At 17 Years Old, I Was Admitted to a Psych Ward. This is What it’s Like on the Inside.

When I was seventeen I was admitted to an Inpatient Psychiatric Facility. The three months I spent in hospital were some of the worst of my life. Though others may speak differently of their experiences, I have to say I hated every inch of the building I’d been confined to.

For some people there is a lot of mystery surrounding life inside of a psychiatric facility. Tall buildings with windows that never open, crawling with security personnel to ensure the safety of staff, patients and visitors; a structure that is rarely seen from the inside. Yet I’ve been there– I know the reality of it. 

Every patient that passes through those doors enters with a mind ridden with illness, struggling and deemed incapable. Every one of them has a story to tell. Treatment ensues, resulting in one of three end scenarios: they will eventually leave feeling far better equipped to live their lives with their mental illness; they will leave without showing much improvement but receiving a tentative stamp for the outside world nonetheless; they will be sent to a longer-term facility for more intensive care. 

One thing to remember is that all of these patients are people who have a past, who have a story to tell. I’ll let you in on a little bit of mine.

The Beginning

I was admitted after I made an attempt on my life, something not uncommon, as most attempts go unreported and untreated. The stay was supposed to be short, maybe a few days to stabilize me. I met with doctors at an inpatient unit after two days under watch at my local emergency department. Family visited, so did friends; my suicide attempt was an elephant in the room.

I remember riding in the transfer vehicle, seeing the building for the first time, watching as the walls came closer and the idea of the unknown almost sent me into a panic attack. It was terrifying, and did nothing more than solidify just how much I wished I hadn’t failed. Then, when I was transferred to the longer term unit, my wishes were only more deeply ingrained.

The Inside: People and Attachments

Friends

Despite what many people may think, the daily routine is one that feels strangely familiar. In my experience, there are many similarities to high school. And, as with school, attachments will form– particularly to other people.

After a week inside I became friends with one girl we’ll call Jay. We spent every day together, talked about our lives, our problems, our hopes and our dreams. We grew on each other. Every night we would watch the sunset before going in, and there were often long periods where nothing was said at all. She became one of my best friends over the course of my stay, and I have to say it’s actually one of the healthiest relationships I’ve ever had.

Yet this is tough because, once discharge occurs, the likelihood of ever meeting these friends again is slim to none. Many of them are from other places, other towns; there are responsibilities and finances to be worried about. Time goes by. People get lost. Yet inside, time is spent with each other all day every day, save for individual sessions, until one of you is discharged. Both of you are normally in a very dark place, so the bonding becomes even more intense. When it’s time to say goodbye, it hurts.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there were people that I downright avoided inside. Bullying is an epidemic not confined to the schoolyard or workplace. Often it is very tough for the staff — many of whom are overworked and tired — to control it to the degree that they would like. There are some very mean patients, and others who just can’t seem to escape the role of victim.

Staff Members

As with the patients, there are good staff members and there are bad, and by this I mean there are nice ones, and mean ones. Just like life. As with the other patients, you form an attachment to the good ones, but it’s not quite the same. I felt comfortable having them around and available and was far less anxiety ridden in their presence. I could talk to them when I was struggling, after all my coping strategies had failed, and it worked almost every time. After we’d speak I’d find the strength to keep myself safe. Sometimes, on the nights we couldn’t speak, I wouldn’t be able to bring myself back from the edge and I would end up harming myself. (I later found out that this was seen in a very different manner by the staff; they dubbed it ‘attention-seeking.’)

Staff will do their best to keep you safe but, as was explained to my family, it is ‘ultimately the patient who must keep themselves safe.’ A little bit of an amusing thought, considering most patients that pass through the doors are admitted because they couldn’t keep themselves safe.


The trouble is, we’re all humans. The robot sentries aren’t here yet. The staff members are people with emotions and sometimes professionalism flies out the window. It happens. One night, after a minor slip-up (I picked at the sutures of a wound and it opened) a staff member I’d previously gotten along with came to the room to check on me. I told her what had happened and was met with an outburst of anger. 

If this is new to you, remember it: anger doesn’t work. It caused me to shut down almost immediately. It wasn’t until another staff member came in and spoke with me like a human being that I eventually responded. I am still grateful to him for maturity, understanding and patience.

Like I said, good and bad.

Food, Activities and Life Outside

Activities

It’s not all doom and gloom. One of the pass-times was playing Skip-Bo. Together, all of the patients dubbed it the Universal Hospital Game because everyone that came through knew of Skip-Bo and about 95% knew how to play the game without question. It was a great way to get to know each other while simultaneously being competitive shitheads.

We were lucky enough to have a television, as well, but most channels portrayed some sort of show we were barred from watching because of a PG-13 requirement. This was devastating to one patient whose favourite show was Criminal Minds; she often got in trouble for putting it on despite knowing it wasn’t allowed. There was a lot of TLC – “Say Yes to the Dress, anyone?” – and Food Network during those three months. Cutthroat Kitchen became a mandatory watch every day, which had the detrimental effect of making us realize just how bad the food inside really was…

Food

Some days the meals they sent up were actually quite decent. Others, not so much (cold cardboard and runny, unidentifiable glop, anyone?). Though I remained grateful that we were provided with three square meals a day (from a menu to pick out what we wanted four days ahead of time, at that) I still could not bring myself to touch the potatoes, the chicken was terrifying and the vegetables were almost always cold. Plus, some days they sent up cake so that was awesome. In fact, I would always double my order on desserts so that there would be an extra cake for anyone who forgot to order.

Share the love, guys. Moist cakes for everyone.

The World Outside Becomes Wonderland

This is a tough one. The thing about mental illness is that you already feel like an outsider, so three months locked away from everything ‘normal’ only tends to make this feeling that much worse. As you stay longer in hospital, it becomes gradually harder to remember parts of the outside world.

Think of Brooks from Shawshank Redemption but on a much milder scale. It’s like a long summer; you get so used to drawn out days without school that thinking back on school actually makes you euphoric. The hospital becomes your world while you’re staying there; there is no new music that you get to listen to because radios don’t exist, if you’re in units with youth you’re not going to have access to MTV; it’s no longer every couple of days that you see your friends, everything happening in their lives becomes foreign to you – especially if you’ve been transferred to a facility in a town far from your own. The people in the hospital become your only source of companionship for that short, or long, stay.

In The End, A Paradox.

To the readers who have experienced a similar life inside a hospital, your story does not stay in the ward; your story continues with every breath you take. You hit a rough patch that landed you in a place you didn’t really want to be, but you’ve come so far and you’re on your way. Take pride in your little successes, you’ll make it someday.

When I was admitted, I didn’t expect to make it to my eighteenth birthday. Yet I turned 18 just this past Thursday. Though it is a terrible fate to suffer, I will say, in my case, that it was a necessary one. There was nowhere else I could’ve gone, and I’ll remain forever grateful for the overwhelming patience and kindness from the staff, and for the friends and acquaintances I made there. I’m still here because of them, just as so many other people are.

I learned a lot and lost a lot, but in the end, I’ll land 180 degrees from where I started and wrap this up with a paradox. Though I indeed hated it there, being in the hospital is, at the same time, the catalyst for everything that changed me in the best way.

mm
My name is Kilayla Pilon, author and artist from Cambridge, Ontario. I really like dogs.