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Journey to Mental Health Recovery

Being in a Psychiatric Hospital Was the Worst Experience of My Life

Published 3 months ago • 7 min read

We do crazy things when we’re desperate. It was August 2010, and I had spent nearly two years in agony with depression. It was so bad and unrelenting that I no longer found joy in anything. I had lost my job as a police officer due to post-traumatic stress disorder and felt my entire identity had been destroyed.

I lay in bed staring blankly at the tv. I had become a fat, unfit shell of my former self. I felt suicidal most of the time, but I was scared to act on these feelings. Maybe I would mess up. Perhaps it would hurt like hell. I couldn’t do it to my family.

On this day, I had enough. I had exhausted all options for outpatient treatment. So, on a sweltering day in August, my mum and I contacted the crisis team. I told them I felt I was a danger to my own life and I needed inpatient treatment.

If this treatment failed, I could say I’d tried everything. And so the nurse made a call, and there was a bed in a local hospital that was used as a holding facility when there were no beds at longer-term mental health hospitals anywhere in the county. I would stay there over the weekend and then transfer to a longer-term hospital.

I had to say my goodbyes. My partner thought I was only going for a few days, and the announcement that I might be gone for weeks or more made her burst into tears.

Next was my dad. He was trying to be stoic, but when he saw me, he cracked and cried. My mum held it together as she was going to be the one driving me to the hospital. I didn’t cry because I was numb by this point.

My arrival.

My mum was allowed to come in with me and get me settled. The first ominous sign was the three multiple-locked doors I had to pass through. I had never been incarcerated before. This was the first time in my life that my freedom and movement were restricted. I felt claustrophobia I didn’t know I had.

Most of the other patients were in a communal TV area. I secretly thought they were all serial killers and I was terrified.

I was told I could keep my mobile phone, but I wasn’t allowed a charger. So when it ran out of battery, I would have to ask one of my visitors to go home and charge it, increasing my feeling of isolation.

I said an agonizing goodbye to my mum, who I later learned cried all the way home. My dad told her they had failed me, although that couldn’t have been further from the truth. They had fallen into a trap many people have experienced when dealing with a loved one with mental illness — they think if only they tried even harder, they could have healed me. It doesn’t work like that.

My new normal.

I was immediately taken for a medical assessment. This was a physical health check, questions about pre-conditions, and having to pee in tubes so they could ensure I wasn’t hooked on drugs.

Incidentally, most people I have met who suffered psychotic episodes had links to drugs. It was so bad that my nurse who dealt with psychosis for outpatients told me that she usually suggested I join some group outings and games but with my history as a police officer, most of her clients were probably old suspects, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable.

Once my tests came back clear, I was taken to the communal TV room and left to rot. You see, to the untrained eye, it just looked like a TV room. In fact, it was a way for the nurses to make their job easier.

We were forced to wake up every morning at 6 am and were not allowed back into our rooms until 11 pm. All those hours had to be spent in the communal space. People would sleep on the floor or sit and stare at the walls, which was fine — we could do what we wanted so long as one nurse could sit in that one room and watch everybody with zero effort.

I remember one woman with post natal depression who used to sleep for the entire day until her husband visited. He would come daily, but she couldn’t bear him to touch her. Not even a hand on the shoulder. He would sit next to her while she stared off into space before eventually leaving and repeating this process every day. He had no idea what to do, and I felt almost as sorry for him as I did her.

On my first night, I lay in bed on the thinnest plastic mattress, the type we used to give to criminals in police cells. I looked at the ceiling and cried. How did I get this low? I came here as a last-ditch attempt to get help, and I feel worse than ever.

Trapped, alone, and kept awake by the nurses laughing further down the corridor. The doors were all unlocked, which contributed to my paranoid feelings. I felt like I was being punished. Prison couldn’t be worse.

I was quickly snapped out of my reverie. It was 6 am, and I had 17 hours of staring at a tv screen ahead of me.

The staff.

The staff really couldn’t have cared less. They just rotated sitting in the tv room and forced us to sit and do nothing for 17 hours a day for their convenience.

