Hospitalized at 16

I had never even met with a counselor before, much less a psychiatrist.  So naturally it never even occurred to me that my parents would do something like hospitalize me.  Yes, my behavior was out of control, but I was 16 and my hormones were going wild and I was terribly depressed and confused and of course, unmedicated.  I was acting out and engaging in reckless behavior, skipping school, smoking cigarettes, cutting my arms, and I was shaving parts of my head. I had been dressing all in black and staying in my room alone, listening to depressing music. I never wanted to go out or do anything. I barely ate or slept. I sat in the dark and wrote poems about death.  These days, I’d just be called goth or emo, but back then it wasn’t an acceptable lifestyle. Naturally my parents assumed I was on drugs.  The truth was I’d never even smoked pot before! But they decided to send me out of town to a fancy hospital where young people were treated for behavioral problems and substance abuse.

They had to lie to me to get me there.  They said we were taking a weekend trip, which didn’t seem unusual since my family traveled a lot, but I was pissed that they were making me go with them.  I climbed in the backseat of the car and sulked for the hour’s drive to the hospital.  Of course, I didn’t realize we were going to a hospital until we were there.  Before I knew what was happening, some people dressed in white grabbed my arms and started pulling me towards the door, all the while telling me to relax and not fight them.  RELAX?  When strangers are assaulting me? When I’m being forcefully taken inside what looks to me like a prison, it’s difficult to relax and stay calm.  I started screaming curse words at the nurses, my parents (who disappeared as soon as they’d taken my suitcase out of the trunk; they didn’t even say goodbye) and anyone within earshot.  I was furious with my parents, for lying to me, for deceiving me, for leaving me in such a place.  At first I didn’t know where I was or what was happening so I thought maybe they’d shipped me off to a half-way house. I was both angry and scared.  I remember a desk and some papers I had to sign….they wanted me to read a bunch of crap and then sign if I agreed to it but I didn’t bother to read it-I didn’t give a shit what those papers said.  I just wanted to be alone.  Just leave me the fuck alone, I thought, or maybe I screamed, I can’t remember now.

I do remember this part quite well–the strip search.  The nearly-unbearable humiliation of the strip search.  Full body cavity search, performed by a very large football-playerish woman, and just to be clear I had to stand there completely naked and let her touch me. Everywhere.  Even inside of me. God-I swear I just felt a chill run up my back.  I haven’t thought about these events in many, many years.  Apparently, they still get to me though.  She was checking for drugs I suppose, or razor blades or anything else I might use to hurt myself with. The funny thing, if you can call it that, was that I’d recently been sick with mono, and so I had these bruises on my inner arms where the doctors had drawn blood.  Well, to the people at the hospital, these were “tracks” and this made me look like a heroin addict. They started asking about all the drugs I used.  I tried to tell them that I’d never used any drugs at all, but they told me that “Denial is the first sign of addiction” and so I had to get drug tested at random times throughout the course of my stay.  I don’t think I ever actually convinced them I was drug-free, despite my clean urine tests. Interestingly enough, not only was I the only person there who did NOT have a drug or alcohol problem, but I learned more about drugs and how to use them and how to hide them than I ever could have learned on my own.

I was placed on Suicide Watch, which meant another nurse came into my room and unpacked my suitcase and removed any and every little thing that I might possibly find a way to self-harm with.  She took my belts, my shoelaces, my ink pens, my jewelry, my razor (of course), my toothpaste, my mouthwash, and any other liquid I had in my suitcase.  I didn’t see the point in all of that, but I was powerless to stop it.  The whole while she was searching my things, I was being watched.  I found out the next day that being watched was going to be my norm for months.  I wasn’t allowed to take a shower without a nurse in the bathroom with me, watching. I was not allowed to shave my legs.  I was given toothpaste to brush my teeth with, but was not allowed to have it in my bathroom. (Did you know that you can die from eating toothpaste?) I was watched every moment of every day.  I had to have a witness go with me whenever I went to pee. Talk about embarrassing!  I was lower than low already, and the humiliation of all of this just compounded my feelings of hopelessness and despair.

