To the outside world, they are shrouded in mystery. They are secretive and sinister institutes filled with dark, tormented souls. But are they really like that?
So what’s it really like?
How accurate is ‘One flew over the cuckoo’s nest?’
Do patients all sit rocking back and forth, comatose, staring into the abyss and under threat of a straitjacket should they step out of line?
Are the walls really padded?
Not in my experience.
In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.
So if a mental health hospital isn’t like that, then what exactly is it like?
To the outside world, they are shrouded in mystery. They are secretive and sinister institutes filled with dark, tormented souls.
Hmm. Assumptions in life are rarely accurate.
Everyone’s experience will differ, depending on the type of hospital you are in. And unfortunately, the level of care can differ greatly from hospital to hospital.
But my experience is my own, and is the only one about which I can speak.
It was June 2004.
I had sunk into a deep depression.
I was having ideations of suicide.
I was desperate. Utterly desperate.
I did something that until that day was completely unheard of. Something I found so very difficult to do.
I reached out for help.
I called mum.
Like a superhero, mum could see how bad things had become, and before I knew it, I had been referred to a private mental health hospital and was walking up the path in a beautiful leafy garden towards the front door of a very grand, Georgian building.
There were no bars on the windows. There was no screaming and wailing to be heard.
Up until that day, I had firmly held the belief that however ill I became, “I would never go into one of these places. They were for really unwell people”
And yet, here I was, checking myself into “one of those places” and doing so quite willingly.
I wasn’t being frog marched in, kicking and screaming. In fact, I was happy to go.
Maybe, just maybe, this place would show me that there was light at the end of the tunnel. Please let it help me.
Upon our arrival, mum and I were immediately whisked upstairs to a consulting room, where the psychiatrist was waiting to greet me.
We had a brief chat about what was going on with me, although I was in such a bad way that I found it difficult to explain myself.
Words evaded me. Tears did not. For the past few hours there had been a constant flow of tears from my puffy eyes. Silent tears. Silent yet agonising tears.
As it turned out though, it didn’t take many words before the psychiatrist suggested I stay in for a couple of nights.
I was shown to my bedroom, and mum zipped back to my flat to collect a few things for me. Still wearing her pants outside her trousers, of course.
The room was very comfortable.
There was a TV.
A big bed with a well plumped up duvet.
A cosy looking armchair.
The carpet was pristine. It looked new.
And crucially, there was a man-size box of tissues on the dressing table. They’d need replenished in the morning with the volume of tears my eyes were producing.
But… there was no lock on the door. The staff wanted to know they could always reach vulnerable patients.
It was agreed that the following day we would discuss the possibility of a meds review. I was on Prozac at the time, which it’s fair to say, was doing very little to help my mood.
My couple of nights in hospital, the doctor explained, would be an opportunity to rest my brain. My wrung out brain.
And most importantly, I’d be safe. Safe from my own dangerous thoughts.
That couple of nights turned into a six week stay as an inpatient.
Then followed a further couple of months as an outpatient, where I would attend the hospital three times a week at first, before gradually tailing off my therapy until I was discharged at the start of October.
Far from being like the 1975 Academy Award winning film, my surroundings resembled a hotel with a difference.
Had I paid to stay in a hotel like this though, I might have had something to say on Trip Adviser about the slightly flat atmosphere. And the lack of locks.
Nonetheless, it was very comfortable.
The dining room may well have been a Michellin star restaurant, such was the quality of chef’s home cooked food. This place was definitely not where hospital food got its bad name!
I was put on a different type of anti-depressant from the one I had been on. Citalopram. It affected my appetite hugely, so in fact I barely touched the food. I lost well over a stone during my stay.
Appetite or no appetite though, we had to attend mealtime, so I could see and smell the fabulous, healthy food on offer.
I do remember having a teeny tiny taste of the prawn soup one day – delicious!
To be clear, I appreciate that I was hugely fortunate to have stayed in a hospital such as this, and that it’s not reflective of many others.
