The first time I was admitted to South Street hospital was in January 2001. I had been in crisis since around October 2000, shortly after meeting a new boyfriend. I had begun self harming with increasing frequency. I was struggling with overwhelming memories of the sexual and emotional abuse I had survived as a teenager which I had almost blocked from my consciousness.
I was 20 years old.
When the memories began to resurface one day in the middle of a lecture a lecture hall at the University of Western Ontario I had an intense panic attack. My brain was overwhelmed with connections being made and I felt incredibly unsafe, wanting to run. I started having regular panic attacks at school and I became increasingly depressed and socially isolated.
One day I called the local Mental Health Crisis line. It seemed like a reasonable idea. The person I spoke to realized that I had no resources in the city and offered me an appointment with the psychiatrist who saw patients once a week at the Mental Health Crisis office. Seeing little other option, and feeling it was logical to accept any help that was offered to me I went a few days later to meet with the Dr.
Dr X will remain nameless in this blog. Anyone living in London, Ontario who has accessed emergency psychiatric care within the last 20 years probably knows him and his snakeskin boots well. 15 years later I still can’t see snakeskin boots without shuddering.
As my mental health unraveled in the following weeks Dr. X offered to admit me to the hospital. The plan was to start me on some psychiatric medication and to stabilize me. By that time I was barely sleeping or eating and I was desperate. I believed that doctors helped people who were sick and that the hospital could be a safe place.
My first admission was on 8 East. The top floor of the hospital, where Dr. X’s offices were located in another wing. I barely remember going to the hospital or what happened when I first arrived.
What I do remember is being terrified.
My nurse was a kind man named Grant. He took me to my room. It was evening and I was handed a bunch of pills. I didn’t know what they all were but I took them. The rest of the evening is a blur. I was told later that a friend of mine came to see me, but I have no recollection of it. My first experience with anti-anxiety medication and sleeping medication all mixed together and I remember nothing. At some point my boyfriend at the time must have left, visiting hours ended.
I woke up early the next morning, suddenly aware of my surroundings. At this point I was beyond afraid, I was almost frozen with terror. What had I gotten myself into?
It was a fairly small hospital room. I had one roommate and there was a bathroom with a toilet and sink. I remember a lot of greens and beiges and linoleum floors. My bed was by the window and my roommate’s bed was by the large metal door. There was a curtain separation our beds, I think it was green. There was an antiseptic hospital smell in the air, the sheets smelled institutional. If you don’t know what institutional smells like, sniff the sheets and blankets in any hospital.
The door to the room was closed. I was curious about what was going on in the hallway. Would breakfast arrive? Was I allowed to leave my room? How many other patients were there on the unit? Where was I allowed to go? What was I supposed to do? Would the nurse come back to answer my questions?
At last, I worked up enough courage to open the door, just a crack, enough to see out into the hallway. My heart was racing. The hallway was empty and quiet. I could see other doors which looked like mine. I could see what I assumed was the nursing station, with its glass wall, diagonally across from my room. At each end of the short, corridor were locked doors. I knew one led off the unit, to the elevators and freedom, but I didn’t know where the other one went.
I remember going back and sitting on my bed and just waiting, too afraid to leave my room.
Finally, my nurse Grant arrived. He explained some things, that meals would be delivered on a tray, showed me where the shower was, how to ask for help at the nursing station etc. He also brought a little paper cup filled with tiny plastic bags, each one contained a single pill. Morning medication. He checked my hospital bracelet, matching the ID # to the little bags of pills. I took the pills without questions. I was here to get better right? The doctor is an expert, he knows what is best.
I don’t remember very much about that admission except the intense panic I felt and how desperately I wanted to leave almost the moment I got there.
I realized very quickly that the psych ward was filled with other sick people. This atmosphere was not always the most conducive to my healing. My first roommate had an eating disorder and insisted on talking about it graphically to me. She was taking huge amount of laxative pills in our room. I also struggle with anorexia, which at that time was fairly well managed. I remember being confused, didn’t this woman want to get help? Why didn’t the staff take away the medications she was abusing? Why was she sharing triggering details of her eating disorder behaviour with me? Didn’t she know I was here to get better?
After less than 48 hours, I had had enough and I learned, during my very first inpatient admission, the vital skill of the psychiatric survivor. How to tell carefully crafted lies (or sometimes desperate unplanned lies) to hospital staff to get yourself out of sticky situations.
I told Dr. X I was feeling better. I would take the medications at home and see him as an outpatient. I was there voluntarily so he allowed me to leave.
Less than 48 hours later, head spinning, on a cocktail of psychotropic drugs I was home.
I didn’t know at that time that this was the start of a vicious cycle of becoming desperate, seeking help at the hospital, experiencing trauma at the hospital, running home, problems unsolved, becoming desperate again and REPEAT. This cycle continued and escalated for the better part of 4 years.