but it had been a quick ramp-up. Part of why our relationship had developed an intensity so soon was an early realization that we shared some mental wiring—or mental-wiring defects, to be more accurate. What I didn’t realize until it was too late was that although we both struggled with depression, he was on the cusp of a major breakdown.

Not that he had been dishonest, or that we hadn’t talked about it; I just didn’t realize how bad it was until suddenly I was driving him to a psychiatric facility so he could voluntarily commit himself. Sitting with him in the stark, cold bleakness of an ER psych room, trying to distract him and calm him and cheer him for nine hours, was one of the hardest things I have ever done. He was on a gurney, and I was in a chair, and there was nothing else in the room: bare walls, a picture window facing a hallway where the ER psych staff sat. It was frigid, and they knew that because they brought blankets in right away, but they didn’t offer to adjust the heat.

Two readers emphasize the brighter sides of their time in psychiatric care:

My experience after checking myself in at a mental hospital was almost entirely positive. I had been diagnosed as bipolar at 25. At the time, I was fresh out of a top-10 law school, but I had managed to endanger my career through a series of poor decisions.

After a brief round of treatment with lithium, Prozac, and Tegretol, I decided that sanity was overrated. I quit all my meds and slipped into a five-year period of uncontrolled mania. It was, in all honesty, the happiest time of my life.

I was completely manic (and happy) for five years of marriages, near marriages, and one-night stands. I slept one to two hours a day and salsa danced until five in the morning.

But after five years of partying, drinking, and dancing, my professional life was in ruins. Then one day, I woke up tired. The mania was over, and my thought space became a maze of reflections upon poor decisions, broken commitments, and manifest incompetence in both professional and family life. Bedridden, I slept and cried for months. Finally, I begged my mother and an ex-wife to drive me to a mental hospital.

As soon as I was admitted, I was given the hospital rules, a mountain of blankets, and a schedule. After years of making bad decisions, it was liberating to be told what to do.

I met other patients who, like me, had made messes of their lives. We reassured each other. We told each other we we would fight our mental illnesses together. And we proved to each other that we were not alone, that there were other people like us, and worse off than we were.

There were arts and crafts and shared TV. But above all else, there was joy—because we had plucked ourselves away from our lives and could rest and look at our existences from afar, and make decisions about our lives as if we were deciding for someone else.

I remember thinking, at the time, that checking myself into the hospital was the only good decision I had ever made. I even promised myself that I would do it again every year during vacation time. I never did, but that does not change my conviction that being at that mental hospital saved my life, and that hospitalization is the best option for many people at the end of a very short rope.

This next reader details his “quite positive” experience in a psych ward, noting several moments of kindness and support from strangers:

I’ve found the whole thread on psychiatric hospitalization to be worthwhile; I’m grateful to Eva for starting it. The story told by the woman who took her boyfriend to be committed was of course especially harrowing. I was sorry to read that she would intend to complete suicide rather than go back to a mental hospital. I really, really hope she never faces that situation. If (God forbid) she ever does, I really, really hope that she has or finds some motivation to endure it.

I’m not sure if there’s much I could say to her to talk her out of her intentions; she formed them in response to her own experiences. But, having read her story, I would like to share my own story of being hospitalized.

A long-time reader experienced the harmful consequences of low funding for mental-health facilities:

I have had major depressive disorder my whole life >60 years. I’ve been hospitalized 25-30 times—once for three months. And yes, you can get psychiatrists who say “You do what I tell you or I will put you in involuntary admission to the state hospital for a MINIMUM of six months … and there is NOTHING you can do.” What a power trip!

I have watched psych care change from three separate units in the hospitals to one general ward where the psychotic drug abusers, the schizophrenics, and depressives are all put in one large room. Health insurance pays BIG for major trauma—surgeries, ICUs, ER physicians, physical therapy, more surgeries. But for psych? Tiny by comparison.

So they cut staff and room for psych. We used to have art therapy (drawing with crayons), ping pong, basketball—tough to do when they take your shoelaces. But no money! Registered Nurses no longer come onto the ward. They sit behind one-way glass watching us on monitors. Cameras are even in our bathrooms and bedrooms! The nurses sit and watch computers.

Last time, there were 30 of us crammed into one room—just enough room to crowd in 30 stuffed chairs. Many of us are put on major tranquilizers and just want to sleep, but we are gotten out of bed at 0630, marched to the ward room, then stand in lines to get our meds—determined by a doctor who puts you on what THEY want, even if I’ve been on the same meds for decades. The change in meds can result in auditory and visual hallucinations, or the feelings of ants or spiders under your skin. Patients are screaming, crying.

We had HUGE techs—mostly former football players who stand around and yell at us. And if we do something wrong (most of the time we have NO idea what we did!) we can’t go to the cafeteria to eat! I went from 140 pounds to 125 in two weeks. And you cannot go back to your room and sleep! Not until 8:30 pm.

Why is the place is run by huge techs? Because psych patients CAN injure each other and the staff, so the ALL-important thing anymore is staff safety. But when you USED to have many aides, nurses, space, group therapy, patients were caught BEFORE getting violent.

Janalynne Rogers shares her experience with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), often called “shock treatment”—but it’s far less crude and risky than you might think:

Note: The kind editors at The Atlantic gave me the option of posting this anonymously. I’ve decided to use my full name because there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to having a mental illness and seeking whatever treatment works for you.

With the tragic death of Carrie Fisher propelling mental illness back into the mainstream media spotlight, I’ve been fielding more questions than ever about living with bipolar disorder. As someone with bipolar I [characterized by at least one manic episode, compared to the lesser bipolar II], I experience manic episodes wherein I feel invincible. I also have episodes of crippling depression. The most dangerous episodes are mixed, presenting with unbearable sadness combined with intense anger, self-loathing, and frenetic energy. Not only do I desperately want to die, I have the motivation to make that happen.

It’s terrifying.

One of the things people are most curious about is ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). Carrie Fisher was candid about her experiences with it, yet for many people ECT remains a mysterious, frightening concept. But ECT saved my life.

In 2012, an overwhelming mixed episode had me fighting for my mind and my life, and I begged my psychiatrist for help. He admitted me to the psych ward. After I settled in, we discussed changing my medication. We’d been conducting this chemistry experiment for 15 years, but it wasn’t enough. I had run out of options. He recommended ECT. It was my best shot at taking back control of my bipolar brain.

Also terrifying.

Before I agreed, I did some research. I learned that ECT was still the recommended second line of treatment in the standard medical guide to mental illness (the first being the drugs that had failed me). I considered the list of side effects, including memory loss, impaired thinking, and headaches. When the other option was waiting until I finally snapped and took my own life, these seemed like minor inconveniences.

So, I signed up for voluntary brain electrocution. For those unfamiliar with ECT, it goes something like this: