The first time I was a patient at a psychiatric hospital, I was eleven years old. Life felt impossibly hard, and I had tried to take my own life. The nightmare of the ER was nothing compared to the terror I felt when I was told that I would have to be admitted to a nearby psych hospital. The doctors wanted only to protect me from myself, but I wanted to sink down through the concrete floor and be swallowed by the earth. Visions filled my mind of old asylums from the movies.
I was taken to the hospital in an ambulance late at night. The building loomed over me menacingly in the darkness. The hospital that I was sent to had been built in the 1800’s, and the building’s architecture fed into my Gothic nightmare.
I clearly remember that first time I was strip-searched. The humiliation burned my skin as strangers examined my underwear, searching for hidden weapons. I was left in a hospital gown, exposed and vulnerable. I barely slept.
I woke to find the children’s unit bustling with activity. Vital signs were being taken, and breakfast served. I was naturally overwhelmed, and I honestly don’t remember much about that first day or two. But by the time other memories began to form, my perception of the hospital had completely shifted. I remember the large, comfy chairs. I remember art therapy, a time for coloring and bedazzling. I remember my first class on serotonin and synapses. Mostly, though, I remember the warmth of the staff in that hospital. The men and women who worked there made me feel safe and cared for in a way that I hadn’t felt at home.
Their compassion shaped my life. For many years, I wanted to become just like the nurses on that unit. I wanted to make other people feel safe and nurtured and cherished. I knew, because of them, that empathy and warmth could be life-saving.
I was better for several years following that first hospitalization, but certain triggers during my freshman year led to a serious suicide attempt and a subsequent hospitalization. I have been hospitalized multiple times since. In fact, I was just released from the hospital today. While I was there, a friendly gentleman confided in me that he had been terrified to come in, because he had envisioned a place like he had seen in the movies. Instead, he had found a team of mental health workers who he credited with saving his life.
I don’t really know what I want to say here. I did just spend a week in a psychiatric hospital, and my mind is muddled. But I felt the need to say something. If you ever find yourself feeling lost, overwhelmed and alone, and if you are finding it difficult to keep on living, please know that these hospitals are not to be feared. They are filled with kind, knowledgeable individuals who desperately want to help you. And maybe they can.