The portrayal of in-patient mental health care treatment facilities in pop culture didn’t bother me until I was hospitalized myself.
Hollywood and indie horror films have always made these treatment facilities out to be horrible places. Sure, they may have been horrible in the near past — pretty much all of the so-called “lunatic” asylums and psychiatric hospitals before the reformation and deinstitutionalization movements were —but modern treatment facilities are not staffed by people in sterile white uniforms who take pleasure in strapping people down to tables and forcing them to undergo electroshock therapy against their will.
I was hospitalized in for six days in early 2017 because of suicidal ideation, which just means I was experiencing repetitive suicidal thoughts. It was my sophomore year of college, more than a year after my roommate had completed suicide and since my 19th birthday, when I’d originally planned to kill myself. I went back to counseling at my university, and I was placed with a sort of intern counselor — she was working on getting her master’s degree in counseling with a focus on trauma counseling, and she was required to intern as a counselor in order to get her degree. She was a great counselor and tried to go above and beyond to make sure I was getting help. She once went against the university’s counseling office’s policy and saw me twice in one week because I really wasn’t doing so well, but there is a point where a counselor has to recognize that a client’s needs may exceed what they’re able to provide on an out-patient basis, even if the client is seeing them twice a week.
One night as I was wrapping up a shift at the university writing center, I was overwhelmed by suicidal thoughts. If you’ve never experienced suicidal thoughts, they almost feel like an external voice is talking to you, though it’s using your voice. Because this “voice” is you, it knows all of your insecurities and fears, and it will use them against you. My depressive self constantly told me that I needed to be punished, and the list of things I needed to be punished for was endless. My roommate’s death was the big one — why did I let her die? — but this version of me also wanted to punish me for being a bad person in general, for being dumb, for making mistakes, no matter how small they were. So on that particular night, something like March 27, 2017, I sat in the writing center and listened to my own brain tell me that I deserved to die. I was crying in the middle of the library, but no one even looked at me. I was so struck by how easy it would be to just do it, to go home and complete suicide without anyone really being able to stop me.
But I stopped myself.
I looked up the Crisis Text Line (741-741) and texted “HOME.” They messaged back immediately to tell me that a counselor would be with me soon to ask what was on my mind. I texted back, “I think I’m going to kill myself tonight.”
As I walked back to my townhouse, I texted back and forth with the crisis counselor, detailing my plan and the feelings that I’d been experiencing. Just having someone to talk to about my plan in that moment, when I felt like dying was the right thing to do and had this incredibly strong urge to hurt myself, was enough. I was able to back away from those feelings enough that I was no longer a danger to myself.
For the rest of the night until I fell asleep, I just laid in my bed. That was my solution for most things. If I didn’t have the energy to be a real, functioning human, I’d stay in bed and sleep. If the depressive version of myself was telling me to hurt myself or to just flat out kill myself, I’d lay in bed and wouldn’t move until the feeling went away. It’s difficult to get tools to harm yourself when anything dangerous is out of reach, and you refuse to leave your bed. I’d been doing that for months, but a few weeks or so before I texted the Crisis Text Line, I started essentially hallucinating. I would feel like my arms and legs and throat were being cut by knives. I’ve never self-harmed, but my brain can be very mean.
I emailed my counselor the next morning and told her that I’d texted the Crisis Line. She told me that it was time for me to be evaluated, and if I didn’t meet her at the emergency room, then she’d send people to get me. So I packed my charger and some art supplies into a fanny pack, grabbed my phone and my journal, and drove to the ER.
I once wrote a poem called “what they told you about the loony bin is a lie, it’s the ER you gotta look out for,” and the ER really is the scarier of the two. After I was evaluated at the ER, they told me I should go to an in-patient treatment facility. They stuck me in a room that was actually reminiscent of one of Hollywood’s psychiatric hospitals: there was just a bed and a chair for the ER nurse. The room was white and sterile, and fluorescent lights illuminated every corner. When I first got there, they made me change into a hospital gown and took all my clothes as well as my fanny pack, phone and journal. I started trembling at some point and didn’t stop. I was there for about seven hours, during which they bruised both of my inner elbows while trying to draw blood for tests. I was mostly alone, though, and I dozed on and off until a pair of EMTs finally showed up and strapped me to a gurney to transport me to a facility more than an hour away.
They let me charge my phone and call my family during the ambulance ride, and I spent the whole time regretting making my mom cry. It was the first time that they’d heard that I was dealing with suicidal thoughts. I’d never wanted them to know that I was suicidal because it felt rude. What parent deserves to know that their kid, who they’ve put so much time and energy and love into raising, wants to die?
In my experience, in-patient mental health treatment facilities are blessings, and I’m not religious. I didn’t arrive at the hospital until late, but after sitting in the ER for so long, time really had no meaning. I was a patient at the mental health treatment facility in Cleveland for six days. I was placed in a wing called the Sunrise Unit where everyone wanted to get better. I laughed at the name initially because, of course, they would name it something so optimistic.
Every day, I went to an hour-long individual therapy session with a psychiatrist, who offered electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) if I wanted to try it and challenged me to interrogate the depressive voice that told me I deserved to be punished. The rest of the day was filled with group therapy and group activities. I developed a routine. After a staff member woke me up to get my vitals every morning at 5:30 a.m., I would go sit in the common area and write in my journal. When the yoga instructor visited at 7 a.m. during the week, I was one of the only patients who participated in yoga. I took my medication. I taught one of the arts and crafts instructors how to replicate watercolor-painting using Crayola markers. I made friends. I watched movies. I slowly got my appetite back. Eventually, the shaking that had started in the ER stopped. I started feeling better.
I had a moment of realization while I was in the hospital. Somewhere around my third day at the facility, I asked for a remote for the television, but my voice squeaked, and the staff member couldn’t give me the remote anyway because patients’ television time was restricted to certain hours. The depressive me immediately latched onto that and started beating me down, and while I waited for television hours, I interrogated the depressive voice. Why did I deserve to die? Was a squeaky voice and asking for a remote too early really grounds for a death sentence? No judge or jury would sentence someone to death for that.
The hardest part about being in the in-patient facility was leaving. When my mom drove three and a half hours to visit the Saturday after I was admitted, a counselor informed me that a crucial part of my treatment plan was talking to my mom about my mental health, which included the part about me being suicidal. I managed to tell her. Both of us cried that time.
In-patient facilities like the one I stayed in offer patients the chance to take a break from all the stressors and obligations in their lives, so they can focus on themselves and their mental health. Once I was released, I found that life had kept going. I ended up withdrawing from all of that semester’s classes and taking a medical leave for the rest of that semester, and I lost a really awesome travel blogging gig, but I’m still alive, and I feel that’s what’s really important.
It’s just that every time I see a movie with a scary psychiatric hospital where the staff is evil and patients are treated horribly, I can’t help but frown. On top of media portrayal of in-patient mental health facilities, the stigma around being hospitalized is a whole different beast than just being mentally ill. A lot of it probably has to do with this idea that if you’re hospitalized for mental illness, you’re weak or crazy or dangerous. I was just sick and needed a little more help to recover. And going to the treatment facility helped.
If you’re having suicidal thoughts and need to talk, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. If you think you’re in danger of harming yourself, please go to the emergency room to be evaluated.
McKenzie Caldwell is a reporter for The Times-Gazette. She can be reached at 937-402-2570 or [email protected]