Here’s part 2 of my dreadful experience in a psychiatric ward. If you haven’t read part 1, you might want to go back so this makes more sense….
I sat down on my tiny bed that was bolted to the floor, next to my nightstand — also bolted to the floor — when Susie (not her real name) the nudist from a few minutes ago, walked in, and, again took off all her clothes. I watched in horror as she walked towards my bed and sprawled out ON TOP OF ME. Bewildered, I calmly told her this wasn’t her bed. Without missing a beat, and without opening her eyes, she went back to her own bed and opened her legs spread eagle in my direction, graphically demonstrating to me her preferred waxing routine. I ignored her, hoping she’d stop. Thankfully, a nurse appeared in our room and told Susie to get dressed. She helped Susie into her shirt and turns to get her pants. Immediately, the shirt comes back off. This goes on for a few minutes until, finally, Susie is fully dressed.
A little while later (time feels very non linear in Sequoia Unit) Susie walks up to the nurses’ station and takes off her pants. Everyone comes out of the activity room to watch. Sherri (Also, not her real name. Actually, let’s just assume that from here on out, all names are made up), realizing that I’m terrified by my roommate’s antics offers to let Susie have her private room and she would move in with me. She didn’t “feel safe” in her room since it was too close to the emergency exit. Thank goodness for Sherri. A nurse comes in and fully sanitizes the vinyl-covered mattress and puts a sheet and a thin blanket on it. Sherri tells me that our toilet is clogged and then goes to inform the nurses. Just a quick note to say that the bathroom has a “door that is just a vinyl panel, secured with velcro that is no taller than a public bathroom stall door.
Back in my room, and with nothing to do, I looked at my discharge paperwork from the hospital. Tuns out it wasn’t discharge paperwork, it was an “Involuntary Patient Advisement” which declared that I had been 5150’d. Under the line, “we believe this to be true because…” and, in quotations, it read, “you’re going through a divorce, upset and overdosed. Several prescription pills (Ativan, .5mg about 30 tablets) with alcohol to end yourself.” Wait, what? I don’t even HAVE 30 ativans — my doctor very specifically only prescribes them 15 at a time. So, yeah, I call bullshit on that. “End myself?” Really?? Look, I apparently said and did a lot of things that night that I don’t remember, but I’m pretty sure that I said nothing about “ending myself.” If I wanted to “end myself” I sure as hell would have come up with a more grammatically pleasing way to state it. You can accuse me of a lot of things, but I would never say anything as clunky and ridiculous as “end myself.”
I marched down to the nurses’ station and insisted I speak to a doctor to explain that I did not, in fact, attempt suicide and, more importantly, would never say that I wanted to “end myself.” For some reason, this seemed very important to me at the time. I was told that the doctor was suffering from a migraine and they would let him know I wanted to speak to him, but it might not be until tomorrow. I asked if I could see a social worker. She was gone for the evening. Fuck. Dread started to set in when I realized I was essentially trapped in Sequoia Unit. And my toilet was still clogged.
I asked the nurses what I was supposed to do. “There are coloring pages in the activity room.” I’m 50 years old, I don’t do coloring pages, unless it’s an artsy adult coloring book and I have expensive, fancy markers. “Are there any books?” I asked. “No, but there are coloring pages.” “Is there paper so I can journal?” Hallelujah! They have journals! “Can I have a pen, please?” I was handed a short, dull pencil — the kind you get at miniature golf. “Can I have more than one pencil?” “Come back when you need another one.” Great.
In addition to a lot of weird habits I have, I am addicted to lip balm. It’s a thing, you can google it. In the loony bin (which, now that I’m distanced enough from the experience, I can call it that. It’s the only way I can really cope with the experience. And I fully accept that I am loony and please don’t tell me I’m discriminating against the mentally ill….I am mentally ill) chapstick is not allowed. I really can’t think of any logical reason for this, but it’s a rule in Sequoia unit. When I asked for chapstick, they gave me a miniature-sized one — like smaller than I ever thought possible. I think it was about and inch and half long. The nurse told me I could use it while at the desk but had to give it back afterwards. She would put a label with my name on it and I would have to come ask for it whenever I needed it. After asking for it five times in the span of 30 minutes, the nurses started pretending not to see me when I approached the desk. Once, when using my chapstick, Susie showed up and started yelling at the unit’s psychiatrist, calling him, inexplicably, a “fish head” and insisting they give her back her belongings, since she was “ready to go out for the evening.” When they refused, she yelled that they were “holding her diamonds and pearls hostage.” The distraction was the perfect opportunity for me to casually walk away with my chapstick in the pocket of my paper shirt.
