This next part of the series starts by detailing my admittance to the psychiatric hospital and what my feelings and thoughts were as I was going through this process. I also wanted to share what it was actually like being a patient in a psych hospital, something I never thought I would experience firsthand.
*Names have been changed to protect other people’s privacy and identities.
The front lobby of the (psych) hospital was warm and inviting, decorated nicely – it had a tv in the waiting room which was playing an episode of How I Met Your Mother. After you are admitted and get checked in, you are taken back behind a few locked doors, and you begin to realize it is all a facade. Behind closed doors, there is no more warm inviting atmosphere. There is no paint on the walls, no warm and fuzzy decorations or atmosphere… just white cinder blocks. There are 2 “units” as they call them. And there is no fraternizing between units, you have to go through locked doors to pass between the units. Each unit is set with a nurse’s station in the middle and 4 “pods” surrounding the station. A pod is basically a collection of rooms, a suite if you will (although calling it a suite has too nice of a connotation): a living room, bedrooms, and bathrooms. The nurse’s station is basically a large central desk where the nurses on duty sit and check files, answer the telephones, etc. Us patients are not allowed to go behind the nurse’s desk. In each pod, the living room area has couches and tables, and a tv (although the tv is behind a glass case – I guess maybe it is considered a safety hazard.) There are two bathrooms with showers in each pod. And there are 4 individual bedrooms off of the living room where patients sleep. Each room is furnished with 2 wooden bed frames (flimsy mattresses included), wooden nightstands and wooden dressers – although there are no drawers on the dresser, so it’s really more like an open bookcase. There are two thin vertical strips of windows in each room, but they are frosted over so you cannot see the outside. Another thing I didn’t realize, getting to be outside was a luxury at this place. Mostly you are cooped up inside all of the time.
So, after I had signed my life away (I mean, checked in) and said goodbye to Dean, I begin to think that maybe this was a mistake. The very first thing I was asked to do was to strip down totally naked. There were two nurses in this little room with me and they needed to see what scars or marks I already had on my body, obviously the reason being to know if I obtained any new injuries while staying in the hospital. Not that it was a huge deal, I had just had a baby and was used to people seeing all kinds of parts of my body exposed, but it was a little strange. And I had not been informed that this was part of the welcome you get after you get admitted.
After that they took me behind two more locked doors to where I saw the unit where I would be living. This was where I really started to get scared. As I said, the decor was non-existent and it was cold and drab. The nurses showed me to my pod, put sheets on my bed, and then basically left and didn’t tell me what I was supposed to do or how anything worked. I decided to sit down on the couch in the living area of the pod. Two other people were in the room – one I couldn’t tell if it was a girl or boy. This person had short hair and was very stocky, and I couldn’t tell if he or she had breasts or not, or if it was just an illusion from being a bit overweight. The other person was exactly the image you would expect to see in a psych hospital: wearing just a hospital gown, no shoes, long unkempt tangled hair, long beard that had not been shaved or groomed in probably weeks… Not to mention he kept laughing maniacally and staring at me. (I am not making this up, I promise!) They both sat down on the couches and started talking. Mostly it was about when they would be able to get out, hoping that each new day would bring freedom. The conversation was also interspersed with a lot of profanity, mostly the f-word, which I later realized was just part of the culture here among patients at Abilene Behavioral. That and smoking, almost everyone smoked. But I’ll get to that later.
I didn’t have any other clothes or toiletries because I hadn’t brought anything with me to the ER, and Dean had not dropped off anything else for me yet. And if you remember, I am just wearing shorts and a thin t-shirt and flip-flops. There was nothing going on, so I just sat for a bit, wandered around, trying to figure out what you are supposed to do in a psych hospital. Eventually, one of the initial nurses that checked me in, comes up to me and says, “we’re going to move you to the other unit, I think you’ll fit in better there.” So she takes me through the locked door to the identical unit on the other side. I guess she could tell I was getting a bit overwhelmed with my podmates at the other unit. So, we go to south unit and I get my room assignment, which is in a pod with about 5 people playing a game of Apples to Apples. One person was a hospital worker, but everyone else was a patient.
I was introduced to everyone and asked if I wanted to play. I decided I better start trying to make some friends in this place, and the people in this unit looked much more inviting than my friends in the other unit, so I sat down to play. The patients I was introduced to were *Sally, Lindsey, Jake, and Sam. Sally was a bit older, maybe in her 50’s, with shoulder length gray hair. Lindsey was at least as young as me, maybe younger, with dark hair in a ponytail. Jake was a thin guy with short brown hair and glasses. And Sam was a tall, lanky dude with a beard that Duck Dynasty would be proud of. We played for a little bit and then somebody yells out, “Smoke Break!” All of a sudden, everyone gets up to leave and go to a closed off patio at the side of the pod. Lindsey asked if I wanted to join, so I decided I would – not to smoke, just to hang out. We go out to this courtyard/patio area and the nurse on duty for the smoke break is a tall Black women. She’s holding the door open for the patients to walk through and lighting their cigarettes for them. (Us patients are not allowed to handle our own lighters.) There’s a few metal chairs in a circle and all of us gather around either in the chairs, or just sitting down on the hard cement ground. This was the moment I realized that I was pretty much the odd one out, I would say about 90% of the people there smoked, including some of the nurses. There were about 5 different smoke breaks interspersed throughout the day – and some patients were just living from smoke break to smoke break, trying to survive the few hours in between.