It was the weekend when I arrived, so there was no hope of seeing a sychiatrist until Monday. But I did recognize one of the nurses…

Several months previously, my mum had taken me to the hospital emergency department because I had a psychotic episode. This nurse had dealt with me on that occasion. My mum had asked her if there were any different medications I could take, but she only wanted to detain me under the Mental Health Act.

Despite my mum begging her not to do that and explaining how it would make me worse, this nurse thought she knew better. I ran out of the room, and my mum found me and took me home. Later that night, social services and the police called and said they had been asked to take me into custody and transfer me to the mental hospital.

After my mum explained my situation, they were satisfied that sectioning me was inappropriate and even remarked the nurse had got “a bit ahead of herself,” which is a polite way of saying what I was thinking…

Just in case she felt smug that she got me in the end, I stressed to her I was there voluntarily, even though the triple-locked doors meant I couldn’t go anywhere even if I wanted to.

A nurse was tasked with asking me some questions as to why I was there, and I explained my suicidal feelings and brief history. She wrote all this down, which will become more relevant later.

Other patients.

It turned out the other patients weren’t serial killers. Most of them seemed like me — harmless and in varying degrees of pain. I only saw one scary outburst.

A man brought in at the same time as I snapped over his claustrophobia. The barred windows, triple-locked doors, low roofs, and narrow corridors had become too much for him. I knew how he felt.

I missed the start, but I became aware of him pulling at the bars on the windows. One of the nurses was snapped out of her daydream and looked fearful of earning her money, so she waited for backup.

The patient was quickly surrounded by five nurses, which I am sure didn’t help his claustrophobia. Thankfully they were polite to him and managed to calm him down. I heard him say to them that he had come here for help, but the entire experience was making him worse.

Me too.

I found myself playing board games with some of the other patients. Nothing with small pieces — in case we ate them, I guess. It dawned on me that many patients were regular visitors — otherwise known as frequent fliers. They almost treated it like a game.

The revolving doors of prison apply equally to mental hospitals. As I said earlier, many were drug users and had worse lives outside than here, so coming here was like a holiday for them. At least they were fed — if you can call what they served food.

The end of incarceration.

I want to end this on a positive note. I wish I would say I was transferred to a kind and caring facility, and they made me all better. In fact, I felt so ill and trapped in this monolithic hell hole that I barely lasted a weekend.

I was called to see the psychiatrist on Monday. The nurse who I had previously told I was suicidal was there too. I knew I had to get out of there — there was no way any respite or help could be found in this environment.

So I told them I felt fine now. Not suicidal at all. The psychiatrist looked relieved — another one he could cross off his books. To her credit, the nurse questioned me. She asked how it was possible to go from being that suicidal to cured within a weekend when I had had no treatment. I said it must be a miracle, and I felt better than I had in ages.

“Right,” said the psychiatrist, “you can go.” And so, my mum came to pick me up within the hour. I hadn’t even had to recharge my phone.

Shockingly, what I had said was partially true. I did feel better than I had in ages — because I was out of that place. I couldn’t get enough of the feeling of freedom, the ability to go where I wanted, and the sunlight. If this was how I felt after a weekend, imagine how people released from prison after years feel.

Staying in that mental hospital brought me face-to-face with my future. If I didn’t do something drastic to improve my life, that was where I would end up.

So I set about changing my life. At first, this was getting up in the morning. Then I progressed to showering and getting dressed. Anyone who has been depressed will know these are Herculean feats.

Fast forward to today, and I have turned my life around. I am an investor with six figures in the stock market. I am still with my partner, and we have our own house. Most importantly, I wake up happy most days.

Medication, family, and resilience played their roles, but my brief stay in that mental hospital began my journey.

Technically, the mental hospital helped cure me — by being so negligent and awful that even depression fell at its feet.


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Journey to Mental Health Recovery

Leon Macfayden

Schizophrenia and PTSD survivor sharing my journey to recovery. Join over 800 subscribers learning to improve their mental health. Every week, I share personal stories and effective tips to help you and your loved ones live the life you deserve.

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