real life

I took a three-week break from my corporate career to admit myself to a psych hospital.

Warning: This post deals with mentions of mental health issues and suicide, and could be triggering for some readers.

I took a three-week break from my corporate career to admit myself to a psych hospital.

I honestly wasn’t sure if a psychiatric hospital was going to be a bleak, depressing, prison-like experience or a quasi-hotel full of colourful characters playing off each other to create an environment ripe for the setting of an indie rom-com.

But, after a rock bottom incident gave me cause to reflect on my life and how it might play out if I didn’t do something differently, I signed up anyway.

How to talk to people with anxiety, a guide:

Video by MMC

Physical pain and mental anguish combined with the challenges of securing frequent appointments with specialists meant that I had to decide between waiting months for treatment or consider an admission for immediate daily care.

Being the anxious, perfectionist, overachieving person that I am, I naively decided to see this as an opportunity to fast-track months of recovery into a bite sized package. I risked my corporate job, I took a leave of absence and I outsourced my cat – tick, tick, tick!

Of course being medical professionals and all, they expected my decision to lead to me actually presenting at the hospital not long after. But I had my 40th planned that weekend. In what I now appreciate was a most unusual situation, I managed to arrange a delayed admission so that I could not only attend, but host, a celebration. Entering on my terms was important to me and I was fortunate to have picked a kind and perceptive doctor who let me retain a safe amount of control over the process.

After a tranquil weekend in the spa country eating healthy food, abstaining from alcohol and chatting long into the night with the support of my dearest female friends, I bid my 30s farewell and commenced the new decade as a psych patient.

The media, fiction, documentaries and word of mouth all combine to portray scary and peculiar images of psych hospitals. It’s also important to note that every facility and every patient’s experience is very different.

ADVERTISEMENT

Listen to Mia Freedman talk to Honor Eastly about her time spent at a psychiatric hospital. She says “no feeling is final”. Post continues after audio.

Having said that, overall, I would say that my experience was far more ordinary than anything I’d expected – and I expected a lot. I’d diligently packed a journal, a computer and fired up my imagination ready to do the groundwork for a manuscript. Turns out – expecting to be discharged with a draft copy of the next ‘A Million Little Pieces’ tucked tightly under my arm was a far stretch from reality.

Inpatient care is an important and often overlooked option for treatment of a range of mental health conditions. It requires a condensed block of time and a financial commitment which isn’t a luxury that everyone can consider; and, unfortunately, it may also present a condensed form of stigma – not just from family, friends and workplaces; but also from insurers, courts and lawyers.

I have no doubt that my stay was the best decision I could have made for my self care at that point in time. It was also an invaluable kick start to my treatment, a critical part of which was establishing the foundation of my relationship with a new doctor.

Five years on, I continue to see the same doctor regularly, dialling up and down the frequency depending on what’s happening in my life and how I’m travelling. I have never been back to hospital but I am now comforted to know enough about the experience that I am not scared to go back if I ever need to – even though it’s a luxury I hope I never have need to afford myself.

Here are a few things I learnt over the course of three weeks.

woman-looking-out-window
"I have no doubt that my stay was the best decision I made for my self care at that point in time. It was also an invaluable kick start to my treatment, a critical part of which was establishing the foundation of my relationship with a new doctor." Image: Getty.
ADVERTISEMENT

Life as a psych patient - 101.

Admission

Admission is not the strip search horror you might equate to a prisoner entering jail, but it does involve a long interrogation by a psych nurse, a search of your belongings, confiscation of any medications and/or questionable material, and potentially a breath and/or blood test. You are also introduced to your room for the first time. Mine was as beautifully filled with natural light and leafy views as it was eerily void of decoration or anything you could hang yourself from.

After admission I was to be ‘sighted’ by staff every two hours for the first 24 hours so the first day involved a lot of repeating myself to very patient nurses who sometimes sat down for a welcome chat to relax a nervous newbie.

Leave passes

Depending on the hospital, your diagnosis and your doctor, during a voluntary admission you may be granted what I referred to as ‘leave passes’. I was considered a low risk patient and thus allowed to leave for up to two hours at a time in exchange for agreeing to random breath tests and body searches. Fortunately, the latter never occurred. This made all the difference to my stay as I like to keep busy. It meant that I went running every morning, met friends at cafes and even pottered a few local shops between sessions.

Inter-patient relationships

Despite the reality of being in a confined space filled with new faces when you often have little to do or may be feeling lonely, interaction with other patients is to be kept to a minimum and on a first name basis only. This is for good reason. Every diagnosis is unique and complex, and each set of symptoms can interact with others’ differently.

The other patients certainly had a significant impact on me. As I improved each day, I found the low mood indoors counterproductive to my healing and was most appreciative of my leave passes.

At 24, Georgie Dent checked herself into a psychiatric hospital. Listen to her raw and honest story below, post continues after audio.

Group therapy

At my hospital patients were split into two groups – those who had undergone a certain level of psych care already, and those who were new or reluctant to partaking in therapy. Whilst private hospitals only take voluntary admissions, some people are there at the will of their family or for legal reasons.

I was in the first group however, having had many years of treatment prior to admission, I found the CBT sessions too basic for me as they needed to cater for a wide range of participants.

ADVERTISEMENT

In fact, I was ‘acing class’ so much that on day five my doctor said that I could go home. I burst into tears. I couldn’t believe I’d put my life on hold for three weeks and I was being kicked out for doing well. After raising my disappointment with my doctor, I was permitted to stay for as long as it was therapeutically beneficially to me.

Interestingly, the infamous art or music therapy activities were allocated to group two only but there were mindfulness meditations sessions twice daily that everyone was welcome to attend.

The gold for me was definitely in seeing my doctor daily. Time with him was invaluable and the medical improvements he could empirically demonstrate to me day after day were very motivating.

Drug administration

This part of the process really did feel a bit like a cross between a dreary film and jail. The counter from which drugs are administered is opened a set times each day and you are required to form what feels like a never-ending queue with other patients, often dressed in pyjamas and in varying moods, to await dispensation which includes opening your mouth to prove you’ve swallowed. If you don’t turn up at your prescribed times, you will be searched for.

Food

This foodie found the cuisine bitterly disappointing for a respected establishment and a HEALTH provider. Lunch and dinner were ‘acceptable’ mainstream pub like options but breakfast was abysmal. The choices were tinned or fresh fruit, flavoured yoghurt, supermarket toast or cheap cereal – ie sugar, sugar and more sugar. I had planned to use my leave passes to buy protein and vegetables at a local IGA but after voicing my concerns to my doctor, he kindly had a word to the chef, who proceeded to cook me a bespoke omelette each morning. I don’t think that added to my popularity with the other patients!

Visitors

Like most hospitals there were official visiting hours but they were somewhat flexible. As I had the option of leaving, I chose to meet my visitors at a local cafe but others took their family into lounge areas or their bedrooms for chats and tea.

People have mixed feelings about being visited in a psych hospital and rightly so. Entering the building can be as scary for those who love you as it is for patients on their first day. I think this explains why some of the people who had promised to visit me didn’t end up materialising.

But that, like many other things, turned out to be okay for me.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

Tags: features , health , mental-health , real-life
00:00 / ???