A little later that afternoon, I get called to the nurse’s desk and they hand me a bag that was dropped off with some items for me (thank you, Dean!) The hospital was notoriously freezing, as most hospitals are, so I was excited when I saw that Dean had packed me some long pants and socks, which I immediately changed into. He had also put in a few other changes of clothes, a manual breastpump so I could try to keep pumping milk (and so I wouldn’t get too uncomfortable) and some toiletries like toothpaste, shampoo, etc. It wasn’t much, but it was perfect considering I literally had NOTHING with me besides the clothes I was wearing while being admitted. (It’s all a matter of perspective though – many patients have no one to bring them a bag of essentials, or even just a clean shirt to change into. I was so blessed to have someone like Dean in my life to lovingly pack a bag for me.) I didn’t get to have my phone at the hospital – if I wanted to make a call, the nurse’s desk had 2 landline phones that could be used, but only during certain hours. There were 2 different times during the day that the phones were open for a couple of hours, and you had to wait your turn because everybody in the unit had to share. You could also receive phone calls, but only if the person knew your patient ID number, which was printed, along with your name, on a hospital bracelet that you wore. I remember that first evening Dean called me at both of the open phone times. I don’t remember getting a chance to call him – I think he was just waiting for “phone time” to open up so he could talk to me. I remember telling him a little about the place, although leaving out some of the more depressing aspects of the unit – I didn’t want him to worry about me, and also the nurses were only like 2 feet away and they could hear everything I was saying, no privacy here! I also remember both of my parents calling, at different times – I kept getting called up to the nurses’ desk and they would tell me, “you have a phone call.” I knew this was unusual, most patients didn’t necessarily have a supportive family who called to check in on them constantly. I wondered what the other patients thought about this, or if they even noticed. It was a weird feeling to think that I wouldn’t get to sleep in my own bed that night, I wouldn’t get to be with Dean, and this was the very first night I wouldn’t be with Calvin either.
After phone time was over, it was time to have dinner. All the meals were served at the same time every day, and we would all line up against the wall and wait for the nurses to escort us in a single file line to the cafeteria. Our unit actually had to walk through the north unit to get to the cafeteria, and I remember seeing some of my old podmates as we walked past. Both units ate meals together at the same time. The food was not stellar, it was pretty much your basic elementary school cafeteria food. The first night we had beef stroganoff for dinner (sounds fancy, it wasn’t, haha!) I was able to eat that night, which was nice since my appetite had been on and off for the past week.
After dinner we went back to our prospective pods, and I watched tv with Lindsey and Jake on the couches in our “living room” portion of the pod. We watched the end of Divergent (the first one) and then spent some time watching Family Feud which was fun. Our unit got to have one last smoke break before bed, the same nurse as before took us out, I can’t remember her name, but she was one of my favorite nurses. As we are all sitting in a circle on the patio smoking (well, everyone but me) she begins talking about how we all have hard things going on in our lives, but God is watching out for us. I don’t even think she cared if anyone was listening or not, she just openly shared with us her testimony of how God has helped her through hard times and she knew God would help us too. I also remember she asked all of us a few questions, and we went around the circle sharing our answers – the questions were something along the lines of, “what is something positive that happened to you today?” and “how are you going to be better tomorrow than you were today?” She would repeat the questions to each of us individually, so when she got to me she said, “Erica, what is something positive that happened to you today?” I just remember being very impressed with how she took the time to do this – most nurses on smoke break just sit there and wait for the cigarettes to burn out. She was very purposeful about trying to validate each individual person. And even though she talked about God, no one made a big deal about it or seemed offended by it. In fact, it was just the opposite, everyone seemed to appreciate it and be comforted by it. I noticed heads nodding while she spoke about God taking care of us.
As it got later, I started to get ready for bed. I happened to have a room all to myself, there were two beds but one was empty. I remember being thankful for that, I just wanted some privacy and quiet. Also the whole roommate thing kind of scared me since the idea of sleeping in a room with a complete stranger is a bit odd (at least for me….) I remembered thinking that this was not at all what I imagined a psych hospital would be like. Weren’t we supposed to be seeing doctors and doing therapy and stuff like that? Weren’t we supposed to be working on getting better? So far, all I had done was play Apples to Apples, watch tv, and go out for smoke breaks. I knew I was supposed to see a psychiatrist soon, but he did not see me that first day. I didn’t make a big deal about it, I was so exhausted and it had been a crazy day so I laid down and pretty quickly fell asleep.
CLICK HERE TO READ PART 3