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What It Was Like Being in a Psych Ward: First Few Days

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Lori Colbo's personal experiences, research, and writing on mental illness have given hope and understanding to those affected by it.

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In my previous article What It Is Like Being On a Psych Ward, I described processes, protocols, and general running of psych ward life. I shared a few personal experiences, but I want to elaborate more on them.

I realize I have numerous times revealed my struggles with mental health issues on Hubpages, but honestly, despite the risks, I want people to be informed, educated, to break the stigma as much as one person can. I want people to know there is hope, that they are not alone, and perhaps help people who have friends and loved ones with mental health issues to be more understanding and equipped to be there (or not).

I know for me when I am in some sort of struggle in life, it's always comforting to hear from someone who has been through the same thing. My philosophy is that we should not waste our pain and struggles because it may help someone else. On the other hand, in everyday life, it is not always a good idea to share with every person you come to individually.

Fear of the Unknown

I have not been admitted to a psychiatric facility or unit for many years. Hallelujah, I've come a long way, baby. But the memories of the first hospitalization back in 1999 is still very vivid. With this in mind, I will only speak about the first one because it was a new experience.

The hardest thing about being admitted into a psych unit or psych hospital is fear of the unknown. My only frame of reference was Hollywood. Pre 1999, most film portrayals of psych wards were not accurate or were so extreme it wasn't at all authentic of someone in my condition - clinical depression and suicidal ideation. All I could think of was Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and all the exaggerated characterizations of the other patients that I have never seen in any in-patient environment. I am sure there are extreme cases like you see in Hollywood, but they would be in long-term state institutions.

Also in my mind were fears of mistreatment. "Are there clones of Nurse Ratched?" I wondered. Would I be just another nut job in the eyes of staff? Would I be viewed as pathetic? Would I be treated with respect or disdain? How intrusive would the course of treatment be? Would they drug me into being a zombie? Would it be an idle free-for-all environment where everyone was left to their own devices throughout the day?

The other fear was about the other patients. Would they be scary, bizarre, threatening? Would I be safe?

What about strip searches? I am happy to say I never had one nor did any hospitals I ever went to. In my state at least, they are not allowed except under certain rigid circumstances, such as worry about contraband and weapons. One private hospital in my state is in very hot water for doing them without cause and traumatizing patients. There is a reason why they are not standard: many people have experienced trauma and abuse, especially of a sexual nature. Already in crisis, this could be a set up for a tragic circumstance for a person with that kind of past.

The other concern I had was stigma. What would my friends and family think? I did not want to be defined as a psychiatric patient. I did not want to be judged.

My ER Experience

A friend I will call Dee Dee knew the seriousness of my depression. She came to my house one morning to check on me. I was fetal on the fold-out couch. I hadn't eaten or had any liquids in almost two days. I was hoping to die. She left and brought back another friend and they took me to the ER for possible dehydration. Dee Dee had mental health issues as well and had been in my situation. I found later it was her intention to see if I could be admitted into the psych unit.

Since ER is the way to get admitted it was unpleasant. I waited in the hallway on a gurney for seven hours. At first, I was in a wheelchair (I was in a cast for a broken ankle), but I was so weak I couldn't sit up, thus the gurney. My friends chatted the whole seven hours while I lay there in the most intense turmoil of my life. I spent that time in inner agony, praying and asking God what was going on. It was like a cyclone was ravaging my mind, my sanity. As I prayed the chorus to an old hymn flooded my mind. I could hear inside a guitar and a male voice singing:

There is a place of quiet rest

Near to the heart of God.

That was it. But it got me through.

At the seventh hour, they finally took me to a treatment room and gave me IV fluids. I believe it was two bags. My friends were still with me. I will always be so grateful. At one point the doctor asked me why I was so dehydrated. I think I told him because I hadn't eaten or had anything to drink for the last day or two. He asked why and I blurted out how depressed I was and just wanted to die. He posed the option of being admitted into the psych unit. Gulp. I said I would like to think about it. I wasn't quite done with my second IV so he said he would come back shortly. My friends prayed for me. I mulled it over with all the fears I shared above. I was in a terrible marriage situation. I knew I would die if I went home. I had a little boy of seven and a seventeen-year-old son to think about.

There was more waiting after the decision as I had to wait until a bed was ready. There was a discharge pending.

A security guard came and scanned me with the wand and went through my purse. He was so kind and gentle, friendly, that I was put at ease. He found a long nail in my purse my little boy had asked me to hold for him. It gave us all a laugh. He thought it was funny. He had to take it, of course, no big deal. When he first came I felt ill at ease. It made me feel like a criminal to be checked. Because of his kindness and humor and an explanation for the process, my fears were disarmed. Bless my friends for staying with me until they were ready to take me up.

True friends that they were, Dee Dee and my other friend stayed with me until the last moment.

This is where I was for seven hours before even being seen for deydration. Many people in mental health crisis have been stuck in a hallway on a gurney for days because there is nowhere to put them.

