My stay in a psychiatric hospital

Now before you think I am confiding a deep dark secret, it is nothing of the sort. To this day, I find myself occasionally mentioning my stay in a psychiatric hospital to a friend or even acquaintance during casual conversation, usually with no warning. Why would I do that? I’m not quite sure. Maybe I find it amusing, maybe I like to shock or maybe I like to challenge preconceived beliefs about psychiatric facilities and the people who attend them. All I know is that I am definitely not ashamed or embarrassed.

My sister recommended the mother-baby unit of the private psychiatric hospital to me because she had a friend with post natal depression who found it very helpful. My family noticed that my anxiety levels were excessively high even for me.

I was able to look after all my baby (Damian) and toddler’s (Jeremy’s) needs. I fed and entertained them. I washed and dried them, their clothes and their cloth nappies but my husband did everything else in the house including feeding me and I was so sleep deprived that I cried about it. I was so anxious that I avoided leaving the house at all for the first few months after my baby was born.

It’s possible the turning point was when one of my sisters saw how hairy my legs were when she came to visit, I remember her look of horror but it only made me want to laugh. However, I recognised that it was about time I tried something different to manage my lifelong difficulties with anxiety and I saw the potential for more sleep with only Damian to take care of in hospital.

I had begged the hospital staff over the phone to admit me as soon as possible, making sure to communicate the extent of my inability to cope and sobbing loudly into the receiver. I distinctly remember a nurse asking me “Do you have any concerns about your baby’s health?” I didn’t and I answered as much but I assumed that it must have been a key question to decide if we needed psychiatric care. That was my first clue about the prejudice that many of us inpatients would be faced with.

The ward looked like any other hospital ward with a nurse’s station near the entrance and patient rooms down the sides of a long corridor interspersed with a communal kitchenette, a lounge room and a couple of small meeting rooms. When I entered the ward for the first time, I remember feeling concerned that one of the psychiatric patients from the other levels of the hospital could easily walk into the rooms and take my baby. Unfortunately, I had been unduly influenced by the media portrayals of people with mental illness, which are not very well-balanced. It makes for better ratings when the media appeals to our worst fears.

Not long afterwards, I was also feeling a little wary when I noticed my unwell-looking room neighbour mumbling to herself angrily as she entered her room but later I realised that she was talking on her mobile and had a bad case of the flu. Now I can say with certainty that she was the loveliest and most trustworthy person I have ever met.

We had a weekly schedule to follow, group meetings/ counselling sessions with the nurses and consultants and meetings with our individual psychiatrists. My psychiatrist prescribed me a low dose of a common anxiety medication and for the first time in my life I felt a blissful calm feeling.

I attended my first group meeting dressed in tracksuit pants and slippers and to my embarrassment I noticed that all the other mothers were well dressed. I didn’t make that mistake again. It seems that even though we were unwell enough to be in hospital we still had to keep up appearances, which was an annoyance to me. No wonder I hadn’t wanted to leave the house. I had very little room for extra effort.

During my first break (when Damian was fast asleep), I ventured into the empty communal lounge and took out my bright red ukulele and some sheet music that I had printed off the internet. I brought it with me intending to learn how to use it while Damian slept. I took a few strums and realised that it was going to be more difficult than I thought to learn an instrument. I also decided that it was probably an abnormal thing to do anyway (even in a psychiatric hospital or especially in a psychiatric hospital, I’m not sure which), so I didn’t bother picking it up again after that. Instead I just read the women’s magazines lying around the place but it was still a luxury.

One of the nurses tried to analyse me after I had divulged half my life story and failed dismally by interrupting and trying to complete my sentences with incorrect assumptions. She was the nurse everyone loved because she was so confident and funny, but she never took to me. It seemed that even in a psychiatric ward I was going to be the most different and least popular person. My interpretations of picture cards and discussions during group sessions often differed to the majority view as well. I didn’t know at that time that I was autistic.

One thing I did well was entertain my baby; I had plenty of practice entertaining my first-born because Jeremy was only ever content as a baby when I entertained him with songs, books, dancing, games and new experiences. It was nice to be given compliments about my interactions with my baby. At least I seemed to be doing something right, even though it was different yet again.

I had trouble sleeping in the ward because of the constant noise, my toilet leaked constantly, the cot rattled, babies cried and to top it all off it was Occupational Health and Safety protocol for the nursing staff to come into your room and shine a torch in your face every two hours at night-time. I protested and complained about the process but none of the other patients seemed to care and the nursing staff just nodded and shook their heads about me behind closed doors. Don’t they know that uninterrupted sleep is important for good mental health?

I started talking about wanting to leave because I was getting less sleep than I had at home, I even resorted to sleeping pills, and my mum and husband weren’t coping very well with Jeremy’s behaviour and sleep patterns. It was then that I found out that I wasn’t allowed to leave until the psychiatrist determined my mental health to be much improved. But what happens when the hospital is bad for your mental health? That was a shock, after all I had entered voluntarily and I didn’t have any suicidal thoughts. Where were my rights? I wasn’t even allowed to go for a walk outside without the psychiatrist signing off with an acceptable date and time, if it was acceptable at all. Didn’t they know that exercise is good for mental health?

The nurses always thought they knew best with regard to our babies. One day, towards the end of my stay, they tried to verbally bully us into waking our babies up one day to go to a supervised outing at the coffee shop across the road but one of the mum’s was more assertive (once they got her medication right) and she told them in no uncertain terms that she was not going to disturb her baby’s sleep for it. Although I wouldn’t have been brave enough to defy their instructions alone, with her beside me there was safety in numbers and so I also refused to wake my baby up to attend. I felt empowered but I’m sure they recorded our non-compliance in our medical histories.

One of the nurses had dared to say to a couple of us that she didn’t believe in reflux and that she believed that it was just a sign of anxiety in the mothers. I told her in a firm voice that was not true and that Gastro-oesophageal Reflux Disease (GORD) was a medically accepted diagnosis, one which my toddler had until he was 18 months of age (facts are something I feel more comfortable asserting myself with). The nurses would try to counsel us out of our concerns about our babies but I believe to this day that the mothers with concerns about their baby’s health were probably very perceptive and would later find those concerns to be validated. Both my sons were later diagnosed with autism.

Ironically, an insignificant event worked in my favour for early release. I had always insisted on carrying a baby monitor around with me so that I could attend to Damian when he woke from his naps. The nursing staff didn’t like baby monitors because they believed it was a sign of excessive anxiety and they said that they would let me know when he woke. But my babies never screamed like the other babies did, they grunted. Their vocalisations were different (autism-related). I knew that they wouldn’t hear Damian when he awoke and that he would be very distressed by the time they attended to him. It was the day I forgot to take my baby monitor to my psychiatrist appointment that the psychiatrist was satisfied enough to say that I was ready to be discharged (because I had forgotten the baby monitor) and sure enough when I got back to the ward there were no nurses at the station and my baby was screaming, no doubt having been awake for a long time unattended.

I did find several things about my stay to be valuable for my mental health, even though I wish I had of learned them through a different process (online preferably):

  • The right medication for anxiety and depression can be really helpful. Other patients’ experiences also showed me that the wrong medication can make things a lot worse
  • Having time alone without children, such as 30 minutes a day can be very beneficial
  • Accepting that even with treatment you will experience anxiety from time to time (and not being afraid of it) was also helpful for me
  • Cloth nappies are not for everyone
  • and last but not least, there should be no place for ignorance in healthcare institutions.

Mental health helpline contact details follow: