psychPsych: It’s Not Just a TV Show

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Three years ago, our family went through the trauma of discovering our daughter had bipolar disorder. Don’t get me wrong, the diagnosis didn’t traumatize us any more than a diabetes diagnosis might traumatize us. But the events leading up to Sarah’s diagnosis did traumatize us. Mostly because we couldn’t understand what was happening to our sweet, talented, friendly, compassionate daughter.

You can read the entire story at Blessed (but Stressed). In today’s edition of Self-Care Sundays, Sarah shares her experience in a psych ward. She wrote this piece for a writing class her senior year in college. Both of us believe that sharing stories about mental health issues will help debunk the myths and stop the stigma.

While Sarah does not recall all of the events leading up to her hospitalization, her behavior met the standards for California’s mandatory treatment laws. Each state has different laws and standards. If someone you love seems to have spiraled out of control, research the laws in your state.

First the Emergency Room

When one thinks of California, sunsets, Disneyland, and palm trees may come to mind. My most recent memories of California are hospitals and madness. In my memories, a guard stands outside a glass door. He wears a uniform that reminds me of policemen, but I doubt he’s armed.

This is a hospital, after all. It’s 2015. I don’t remember which month. I am with my Aunt Liz in Angwin, California. She’s wearing her Michelin man vest. I recall her walk-in closet full of purses and heels and wish I could just hide in there. We’ve been here for at least three hours, and I thought we were going to the hospital to get medicine for my headache.

After I signed some papers, a nurse came in and said I would be placed on a 72-hour hold for saying I was suicidal. Suicidal? I didn’t remember saying anything about that. All I wanted was medicine for my headache. I looked at Liz. She looked at her Kate Spades. She told them I was suicidal. I am not suicidal. I was fine until they put me here. She put me here.

Liz says, “You’re sick. You need help.” That’s what my mom told me on the phone yesterday. I didn’t know what she was talking about. It still doesn’t make any sense as Liz says the same words. I knock over a table and a chair and something metal clatters to the ground. I run to the bed and scream into the pillow.

The guard yells, “You need to calm down right now.”

Escape Attempt

I scream back at him and get up. I run to the door and try to squeeze past him to freedom, through the halls, past the waiting room, outside, to fresh air and back to my normal life. Or maybe I could escape to Liz and Noel’s huge closet and just disappear.

But he grabs my shoulder. I curse and scream, “Don’t touch me!”

“Go back to the bed,” he says. He goes back to his post and summons a nurse, who soon enters with a needle.

She says, “Hold out your arm. This will help you calm down,” then sticks it in my vein.

“But I am calm!” I scream as the pain shoots into my hand and I try to pull my hand away.

“Hold still!” she says.

When it’s over I lay on the bed and cry and cry. My headache starts to go away. I look over at Liz and she is crying, too. Some of her makeup is smeared in the corner of her eye. Exhaustion starts pulling me down. I stop grabbing at the bed as my arms relax at my sides. Then everything turns black.

Inside a Psych Ward

A look into what life inside a psych ward is like from a patient's point of view. #stopthestigma #mentalhealthThe next thing I know, I’m in a different room. I don’t know how much time has passed, or what day it is. Liz isn’t there, and neither is the guard. Someone tells me I’m at a psychiatric ward in St. Helena. This is a huge mistake.

A man comes in and introduces himself as Robert, my new psychiatrist.

“I don’t need a psychiatrist,” I laugh.

Robert sighs.

I begin my speech: I shouldn’t be here. I am not suicidal. My aunt lied and said I was suicidal but it’s not true. I don’t know why she did such a mean thing. My parents are in on this, too. I am totally fine and I want to leave now. Sure, I was mean to my grandparents in Puerto Rico, and they threatened to call the police a few times, but I’m better now. I need to go back to college and get back to my life. Just get me out of here…. A river of eloquence flows from my mouth and I am sure the doctor will understand me. Maybe I’ll get to leave today, within an hour, even. Little do I know that will be there for eleven days.

Robert looks at me as I try to catch my breath and he says the words that change my life forever. “I didn’t really follow anything you said. You are displaying the typical signs of mania. You have bipolar disorder.”

I don’t believe him. A thick fog wraps around my mind.

