I’ve got a confession to make. I’ve been a patient in a psychiatric ward of a clinic/hospital.
That got your attention, didn’t it.
You have probably sat next to me on the train, smiled at me as I stood behind you in the line for your morning coffee. You may even have worked out next to me at the gym. I walk among you as do others but far too many are afraid to admit it. Why? Various reasons. Fear of rejection, not being understood, the numerous labels that come with it or maybe being seen as a pariah.
While I can’t speak for them, this is my truth, which I hope will help encourage, enable and even empower others to be more open and honest when tackling the subject.
You don’t have to be alone, because you’re not.
‘You’re going to do it again’ the doctor said, closing his file. ‘I’m going to have you admitted’.
I’d written the word ‘hello’ in joined-up writing when he asked to write the first thing that came to my mind, so how did he come to that conclusion?
At the time, he was probably right, to be fair.
I’d just spent a week in hospital recovering from yet another an attempted suicide bid, and while not my first, it had been the most serious. I had spent four days in ICU and two in High Dependency.
A series of events had triggered it, including repeated flashbacks of past abuse, the recent death of my mother who was the organiser of the paedohile ring of which I was a victim all within close proximity of each other. I was 54-years-old, yet already feeling like my life was over it felt like.
My options were to either go voluntarily to a mental health wing at a local Public Hospital or be sectioned. I chose to go voluntarily but some choice.
Prior to that, I had spent a week on a regular ward recovering after causing so much damage to my liver that I almost needed an organ transplant.
Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. But I remember the other patients there not being very nice and telling me I had ‘brought it on myself’.
What I needed was empathy.
It was dark and raining heavily when they took me to the unit. Here I was again. What on earth was I doing there?
My husband was always allowed to stay with me as I was shown around.
The ward its self-looked more like a hotel than a hospital, which we could walk around freely, but the main doors were locked. An inventory was taken of my personal belongings; my phone charger, computer and the belt of my dressing gown were confiscated, however, so I couldn’t use them to hurt myself.
The stereotypes have got it wrong
I was not in a padded cell or a straitjacket – nor did I see either. The same goes for electric shock therapy, though someone I shared a room with told me they had undergone it at another facility.
Rather uniquely, I wasn’t on any form of medication, so I was fully lucid at all times. And aside from missing my family, who visited most days, I never once felt scared.
A massive stereotype about mental health is that you are ‘locked away’ because you pose a threat to other people. On the contrary, the majority risk endangering themselves.
There were all kinds of people in that hospital, ranging from alcoholics to the emotionally unstable. I came to believe that we had all ended up together because they simply didn’t know what else to do with us.
I did make friends there. I felt integrating was important, especially when thrown into an unfamiliar environment like that.
We’d chat, play ping pong and, on one occasion, did art therapy. It was a bit like being in the Big Brother house.
I didn’t stay in touch with anyone after I left, though except one woman I text now and then. I mean all I have in common with them in Mental Health. It’s a Clinic of revolving doors. Each time I go I seem to see the same faces in for the same reasons and we have the same conversations. Oh how I hate it.
Sometimes the staff are mean In my experience, it was not the other patients that you had to watch out for, but the staff.
‘What’s wrong, are you in pain?’ One nurse asked. ‘That’s why we don’t try to kill ourselves,’ she spat. I complained to a doctor and was called a liar. I was asked by another nurse how I found my doctor. When I joked that he was good looking, rather than take it in a lighthearted manner that it had been intended, they responded: ‘You know nothing will ever happen between the two of you, don’t you? Er, duh!
The real wake-up call was probably when one of my friends came to visit – and when I say one, literally only one came since I had alienated most of the others through my depression and PTSD.
‘I never want to see you in a place like this again,’ he said. And he hasn’t: nine years on, I’m one of the ‘lucky ones’.
I have no idea how long I was admitted for as time seemed to stand still. It didn’t feel like long though, perhaps a couple of months.
I don’t believe being in the hospital aided my recovery in any way.
All it did was give me a ‘time out’ from the real world and allowed my body the chance to physically heal. I received no actual treatment, other than occasional contact with a doctor, while I was there, in limbo.
When I was discharged, it was coming up to Christmas time and I remember going shopping for presents and feeling really vulnerable, especially in big crowds of people. Almost childlike.
For a long time after, I felt embarrassed and like I had to hide the experience of being in the unit. You would think that I had served time in prison for murdering someone or something. Now it feels less taboo.
The stigma of mental health
Although I am writing a memoir and write a blog daily, putting pen to paper for this article was not easy. Due to the stigma surrounding mental health, it is not a patch I wear with pride and there’s a guilt that maybe I should. The truth is though that words like ‘crazy’, ‘psycho’ and ‘mad’ make me flinch.I have a friend who always insists on introducing me to people as ‘Crazy Erin’. They are lovely and I know they don’t mean any offence by it – they don’t know about my experience and the nickname is meant with affection, but I cringe on hearing it.
A number of high-profile people, like Prince Harry, openly speaking about their struggles has helped move the conversation forward, but I feel it still has some way to go. What I can tell you is that there’s hope.
To date, I have only ever spoken about any of this once, in a personal blog post. The response was overwhelmingly positive but I was struck by the number of people who said: ‘I never knew that about you,’ or ‘but you always seem so happy!’ Sometimes the biggest battles are the ones that you can’t see.
They say ‘laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry alone,’ and that’s a pretty good surmising of depression. It can happen to anyone regardless of age, background or ethnicity.
According to mentalhealth.org.uk, ‘It’s estimated that around 1million people will die by suicide worldwide each year.’
Real life is stranger than fiction, hey.
What it’s really like to be a patient in a mental health unit
While I do still struggle with anxiety and Complex PTSD, I am learning to deal with it using Psychotherapy and EMDR along with the support of an amazing family. I also embrace dressing in bright colours and I’m a firm believer in the laws of attraction.
Play the victim and you’ll always be one. Envision yourself the victor and that’s half the battle won.