6:05 am: You lie awake in your tiny bed, underneath the salmon covers, your neck sore from sleeping on one pillow (you asked for another but you’ll need a doctor’s order to have more than one.) Your sleep medicine has worn off and you are now once again a prisoner to your insomnia.
All there is to do now is listen to your roommate snore and mutter to herself in her sleep and the sounds of the nurses talking and phones ringing at the nurses station. You remember a Seroquel-induced nightmare you had previously in the night in which you were trapped in a house that was filling with water, drowning and gasping for air. You make a mental note to mention the dream to your doctor later on.
7:00 am: Morning checks. A tech bangs on your door just as you have started to drift off into a sweet sleep again and informs you that you must be up for breakfast in thirty minutes. You incoherently moan something that resembles an “OK,” roll over and close your eyes again.
7:10 am: Brush your teeth, brush your hair, make your bed, and put on a sweatshirt.
7:15 am: You drag your exhausted body out of bed and grab a cup of the weakest, wateriest coffee you have ever ingested from the nurses station. You line up against the wall and prepare to be paraded down to the cafeteria.
7:30 am: Breakfast time. Today is Friday so it’s pancake day, which means spirits are high among the residents. Eggs with cheese, bacon, grits and cereal are also served in the cafeteria, which reminds you of the one that you ate in during your elementary school years. You opt for Cheerios, which you will eat by putting three at a time into your spoon (you are very ritualistic when it comes to your eating habits) and a few sips of black coffee.
7:45 am: You are put on one-on-one after each and every meal, which means a nurse must accompany you at all times because you are bulimic and they don’t trust you not to vomit up your food. This upsets you greatly and you cry.
8:30 am: Community group. You discuss at length the rules and regulations of the hospital (only use the phone for 10 minutes at a time, bath buckets are under no circumstances to be kept in your room, no towels or food in your rooms, no physical contact with other patients.) Someone complains that their book is missing, someone else cries about something you can’t even comprehend. Someone always cries during your meetings. You set a daily goal (to finish your book, do laundry) and share why you are here.
Most people are there for depression, some for anxiety, many for suicide attempts. One or two are there for insomnia, a few for manic episodes and one boy about your age is there for homicidal ideation. It isn’t as scary as it sounds, he is actually very sweet, close to your age and you are already starting to become close with him. His name is Todd and he beat up one of his friends for stealing his now ex-girlfriend. You yourself are there for a suicide attempt (flashback to overdosing on 3000 milligrams of Seroquel, sleeping for 36 hours and then slitting your wrists, slicing each artery, spewing blood all over the walls of your college dormitory.)
9:10 am: You meet with Dr. Williams, your amazing psychiatrist. He is a young man who always looks perpetually concerned; he is unbelievably kind and compassionate. He runs through the usual routine of questions: do you feel like hurting yourself, how are you sleeping, how is your mood (no, bad, depressed) and he takes you off of your lithium and ups your Abilify. He also prescribes you Ambien, which is stronger than the sleep medicine.
9:47 am: Code one! A 90-pound schizophrenic girl screams and punches the walls (she hears voices and sees monsters that aren’t there) and a code team is called to sedate and restrain her. Incidents like this are uncommon on your unit but not unheard of. They take her away, kicking and screaming.
10:00 am: You and Todd sit side by side reading a book and holding hands. His hand is rough and you can’t help but smile. He makes you a little less scared in an unfamiliar setting like this. A tech glares and scolds you for breaking the coveted “no-touching” policy.
11:30 am: Process group with your social workers. Today’s topic is “combating negative thoughts.” You do an exercise where you write a negative thought and three positive ones to counteract it. Several people cry when they read theirs and one man launches into an off-topic diatribe on the importance of exercise until the social worker, Tonya, politely cuts him off.
A short, older lady who claims to have once been a backup singer for Aerosmith preaches on bipolar disorder.
12:30 pm: Lunchtime. Pizza is being served today so everyone is in good spirits, except for you who is a diagnosed anorexic. You get a salad which you drown in mustard and pepper (anorexics have strange eating habits) and a Diet Coke. You don’t finish your salad and a tech tells you you’re going to lose points for not eating, which means you might have to stay longer. You cry.
1:00 pm: Vital signs are taken. They weigh you and make you stand backward on the scale.
1:15 pm: You drink a ton of coffee and experience a sugar/caffeine-induced mania and decide you’re going to start writing a book. A tech tells you to calm down and makes you drink a glass of water.
2:00 pm: Recreational therapy. You watch the movie “The Karate Kid” and popcorn is served. You don’t eat it, which gets noted in your chart by a tech.
2:30 pm: Education group. A short, older lady who claims to have once been a backup singer for Aerosmith preaches on bipolar disorder and the evils of not being compliant with medication.
4:00 pm: Visitation hour.
5:00 pm: Line up for dinner. Tonight is beef stroganoff (everyone groans) and steamed carrots. You don’t eat and spend dinner hour making an elaborate design out of your peas and carrots.
6:00 pm: You sketch a picture of Todd and he draws one of you. It’s true love.
8:00 pm: Closure group. You review the daily goals you set. Some people meet them, others don’t. You met both of yours (to finish your book and do laundry.) A lady who is in there for bipolar disorder breaks down and sobs for 20 minutes about not achieving her goal.
8:30 pm: Finally out of sight from the techs, you and Todd watch TV, his head in your lap, you stroking his hair.
9:00 pm: Night meds, a very popular time of evening for obvious reasons. Everyone races to be at the front of the line. You would think they were giving out hundred dollar bills and not psychiatric medication. You dutifully take your Seroquel and Gabitril for sleep and your Abilify for depression.
9:30 pm: Everyone hangs out in the common room, laughing and talking about anything and everything. You are a big happy family and for a moment, just a moment, you feel like a normal teenager who is not spending her summer in a mental hospital for being a depressive-borderline personality-bipolar-bulimic-anorexic mess. Life is good.
11:00 pm: “Lights out!” a nurse shouts. The manic patients and insomniacs groan in disdain. Todd kisses you when a tech isn’t looking and your heart melts.
11:15 pm: You happily drift off into a deep, medicated slumber, thinking that today was not all that bad and tomorrow probably won’t be either.
Mental hospitals are very misunderstood places. There is a certain stigma not only attached to being a patient in a mental hospital, but to the whole field of mental health to begin with. The people I met during my stay at Holly Hill were not crazy. They were not nuts. They just needed a little extra help and a safe, relaxing place to recuperate from their problems. Most of the people I met were perfectly normal, functioning members of society with jobs, families, friends and a positive future. Some were students, like myself.
Going to a mental hospital is nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed by and I encourage everyone to take that step if they find it necessary. Life can be overwhelming and sometimes we just need to heal. Holly Hill changed my life. I went in suicidal, depressed, and a terrified mess, and two months later, I came out, in the process of being healed, with new friends, and a new perspective on life. My hospitalization not only saved my life, it changed it.