What It’s Actually Like To Go To A Psychiatric Hospital, Because It’s Nothing Like What You See On TV

Eduard Militaru / Unsplash

When I was sixteen years old, in late Spring, I was admitted to the Children and Adolescent Psychiatric Services in San Diego, California. Otherwise known as CAPS, this was the place that I thought would be like a prison for a week.

I was brought there by my parents, straight from the UCSD Eating Disorder Treatment Center. The doctors had said I was a danger to myself. After years of depression and previous activities, they had feared the worst. When I return to the treatment center, after my stay at CAPS, my counselor had told me what I said to make her so concerned.

You see, every morning at UCSD, all the kids had to talk about how they feel and if they had self-harmed, purged, or anything on the list of ‘dangerous behaviors.’ Though I don’t really remember it, as I was pretty out of it at the time, my counselor said that when she asked how I was doing, I just stared at her with blank eyes and said, “I’m just in so much pain.” I wouldn’t talk all day, which was unusual because, although I was seriously mentally ill, I was still somehow the life of the party.

After lunch, my doctors pulled me aside and informed me that they would be transferring me to a psychiatric hospital for a while because they were concerned about my safety. They suggested we take an ambulance, but considering how expensive they can be, I insisted that it was fine for my parents to take me. I remember watching my parents sit silently in the car, holding hands, while tears slid down their cheeks. I just watched the cars drive by, neither worried or curious what would happen to me.

At this point in my life, nothing mattered at all.

When we arrived at CAPS, my parents filled out intake paperwork and I signed a contract that pretty much said I would comply with the rules and would be released when the hospital saw fit. As my parents finished off in the lobby, I was taken to another room where I would be given a medical examination.

The doctor was a nice and gentle lady, who looked at my cuts and disinfected some of them. My blood pressure was low from all the purging and I was emaciated. They took the laces off my shoes and the string off my hoodie gave me socks and sweatpants and then led me to my parents.

My mother and father, seeing me in these hospital pajamas and medical bracelets, had looked so defeated and helpless. We were quiet when we said goodbye to each other. I hugged my mother and father for a long time, not knowing when I would see them again. They promised they would visit.

I was then escorted through the gates into the hospital. I was given a tour and shown my room. My mother was going to bring me more clothes and my stuffed animal soon. My roommate scared me; she seemed aggressive and angry. Later on in my stay, she would end up eating a bracelet that I made in arts in crafts, hoping she would choke.

I met some of the other kids, who were all very strange. There was a young pyromaniac, a severely schizophrenic boy who wandered around with blank eyes, and other children with varying forms of depression, anxiety, and mental illness. The days soon became very routine.

We would eat the mediocre food in the cafeteria three times a day. I would be given a drink called boost, which was supposed to make me gain weight. Every time after I ate, a nurse would sit with me in my room for an hour, to make sure I didn’t throw it up.

We had class time, where all the kids would sit in a room and try to focus on school work, often without success. There was group therapy after group therapy, followed by periodical individual therapy and medical check-ups.

Occasionally we would have a movie night or dance party, but they were all rather bleak and depressing. Once a week we were allowed in the garden to get a glimpse of the sun. The grass was spiked and dry, so we were unable to walk on it in our socks. Almost none of the kids wore shoes.

I remember feeling so helpless there. I was being watched around the clock, unable to self-harm, throw up, or hurt myself in any way. The only time I got away with anything was at a movie party when I scratched the back of my left hand until it bled.

My mother, father, grandmother, and older sister came to visit me twice a week. I know it was especially hard for my grandmother, because her son, my uncle, had been hospitalized for years because of severe schizophrenia. My older sister would always try to cheer me up, but I could tell that she too was struggling.

I came to realize that I had not been only hurting myself, but my family too. They were watching me destroy myself, helpless. It would be years until I would realize the full effect that my sickness had on my whole family.

Every night in the hospital I had nightmares. Some involved death, disease, or disaster. Some were just reflections of my life, riddled with anxiety and fear. More than once I woke up with the feeling of someone watching me, only to find my roommate staring at me from her bed. It was disturbing.

It felt like I had been there for an eternity before I was finally cleared to be discharged. In reality, it was only about a week. I never spoke much about my experience in the psychiatric hospital, although all the kids at my treatment wanted to know about it.

It felt like something I wanted to be put behind me.

A few months passed and, still very sick, I felt myself longing to go back to the hospital. I even asked my parents if I could go back when things were particularly tough. But it was so expensive that it wasn’t something that was easily achieved.

I realized that I had felt safe there. Safer than I had ever felt in my entire life. I was unable to hide my food, hurt myself or others, or do any of the things that had become my daily life in treatment. I was monitored constantly, never alone.

I felt like I had been a drug addict and being in the treatment was like me going cold turkey. It was the longest I had gone without hurting myself in nearly a year. It was desperately hard and painful, but in the long run, it really helped me.

A lot of people like to paint mental institutions as a horrible experience. I see so many movies that make them look like a living nightmare where people are given awful punishments, like electroshock therapy.

Looking back on it, I genuinely think it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

I ate all my food for a week, had constant therapy, and even made a few friends. I think places like CAPS get a bad rep, and thus people see them as a last resort. I learned so much when I was there. The most important being how my illness affected my family. I was so guilt-ridden that I felt sick. Soon I realized that I couldn’t keep putting them through this. So I started working hard at my recovery, something I had never done.

Treatment had always seemed like an inescapable punishment. After CAPS, I started seeing it as a light in the dark. Something to hold onto. For months, I dedicated my free time to reading and writing. I found inspiration in my pain and wrote beautiful poetry.

After working so hard to recover from my family, I ended up working hard for myself.

I felt like I finally wanted to get better for. Not because I felt guilty for my family, not because I was so sick I could barely go on, not because I had no more friends, but because I realized I wanted a life.

I wanted to live. I wanted to experience happiness again. I wanted friendship and adventure. I wanted a life where I could make something of myself. Maybe, I thought, one day I would be a mother. I would teach my child self-love. 

Now I am living in Europe, three years recovered, and living a whole new life. I have friends and am so close to my family. I go to school and have been following my passion for language-learning.

I am so happy. Now I think that going to the psychiatric hospital was a big step towards recovery and if there’s any message that I want to get across it is this: Do not be afraid of the hospital. The people there are really trying to help and they truly care about you. Put effort into your recovery because, as cliche as it sounds, it really does get better. There’s a whole life out there waiting for you and the world will be a better place with you in it. TC mark

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