My Time in a Psychiatric Hospital Helped Prepare Me for the Mental Health Challenges of Social Distancing

Editor's note: This essay contains discussion of suicidal thoughts. 

I have lived with clinical depression since I was 12. I have seen multiple therapists and been on antidepressants for years. But I hit my breaking point earlier this year, at age 31, when I voluntarily committed myself to a psychiatric hospital for three days.

I’d had a rough year leading up to that moment. My mother had passed away from cancer, a good friend had passed away, and I felt crushed under the pressure and stress of my job. I didn’t have time or energy to address my grief—I just tried to ignore it and work through it.

Then my grad school rejection letter came. I wanted to get an MFA, and I was so excited about the program and the chance to further improve my writing. Opening that rejection letter was the spark that set off my emotions. I couldn’t stop crying. No matter what my husband did to try and comfort me, I sat wrapped in blankets, refusing to leave my bed, heaving.

The pain and heartbreak didn’t ease with time, and I fell into a dark depressive spell. As the weeks went by, I began to think of taking my own life—to the point where I thoroughly researched different methods online and started to make a plan.

Thankfully, a small voice in the back of my head, my conscience or guardian angel, told me that I needed help. I texted a close friend who I knew had also dealt with mental illness and told him what I was feeling. He urged me to go to the emergency room as soon as possible to get treatment. With my friend’s encouragement, I told my husband about what was going on, and asked him to take me to the hospital.

My mental health hospital experience

I spent the rest of the day in the emergency room, watching Family Guy and holding my husband’s sweaty palm. The doctors I spoke to were deeply concerned about my mental state, and I was told that I should be admitted to a mental health hospital for in-patient care. As the nurses explained it to me, I would receive group therapy, individual therapy, and an adjustment to my existing medication—along with supervision to ensure that I didn't act on my suicidal thoughts. But I was terrified. What if I didn’t want to open up to strangers? What if I was forced to take medication I didn't want to take? I had no idea what to expect. But I knew that I needed more help than what I was currently getting. Reluctantly, I allowed myself to be put on a stretcher and taken in an ambulance to an in-patient psychiatric hospital roughly an hour away.

I was nervous about the “psych ward,” but to my surprise, the mental health hospital looked like any other hospital I had ever been in. Bland white walls, an occasional painting of flowers, linoleum floors that creaked slightly when you walked. My shared room was large, with three simple white beds. I had two small cubbies, where I kept my clothes and toiletries, a nightstand next to my bed where I kept a journal of my experiences, and wide windows that let in a great deal of light. It was mostly normal, except for the bars on the windows.

A typical in-patient stay at a mental health hospital ranges from a few days to weeks, depending on the person and what their doctor recommends. I spent three full days at the hospital, during which I attended various sessions, such as art therapy and music therapy, and followed a very strict schedule. I knew exactly when I would eat, meet with my therapist, go outside, watch TV. I even had set times for waking up (8 a.m.), showering, and going to bed (9 p.m.), as well as designated “down time” scheduled during my days, which was incredibly refreshing.

I wasn’t used to having my days so strictly scheduled for me, and it was surprisingly refreshing despite the circumstances. I had been used to living a rather hectic life—get on the subway by 7 a.m., work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., get back on the subway, rush home, cook dinner, try to work out, stay up and do even more work. Work was the primary focus, and everything else felt like a rushed afterthought. Even though my days in the hospital were highly structured (and it took some adjustment to not think about work and focus on myself and my own needs), I loved having some time built in for myself.

The activities themselves were also healing, something I had never given myself time to do before I was hospitalized. I often sobbed listening to laments during music therapy, tapping into the grief for my mother I had been burying for months.

