When Things Get Bad: Being a Patient In a Psychiatric Hospital

This is a shot of the sunset over what used to be the Edmonton Municipal Airport. The planes on display, which you may have seen before in other posts are part of the aviation museum. It always kind of bothered me that they would put the last of the three up, a surface to air missile called “the Bomarc” This missile holds a lot of meaning for Canadians, because it was what we got in exchange for the Avro Arrow, the most famous of all Canadian planes that never went into production. The Bomarc on display is something I also disagree with because it was originally designed as a nuclear missile and like many of my time, nuclear war was a very real and scary possibility.

To get on to the stated topic, there is a lot to know about hospitals, especially psychiatric hospitals and psychiatric wards of ordinary hospitals. The first big thing that I didn’t like about being in a psychiatric hospital is that there is often very little medical help and poorly funded medical/dental help in these places. When I was 19 and had nearly destroyed my knees from too much running, I actually encountered staff members who purposely moved my room to the end of the long hallway of the ward I was on to discourage me from smoking, while at the same time being completely ignorant of the incredible pain and discomfort of my injuries and constant requests for tensor bandages, and even a few times, a wheelchair. I even tried to appeal to my Psychiatrist, who had taken the full training of a medical doctor and he simply told me, “oh, I forgot all that medical stuff years ago.” Then, somehow an appointment was made for me to see an orthopaedic surgeon, and after waiting just about the entire three months it took to see one, a nurse casually informed me that she had taken it upon herself to cancel my appointment because she didn’t think I needed it.

Funny enough though, being in the hospital can be a very productive time. One of the biggest problems is that while you are there you may be very ill mentally and not be able to participate in any of the programming that could help. Things like communication groups, anger management groups, can teach a person to better manage their lives and better communicate to others when they go out and try to rebuild something of a normal life. Something that has to be stressed though, is that the people you encounter are likely a good deal more sensitive about things than you realize. I can remember getting into trouble because some woman overheard me talking about sex. I was 20, I didn’t have many other topics on my mind. I didn’t even say anything to her, I got into trouble for talking to someone completely different than the person who complained. All I could do was suck it up and try not to bring up the subject.

The other problem I faced a number of times is with regards to a psychiatric hospital. The hospital I went to was divided into two major parts, one for forensics, and the other for people who hadn’t yet been convicted of a crime. Many times I ran across some very seriously bad people in the non-convict section I was in. I vividly remember a man who was on my ward to be assessed to see if he could get off a crime he had committed for mental health purposes, and he made some very serious threats to me. Should he have been in the forensics part the whole time? I honestly believe so, but the doctors didn’t see things that way. In a more recent visit, there was a guy from some middle eastern country who for some reason didn’t like me. One day we got into an argument and he attacked me. I was accused of starting the fight, but he was the one who tried to dig his nails into my carotid artery so he could end my life,

I really don’t want to scare people when I write this. I do admit that I am ranting though because these things never should have happened. What are some of the ways others can avoid serious problems like this? First of all, while it is a given that you need to be completely honest with your doctor about what is going on inside your head, you also need to communicate with the staff where you are a patient about people who are giving you problems/on your case. Most of the time the staff can deal with it. If you find yourself in a serious situation where you think someone is going to attack you like happened to me a number of times, the best thing to do is to assume a defensive stance, and yell for staff as loud as you can.

I can also recall though being assaulted by staff members. This seems almost impossible, but it was a daily reality for me when I was last in the hospital. It was a very difficult situation because my doctor was avoiding me completely and I was on medication that was not helpful at all. If he had talked to me, he might have realized that I needed a mood stabilizer, a pill for psychosis, and an anti-depressant, Instead he played golf or whatever they do when they don’t feel like doing their job. My family and I tried everything to have this situation dealt with, and nothing ever came of it, and the same Doctor was later made head Psychiatrist of the entire Hospital. But regardless, not being on proper meds made it almost impossible for me to think straight or be as pleasant as the staff preferred me to be, and as a result, with the express order from my absentee doctor that I should be placed in isolation at the first indication of problems, I was put through this torture. Once, when I was locked inside the isolation room for a long time, I put the plastic mattress up against the wall and slid behind it so they couldn’t see what I was doing. The staff member watching me came in and a fight ensued, I grabbed his ‘life call’ button and pressed it and all kinds of alarms went off and other staff came running from all over the hospital. As a result, with too many witnesses, I was spared a beating.

