Psych ward stories: Claudia’s first week as an inpatient
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Psych ward stories: Claudia’s first week as an inpatient
Claudia entered the inpatient psych ward in rural Alabama. To no avail, she had tried everything before voluntarily admitting herself to the regional hospital. But nothing worked. This was her only option.
Before she entered the psych ward, she gave away her belongings to the nursing staff as they took down her long history of mental illness. They were then left alone in her thoughts. She had always wanted to know what a psych ward experience would be like. And now she would was about to find out for herself. Would her inpatient story match the psych ward experiences she has had heard so much about?
The psych ward nurse who had taken down her medical history returned with Lorazepam; for Claudia had shown signs of “anxiety” at starting inpatient care. Who wouldn’t be anxious about their first psych ward experience? Claudia took that white little pill and immediately felt a sense of internal calm.
How long was this going to take? She knew she wanted to get better, but this was new territory for her, she had never been an inpatient in a psych ward before. And oftentimes, with new territory, comes fear and isolation. She desperately did not want this to be the first of a string of psych ward experiences.
Later in the day, she met her roommate. An obese woman, quiet, and mostly spent the bulk of her time sleeping. Maybe it was the meds. Perhaps it was the boredom that permeated a psych unit. Either way, they barely said words as she gathered her toiletry bag to take a shower. It was warm, but uncomfortable, standing under the pouring water. The open door, the lack of privacy, this was all new to her, as she dried off with the small towel and put on her clothes. It was quickly dinner time.
They sat in the television room as the patient care tech called their names, and they got their food one by one. Smith was called, and Claudia collected her tray. There wasn’t much to eat, but she made do. She returned to her room, waiting for her medicines. At 8:15, the nurse came in to give Claudia her meds. Within the hour, she was fast asleep.
Day one: psych ward experiences are a matter of routine
Claudia awoke at 7. Breakfast was called. She returned to the television room. Smith was called, and she received her breakfast. Well, it’s better than dinner as she saw the scrambled eggs and biscuit. Much better.
She spent the rest of the morning napping in her room. And someone yelled, “Group” at around 10 am. And she got up and walked to the door and headed into the tv room on the other side of the unit, Psych Ward Level 2.
Mary, the counselor, went around the room and asked how everyone was. She asked Claudia why she was there. Claudia said, “When I work, I get paranoid. When I’m out of work, I get depressed and want to kill myself.” Mary said, “What did you do?” Claudia replied, “I worked for a nonprofit.” Everyone was quiet. And Mary turned her attention to other clients.
In a break, an older man came to talk to Claudia. He said, “I have a job. It’s part-time cleaning in Bakersfield.” Claudia replied, “But I live in Hendersonville.” He went quiet. She thanked him. This was going to be interesting, she thought. Getting a job offer in a psych ward was unexpected. Maybe this was going to be better than she thought.
The lull of the television quieted all her internal anxiety as they watched for what seemed like hours. Finally, a new therapist came in and talked. She was engaging and helpful. She spoke of depression and mental illness in a way Claudia could understand. Claudia listened with a keen ear as the therapist talked about how mental illness and depression worked, how it wasn’t your fault, and how you couldn’t just get better. All things Claudia knew, but it was nice to hear that Claudia wasn’t weak. She was just differently-abled. She had a chemical imbalance.
Claudia and the rest of the Level 1 group returned to the other side at 4 pm. More listlessness. More empty space to be filled by the thoughts reverberating in her brain. But it was the first few days, and they are always the hardest, she assumed. Her psych ward experience wasn’t isolating. It was just different. The day turned into night. They had dinner. They watched television. There was a pattern to the days, awake at the crack of dawn, eating at appointed hours, the television filling the dead space, and returning to her room in the early afternoon.
“When most people think about psych ward experiences, they think about people hearing voices, running around naked in the passages, licking objects etc. Trust me, I’ve been in a couple of psychiatric wards and things are not that exciting.”
K.J. Redelinghuys, Unfiltered: Grappling with Mental Illness
Day two: the same routine as the previous day
Claudia began her second full day at 7 am again with breakfast. Breakfast was always good at the regional hospital. She sat in her room, in her bed, resting. Group started at 10 am. It was again Mary, who evaluated where everyone stood in their anxiety and depression levels.
The Doctor asked to see Claudia. The Doctor stated she was going to put Claudia on Lithium, a well-known manic-depressive medication. The Doctor also was going to put Claudia on Lorazepam, as it had done such a good job of quelling her anxiety the first day.
Claudia spent the rest of the day listening to the group, watching television, and trying to keep her mind busy. She had no focus. It was a standard psych ward experience to have no focus. Nobody was really sure why. Maybe it was the idea that you’re crawling the walls. Perhaps it was the exhaustion from medicines that could put an ordinary person into a long-term sleep state. But that same exhaustion is considered a normal type of fatigue for those who suffered from mental illness.
Later, the social worker asked to speak with Claudia. There, the social worker and Claudia talked about her lack of purpose in life and her inability to have a purpose outside of work. The social worker responded that some people make the illness their entire life. The illness is their check. The illness is their disability.
Claudia asked if vocational rehabilitation might work for her. The social worker said, “Yes, but Claudia, you’re smart and talented. They do repetitive tasks. Do you think you could do that?” Claudia felt even more lost and purposeless. How was she going to work? What would she do with her life?
Living with mental illness for Claudia was torture. At times, it became her identity, whether that was because it took up much of her headspace trying to get better or because it had taken up 20 years of her life. 20 years where she had been lost, stuck, psychotic, manic, depressed, or suicidal. For 20 years. For most of her life.
Claudia did not even know if this hospitalization would make her better. If being thrown back out into the real world beyond the tedious white walls of the psych ward would ever give her a purpose or a life beyond the illness.
She wanted to show everyone that the illness would not stop her. She wanted to be the exception to the rule that people with serious mental illness can’t work. She didn’t want to be devalued. She didn’t want a life collecting a check and doing nothing.
What is there to do if you don’t work? What is the purpose of life if you have no direction? The mental illness had stolen her will to live, her psyche, her thought process, her confidence, and her self-esteem. It had stolen everything. What was left for it to steal?
Claudia broke into tears, talking to the social worker about her feelings of loss. The social worker asked, “Where did you go for that second?”
Claudia stated, “The illness has drained me of my motivation, and it’s drained me of my energy. And it’s given me no semblance of a normal life. Am I supposed to be okay with that?” The social worker just looked at her, frozen, unable to give an answer.
Claudia returned to the group room, and the therapist asked her to write in crayons about her life. Claudia wrote of the pressures of success from a young age, of trying to be somebody, of trying to live up to the ideals that her parents have. She wrote of how she just couldn’t do it anymore. It led her to the pits of despair, as she clung to the notion of normalcy, where work was ingrained as a measurement of worth. Claudia wondered if work and mental health would ever fit together for her.
At 4 pm, Claudia began the route back to her room, through the locked door, opened by staff, into her white-walled room with a white bed and white blanket. Back to boredom. Maybe it’s okay that we’re bored, she thought. Perhaps this aspect of psych ward experience was precisely what she needed. No stress, no impending deadlines, no bosses telling us to get our act together. Just relief from stress. And boredom…
Jenny Allon is a writer, marketer, and former social worker passionate about mental health awareness and breaking the stigma of living with a serious mental illness.