This is where I was for seven hours before even being seen for deydration. Many people in mental health crisis have been stuck in a hallway on a gurney for days because there is nowhere to put them.

Intake

It was 8:30 p.m. when I finally arrived in the psych unit. It was a pleasant-looking ward. The door locked behind me and that gave me a moment of apprehension. The front of the unit with the front desk and a little reception sitting area was very clean and tidy. There was some nice art on the wall. A psych nurse took me to a room where I would stay. On my way, I was able to see the common room or lounge, and it was also pleasant. The furniture was a bit worn but it looked like doctors' office furniture, with a color theme. The carpet was institutional but it complimented the colors of the walls and furniture.

After the intake, I was given a tour of the unit. The dining room was non-descript but pleasant in its cleanliness and design. Round tables, a refrigerator filled with drinks, sandwiches, and other snacks. There were cupboards with more snacks, and supplies like napkins, paper cups, crackers, coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. There was also a coffee maker (decaf only), and hot water. They also had a microwave I think.

The rec room was not impressive. It was very small for such a large unit. The furniture was mismatched, worn considerably. There were shelves of art supplies, games, puzzles, books, magazines, and the all-important television. I was told that the room was for classes and groups as well as recreation. I will talk more on this later.

The circular unit was set up in two sections. One was for more extreme cases where the patients needed closer observation, usually on suicide watch or other more serious symptoms. They only had three or four rooms, and a little sitting room in the middle with a table and some chairs.

I was on the larger side. I am guessing there were five or six rooms. Some had two or three beds. My first stay was in a single room. Once in my room, the nurse performed the intake and was so kind. She spoke and listened to me like I was a real person who was hurting. She cared. As she did my intake, she also answered my many questions and concerns which she was probably asked a thousand times before. She responded as if hearing them for the first time. She was nurturing, patient, and as it turned out, a woman of faith herself. One of the concerns that I expressed to her was my feelings of being a "bad" Christian for being depressed and being in a psych ward. She responded so lovingly that my struggle over that issue decreased considerably. To be honest, while I was talking to her I felt like I was in the safest place in the world. It was like I exhaled a long sigh of relief, thinking, "Now I'm safe. I don't have to deal with home until I am better and stronger. For the moment, my shame and embarrassment disappeared.

One question she asked me, which is routine at every admission, was did I want people to know I was there. In other words, if someone called or showed up, did I want to give permission to the staff to acknowledge my presence. I liked that option. I chose to only have certain people, family (except my husband), my pastor, and a few trusted close friends.

I was pleasantly surprised at how nice the room was. Most of it was nondescript, but the hospital had an interesting design with large oval windows that looked out over the city of Tacoma, Washington. I could actually sit in the window sill. The beds were nothing to write home about. But there was a picture on the wall of a little rowboat on the shore. It was calming. In my agitated moments, I would sit on the bed and enjoy the painting, imagining what it would be like to sit in that little boat on the quiet shore. The other side of the unit did not have any art on the walls, so I was grateful.

I would like to say that everyone will be guaranteed this kind of experience at their intake, but with any type of hospitalization or medical treatment, no two experiences are alike. Some staffers are more formal than others. You can tell the ones that are just there for the paycheck or who have fallen into a routine. It happens in any work when dealing with people. This particular unit had high expectations for the professionalism of their staff, but that doesn't mean every staff member was as warm and personable as the woman who did my first intake. Generally speaking, I had positive experiences in this particular hospital as far as treatment goes, and as far as my condition was at any one time.

This is St. Joseph's Hospital in Tacoma, Washington. You can see the large windows.

This is St. Joseph's Hospital in Tacoma, Washington. You can see the large windows.

My First Full Day on the Unit

Being in a psych ward is difficult because you are broken and hurting and in acute distress. The next morning I awoke early, full of trepidation. What would this day be like? More fear of the unknown. All my positive feelings of the night before were gone. The rooms were on the periphery of the unit. The patient's lounge is in the center. So I cracked my door open and peeked out to see patients gathering in the lounge for some sort of morning group just ten or so feet away. I spotted someone I knew and panicked. I did not know him well, but he was close to a friend. The shame of being there struck me (ironic since he was there too), and I didn't want it to get out that I was there. I wanted to be anonymous and to have my privacy. The nurse came in for morning vitals and meds. When she told me about the group I expressed my fear of going because of the guy that I knew. She told me the policy is patients have an option to stay in their rooms and rest the first day, and the man was being discharged that day. It all worked out.

Still, there was a lot of turmoil going on inside. Another song came to my head. A little gospel chorus:

God's love takes good care of me

Oh yes, God's love takes good care of me

Though the wind blows

The rain falls

the storm is on the sea

I know God's love takes good care of me.

This little song would be the anchor for me that first day.

After the morning group was over (called goals group), the man I recognized was discharged. I went to all the meals but I couldn't eat for the first two days. My stomach was in knots and had shrunk some from not eating for so long. I was able to keep fluids down. Only decaf coffee was served so patients don't get the jitters. I was okay with that.

