Life, Interrupted: What I Learned After 120 Hours In A Psych Hospital

by Sydney Seperis
Focus Features

Out of every country in the world, the United States has the most citizens suffering from some kind of mental illness. Many of these disorders are successfully treated with therapy and/or medication. But sometimes, people need to be put in a psychiatric inpatient facility.

The media has portrayed these facilities in numerous ways, with movies and books such as, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," and "It's Kind of a Funny Story." And they have also been the setting of many horror movies and shows such as "American Horror Story."

There have been terror stories of early mental institutions and the gruesome treatments they performed on their patients. But to most, what actually goes on in a mental hospital is completely foreign.

I was able to discover first hand what life in the psych ward is like. Not too long ago, I found myself in a seat at the crisis center at my local hospital. Six hours after arriving there, I found myself bound to a 48-hour (minimum) stay in the hospital's psychiatric center.

While I thought I would be up and walking out of those doors by Monday morning (at the latest), I ended up being there from a Saturday until a Wednesday, a full 120 hours in the psychiatric unit.

In that time span, I learned a lot.

The People

The room I was assigned to at first happened to be right outside the lounge. As soon as I made it through intake and was free to roam, I realized there was no way to avoid socialization. The first thing I heard was, "Hey, new girl. What brings you here?"

I was greeted by two young men in their late 20s to early 30s, sitting on a couch and waving me over. These two men, James* and Rylan*, immediately began to give me an informal ethnography of the place.

Basically, there were the more "normal" (and I use that term loosely) people within the establishment. Many of the people in this category were in there for detox, typically from heroin, for alcohol-related injuries or for legal offenses.

There were more than a few felons, users and suicidal patients, who fell somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, and a smattering of patients who actually suffered from severe psychiatric illnesses were on the other end of the spectrum.

Now, as for the social structure, it was incredibly intricate. To be honest, it was kind of cliquey. I quickly was sucked into one of these cliques. There were about five or six of us, and we were a motley crew.

We were all in there for different (sometimes disturbing) reasons, but these were the people who I ended up calling my friends and truly caring about. We looked out for each other, ate together and, most importantly, truly got to know one another.

Now, everyone else in the hospital had a nickname he or she was innocently unaware of. One man was dubbed the Dark Knight because of the way he would wrap his shirt around his head. One guy was called Napoleon Dynamite because of his striking resemblance.

Another girl was called Kung Fu Panda because she punched a nurse in the face. Needless to say, I met an incredible variety of people during my stay. And I learned from each of them.

The Staff

It's quite hard to like someone when, every morning, she is in your room at 5 am, waking you up to do vitals and blood work. But, despite that small fact, I tried to get to know as many of the nurses as possible. It is interesting to think about what you can find out about the person under the scrubs.

One of the nurses, it turns out, was a yoga teacher and studied in India for about 10 years. I only learned this because I attended his meditation workshop. A social worker was also a yoga instructor, and I got to lead a yoga class with her inside the unit.

Some staff members would even come in and sing karaoke with us.

There were some staff members, though, who were really difficult to like. One of the social workers (my social worker) sometimes wouldn't see patients for days at a time, preventing a potential discharge.

One nurse would systematically start looking at her phone as soon as she turned on the machine to take your vitals. Another would do your blood work in the dark.

Overall, though, I couldn't have been happier with all of the things I learned from the staff. I even learned how to further my yoga teaching career in a psychiatric hospital by studying with the head nurse and lead social worker, which is a total plus.

The Food

Now, the kitchen dynamic was entirely different. Every day at lunch or breakfast, you had to fill out your menu for the next day's food. I can't exactly say the food was phenomenal, but we had a good variety.

In addition to the menu, we had an alternative menu that had your pretty standard fare of burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, etc. I learned it is always better to order two of whatever it is you were getting so you could hoard food for later.

You especially wanted to order cookies and brownies. They went first, and they were the best with the ice cream.

Most things we stored in the bathrooms. The best time to do it was during lunch, after the rooms have all been cleaned. It was pretty nice, I have to say, being able to get up and go to the shower for an applesauce.

One girl hoarded the sh*t out of ginger ales. She would give them out like crazy whenever you wanted one. It was incredible.

At meals, though, it was all about who you sat with. I had my usual group of people, six of us at a table.

The Dark Knight usually sat by himself. Some people took their trays out of the kitchen entirely. Some people I quite honestly just never saw.

The Values

All of the patients had their reasons for being inside that place. Some reasons were more intense than others.

We weren't allowed outside, and the only place we had access to were our own rooms, the lounge and the kitchen. In that kind of environment, you learn a lot about people very quickly, since all there is to do is talk.

People's stories of resilience are so incredible. All of these people came from dark places, and they were trying to make things better. I learned how to be more hopeful, caring, compassionate and stronger. I learned it is absolutely okay to admit you have problems in your life, and it is absolutely okay to ask for help.

On my last day, one of the social workers came in and talked to a group of us as we were waiting to be discharged.

She said, "I want you to visualize you are climbing a rope. The rope breaks, and you fall back down to the ground. You get angry and tie a knot in the rope.

What you don't realize is, every time the rope breaks and you have to tie it, that rope gets a little bit shorter. This means that even when you fall, you're getting closer to your goals."

I think that holds true for all of us. I think just about anyone can relate to feeling defeated by something in his or her life.

We don't give ourselves enough credit when it comes to our abilities to bounce back after struggles. We don't realize how resilient we are.

It's a lesson that is important, regardless of whether or not you're in a psychiatric hospital.

*Names have been changed for privacy purposes.