As I walked into the psych ward, there was a big plexi glass office on the left where the staff were waiting to violate you. By that I mean take your stuff and dig through it and give you only a few things back. I did not mind so much that my belts were taken away (although my pants were way too big and kept falling off) but I was kind of distraught when they took my spiral journal. (I had kept a journal for over ten years-my writing was an extension of myself, often my closest friend.) I guess there is a chance I would take the metal spiral apart and harm myself with it. Although it was plain and empty, they did give me a composition notebook inside which I would soon begin dumping the contents of my psyche. Also, they took the string out of my hoodie, which wouldn’t have bothered me, except it was my boyfriend’s and I knew he would be a little annoyed.
I entered the hospital on a chilly Tuesday morning.The night before, December tenth, 2007, in a blubbering, raging stupor, I told my boyfriend I wanted to ingest a bunch of pills. (And I had a lot of them from years and years of psychiatric treatment). “This has never happened to me before, Brittany, but the only thing I can remember about this sort of thing is that you shouldn’t take it lightly. I think you need to go to the hospital.” I was not the kind of person you see on the movies that resist getting psychiatric treatment. The truth is, despite feelings of abject guilt for “abandoning” my Kindergarten students and burdening my coworkers, I was ready to escape my life, and so I welcomed this new “opportunity.”
My new world was surreal. Hazy, foggy, I was so disoriented and out of myself but I just followed the directions the professionals gave me, as the dutiful “good” girl I knew how to be. I was showed to my “room,” stiff, white and cold who I shared with a girl named Ashley. Ashley was not a “good” girl. Blonde, heavier-set, and about eighteen years old, she was feisty and often had verbal fights with the staff. She and I left each other alone but I often wondered how I ended up in a place with someone like Ashley, someone who was so different than I was.
The staff said I would probably be able to leave on Friday. On the first day I was referred to an ENT for my horrible physical condition and was put on another antibiotic (I had been on different ones for the past few weeks for my sinus infection but none of them had worked.) That night I wrote in my composition journal: “I think it will be good for me here. I have this really nice nurse, Gretchen, who’s very kind and I feel well taken care of…Having some feelings of guilt but mostly feel like I’m taking a vacation from my life-which maybe is a good thing-or what they want.”
On Wednesday, a psychiatrist came and visited me a few times; based on the comments of the other residents I realized the doctor was in the habit of diagnosing everyone with bipolar and upping their already high levels of meds. Sure enough he said he thought I had bipolar II or Rapid Cycling Bipolar and put me on a mood stabilizer called Lamictal. (I recognized this as a seizure med I would often dispense for the adults with disabilities I used to worked with. It was a weird feeling being one of the “residents” instead of the staff person.) The psychiatrist also wanted to up my anti-depressant Cymbalta to 90 mg a day. I remember agreeing to all these med changes, thinking, “What do I know? Obviously he is the doctor and I am the crazy one since I am in the psych ward.” During one of our sessions, the psychiatrist looked down at his papers, “The staff have been documenting your sad affect has not changed since you arrived.” Inside I thought, “Why should I pretend to be happy when I am not?” and mostly, “I would be happier if I were at home.”
On Wednesday, Ashley went home (or somewhere else) and I got a new roommate, Elizabeth, who I took an instant liking to. Liz was a beautiful young woman with long dark hair and huge brown eyes. She looked maybe Hawaiian or something. Liz had been admitted to the hospital after attempting for the second time to kill herself. She had overdosed on Ibuprofen PM and thought she would just die in her sleep. She woke up with severe stomach pain and decided to drive herself to the ER where they pumped her stomach (this was similar to what happened the first time she attempted suicide, she said.) Liz had three daughters and an emotionally abusive husband. I always wonder about Liz and how she is doing or if she is even alive as it is very common for someone who has attempted suicide several times to eventually succeed. She was so beautiful and had so much to live for; it was so painful to hear her story, yet it helped me realize (again) depression is not a feeling, something you can talk yourself out of. It is a severe medical condition. Depression takes ahold of you until you are so far in, it controls everything you do; there is no escaping its hideous claws. For me it was and has been a lifelong journey.
I also met a lot of other “residents”—very interesting people who I realized were not much different than me and nothing at all like the “crazy” people the movies display. A few people received electric shock treatment several times a week because, according to their doctors, no other treatments were working for their depression. One lady who had been in the hospital for several weeks, Kathy, told us not to tell her anything important in the morning before her shock treatment; she would not remember it because the treatment caused amnesia.
During one of the group therapy sessions, a woman named Karen really stood out to me. She was kind of quiet and delicate and I remember she started talking about how she was just now-five years later-dealing with her mother’s death. Later that day after a meal, Karen told me she, too, was a teacher. She taught kids with severe autism but for the past several months she had been abusing Immatrex (a medication for migraines which I also happened to use). She had been driving with a coworker under the influence of the med and almost got the two of them killed by driving through a red light. The coworker called 911 and Karen ended up here. I was so in awe of this beautiful woman who was sharing her heart with people she barely even knew; I was so grateful she and her coworker were okay and I also thought of her students. We both shared our feelings of guilt for “leaving” our students, but realized it’s nice to be taken care of once in a while. In talking with Karen I realized I was not alone.
On Thursday, I wrote in my journal, “God, I am miserable. They want to keep me til Monday. Because of the multiple sicknesses I have, sinus infection, pain and constipation, on top of the depression and sadness. They want to see if the new med and med increase will start taking effect. Since I can’t work anyway, I guess it makes sense…”
Despite missing home and agonizing over what my coworkers and family members were thinking of me at this exact minute, I tried to take advantage of my “vacation” in the hospital. The food was not too bad and it was nice not having to cook for myself or clean up. Plus I got dessert after every meal. I did things I never got to do when I was in the “real world”: jigsaw puzzles, painting, reading. I also got a lot of attention which is what I secretly wanted; during the week I was there I received visits from my parents (who drove 200 miles from Wisconsin), my brother Tim, my brother Greg and sister-in-law Sarah, my boyfriend Will, and my coworker and mentor.
While in the hospital, I realized while I was sick emotionally, I had been much worse in the past but without appropriate support. I wondered if I would have just gone to bed that night, not called my boyfriend and told him about my urge to overdose…would I have just gone on as I had so many times in the past? I had had so many urges that were even stronger in the past to harm or kill myself and I never had. While I feel I would have never taken the pills on that December night some many years ago, I still believe I made the right choice to go to the hospital. My life was forever changed by my experience there; the faces of the people I met will be forever imprinted on my mind. Their stories have become part of my story. I became a more compassionate, gracious and loving person because of my stay at a hospital psych ward. I hope to never enter one again, but I would not edit those six days out of my life if given the choice.
Still, my hospital stay forced me to face the reality of my life, however surreal and zombie-like I still felt. How did all the things that happened to me result in me ending up here, a mental hospital? And where would my life turn now as a result of this important milestone in my journey?