People tend to think that what they see in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — padded walls, straight jackets handed out like electric shock treatments — is what it’s like being in a psych ward, but in reality, the two psychiatric hospitals I’ve been in for depression, OCD and an eating disorder have been much less exciting than that.
I will grant you that there was a “quiet room” where the seriously ill were sometimes put and restraints were a necessity for some patients, but fortunately for me, that was on the other wing of the floor. The people that I was around were dealing with bipolar disorder, eating disorders, schizophrenia, or any other variety of mental health issues and usually admitted as the last resort.
Maybe there was a suicide attempt, maybe it was a stop-gap for medical stability before being sent to somewhere more intensive. For the most part, even if we didn’t want to be there, we knew that we needed to be there.
While I was in no way “cured” after my two weeks there — I was forced to leave against medical advice because insurance ran out — for my $1,000 a day, I took away a few general learnings about what it’s like being in a psych ward.
Here are 4 secrets nobody tells you about being admitted to a psych ward:
1. You have no control over your time.
Upon admission, you’re required to check all baggage except the emotional variety for inspection. You’re not allowed to have things like belts, shoelaces, drawstrings on hoodies or sweatpants, nothing with violent images or anything sharper than a dull pencil. However, you could totally wear a prom dress if you really wanted to, as long as you didn’t mind the accessory being a hospital bracelet.
While you’re technically in control of your time, you’re put on a schedule much as you had in high school. There are groups to attend at certain times, activities you’re encouraged to participate in and therapy meetings you’re required to make an appearance at.
If you’re on the eating disorder spectrum in any way, you’re also given a strict meal plan to follow, a narrow window in which you can shower while a nurse sits outside the stall — something they also do when you use the bathroom to ensure you’re not purging or self-harming. Someone comes by to check on your location every half hour, day and night.
2. You have to advocate for yourself.
When you’re on the eating disorder end of things, everything is multiplied because you’re faced with food six times a day. While it was extremely uncomfortable for me because I was eating so much food and drinking so many supplements that I would break out in hot flashes at night — not to mention the lack of my OCD routine and exercise of any kind — I did it. I was never one to starve myself and looked forward to meals if only to break up the boredom.
But the majority of the women did anything they could to hide food, purge or exercise in secret in their rooms, so much so that some had an alarm on their bed that went off if they left. The temptation to follow suit and cave to peer pressure was strong, but I had to remember why I was there — for me, for healing — and that I had to ask for what I needed.
If I knew deep down something wasn’t working or that I was cutting corners, I had to tell a doctor or a nurse. No one could do the work for me and there was literally no magic pill.
3. Even psych wards have cliques.
On that note, there are cliques from the minute you walk through the locked door. While certain patients are rude or keep to themselves — and to be honest, some are a bit too far out there for social convention — others naturally gravitate to each other and help make the sometimes unbearable boredom and stress more manageable.
There were late nights talking with some of the women in the lounge, mornings spent watching SportsCenter with a 50-year-old high-powered manic-depressive lawyer, and a highly entertaining occupational therapy session that included a dozen patients doing karaoke to “Brown Eyed Girl” and “I Will Survive” like they were auditioning for American Psychiatric Idol.
In fact, some of the people I met were more insightful and genuine than a majority of the people I knew “on the outside.” When you’re that raw, literally opening yourself up to complete strangers who “get” what your issues are and are maybe in the same boat, you make genuine connections and learn empathy that you take with you when you leave.
4. Most people feel relief — not anger — at being there.
While it’s in no way fun to be in the hospital, you’re forced to let go of unnecessary complications. You spend time talking, coloring, doing puzzles, napping, and going to art therapy where an 84-year-old man, a bipolar opera singer, and teenage girl paint trinkets and try and do crafts with dull scissors. No one cares what you look like because you’re all in the same boat and just trying to make your way back upstream.
In a sense, it’s a relief. You don’t have a choice: you can’t stress about work, exercise, running here or there, or keeping up on social media. Your job while you’re there is to reclaim your life, to learn skills to better handle the things that might have brought you there in the first place.
While it’s stressful, it’s a different kind of work — it’s internal — and without the external pressure, there’s a sense of unfamiliar freedom. The challenge is keeping that sense of self and perspective when you walk back out the locked doors and step back into reality. It’s hard, but most things worth fighting for are.