On the inside: The realities of being a psych ward inpatient

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On the inside: The realities of being a psych ward inpatient

I spent a year there when I was just 15

The first time I was admitted I was 15. I had been so distraught and suicidal my friends and family were worried for my safety. We went to our local hospital emergency. After meeting with a doctor, and then a psych nurse, they decided it was best to keep me there and so began my journey.

When I came onto the ward, they called it the CAPE Unit (Child Adolescent Psychiatric Emergency Unit) it was very late at night. I could make out a large window, a very large room with what looked like a kitchen and a big hallway with these over sized doors. They welcomed me by name and showed me to what would be my room. They told me I could talk to my parents in the morning. The doors swung, so they didn’t ever close, although they could be locked from the outside. They gave me hospital pyjamas. The walls were bare and beige. There was a small window that did not open. My bed had a sheet but the mattress was thin and plastic.

I was in a new place with new clothes and everything smelled to clean. I felt completely alone. The first night I cried myself to sleep. I later found there was a communal phone but it was in the common area so there wasn’t any privacy. There were two other girls who I ended up becoming good friends with. Although the first encounter one of the girls says to me “so are you a cutter?” Having never herd this term, she went on to explain “if you cut yourself you’re a cutter”. She flipped my arm over and saw three scabbed over lines “yeah, you are?” I didn’t say anything, shocked there was someone who knew what I had been doing. She told me about how the place worked.

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There was a small kitchen for light snacks, but our main food was awful hospital stuff, delivered directly to us. In the light I could see what I had thought was a large window was actually a office, the window spanning the length of the room. I suddenly felt like a fish in a bowl. She explained to me that was the nurses office. They would observe, do charting but for the most part they spent time with us in the common area.

That morning I had my first therapy session. My psychiatrist was an extremely intelligent woman, and willing to help, but I couldn’t share anything with her at first. I was too paranoid and they stuck me on a cocktail of meds – an antidepressant, two anti-anxieties and and an anti-psychotic. All any of us wanted was a diagnosis. Just like with any other patient all we wanted was to have a name to what was wrong with us. To have a diagnosis also meant one other big thing. Treatment, and possibly recovery.

My mom came to visit during visiting hours, and brought my home comforts; blankets, pillows, books, clothes. Her eyes were always red. She’d been crying. I knew I was hurting those around me but at the time I didn’t care. I couldn’t see it, just saw my pain.

So around I went. I would start to get better, go home and then be back with new wounds and a new story. We would make a safety plan. We would have a new perfect mix of meds. We would have a solution. I’ll never know what went wrong. There were always new kids at CAPE, as it was only short stay. Sometimes there were people who scared me, and sometimes I scared other people. There once was a boy who wouldn’t speak. His mother just came and held him. She silently wept. I woke up one morning and he was gone. I often wonder what had happened to him.

Sometimes I would go a week at home, even go back to school, but I couldn’t escape for long. They admitted me and then discharged me, only to admit me a few days later. I gained about 80lbs as a side effect of one of the medications I was on. My self esteem was so low, and I had developed an eating disorder. So a new medication to combat that. Then I hit rock bottom. Most patients need to get here before we want to get better. “It will get worse before it gets better” This admission was different.

When I met with my psychiatrist she looked defeated. She had tried everything but the reality was they didn’t know if they could save me. They had a serious talk with my parents about options. It was time to transfer me to a longer stay unit. Somewhere with more intensive treatment. They explained to my parents they believed they had a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder. It was hard to get this diagnosis, and people feared it. They had to accept the fact I was not expected to make it to my 18th birthday. One in 10 people with my diagnosis kill themselves – my disease had a one in 10 chance of killing me.

Over the course of the year I moved to new hospitals, new meds, sometimes by car, sometimes ambulance. I moved to a better place with nicer rooms, a school, a courtyard. I learned how to take care of myself. The hospital emphasized that we were in an artificial environment, not the real world. But I still wasn’t able to leave. I transferred to an adolescent treatment centre, where they worked with at-risk youth. I was allowed to home on the weekends, and they called it halfway to the real world.

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So there I was. I came from an educated family, had everything I had ever wanted. White picket fence kind of childhood. And somehow it still got me.  I worked hard in the centre. My family attended group, I went to therapy. I took my medication. I went to school. Once again things got worse before they got better. There were some very dark days. We made a real plan about how I was going to take life on and kick its ass. And who would have thought, at the end of it all my nurse, my mom and myself cried when I “graduated”. I was going home. For good.

I still had to go back to the emergency room a few times. Life was never the same from before I was sick. We as a species adapt, we change. I turned 18. I joined groups to help other people going through the journey I was. I graduated high school, and now I’m 21. I have a career, I’m in school. My family, my friends, my doctors my nurses and most importantly me, we all survived. It was the hardest years of my life. I missed out on a sweet 16. I graduated late. I’m still repairing some of the damage I did but, I made it out.

I cant help but think that as I write this, as you read it, some 15-year-old kid somewhere is spending their first night on the inside.

Photos from Laura Hospes’ series.

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