Christmas can be a fraught time for many, but for some people it can be a time when their mental health is badly affected. Here, Katie describes the reality of being admitted to a psych ward for Christmas.
On Christmas Eve 2017, I called my best friend and asked her to come and see me.
I had been in the depths of an intense anxiety attack for over a week, hadn’t slept for more than a few minutes at a time and had barely eaten. I felt like I was constantly missing that last step on a flight of stairs and falling; that nauseous lurch in the pit of my stomach never went way. I felt utterly unlike myself and I had no idea how to get back to normal.
This was only my second anxiety attack and I still wasn’t sure what was happening to me. I couldn’t sleep with my two-year-old daughter in the next room because I was constantly terrified she’d wake up and need me, and I wouldn’t be able to look after her.
Initially I thought about going to a hotel to try and get some rest, but very soon I reached the point where I didn’t trust myself to be alone. I’d begun to think about hurting myself, not because I wanted to die, but because I honestly couldn’t see a way back to feeling well again. The pain of feeling how I did for another minute felt too much. I told my best friend this as soon as she arrived and she took one look at me and said: “You need help.”
It was exactly what I needed to hear. I was exhausted and just wanted to put my health in someone else’s hands. I agreed to go to ER and tell them I wanted to be 51/50’d, which is where you are labeled a danger to yourself or others and taken to psych ward for a 72-hour hold to see if you are mentally stable. I didn’t make that decision lightly, and I do remember a fleeting worry about whether a record of mental health problems would cause problems, but that worry paled in significance compared to my desire to get better. Luckily we have good insurance, so I didn’t have the additional anxiety of financial ruin.
My friend waited with me in ER for three hours that Christmas Eve, which I actually remember as being a really peaceful time, the calm before the storm, where I was just relieved to be handing over control of myself.
The reality of life in a psych ward
A psych ward is, at best, like staying in hospital and at worst, like being imprisoned. Even if it’s where you need to be, it’s still awful. So many elements of it are actually detrimental to anyone trying to deal with mental health problems. After a short ambulance ride there, I was shown to my room which I had to share with a stranger. You can’t lock any doors because everyone is on suicide watch. They confiscated my bra and cut off the cord around my pyjama bottoms for the same reason.
They took away most of my belongings including my phone, which I’m sure is beneficial in the long run, but at the time left me feeling cut-off and unable to use the meditation apps I’d been relying on. I made a note of the phone numbers I’d like to be able to call from the ward landline; my husband, my mum. They let me keep my wedding ring on which I found comforting, especially as I later used it to learn grounding techniques, where you touch something solid to bring you back down to earth.
All I wanted at this point was to get some sleep. They gave me a cocktail of drugs which I hoped would knock me out, but I woke up at 3am, having slept only a couple of hours. I asked a nurse if I could get anything to help me go back to sleep and she said that it wasn’t time for me to have any more medication but I could have some sleepy-time herbal tea if I wanted. I broke down crying. All I wanted was unconsciousness. I wanted to sleep and sleep and wake up feeling myself again, with this whole nightmare behind me.
Christmas Day in the psych ward
Christmas Day wasn’t really very different from the rest of my stay; one of the cornerstones of a psych ward is routine. It was easier to break the days up into chunks, to just try and imagine how you will keep going until the next meal or the next group therapy session.
You’re meant to have a certain number of outdoor breaks but being Christmas, they were short-staffed and so we only got to go outside if we specifically asked one of the kinder members of staff. There was no exercise; apparently there had once been an exercise bike but it had been taken away. There were, in short, all the same problems the NHS has but you pay for it.
I think in the UK there’s this idea that US hospitals must be like The Priory, but they’re not. There were so many things they could have offered that would have helped, such as yoga classes and meditation sessions, but all we did was an awful lot of prescribed colouring in. Of course I wasn’t thinking about this at the time. I wasn’t even thinking, “boy, this is a shitty way to spend Christmas”, because I would have given every Christmas just to feel like myself again.
Luckily for me, there was a teenage girl there who was also dealing with anxiety and depression. She was high functioning, like me, and had been in a psych ward before. We became friends, she taught me breathing exercises and grounding techniques she’d learned. We were all gifted a board game each on Christmas Day; I got Scrabble and we spent hours playing together. You need something to occupy your mind, but it can’t be anything too stimulating.
