• Sasha Wolff

My Week in a Mental Hospital

When you hear that a loved one or friend had a week-long stay in the hospital, you wonder if they’re ok. A week-long hospital stay is serious, right? Was it a burst appendix and there were complications? Did they have a stroke? All these thoughts flood your head and you wonder how you can help. Your heart goes out to them. Let’s insert the word “mental” in front of the word hospital though. What does your mind go to? White stark walls with padding on them? Thoughts of your friend in a straight jacket? With the BS stigma that surrounds mental health, we definitely see the person that went to a mental hospital in a different light. We don’t think about them as compassionately as we would a person that went to a hospital that treats physical ailments. The person that went to a mental hospital is seen as broken and unstable. The stigma around mental hospitals is due in part to little knowledge about the subject and I want to change that. I want to help educate. So, in an effort to help educate friends, family, and anyone else that may stumble upon this, here’s my story.

The beginning

In 2003, during my first year in college, I was diagnosed with depression. The diagnosis rocked my world but made a ton of sense, because things hadn’t felt right with me for a long time. Around the time I was 16, life gradually seemed duller and sadder than normal. Nothing in my external world had changed to cause that kind of shift in my thinking, but internally, the change in chemicals in my brain were helping depression take hold of me. With an official diagnosis of depression in 2003, I started taking Prozac Weekly. It was one 90mg pill I took every week that time-released throughout seven days. Other than that, I didn’t do anything with the diagnosis. I didn’t think I needed therapy and there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell I was going to tell family or friends. I had an image to maintain: Fun, sassy, outgoing California girl. The depression medication worked and I started feeling like me again. As time went on though, the depression within me grew stronger than what Prozac could treat. I should have gone visited a professional again to re-evaluate my medication dosage, but I didn’t know any better. I just continued to “buck up”. Life continued, but it was much harder for me than it should have been.

Here comes 2011

In 2011, I started experiencing some really difficult family-related issues. These were issues that a lot of people face and I should have been able to handle them. However, because the medication dosage that I left unattended outgrew the grip depression had on my brain, I wasn’t able to. On Sunday, April 17 of 2011, the straw that broke this particular camel’s back made itself clear. The situation I found myself in was wrought with mental landmines and I couldn’t cope. I couldn’t stop crying, my chest was tightening, my heart was beating irregularly, and I found no clear way to continue on in this life. I didn’t want to exist anymore. Luckily, I was with someone when I hit this point and they suggested I check myself into Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services. I was emotionally and physically drained, so I acquiesced, gathered a few small personal items, and was driven to Pine Rest.

Intake at Pine Rest

I don’t remember much of the intake process to be honest. What I do remember is meeting with a caseworker right away. They were responsible for assessing if I needed inpatient care by asking me a series of questions. After deeming that, yes, I was in need of immediate care, they gave me a Formal Voluntary Admission Application to sign. This basically said I was voluntarily admitting myself and that the hospital can hold me for up to three days if needed. After that was the check-in process. I remember lots of welcoming, kind faces as I went through the process. An intake photo was taken, my vitals were logged in my newly minted patient file, and I got a quick tour of the hospital wing I would be in. It was night time when I made it to Pine Rest, so right after the tour, I was led to my bedroom. The room was small and clean, with one singular bed and an attached private bathroom. I slept pretty soundly that first night, only to be awoken once when a staff member was doing their nightly checks on everyone to ensure we were all safe and sleeping.

Daily Life at Pine Rest

Early the next morning, someone tapped on my door to let me know breakfast would be starting in 30 minutes. I wanted to shower before breakfast, so I stepped into my room’s bathroom for the first time. It was pretty sparse. There was no shower curtain, mirror, or sharp metal edges anywhere. This is to prevent patients from harming themselves. I remember thinking that, for my particular purposes, that seemed pretty drastic. I wasn’t interested in hurting myself. But as I thought about it more, I began to realize that those precautions were probably very necessary for others in my wing; my wing-mates. After my shower, I wanted to dry my hair, but I’d forgotten to take a hairdryer. I also didn’t have a mirror available to even see what I looked like. I ventured out to the main desk area in the middle of the wing and asked what to do. Turns out they have blow dryers for people to borrow and a mirror out in the open where we could do our hair under supervision. Again, this was a precaution for people who may think about harming themselves in some way. At 8 a.m. I wandered towards the dining area for breakfast. There were about 15 to 20 other wing mates already there with dining trays in hand, waiting to be served breakfast. There wasn’t too much talk amongst us, but that was ok by me, I wasn’t in the mood to talk. My breakfast was cut short that first day because I needed to go through an orientation of sorts. That’s when I learned I had a whole care team assembled to help me through my journey at Pine Rest. They hooked me up with a psychiatrist who would help me with my meds, a therapist who would help me talk through my issues, and a social worker who helped me devise a plan for what I would do when I was released from the hospital.

