IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Checked Myself Into the Psych Ward

The hospital showed me that what I needed, more than therapy or medication, was the belief that I could feel different.
Publish date:
December 29, 2015
mental illness, depression, anxiety, hospitals, psychiatry

At 2 a.m. one morning in September, I ended up twitching on my bedroom rug in a nest of Kleenex, twisted up like a Halloween prop a la The Exorcist.

It wasn’t a new phenomenon; the late-night tic-fests had been increasing since I moved from Oklahoma City to Chicago in 2014. The first muscle-jerk panic episode I can remember happened years before that, and though terrifying, I chalked it up to either a side-effect of the medications I took to treat the major depressive and generalized anxiety disorders I’d been diagnosed with at 18 or the anxiety itself.

In the last year, when these internal earthquakes hit, I would crawl down to the floor beside my bed and ride out the compulsive clenching, pop a Xanax, and watch Sleepless in Seattle until I finally fell asleep.

But that September night, it wasn’t winding down. When I couldn’t stop bending my limbs like out-of-synch Lady Gaga choreography, when I couldn’t slow the speed with which I was gasping air in and out of my lungs, I called my mom (for the second time that day) and (for the second time) told her that I don’t want to die but I don’t know how to be alive anymore.

It was the roundabout way I had found to admit that I kept thinking about jumping in front of trains, without having to use the word suicide.

She told me to go to the hospital, so I did.

The awkward bureaucracy of my first psychiatric hospitalization proved bleakly comedic, like when I explained to my Uber driver, with eerie calm, that he had just become my discount ambulance. Or, when the Shondaland-level-handsome nurse at the check-in desk asked why I was standing in the ER at 3 a.m., and the best answer I could come up with was, “I’m really sad…?”

Considering the nightmare shuffle of American mental-health care, I got lucky. After a few hours of repetitive symptom-listing to a parade of underwhelmed medical professionals in the ER, one of them told me a bed was open in the mood-disorder unit.

Through my exhaustion, my fear, and common sense, I still questioned the need to go all-out. I had brought myself there for help, yet it still somehow felt too… dramatic. Shouldn’t I suck it up? Wasn’t it a lot of fuss and missed work and insurance money? I’m 24, a college grad, a cisgender, straight, white middle-class American for god’s sake. What do I have to be depressed about?

But the nurses/doctors/residents insisted and wheeled my Klonopin’d body up to the eighth floor.

I went into my hospitalization with almost no expectations, since I assumed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest offered a (blessedly) dated representation of mental health facilities, yet the warm décor and comfortable bed in my unit surprised me. My "passive suicidal ideation" and "potential substance abuse" (according to my check-in forms) had somehow scored me sweet digs: a private bathroom and bedroom with a view of the Chicago skyline.

Where I had anticipated white walls, chrome, and sobs or raving, I got warm wood accents, purple and green cushions, and quiet but kind adults filling out Sudoku. A fellow patient clued me in to the community bookshelf in the storage closet, where I could (under supervision) choose books to supplement the paperback Goblet of Fire I’d carried into the ER.

Sometimes, while horking down hot meals or scribbling in soothing grown-up coloring books, I forgot the ominous clang I felt upon glimpsing the sign that read “Psych Ward” and felt as if I’d simply submitted myself for a retreat.

But when reality struck, it hit hard. Like when the intake social worker confiscated my shoelaces and the drawstrings of my sweatpants. Or when I had to ask a nurse for permission to look at my cell phone or put my only set of clothing in the washing machine or get some baby shampoo (the only kind allowed since you can’t kill yourself by drinking it).

Or when I told anyone I was a playwright and realized they assumed I was lying. Or when I noticed the frantic nail marks scabbing over on a fellow patient’s arm, or listened to another confess her obsessive fears of being kidnapped, or overheard a third describe his botched suicide attempt during a late-night game of Apples to Apples.

Or when I asked the oldest fellow patient how her ECT was going and she said, “It doesn’t change the fact that my daughter died.”

The worst feeling might have been the acceptance that I couldn’t do anything to make anyone feel better, because I had run out of optimism myself. I belonged among them.

Every day, my psychiatrists visited once, after breakfast, and if I didn’t write my questions down in advance, they were usually in and out before I was functionally awake. The rest of the day remained for short counseling sessions, led by nurses or social workers, that covered the basics of cognitive therapy, encouraged mindfulness through YouTube meditation videos, or involved drawing representations of our personal values in crayon mandalas.

I tried not to scoff at anything — clearly my thoughts/opinions could not be trusted as they now prevented me from functioning at an entry-level job — but I kept hoping for more intense sessions; something beyond the workbooks my therapists had been recommending for five years.

Since the groups weren’t mandatory and my depression usually manifested in grizzly-level hibernation, I slept through two days of them.

I gradually realized that I was one of few patients who had chosen to be locked in a psych ward, and while I had wanted a quick fix, I’d merely signed myself up for a short-term holding period.

I’d been hoping that five days and plenty of pills would make me blissful and employable again, but it turned out that climbing out of the well my brain had dug would require more work, time, and appointments. Yet the hospital did show me that what I needed, more than therapy or medication, was the belief that I could feel different. That it wasn’t normal to consider jumping in front of the El at the slightest failure. That I wasn’t a lost cause.

There are plenty of contenders for the Worst Part of Depression, but my front-runner would be that it makes you think happiness doesn’t exist — that anyone who seems happy must be faking. My hospital stay stay gave me back the hope that, eventually, with some appointments, drugs, sunlight, and friends, I could feel happiness again.

An incompetent psychiatrist had contributed largely to my total meltdown. In July, he had responded to my suicidal symptoms by lazily inquiring, “Well, what do you want to do?” When I spiraled into a panic attack laced with fury (Who has the medical degree here? I thought), he shrugged, bumped up my dosage a smidge, and stuck his hand out for my co-pay.

His nonchalance in the face of my pulse-spiking terror caused me to believe the feeling wouldn’t, couldn’t go away. If the 60-something PhD had resigned himself to my fate, why wouldn’t I?

But the people in the mood-disorder unit helped me believe that I could crawl out of my mental black hole. The first morning, a psychiatrist for the ward glanced at my charts and casually declared, “You’re on a low dose. We’ll triple it. You’ll feel much better.” A social worker gave me a notebook to write in, and nurses offered encouragement and endless graham crackers.

Meanwhile, my friends and family called the old-school landline (hooked up via a permissibly short phone cable) in my hospital room and reminded me that although depression was doing its damndest to make me feel alone, I wasn’t. My parents detailed plans to visit, my sister complained about calculus homework, my friend tested his bits for hosting a drag show, and I decided that these were the moments worth trying to pull through for.

If I got fired, didn’t make rent, ended up in fatalistic spinouts mid-commute… I could still be OK. I’d stick through it for these people.

I asked to be discharged after five days, once sheer boredom and a lack of reading material began to outweigh the fear of returning to the real world.

Climbing into an Uber, I wondered what my driver would think if she knew I’d just been released from a mental facility. The question often pops into my head on first dates or on job interviews.

I don’t hesitate to publish this confessional account, however, because where I have expected fear or awkwardness, I have only found compassion once I drop the psych-ward baggage bomb. Though I worry about burdening others with existential angst, letting out the feels gets me the support I need to keep picking existence.

It’s been two months and I’m still moving at a crawl, juggling minimum-wage jobs with sundry appointments, dealing with a dearth of serotonin and vitamin D on top of the usual self-doubt of post-grad life, but after my week in the ward, I choose to assume that I’m on my way up.