My Experience In An Adolescent Psychiatric Unit
Bit of a big one today. Tough subject. But one that I feel I need to talk about, because when I was going through it it was so hard to find open, honest, and candid conversation about the brutal reality of being admitted to an adolescent psychiatric unit after suffering a mental health crisis. And I'm all about being open, honest, and candid. It's also five years ago right now that I was there, and so I feel both far enough removed and close enough to remember.
Onwards, dear friends. Take care of yourself while reading, note any changes, and stop if it gets too much. My warmest hugs to you.
I was 17, and just two months earlier had dropped out of my college course after spiralling downwards into several depression, coupled with horrendous anxiety and disordered eating. It was a bad place to be in, and it was exceedingly hard to find the right help at that time.
I had been to the doctor, I was on medication, and I was waiting on a referral to CAMHS. I wasn't an adult, but I also wasn't a child. It was a little like being in limbo, and no one knew quite what to do. I had been for counselling sessions at my college prior to dropping out, but I was already in a place that was too dark for the poor woman to deal with. It was a rough time for the whole family, and no one quite knew what to do.
In the months leading up to July, since about the November of the previous year, I had turned to self harm and the occasional overdose as shit coping mechanisms, because I didn't know what else to do. And they worked. It was simple maths.
But things got progressively worse and worse, until I found myself alone in the house for the whole weekend at the end of July. Bingo. This was clearly a sign that this was the right time, and so that Saturday evening I sat alone on the floor of my bathroom, sobbing, and took an overdose. I won't go into specifics here, but needless to say it was enough to make me throw up for the first time.
Shaking, I opened up a Childline chat - a resource I had turned to a lot in the previous months and weeks when I felt like I could talk to no one else. Being able to dump my feelings onto a keyboard and get a response from an anonymous volunteer without having to physically pick up the phone and talk was a godsend. I highly, highly recommend this resource if you're under 18, or know someone under 18. Absolute blessing.
However, this time was different. As I told them what I had done, I suddenly began to panic. Heart racing, I slammed the laptop shut and hid it under my bed - not entirely certain what would happen next, but confident enough that I hadn't said enough to be worrying, and that I'd never given them my address. They wouldn't be able to do anything, right?
Cut to 10am the next morning (I was watching Homes Under The Hammer), and there was a knock at the door. Weird for a Sunday. No post on Sundays, remember? And I wasn't expecting anyone. But to my utmost surprise and dawning horror, it was a paramedic, with an ambulance car parked on our drive, looking completely out of place. The actual ambulance turned up later on, sending shockwaves through the village as everyone tried to work out what was going on. Is this the right address?
I tried to convince him he'd got the wrong house, but I don't know if you've ever tried to tell a paramedic that they need to go elsewhere when they're fully aware that they're attending a mental health crisis. They don't really listen to you.
One ambulance ride, several hours, and the worst phone call of my Mum's life later, and I was admitted into the children's ward of the RD&E hospital. The Bramble ward. All I wanted to do was go home, but I was no longer safe to be unattended. I wasn't even allowed to stay on the teen part of the ward, I had to take a bed with the 2-4 year olds because they needed me to be next to a window, so I was never fully alone. They took my phone. I had nothing but my battered copy of Jane Eyre and the weight of what had just happened.
I was on the ward for four endless days. Day blurred into night, the words on the page made no sense, and all I could do was stare blankly at the TV. Bright spots - the adorable girl in the bed opposite me who was learning to walk again after an infection. We shared chocolate digestives and giggled together. Low moments - when my two best friends visited and none of us knew what to say.
There was meeting after meeting with a therapist and psychiatrist from CAMHS as they asked question after question about why I'd done it, if I'd do it again, what I was thinking, what I was feeling, until they decided I couldn't go home. I either voluntarily went to a unit, or I would be sectioned.
Not really caring at this point, I agreed. Off they went to find me a bed, warning that I might have to go to Scotland if they couldn't find anything nearer. Scotland. The other side of the country. They might have well warned me I was going to Mars. Scotland felt a million miles away at that point. Luckily for me, there was a bed in the Riverside unit in Bristol. Only an hour and a half away. That I could cope with. Besides, there was nothing closer.
