What It Was Like To Stay In A Psychiatric Ward For One Week

by Lindsay Wallace

*Names have been changed.

The first thing I see when I enter the psychiatric unit is a girl, Becca, mumbling to herself and shuffling up and down the hallway.

Her long, jet black hair is draped over the front of her face, and I immediately think she resembles Samara Morgan, the girl from "The Ring."

She’s wearing murky green scrubs and brown, non-skid socks; her skin is pale with an unnatural yellow tint.

Becca stops abruptly in front of me and angles her head slightly upward to peer at me with her dark brown eyes.

They seem blank and empty, glossed over from medication. I'm paralyzed with fear when she softly touches a strand of my hair and giggles.

Sensing my discomfort, the nurse gently nudges Becca and asks her to keep moving.

As the nurse processes my intake papers, takes my blood pressure and checks my vital signs, I watch the two double doors separating me from reality.

I anxiously wait for them to open so I can make my getaway. I desperately want to go home; I don’t belong here... except I do.

In order to get to my room, I have to pass by the dining hall. It resembles a glass house; everywhere you stand, you can be seen.

When I walk by, the other patients pause from eating their meals and look up at me. They’re sizing me up, trying to guess why I’m here. I don’t meet their gaze.

I don’t want anything to do with anyone here.

In my room, I lie on the bed and roll into the fetal position. I am cradling my head between my two arms and uncontrollably crying. This is the first image my parents see when they are finally allowed in to visit me.

Both of them rush to my side, pull me into their arms and rock me back and forth. I refuse to let go of them.

It reminds me of when I was a 3-year-old, and I used to wrap my entire body around my mom’s leg.

She’d drag me around the house while she cooked and cleaned because any attempt to unwrap me from her leg would cause a tantrum and crying frenzy.

Here I was, a 26-year-old, reverting back to my 3-year-old coping mechanisms. My mom was my anchor, and I was clinging to her for dear life.

I spend the first three days at the hospital in bed, refusing to speak to anyone except the nurses, psychiatrists and those who called or visited.

I hate everyone here. The other residents laugh and are seemingly happy, and it throws me into a fit of rage.

I am so consumed by my own pain and despair, I just want to punch them in their throats. Then they'd stop laughing.

I squash any expression of joy or happiness like a bug. Residents turn their radios on, and I get out of bed only to turn them off. My roommate opens the blinds every morning and I promptly close them.

Instead, I find comfort in the darkness and lay there, passing my days staring at the clock and counting the seconds as they tick by.

Like a pendulum swinging back and forth, I rapidly cycle between one emotional extreme and another. From laughter, to despair, to anger to emptiness.

Sometimes, I go entire minutes without blinking, just staring off into space.

My mom will later describe this as one of the most horrifying things to witness. She wondered if her daughter would ever return to a normal state of mind, or if this is what life would look like for me from there on out.

I don’t remember much about this particular time in the hospital. My mind was rebelling against me and winning the battle. I finally gave up the good fight.

I remember the first time I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror hanging on the wall between my bed and the bathroom door.

My reflection stares back at me, but I don't recognize her. This is the face of a stranger, one marked by pain and unhappiness.

Her appearance is haunting. She has empty, dark eyes that are red and puffy around the edges, skin that is somewhat grey in color and hair that is matted down by grease and tangled in knots. Looking at her frightens me.

For a brief moment, I catch a smirk on her face. Like she has just won some contest by shredding my self-protective armor to pieces. I wonder if I have always been crazy and just didn’t know it until now.

That’s not true, though. I’ve always known there was something wrong with me. Gremlins have been chomping at my feet for years. I look away in shame; I have never felt more disgusted with myself.

I remember thinking I didn’t deserve how I felt, how empty and dead I was on the inside. Those feelings are reserved for more deserving people: People who have lived through horrific, traumatic experiences. Sexual assault. Physical abuse. War. Not me, not the perfect girl with the perfect life.

I grew up in a loving home and had a blessed childhood. I never had anything to worry about. What right do I have to take these feelings away from someone else?

I find solace in a corner of the hallway where two rocking chairs sit facing a window. I spend hours here, hugging my elbows to my sides and rocking back and forth. I want to think of myself as strong and tough, not helpless and broken.

I think if I sit here long enough, I will start remembering what happiness looked like and they will let me leave.

I am lost in my own thoughts when Christian, another resident staying in the psychiatric ward, walks up to me.

I barely notice him until he places his slender hand on my shoulder. He leans forward, looks at my bandaged wrist and whispers, “I’m glad you’re still here.”

He quietly slips away back to his room.

I cradle my face in my hands, tears streaming down my face. His words remind me that even in a stranger’s eyes I am worthy of existing; that my life matters even if I don't believe it.

I will later look back on this exchange as a moment of grace — one of joy (if you can believe that exists in such a sterile environment).

In occupational therapy, I sit next to Joe, 60-something man with a weathered, time-worn face. His skin is grey and his silver hair is unkempt and wild.

He is always looking down, with a blank expression on his face. He rarely moves, but when he does, his movements are lethargic, as if his legs are weighed down with lead.

I like Joe more than anyone I've met because he understands my need for silence. We eat our meals together. We sit in group together.

We do word search puzzles together. In the entire week I am there, we never exchange words, but he knows me. I know him.

On the rare occasions we exchange eye contact, I can tell he feels the same. We come across many soul mates in our lives, and sometimes, we find them in the most unusual of places.

One day, a group of girls’ booming voices and laughter fill the day room. The noise is so deafening that my heart starts racing and I feel like I can’t breathe.

The room goes hazy for a moment, and I am filled with fervor and panic. I need to leave. I see a pencil laying on the table by the door, and I grab it on my way out.

I quickly walk back to my room, barely able to catch my breath. I close the bathroom door and sit on the floor. The smell of disinfectant fills my nose.

I break the pencil in half and start scraping the sharp point of the pencil against my left wrist, rubbing the skin raw and making it red.

I dig deep.

Foolishly, I am worried about preciseness. I carefully cut four rows, making sure the start and end of each cut matches the one above it.

Even though it burns, it feels good. There is a part of me that likes the pain. It’s the kind of feeling that makes you ache in both pleasure and pain.

The doctors change one of my medications and increase another. During the coming days, the voice inside my head retreats to its hiding place and is replaced with clarity and self-awareness.

My mood stabilizes, and a week later I am back in the "real world."

Undoubtedly, I have made great strides in my recovery since my stay in the psychiatric ward, but I spend every day fearing the bottom will drop out from underneath me yet again. It was the most horrific experience of my life.

For a while, I didn’t understand why I had been dealt such a sh*tty hand of cards. I didn’t know why my mind was rebelling against me.

Although I will never have all the answers to the “whys,” I can say that being committed to a psychiatric ward finally revealed my true self to me.

It was an improbable moment of grace. I find comfort in that.