Robert prescribes a mood stabilizer, a syrup that I swallow every day at the appointed medicine times along with the other patients.

In the Medicine Line

There is always a line at the medicine window at noon. A young woman with suicidal thoughts suffers from anorexia. An annoying older man named Sid always tells me I talk too much. One young man has a piercing in the frenulum, the flap of skin behind his upper lip. He tells me he has bipolar disorder, too.

I’m still not sure at this point what bipolar disorder is. In line there’s also a man who always looks sad and high (he later freaks out because his bottle of shampoo went missing—he tells me it was full of ecstasy).

I notice that some of the patients have prescribed nicotine gum and I ask for some, too.

“Do you smoke?” the pharmacologist says.

“No.” He gives me some anyway.

I go back to my room and put the yellow square in my mouth. It tastes disgusting and I almost spit it on the linoleum floor, but soon I begin to feel a tingle in my head. Maybe it will make me think less about my confinement.

Trapped. They don’t let us use razors, for fear of someone using the blade to cause harm. There is a no-touching policy. They take away my cell phone and there are no computers, so I have no contact to the outside world unless somebody calls me on the ward’s landline.

My aunt and uncle visit a few times. I still can’t shake the feeling that I shouldn’t be in this place. My parents call a few times, and it usually results in me running to my room and screaming into the pillow or writing hate letters in my notebook. I don’t realize that they are trying to save my life by locking me in a safe place with a 24-hour medical staff.

Daily Life

Life in the psych ward is organized and boring. Meals are brought to us at regular hours, and there’s also a snack fridge filled with yogurt and juice that I periodically visit. The TV in the lounge plays MTV most of the time because nobody can agree on a movie. There’s an enclosed outdoor patio but we can only go there if one of the workers decides to supervise the area.

A whiteboard shows the daily schedule, filled with group meetings about medicines (during which I find out about different mood stabilizers decide to switch to lithium), coping mechanisms, and group therapy sessions. I find out in one of these sessions what exactly bipolar disorder is.

A mental disorder characterized by alternating periods of mania and depression. I discover the symptoms of mania include poor judgment, racing thoughts and speech, inappropriate behavior and hypersexuality, irritability, and a decreased need for sleep. It takes me a long time to realize that I displayed all of these behaviors during my manic episode.

Although I make friends with the other patients, the attendants discourage us from giving each other personal contact information to stay in touch after we leave the psych ward. “You are different people here,” the nurse says. “You won’t want to be friends with each other once you recover and go back to the real world.”

I ignore this advice and write some of my new friends’ emails in a notebook my uncle gave me during one of his visitations. I never contact any of those friends after I leave because I do indeed become a different person. Or rather, I begin to return to my normal self and I want to leave those people and those memories in the past.

Filled With All Kinds of People

Find out what it's like inside a psych ward. Know when you need help. #stopthestigma, #mentalhealth, #bipolar“Call the police!” I hear someone say. A crowd has gathered by the door outside of the TV room, and the workers are telling us to stay inside. In the office area, a large woman, who must have been on drugs or had a severe mental illness, yells and throws random objects.

“Call the police…” she continues to bellow. After getting behind the counter and throwing a phone at one of the nurse’s heads, she tackles the nurse to the ground and it takes three other workers to pull her away.

This is the kind of person that should be here, I think. Not me.

The anorexic girl becomes my friend. We hang out in the room with the piano during lunch and talk about our lives. She has a YouTube channel where she does contortions and beauty tutorials. She constantly tells me to take deep breaths when I talk, because “I talk way too fast.”

I appreciate this advice but I don’t think I am talking fast.

One day she steps on the scale and when it reads 55 she crumples to the ground and sobs. I explain to her that the scale is probably in kilograms, so she isn’t that skinny, but she won’t listen. Maybe it is in pounds. She leaves suddenly the next day and I don’t even have a chance to say goodbye. Later, when I step on the scale, it reads 85—definitely kilograms.

I become friends with another girl who arrives a few days later. During a group session I find out that she admitted herself to the psych ward because she was feeling suicidal after her boyfriend killed himself. She tells the group that every day on her way to work she has to drive past the place where he did it.

Change Happens Slowly

After a few days, people begin to notice a change in me. I start to talk slower and I seem less angry with my family. Slowly, I begin to realize that maybe I had gotten out of control during the last months and maybe my actions had been crazy.