That first day in the unit was one of the worst days I've ever experienced. Think your first day in a new school, and then multiply it and add a side of depression and anxiety with suicidal tendencies. It was hard. When mum had left to go home again, it hit me that I was alone with no one I knew close by. I've never cried like I cried that day. Simon, one of the nurses, sat with me in my room until I had calmed slightly, and then coaxed me out to dinner. I ate like a zombie, barely paying any attention to the other patients around me, and then sat on the sofa like a zombie until it was time to go to bed. That was when I started crying again. I don't know if you've sobbed so hard you feel like you might just break in half, but that was how I felt that evening.
There was a night nurse there - Dorothy. She was quite possibly an actual angel, and she was assigned to me that evening. I was, of course, on 1-1 at that point. Suicide risk. She made me a hot chocolate and came and sat with me until I was so exhausted, my body had no option but to pass out.
The next day, I finally started to pay attention to the structure. I don't know if it's like this everywhere, but in our unit it was a mix of day and in patients, with more day than in. It was also mostly girls, and because it was the summer holidays at that point we had a lot of free time and day trips in between therapy sessions. Each day was structured in much the same way. Breakfast with all the inpatients, day patients arrive, run through the days schedule, morning group therapy, free time/day trip, lunch, group activity, free time, more group therapy activities, day patients go home, dinner time, free time, bed.
The structure at that point did me a lot of good. It kept me busy, but not too busy, and there were enough activities in amongst the therapy sessions to distract us all from the real reasons we were there. Which we never, ever spoke about with each other, because we weren't allowed to. We didn't have smartphones, or any access to the internet. Activities were limited to those with non-dangerous parts, and nearly everyone (including the nurses) took up knitting, crochet, or cross stitch. We watched a lot of TV.
At the time I was there, there were really only five other inpatients besides myself. Three girls, two guys. The two guys kept to themselves, and spent most of the time in their rooms, which left us girls to have what were essentially massive sleepovers every single evenings. That time was so valuable to me, because Dorothy was nearly always on shift - and she'd bring in DVDs and face masks for us - and I got on really well with the other three girls. We giggled and played games and almost forgot why we were all there.
Group therapy activities included a dance and movement workshop in the mornings, art therapy, music therapy, a combo music-and-art therapy, sitting in a circle and talking about emotions, checking in each morning and comparing how we felt that day to different objects. Today I feel like a piece of loose thread caught up and tangled, adrift from the threads that once made it whole. Field trips included golf, museums, and the zoo in Bristol. We also got to do other activities at the weekends when it was just us inpatients (until I got to the point where I was allowed home from Friday to Sunday) including building a giant scalextric track. And I had visitors after a few weeks, when I was allowed out on a weeknight for a couple hours. Snatched pieces of normality in amongst the dreary drudge of being in hospital.
For, despite all the nurses and health care assistants being utter angels and helping us make the most of the situation, and the majority of the people I was in with being genuinely lovely, you couldn't ever forget it was a hospital.
I thought I'd end this with a list or two. This won't be the only post I write about the experience, so if you have any questions feel free to pop them down in the comments below, and I'll answer them in the future. Until then, a few hints and tips on what I found made the whole experience bearable.
WHAT TO PACK TO MAKE IT EASIER:
- Familiar items: I took my own duvet and pillow which was so good to have, especially because it smelt of home. I also brought my own decorations from my room: a couple posters and my first pair of pointe shoes that I always had hanging up on the wall. I also had the rug from my room at home on the floor. It made it less 'hospital' and more 'mine'.
- Snacks: I don't know if you'll always be allowed snacks, but keeping some dried pineapple and mango, and some oreos in my cupboard was great when I got peckish or didn't like the food on offer.
- Books: if you don't have a phone, you will have a lot of downtime. Take those books. You're going to need them.
- Hair removal cream: for obvious reasons, we weren't allowed razors. If you like to remove your body hair, you are going to need to stock up on Veet.
- In that vein, make sure you look up what you are and aren't allowed. We weren't allowed nail varnish remover and things like that.
- Plenty of pants: self explanatory.
- Comfy clothes: if you're in hospital, you're unlikely to want to get dressed up. Hell, I barely even wanted to take my PJs off. Wear the comfiest clothes you own. You deserve it.
FIVE THINGS TO EXPECT:
- The people there want to help you. Let them in.
- You aren't going to get along with everyone. Remember that they're there because they had a crisis too. You're all ill.
- It is going to be boring in a way you would never expect. The day will end eventually. Find hobbies you enjoy.
- There will be rules you are expected to stick to, and consequences if you break them.
- There will be light moments in amongst the dark moments. Find them, nurture them, and hold on to them.
Remember, if you have any questions either tweet me @cordeliamoor_, or leave them below.