(…Although we did have a nurse we referred to as Nurse Ratched, but that was because she turned on golf that one time.)
I was only in the hospital for a week, but I’ll be honest that it felt like a lot longer. In some ways that was good, in others not so much. The first night I was admitted, it was just after lights out. I had been in the emergency room for most of the day, and by the time I got into the ward, I was so tired. I slept. Straight through until they woke me up at the crack of dawn to take my vitals (I would soon come to know this was a daily occurrence). I had never been a morning person, and coffee was my only way to ensure that I could function. I asked about coffee and they told me I could have some with breakfast – which would be soon. Thank the high holy heavens!
It was decaf. It was all decaf.
That sobering reality check aside, the first day wasn’t so terrible. Everyone in the ward was welcoming. The staff were kind and empathetic. My fellow patients saw that I was struggling and were just so….kind.
Some had been there only a few days, others a lot longer – but what we all had in common was this: we had all reached our breaking point. (I won’t give their actual names – as I have not seen any of these folks in ten years, and thus don’t have permission to. So disclaimer, all names have been changed.) We weren’t alone. Everyone in that ward knew what it was like to feel the darkness envelop them.
The first person to talk to me was Beatrice. She had been in the ward for a couple of weeks, after being in ICU for a lot longer. She told me that she had been in the hospital before, told me her story (it’s not mine to share so I won’t) – and then proceeded to show me the ropes. I clung to her that first day. I sat next to her in group, at mealtime, and during the copious amounts of free time we had in between those. I don’t remember all that we talked about, but she helped me feel less terrible. She helped me be okay with the fact that I was in the hospital for as long as they deemed necessary. She was the exact person I needed to be there in those first hours.
It was easy to forget about the outside world. The television was tuned to innocuous channels, mostly sitcoms and sometimes news if no one objected (and the one horrible time when Nurse Ratched put on golf. I thought there was going to be mutiny). We played ping pong. Oh holy god the amount of ping pong we played. I got very good – and aside from playing cards with Beatrice and Duke, it was my favorite pass time. The outside world melted away and there we existed, in the bubble of a place trying to get us well enough to face the outside world.
My medication was monitored. I was given an initial diagnosis (see “Misdiagnosis” for the full saga ). There was a name to what I had, and a way to get better. It was a bubble of safety, of stability. It wasn’t designed to prepare us for the outside world, at least not completely. It was designed to stabilize those in a psychiatric emergency. To me though, it was more than just the access to care – I was around others like me. I was surrounded by people who were temporarily broken and lost, and we were trying to find the way back to the light together.
This is one of the reasons I stress “You are not alone.” so much. There is nothing more terrifying than having a mental illness and feeling as though there is no one else out there who understands. Sometimes all it takes to keep me afloat is the knowledge that I’m not the only one.
My stay in the unit was my first taste of that; and my first taste at how kind people could be. No one in the unit (staff or patient) treated anyone like they were diseased, or “crazy”. And that, more than anything – was the greatest first step.