But it’s worth remembering that however grand the hospital may be, it doesn’t necessarily tally up with the quality of treatment.
Most importantly though, none of us are there to appreciate our physical surroundings. Nor, quite frankly, do we give a flying fig about the food on offer.
We’re there because we are acutely unwell.
I wasn’t allowed to keep my own meds. They were locked away in the pharmacy, and every morning I would report in, where I would take them in front of the pharmacist.
I was given a timetable.
My day was filled with various group therapy sessions, plus regular one to one sessions with my therapist and psychiatrist.
Group terrified me at first, but in fact I soon learned the merits of it.
Therapy came in all sorts of forms – including art therapy! Who knew?!
There was CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), CAT (cognitive analytic therapy), interpersonal therapy, relaxation therapy, plus of course the aforementioned art therapy, to name but a few.
Some of the groups I found more helpful than others.
I definitely learnt a few coping mechanisms though, which to this day, I still call upon when the gremlin strikes.
Funnily enough, one of the big tools I took away from my time in the hospital was that of communicating. I mean really communicating.
Communicating what I really felt. Getting across my opinions, in a non-confrontational way.
I discovered that I was a people pleaser, and tended to go along with other peoples’ wishes, rather than voice my own preferences.
Looking back on it, I can see why. I was so dreadfully insecure that I didn’t feel I had a voice. Or at least, I didn’t feel my voice mattered.
I craved acceptance, and so desperately wanted to be liked, so would never have felt comfortable putting a spanner in the works by piping up with what was important for me.
I thought to do this would be confrontational. And I hate any form of confrontation.
I discovered that I could make my own choices, and more importantly act upon them. My life choices were valid. And they were my own choices to make.
Other people’s values – although right for them, and to be respected – may not be my own.
This realisation, although seemingly inconsequential, had a massive impact on me. I began – very slowly – to believe I mattered.
I was not under lock and key in the hospital. I was allowed to sign myself in and out for short periods of time.
I rarely had any reason to go out, and was enjoying the safety and security of this peaceful place. It was so far removed from the real world. And at that point in time, I needed that.
On the odd occasion I would go down to the local coffee shop, but was always happy to arrive back ‘home’.
To my surprise, the day that I was discharged was terrifying. Surely I’d be dying to get back to my own life, armed with my toolbox, and ready to embrace life with my new outlook. My new-found inner strength.
But no. The reality was that I had become institutionalised.
I had become so used to the simplicity of my daily routine, and the clarity of thought that it afforded me, that launching myself back into society filled me with terror.
Before being admitted to hospital, my ‘routine’ was punctuated with endless chaotic and horribly unpredictable days where I would swing from being higher than a box of frogs on coke, to being so low that I could walk under the bed wearing a top hat.
There were times when I would sleep for days on end, yet other times I would be hypomanic and buzzing for days on end.
This exhausting way of life had been replaced with a far healthier routine.
Over the past six weeks my days had been filled with self-improvement. Every minute of every single day was an investment in my own self. In my well-being.
It was full on, and seriously draining, but that meant I slept well at night.
It was even simple things like that… like getting up and going to bed at regular (and reasonable) times, and knowing that nothing bad was likely to happen that day. It all introduced a degree of peace to my soul.
But it wasn’t reality. It had been the backstage area in my theatre, only where the actress would be practising her lines before stepping out onto stage, I had been practising how to keep myself well before stepping out into the world.
Eventually, it was time for the curtain to go up, and for me to take my position under the bright lights of life.
It took some time, but gradually, I began to find my feet in the world again.
Yet only temporarily.
Unfortunately, my diagnosis of anxiety and depression wasn’t accurate. Unbeknownst to me, I was still living with undiagnosed, un-medicated, and untreated bipolar.
Not surprisingly, my mental health was anything but the picture of health.
It would be another six long years of battle before eventually being diagnosed and treated for bipolar. And discovering that life was worth living.
But, my time in the mental health hospital did help in some ways. Not least so that I can do my bit to dispel the misconceptions about what really goes on ‘behind closed doors.’
Be well. x