We’d walk laps of the corridors late at night just to try and tire ourselves out so we could sleep properly. Other than this friend, everyone else there had more severe mental health problems, from ex-soldiers with PTSD to elderly people with dementia.
I felt horribly unsafe a lot of the time, especially as one man, prone to violent outbursts, started going into my room, taking my things, masturbating over them and being verbally abusive to me. After I saw him in his room with one of my books, staff got it back for me and reprimanded him. They moved me to a room at the other end of the ward, but since everyone could wander around freely it didn’t make me feel much better. He was moved to a higher security ward soon after.
Looking at the positives
The good things about psych ward? I had constant access to doctors during the day. They tripled the Valium dose I’d been given previously which helped but also terrified me as I felt myself becoming reliant on it; I’d be queuing up at the medication dispensary, waiting for them to dish out the drugs every six hours. It’s taken me two years to come off it completely.
My husband and daughter would visit everyday, starting when they bought me the latest Neil Gaiman book I’d been wanting as my Christmas present. Inside was a note from my husband saying he’d booked us a weekend away. This almost broke my heart at the time, because I couldn’t imagine ever being well enough to travel again. But he stayed optimistic and was a rock for me and our daughter, who was thankfully only two and won’t remember the Christmas she woke up without her mum.
I felt guilty about not being there, but I also knew I was doing the right thing. That first day, though I loved to see them and have some physical contact with people I loved, I didn’t want them to stay. I still felt completely useless and unable to be a parent. I only really knew I was starting to get better when I began to look forward to their visits.
Life after the ward
I was discharged after four days, but had to agree to attend an out-patient programme. At the time I wasn’t keen, I just wanted to get back to normal, but I was soon very glad those group therapy mornings existed as they really helped me in the first few days where I still felt awful and needed some structure and routine forced upon me. It was hard to make myself go; sometimes I’d only slept from 5am-7am and would then have to get up and go to the clinic. I still wasn’t really sleeping or eating, and it could be pretty traumatic listening to the other patients.
At this point I was still talking about wanting to die. But then, like clockwork, the medication I’d started taking two weeks previously kicked in. I started to feel more like normal. I could go for a walk by myself. I could feel pleasure when I hugged my child. I was still recovering from psych-ward induced claustrophobia and insisted on sleeping outside on the deck in a sleeping bag with a hot water bottle. I played online Scrabble endlessly and gradually began to read again. I could only watch TV shows where nothing really happened; Seinfeld was a favourite, obviously.
Slowly, I began to eat and sleep again. I had started private therapy as well as the group therapy, which helped a lot for the following year. It took hugely supportive family and friends, excellent health insurance, drugs, a psych ward, meditation and then a whole year of constant work identifying triggers and learning about anxiety for me to feel vaguely myself again. And still, any small noise in the night would wake me, I’d feel that lurch in the bottom of my stomach, my heart pounding in my chest, unable to breathe.
We cancelled flights to Palm Springs last New Year because I had such an intense anxiety attack that morning. It’s been nearly two years now, and I think I feel as close to the old me as I’m going to get. I don’t think I’ll ever be the same again, of all the experiences in my life, I feel none mark out a ‘before’ and ‘after’ Katie as much as my breakdown.
I now know how to recognise the onset of anxiety and can catch it before it gets too bad. I’m especially wary at Christmas when I know past memories might trigger me. We keep it small, we stay home; last year my one friend from psych ward joined us which was lovely.
What troubles me most about my experience is how difficult it is to convey to people the nature of anxiety. I think we have a real shortage of words for describing mental health issues. Before my experience, I thought I knew what anxiety was, some extension of the general feeling of being anxious. But it’s so much more extreme than that, it’s like comparing someone feeling ‘a bit down’ to someone with clinical depression. And yet we don’t have the words for it.
We can describe someone as peckish, hungry or starving, but we just don’t have the vocabulary for mental conditions. I thought I had empathy before, but it’s very hard to understand it if you haven’t been through it. I feel like there’s a whole part of the population that I know better now.
If you’re reading this and you’ve been through something similar, stay strong and look after yourself this holiday season. If you haven’t been through it, then thank you so much for reading this, because what we really need is to help people understand what it’s like to go through a mental health crisis. There’s still an illusion that people are either sane or insane, whereas in fact we’re all desperately treading water in the grey area in between.