Care Team

In addition to meetings with various members of my care team, my day was dictated by a program schedule. The mornings all started out the same. Breakfast, medication distribution, and fresh air break. (sidenote: Medication distribution is probably the ONLY thing that books and movies get right about mental health hospitals. We do indeed all stand in a line and receive our individually prescribed pills in teeny tiny dixie cups with water. Everything else you see in the media about mental health hospitals is, quite frankly, bullshit) Depending on the day of the week, other things on the schedule included classes on Life Skills, Self Esteem Building, Personal Development etc. There was also time slotted for exercise, independent journaling, and visitation hours.

Daily programs

It might seem counter-intuitive to have your day filled with various programs, but I found that having a daily routine was instrumental in my recovery. Instead of sitting around, ruminating in my dark thoughts, I had a daily purpose.

My Wing Mates

I was skeptical about living on a floor with a bunch of other people I did not know. I thought they would look down on me and think of me as the “worst one off”. That wasn’t the case at all though. As I got to know the people around me, I discovered they were all young, depressed, stressed the f*ck out adults JUST like me. I met a female lawyer there that just had a breakdown after working 70+ hours a week, a scared 18-year-old who was worried about her future and tried ending it with a bottle of Tylenol, and a construction worker who had spread himself too thin in life and in work.

Too Afraid to Tell Anyone

Even though I was in a hospital and we had visiting hours, I didn’t want anyone to visit me. I didn’t even request my parents, who lived 2000 miles away, to come visit. I was too ashamed. Looking back though, I realize how much this hampered my recovery. By opening up about my pain to loved ones, I could have started the healing process so much more quickly. We weren’t allowed access to cell phones or computers during our stay, so the only way we could connect with the outside world was through a public phone in the main room of the wing we stayed it. I didn’t use it very much because I wasn’t really interested in talking to anyone. However, the few people that did know about my stay did call me to check in. Even when people did call, I didn’t give too many details about what had happened. It might seem like a nightmare to a lot of people to be without their phones or computers for more than a day, but I found it surprisingly refreshing. It gives you an opportunity to just be present. There’s no Facebook to feel called to, no Instagram feeds to mindlessly scroll through, no emails or texts demanding your attention. Being phone and computer free was relaxing and I still try to ditch the electronics for a day from time to time.

Discharge

Five days after checking myself into Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, my care team decided I was well enough to go home. Someone from Pine Rest’s staff sat down with me and we put together a firm action plan for what I would do once I got home. We also made appointments together for my next visit to a psychiatrist and a therapist.  Once that was finished, I packed up my meager belongings and headed to the main desk in our lobby to collect the items they’d stored away for me such as my phone, tweezers, my wallet, etc. When they gave me my stuff back, they also gave me a photograph. I just stared at it, dumbfounded. Why did they give me a photo of some random girl? It wasn’t just some random girl though. It was my very own intake photo. The person staring blankly back at me in that photograph was someone I did not recognize. I’d gone so far down the hole of depression that I didn’t even resemble myself outwardly anymore. I was so embarrassed by the photo that when I got home I shredded it. Today, I wish I’d kept it because it’s proof that I rose from the ashes to become the person I am today.

Now

I wouldn’t be the person I am today without my week-long stay at a mental health hospital. Yes, at the time it was the scariest thing I’d ever done, but it was also the bravest. I am alive and well today because of Pine Rest. For a long time, I felt a lot of shame about my mental hospital stay. I don’t feel shame anymore though. That’s why I’m sharing my story. Thanks to my therapists at Pine Rest and reading a few books about shame, resiliency, and vulnerability by Brene Brown, I’m in a good space to talk about my experience. I have never shared this complete story with anyone and while it is scary to do so, I believe it needs to be told so as to help others. The world doesn’t know the true and full story about mental health if we don’t tell them about it. So here it is. This is my story and I hope it helps someone out there.

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