I’m not sure what medical reason dictates that windows of a psychiatric unit be blocked from natural light, but there was a thick film on all the windows on the unit. I cold tell whether it was day or night, but had no idea if it was sunny or overcast. There were also no clocks anywhere on the unit, except at the nurses’ station. It really felt like I was in prison. And I was terrified.
I arrived on the unit after dinner so they gave me a decently tasting turkey sandwich and water. Then it was time for medications. I received my typical dose of antidepressants, an ambien so I could sleep and then a muscle relaxer. I explained I didn’t need a muscle relaxer since I was not in any pain. The nurse kept pushing it towards me. I refused, but then she handed me a Gabapentin. I told her I didn’t need that either. She wasn’t giving up as easily on that. “Take it, it will help you get better. It’s for your stress.” I was finally able to get away with just my regular meds, but was confused and alarmed by the attempt to over medicate me. I started to suspect that they preferred the patients to be somewhat sedated. It certainly looked that way
Thankfully, the Ambien did what it’s supposed to do and I slept through the night, despite the fact that the room — and, actually, the whole unit — was kept at a bone-chilling temperature.
I woke up in the morning to a nurse who needed to draw some blood and take my vitals. I had not idea what times it was, because, no clocks. Afterwards, I went to the nurses’ desk to get my chapstick and was handed my my breakfast in a to-go container with a paper cup of cold decaf coffee. Breakfast was also cold and unappetizing. It includes a bowl of Raisin Bran, but I’m only given a plastic fork to eat it with. Great, I thought, at least I’ll lose weight while I’m here. And my toilet was still clogged.
After breakfast a nurse announced to the unit that it was time for the art activity and we would be making beaded bracelets. With nothing better to do, I followed the group to the door of the unit. A nurse stopped me and informed me that I was confined to the unit until I had been there for at least 24 hours. With a sense of dread, I realized this was really, truly prison.
There was a phone on the wall in the hallway that was for patients’ use, but I didn’t have my cell phone and I stopped memorizing phone numbers in 2005. I was feeling panicky and claustrophobic, I needed contact with the outside world. When the phone was finally free, I tried a few numbers that I thought might be my daughter’s. On the second try, I reached her….yay! She and her brothers were fine and happy to hear that I was okay. My daughter and 18 year old son were planning on coming to visit that evening during visiting hours (visitors had to be 18 or older so my 15 year old would not be able to come) and would bring me some clothes. Most importantly they said they could bring me a sports bra. I couldn’t wait until that visit! Visiting hours were 7pm to 8pm, I had no idea how I was going to make it that long.
Lunch is served, again, in a to-go container because I’m still not allowed to join my unit in the cafeteria. It’s some sort of teriyaki chicken breast with rice, but since I’m only given a plastic spoon, I’m not able to eat much.
At some point during the day, I don’t really know when because time is a tricky thing in Sequoia Unit, I meet with Dr. Sharon. He seems nice and I learn that he lives in New Mexico and commutes to the hospital each week. He seems overwhelmed and it’s not surprising considering there are 22 of us listed on the white board at the nurses’ station and he is overseeing all of our care.
I talk to him and he believes me when I tell him that I did not attempt suicide. He understands but is still concerned at my combination of Ativan and wine, telling me that it could have stopping my breathing. He’s worried that I still have access to more pills. After a few minutes of talking, he explains that this may not be the appropriate place for me and that he thinks I would be better off keeping the appointment I have scheduled for the next day with my therapist. He also tells me that it was wrong to have confined me to the unit and that after our meeting, he would release me from my unit restriction and I would be able to meet up with the rest of the patients in my unit for “patio time.” During our conversation he kept apologizing for his pauses as he was still suffering from a migraine. Finally he said, “you really don’t belong here and I’m going to fill out your release paperwork and you can go home tomorrow at 9am.” I wanted to hug dear, sweet, overworked, migraine suffering Dr. Sharon!
Ok, I’ll stop here for today and will continue my story another day. Thanks for reading.
One thought on “Fear and loathing in the psych ward, Part 2”
I really feel for you and this awful experience. I used to be a mental health nurse and I found all the odd rules and set up weird, although it was always due to ‘risk’.
I hope that’s your last visit 🙂