The fact is, most of the people who will end up looking at this blog will have been through the very difficult stages of being in a psychiatric hospital. What I am hoping to get across is that it is very important to have a good psychiatrist, and to be honest with them, take your medications and never miss your appointments, and when you feel your mental health is starting to deteriorate, get in touch with your doctor and try and get into a hospital ward for psychiatry rather than a psychiatric hospital.

Then comes the day to day business of surviving as a patient. I recall that my time was best spent in the hospital reading and listening to classical music. Reading was difficult, and many of you may too find the same thing. Often when you are in the hospital you are getting your medications changed around and until you get used to them it can be hard to concentrate. I do like to remind people though that with medications, it takes time for them to work, time for your body to adapt to them, and there is also a period of time that you need to adapt to how they affect you. I take a number of pills and they make my hands shake, but now after 15 years on a similar dose, I know how to function. My typing speed and pool game aren’t what they used to be, but I can function, and I can maintain my mental health.

There is another factor that I have encountered regarding hospital visits. It is a difficult thing to go into a hospital and adapt to the conditions there. You need to get used to the food, the institutional air (which people often feel contains some kind of funny gas, but the doctors breathe it too). Then, you adjust, you get to know a few people who are patients, a few staff members and doctors. Then you are deemed well again and sent home where you go through another serious adjustment. When you are leaving, this is the time first of all to get yourself involved in life skills classes or support groups in your community. Make sure and rekindle any neglected relationships, this is when you are really going to need your friends. The one thing you have to be careful about is trying to form long-term relationships, be they friendships or romantic involvement, or even friendship with a staff member. First of all, staff members may seem friendly and nice, but they have professional ethics, plus may not like the idea of having to interact with people when they aren’t getting paid. This happened to me when a doctor and a nurse who I thought cared simply dropped my case and never said another word to me because they didn’t feel I was trying hard enough. In my mom’s case, she had the same nurse/therapist for years and tried calling her up at her office one day after their professional relationship ended, and she was devastated to learn the nurse wouldn’t even say one word to her.

As far as friendships and romantic involvements go, it can be nice to sit down with people and talk after going through therapy and dealing with the same food and the same staff members. But everyone who is there as a patient is there for a reason, most likely a very serious reason and it almost always ends up in disaster when you try to continue these friendships outside the hospital. Once I met a young woman who was an independent film maker and I showed her a copy of my book. We seemed to get along great, there were some great positive things about her. But shortly after she was released from the hospital she accused me of stealing her manuscript (my first work of non-fiction, “Through the Withering Storm”) and then accused me of “stealing Ian’s treasure box” which I don’t even know a thing about. There were other problems. Once I met a guy who was supposedly going to help me get my truck driving license and I simply never saw him again.

This one is getting long, so I am going to mention one last thing. If you feel your mental health is deteriorating, do everything you can to stay out of the hospital, but make sure there is someone who cares to help you decide when the breaking point will be. Keep a bag by your door with a few things you will need to help get you through the difficult days at the hospital. A radio with headphones can be a lifesaver. Simple to finish puzzles can also help. Then a few hygiene essentials such as toothpaste, toothbrush, etc. and a change or two of clothing. It is often best (unless you have made an attempt at suicide) to get a ride or take a cab to the emergency department. Many paramedics get pretty snarky when you don’t appear to have any surface problems even when your life is falling apart on the inside. Your bag could include $10 for a cab ride if you so choose. It would also be good to bring a small journal, which could be used for many things, including a sort of diary for how your mental health progress is coming. Don’t be afraid to write down some goals related to your recovery, and even some goals you just want to do to have something to look forward to. And please, please understand that many people do care and that there is a way, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You won’t be a hospital patient forever, and everyone can have a full and productive, happy life, even with a mental illness.

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