My first impressions of the London Ontario psych ward were nightmarish. A nurse had led me to an elevator taking me from the ER up to the seventh floor of Victoria Hospital (everyone just called it South Street Hospital). She handed me off to another nurse who lead me through a dark hallway carpeted in an ugly puke brown. I gazed in horror at the people around me:
A ragged man standing outside the nurses’ station, leering at me over his cane. He was missing a finger.
An old woman, thin and bewildered, clutching at her robe around her thin frame, shaking. Her eyes were like saucers.
A young girl behind me in the A.C.U. (Acute Care Unit) pressed her face against the glass, breathing heavily until she fogged up the window, encircling her head like a ghost.
It was a relief to be led into a small room and have the door shut behind me. The first nurse passed me on to a second, who sat me down and took my temperature, pulse, and weighed me. “So, what brought you here today?”
I sighed. I’d been asked this about six times already by different people in the E.R. Didn’t any of the staff talk to each other?
“I was sent to the E.R. after talking to a psychologist at my school.”
“Did you express desires to hurt yourself?”
“Well, I’d cut myself a lot and had been thinking about taking pills.”
“Overdosing to kill yourself?”
I looked at the floor, humiliated and cornered. I wanted out of there, I wanted to flag a car down and hop in with a stranger, begging him or her to just take me as far away as possible.
I stayed in that little room with the nurse for probably forty-five minutes, recounting the details of my life that made me feel so bad that I wanted to die. The more I talked the safer I felt with the woman, and by the time the intake assessment was finished I didn’t want her to leave my side. I didn’t want to go back onto the ward with those people, those freaks.
“Well, it’s 8:00 so I’m off for the night. Matt will be your nurse now, after we’ve done the ____”
I stared in disbelief. The first person I trusted in that hell hole was leaving. Wonderful.
Before she left the nurse took me to my room right across from the nurse’s station. It had two beds in it but my roommate was out of the room. I pulled the curtain around my bed and sat down exhausted. I picked up my hard plastic coated pillow and buried my face in it.
A little while later my new nurse came in the room. “Are you okay? You’re clutching that pillow pretty tight.”
I didn’t like his tone. I didn’t like him. “I’m fine.”
“You sure? Well I’ll be back in a bit. Someone is going to be checking on you every half hour until you’ve been here for a bit.”
Suddenly I had to get out of the room. I didn’t want to be found, checked up on like I was cookies ready to burn in the stove. To this day I don’t understand how I summoned the courage to go talk to the other patients but something in me knew that I’d feel better after meeting a few of them.
I walked down the long hallway until I reached the tv room. There were maybe ten people in there watching Friends. I sat down in an uncomfortable squarish chair and nervously looked from one face to another, stopping abruptly at a familiar face. Awkwardly I stood and tried to make my way over to the girl without getting in the way of the tv screen.
“Are you Laura?” I whispered.
She looked at me, “Yes. Oh my god, Erin!”
She led me from the tv room into the hallway and smiled. “I can’t believe you’re here.”
We’d met at summer camp two years before. Over the next hour or so she showed me around and introduced me to other patients. Everyone was so nice and welcoming I couldn’t believe it. Sure, we all looked and felt like hell but at least we had that in common.
I met the man with the missing finger and surprisingly he seemed pretty normal. I met a woman with a perfectly circular bruise around her eye. She told me she was staying the night until she could be transferred to the women’s shelter. The older woman who had looked so scared when I arrived had calmed down and laughed easily when we were introduced. Later we’d become good friends and stay in touch outside of the hospital.
The next day I met the girl who had breathed against the glass of the ACU when I’d arrived. An orderly was taking her downstairs for a cigarette and she introduced herself as Autumn. “That’s not your name!” the orderly laughed and the girl smiled at me. She seemed pretty out of it but later we’d get to know each other by our real names and she would give me her Fiona Apple CD.
That admission lasted about three weeks; it was my first of many. I stopped counting at eight admissions, but there are many stories in there that I will share with you in the future.
It was fucking frightening as hell to become a ‘mental patient’ but I soon learned that every mental patient was a normal human being like me whose life had gone off track. I had many bad experiences in the hospital too, but for a while it was a safe haven for me as a teenager when life had become too out of control back at home.
I miss those days of having friends that liked and supported me when I was at my worst. There’s something about being in the hospital that makes friendship much simpler. For a while you share everything with each other, nurses and doctors, shower rooms, tv rooms, meal times and passes downstairs. You have a bond between choosing death and then choosing life.
Anyway, I hope this post has dispelled some of the stigma surrounding being admitted to a psych ward, but as I stated above, the is only the tip of the iceberg. Later on I would reach the large chunk of ice floating under the freezing sea water, alone and adrift.