One day I was caught staring out of a window, and because they took this as a sign I might be planning to jump out of it, I was punished and sent to isolation.  This was a tiny room with no windows and only a mattress.  If I had to use the bathroom, I had to call for the nurse, who escorted me to the bathroom, watched me do my business, then took me back to my little cave.  I’m not sure how many days they kept me in isolation; I have no sense of time anyway, plus without windows I couldn’t tell if it was day or night.  After I was allowed to go back to my room, I found I now had a roommate.  She was mean.  I did not like her, so I chose not to speak to her. She’d threaten me at times or curse at me, but I just stayed silent. I really didn’t talk to anyone much the whole time I was hospitalized. I had no interest in making friends. I had nothing in common with these people-they were all junkies or sex addicts or criminals in my mind. I was different.  I was just depressed.

Every morning we were awakened at the crack of dawn and sent to a large sitting room, where we had “morning meditation”.  The counselors gave us pep talks and read “inspirational” materials to us. We were given our schedule for the day and released to go dress for breakfast.  I wasn’t actually allowed to go down to the cafeteria with the rest of the group, as I was on suicide watch.  I ate alone at a table in the corner of the sitting room, supervised by an orderly, and given only a plastic spoon to eat with.  I guess they thought I might hurt myself with a plastic fork.  Anyway, this whole eating in silence thing lasted for about a month and a half.  After that, I had earned the privilege to go to the lunchroom with the rest of the group, but I was still only allowed plastic utensils.  The nurses circled our table, making sure we were actually eating, and we were not allowed to leave unless we’d consumed what they considered to be an acceptable amount of food. This was hard to do, as the food was terrible and I’m so finicky anyway.  But I loved mealtimes, as it was one of the only times I got to leave the ward and see evidence of the outside world.  There were windows in the cafeteria, so I would gaze at the trees and watch the birds and dream of running away.

After breakfast, we went to “school”. I sat in a classroom with kids of all ages and was given assignments, which to me were quite simple and so I used most of my classroom time to draw or write depressing poetry.  Class time was the only time I was allowed to use a pencil, and I would sketch and write letters to my friends back home (not sure if those letters ever actually got mailed).  After school was over, we had gym.  Now when I’d been at my high-school, I’d gotten out of taking gym by being the teacher’s aide in the art department.  I hated exercising. But since it was so friggin’ boring in this place, I began to work out in the weight room (supervised of course) and by the time I got to leave the hospital I had lost weight and toned up a good bit.

After gym, we were allowed to shower (again, I was watched) and then got to rest for half an hour, and then we went to group therapy.  This was when all the patients sat in a circle and we went around the room and talked about what was wrong with us.  Everyone had all these exciting tales of drug use and promiscuous sex and shoplifting, but I was innocent.  I had no stories to tell. I was a drug-free virgin.  I remember my shock upon meeting this one little girl who was 11 years old and who slept with men in their 30’s; she guessed that she’d had sex with over 25 men.  I just couldn’t believe it.  I always listened to everyone’s stories with great interest, because my stories were so boring.  I mean, I looked like a delinquent, but I didn’t actually do anything wrong. It seems there may have been a suicide attempt at one point in my teens, but I don’t really remember that; I just have a scar on my left wrist to show where I’d cut myself. This was the reason I was kept on suicide watch throughout my stay.

What I longed to do was go outside though.  We were never allowed outside of the hospital.  I didn’t feel the sun on my face for over 3 months.  And I don’t even like the sun, but I was really just wanting to get away from the cold, clinical, all-white rooms which were all I saw every day.  The highlight of the day was when we got smoke break.  I guess this ages me, but back then there were no laws preventing teens from smoking.  So every day at the same time, all the smokers (which was pretty much everyone on that floor) got to congregate in the recreation room and smoke cigarettes.  The lighter was mounted to the wall, one of those things which got hot but didn’t actually have a flame, and it had bars over it so that none of us could burn ourselves.  There was just enough space between these bars to fit a cigarette into, and that was how we lit our cigarettes. Naturally we were closely watched during smoke break. We were all allowed one pack of cigarettes per week; if you ran out, too bad. 