I can't remember with absolute certainty now if I went to all the groups that the first day. I'm thinking I did (it was 21 years ago). I remember liking the various staff members on the day shift. Everyone is assigned to a specific staff person for a personal one on one. They are referred to as your "contact person." Female to female, male to male. If that were not possible, patients would not do well. It is crucial to making progress and mandatory. I can't remember them specifically, but I remember not being particularly unhappy with any of them that first time.

We had to see a doctor every day. I don't remember that experience, who the doctor was, or what we talked about. What I do remember was that the little office where we met screamed: "You don't matter." There was no art on the walls. The carpet was old and very worn. The doctor's desk was nondescript, no window, and the walls were a drab color and scuffed. It was the only room in the whole place I really hated. They had two doctors usually on duty if I remember correctly (and I may not be), but altogether I think they had four doctors on rotation. Most of them had private practices so it was always in the morning.

I was given a higher dose of the antidepressant I had just started three weeks prior. I think they added some. I was also given anti-anxiety medication as needed. I did not take it every day.

I liked interacting with the patients, especially at mealtime. There was no pressure to discuss our personal issues, to participate in education or therapy. It was just sitting and chatting or sitting quietly. If people didn't want to talk, everyone seemed to respect that. I liked talking and getting to know them. I made some good friends there, even on day one.

I had two visitors on the first day. My pastor and my best friend Dorene, who was the other friend who brought me in. I cannot tell you how much comfort these two brought to me. They came every day, except the pastor couldn't come one day. That first meeting with him, well, I have no words. I am tearing up as I write this. I don't remember the specifics of everything we talked about, but I do remember telling him my struggles about being a woman of faith in this terrible predicament. I wrestled with this for a long time, but he, like the admitting nurse the evening before, spoke into my life. He read Scripture, we talked about my issues at home, which he was already well aware of. And best of all, he encouraged and prayed for me.

Dorene came with grapes. Go figure. Every single time she came she brought me grapes. Needless to say, I now love grapes. I never gave them much thought before. As it turned out, Dorene and my Pastor visited at the same time on several occasions. That was a double whammy of blessing.

The patients met in the evening after dinner and visiting hours for a wrap-up group. In the morning they meet and set goals for the day. Wrap-up was to discuss if we met our goals.

I have to say, that first day, and most days, my day was a merry go round emotionally. When I was in a group or talking with people, I usually was in better shape, but whenever alone my anxieties soared. It was a storm I will never forget.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2020 Lori Colbo

Comments

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on May 24, 2020:

Thanks for sharing this experience. I'm impressed that your friends stayed with you, and that your thoughts constantly turned toward God.He was and is there all the time. Love and blessings, going forward!

William Kovacic from Pleasant Gap, PA on May 24, 2020:

Very educational, Lori. I like your philosophy - "My philosophy is that we should not waste our pain and struggles because it may help someone else." Seven hours ion the ER? It must be an everywhere type of thing. The open thing I hate about going to the ER is that I know I'll be waiting - and waiting some more. I'm sure your philosophy has been realized in this hub. I'm sure many have been helped and encouraged.

Lori Colbo (author) from Pacific Northwest on May 21, 2020:

Hi Ruby, I do remember you telling me that. I think there are a lot of jobs with both types of personnel, those who really care and those that are indifferent. Such is life. I have no doubt you were one of the caring ones. God bless you.

Lori Colbo (author) from Pacific Northwest on May 21, 2020:

Eric, I absolutely love your personality, your candor, your love for life and family, your constant promotion of love. I know every one of your followers feel the same. Praying your health is improving. Thanks for sharing.

Lori Colbo (author) from Pacific Northwest on May 21, 2020:

Dearest Bill, the two have some similarities. Thank you for commenting. I think you are a kindred spirit.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on May 21, 2020:

Lori, it took courage to write this story. I think I told you that I worked on a psych unit, and your descriptions of the facility brought back memories. I know where you are coming from when you talk about the different types of medical personnel, some are very caring and some are there for a paycheck. I am glad you received the help you needed at the time. Thank you for sharing your story. See you next time.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on May 21, 2020:

I like this. I wonder why we try to celebrate "diversity" yet leave psyche differences out of the equation. I have been known to go into nursing homes and psyche wards in order to learn. I recently visited as a patient a nursing home. Medications often cause severe balance issues. Hey half of those folks were crazy.... Like me I reckon. I got out and now am back to bike riding and backcountry hiking alone.

But I am still as loony as a shark trying to swim on land. My favorite experience in life was realizing I was way different and that was just fine. I hope the wards help people with that. I am still looking for a successful "sane" person doing well here on HP :-)

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 21, 2020:

I can only relate with regards to an alcohol treatment center; the same fear of the unknown, the same dread about what my friends will think. Thank you for sharing your story. Powerful is the only word that applies.