I had been arrested for shoplifting in Wal-Mart in Puerto Rico while on a month-long vacation with my Cuban grandparents. Then I had made plans to buy a one-way ticket to England to meet a random guy from Portugal.

Those plans fell through after my uncle flew across the United States to tell me I shouldn’t go (“You can’t leave the country when you’re on unsupervised probation,” he said—not to mention I had a balance of negative $200 in my bank account). I moved in with my aunt and uncle in California and made plans to attend a nearby college.

When they realized that my sanity hadn’t improved, my family figured out a way to get me admitted to a psych ward (by saying I was suicidal). They didn’t know what to do with me, and they feared for my life.

Looking back on it, I still don’t think I was doing anything particularly life-threatening at the time, but I did need to go to the psych ward so that someone could finally give me a diagnosis.

I’d had a year-long bout with depression the year before that two depression meds couldn’t quell, and I had a less intense manic episode in Argentina before that, but we didn’t know at the time that it was mania.

The diagnosis allowed me to finally know what treatment I needed, and since my time in the St. Helena Psych Ward, I haven’t had another major manic or depressive episode.

Editor’s note:

Ok, maybe it’s a proud mama’s note. Sarah will graduate from college in June. I can’t describe how proud we are of the hard work she has put in to deal with her diagnosis and become the talented young woman she is today. Her courage in sharing her story inspires me.

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  1. I have worked in Mental Health for over 38 years as a Clinical therapeutic consultant & counselor.
    I applaud you for sharing this journey…

    And well done both to you & your family for seeking & accepting help!

  2. Wow, Anita, this is so powerful! And needs to be shared. One side of our family is in its 3rd generation of ones who battle mental illness. The other side has had three suicide attempts in our kids’ generation. Sadly, some on that side have said things like, “(he) needs to get a grip and get over it”. When will people finally understand that mental illness isn’t a choice someone makes? Thanks, prayers, and blessings for you and Sarah!

  3. Go, Sarah! I applaud you for sharing your story. It makes a difference to those who hear it. We all have friends and family (and/or ourselves) who have bipolar disorder or some sort of mental disorders. We can learn information from each other and have compassion for each other too. Thanks, Anita, for your courage too to share her (and your) story. It makes an impact on me every time I hear a piece of it.
    Lisa notes recently posted…What Does Your Prince Charming Do?My Profile

  4. Anita, I know your daughter is now doing so well and is planning a wedding. I’ll never forget the 31-day series you shared. I felt as though I walked this journey with you. xo

  5. After several years of working in the mental health field, I am especially grateful to both of you for your willingness to share this part of your lives stories. It’s when it fails that I am most especially aware of how mysteriously and wonderfully we’ve been woven together, of how simultaneously frail and resilient we are–in both mind and body.

  6. I’m sure it was a hard and somewhat scary time for all of you. Thank you so much for sharing your story as I’m sure it will encourage others. Blessings to you!

  7. I have bipolar disorder. I was diagnosed about 8 years ago. I’m in my late 30s now. I applaud you and your daughter for bravely sharing her story and your story. I blog as well, but I haven’t gone into details about my experiences in hospitals. I feel her story, and I can absolutely relate! I was able to share this post with my family so that they better understand bipolar and me. Love to you and your family. Tell your daughter this:
    Continue the self care. Take your medicine and watch your sleep very carefully. Ask for help from friends, family, and doctors, Know when you start to feel “off” and get help that same day. This is for life. But, you are a unique child of God and will always be loved. JKC

  8. Dear Anita, I’m still ruminating over your bravery in sharing this post! Is the young woman in the pics your daughter? Continued prayers and blessings!

  9. IT is new to me that there are mandatory treatment laws in California. My nephew is experiencing constant mental breakdowns from his problems in academics. Being his housemate/guardian, this is starting to worry me. I like that you mentioned your experience with your daughter we could use some of your tips as we look for a Family Mental Health Clinic to help my nephew.

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Anita Ojeda

Anita Ojeda juggles writing with teaching high school English and history. When she's not lurking in odd places looking for rare birds, you can find her camping with her kids, adventuring with her husband or mountain biking with her students.

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