All patients were allowed visitors once a day for an hour in the evening; my husband, best friend, and sister came every day to see me. On the first day, I was embarrassed to see them—my hair was disheveled and I was wearing pajamas. I was vulnerable and struggling. But that first visit and subsequent ones showed me how much I mattered to others. My best friend cried when she first saw me, holding my hand and telling me that she couldn't live without me. My husband and sister hugged me tightly, and told me again and again how much they loved and needed me. Their reassurance and support reminded me that I mattered, that I was loved, that I had to keep going not just for myself, but for them.

Despite how psychiatric hospitals are depicted in pop culture, most of the patients I met were just like me. By that I mean, they were lawyers, professors, teachers, and child development specialists—just everyday people who happened to be having a hard time right now. Most of us had depression, anxiety, or substance abuse issues; we weren’t considered dangerous. Patients came in and out during my three days there—we cheered and hugged patients who went home; we comforted patients that were new and scared.

I even made friends during the short time I was hospitalized. My first night after arriving, I remember a man invited me to work on a puzzle with him and another patient. We didn’t get very far on the very complicated puzzle, but their kindness and inclusion helped me feel less alone. I learned where they were from (Berlin and Orange County), what they were struggling with (PTSD and depression), and even what they liked to watch on TV (soapy true crime shows). We went on to eat dinner together and write together on other days. That simple gesture led to a friendship and companionship that helped me feel less alone in the hospital. All of us had ended up in the same situation, but rather than mourn, we chose to help one another. And that made me feel less alone in my suffering.

Recovering in a post-pandemic world

Three days after I first arrived in that midnight ambulance, I was released from the hospital and sent home. But just a few days after that, as I resumed to my "normal" life, the rest of the world went into lockdown mode because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The unique strains of this time—staying at home cut off from loved ones, disrupting normal routines, worrying about one’s physical and financial health—have been a huge burden on everyone’s mental health. But to my surprise, I’ve been holding up pretty well during all of this, and I think I have my time in the psychiatric hospital to thank for it.

For one thing, I’ve found that replicating my hospital daily schedule has helped me get through months of sheltering in place. I make sure to wake up by 8 a.m., shower, eat breakfast, go to our digital morning meeting, eat lunch at noon, and fit in a walk. I take a shower every day, and wear clothes I would normally wear (or at the very least, workout clothes). As the evening comes, I do my best to exercise using online videos and chat with friends using FaceTime. My schedule gives me a solid reason to wake up in the morning and a road map for every single day so I properly take care of all of my needs—even when I wake up depressed and unmotivated, even when the days start to blend together.

Had I not had a schedule to model, I am not sure how I would have fared during this time. But riffing off of the structure I had in the hospital lets me balance work and take time for my own self-care, which helps minimize my negative thoughts and better focus my energies elsewhere.

I’ve also taken to heart the lesson I learned from one patient about coping mechanisms. I remember sitting with her, waiting for a group therapy session, and noticing the elaborate, beautiful flower patterns she was coloring. “It’s very soothing,” she told me. “As you color, you will begin to develop patterns. The patterns will help calm you. I always color or work with my hands when I get overwhelmed. I knit, crochet—all of that helps me.” She knew exactly what she needed to help her through a difficult moment; I have since turned to baking and cooking to help me take a break from reading the news or other tasks that feel overwhelming and upsetting in a particular moment.

I have also never valued human connection more. Making friends in the hospital helped me adjust to my temporary new normal, and family visits every day really helped me cope during that dark mental health period. Those moments are why I now make an extra effort to reach out to my friends and family. I’m not always sure what their mental state is, so I hope that my reaching out helps them the way that it helped me. I also find that whenever I am feeling down, playing a game with loved ones over Zoom or just chatting about our day makes me feel better. Makes us all feel less alone.

I still have days where I struggle. There are days where I want to run screaming down the street. But I am not having as many days of sobbing under the covers, and I am no longer interested in trying to die. I am now learning, with the help of my therapist, how to manage and live the best life that I can.

If you or someone you love is struggling with depression, suicidal thoughts, or other urgent mental health issues, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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