Now there were very strict rules at this hospital, and one of the rules was that we were not allowed to share things with the other patients.  One day, a boy had no cigarettes, and I felt bad for him, as he’d been brought in a few days before, all bloody from having punched through a window while high on cocaine. So I gave him a cigarette.  Just one.  And that’s all it took.  He and I were both punished for a week, in isolation, in 2 separate locations of course.  After my second stint in isolation, I followed the rules. Now every other day I was visited by a psychiatrist, who determined that I was Bipolar (except at that time it was called Manic-Depressive) and I was placed on Lithium and some anti-depressants. I hated that doctor, and I’ll be specific as to why.  She actually had the nerve to tell me one day that I would NOT be depressed if I only dressed in colorful clothes!  She said I felt bad because of how I looked. I was livid, and argued with her about this matter until the day I was released.  I never gave in to her wishes.  I continued to wear my all-black wardrobe.  She did NOT like that at all.

One day, she told me that I was going to be allowed a parental visit.  I had mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, I loved and missed them, but on the other hand I was still very angry with them for sticking me in such a hell-hole.  I recall the day quite vividly, as it was the first time I was allowed to go outside the building in 3 months. I loved the feel of the sun on my skin and the cool breeze…I got to go out to lunch with my folks, and of course they had a million questions, to which I gave the answers I thought they’d want to hear.  I lied and said I wasn’t so depressed anymore.  I told them I wanted to come home.  But it’d be another month before that would happen. When I got back to the hospital, I was strip-searched again.  Also, the gift of chocolates my mother had given me was confiscated, because apparently there is a drug in chocolate and I wasn’t allowed any stimulants of any kind. No coffee, no soda. Another thing they did was take away the stamps my father gave me with which to mail them letters. The nurse told me that in the past patients had used postage stamps to smuggle in LSD, so they were forbidden.

Although I was only there for about 4 months, it felt like years. Afterwards, when I told my parents how I’d been treated-the strip searches, the supervised bathroom visits, the isolation room-they felt terribly guilty about having made me go through such an ordeal. In an attempt to make up for it, they bought me a new car.  I don’t think they ever understood just how horrible the whole experience had been for me, though, because after my discharge I was still made to visit that same psychiatrist for about a year or so.  She was a bitch. I resented the fact that she drove a different luxury sports car every time I saw her; I decided she only went into psychiatry for the money.  One day, my parents were told to come with me for a family session. At some point the doctor told my parents that they had, in fact, played a role in my becoming so depressed and out of control.  My parents were furious at this accusation, and my father cursed at the doctor and pulled me out of there and I never saw her again. I was taken off the medication (my father decided she’d just been drugging me to bill the insurance company) and I wouldn’t have another doctor for a few years.  In that time period, I got much, much worse, but I hid this from my parents, for fear I’d be sent back to a hospital.

This was not the only time I’ve ever been hospitalized, this was just the first time.  To this day, I am absolutely terrified of psychiatric hospitals because of the horrible experiences I had while I was in this place.  I tried talking to my current psychiatrist about my nightmares of this hospital stay just the other day, and she told me that things like that simply do not happen in psych hospitals these days.  She thinks my memories are delusions or false memories or something.  But I know better.  I had nightmares for years after this little hospital stint.  I’ve been sent back to hospitals several times since then, but I’ve never had to stay as long as I did this first visit.  And to this day, I get a chill up my spine when I drive past such a hospital.  They scare the living shit out of me. Because of this fact, I have been lying to my psychiatrists for years about my true thoughts and actions; I’m scared that if I tell the truth, I’ll be locked up again. I don’t think I could handle that. In therapy this week, my shrink talked about how she believed in hospitalization for patients with severe symptoms. This haunts me. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to open up to her again, I’m too afraid.