**If you haven’t already read part one, go to the previous post and start there!
My first encounter with the psychiatric facility was a small white room. It was furnished with only a plastic-covered couch. Just like the movies, it was incredibly sterile and even more lonely. I laid on the couch for what felt like hours, as the exhaustion of the day’s events finally caught up to me. Although I had been told at the hospital that it was possible I would get to go home from here, I was quickly informed that the admitting process had already begun. It would be four days, and no amount of screaming or crying would change that. If anything, it would just prolong my stay. I fell into a defeated silence. It’s funny, but the one thing that sticks out in my mind during this time was how my shirt felt: soaked from tears and stretched from fighting. It suddenly felt dirty and uncomfortable, and I was hyperaware of it.
The next step was a strip search. Again, I was taken aback by how little these healthcare professionals knew about OCD- a mental illness- in a mental hospital. When I told them my clothes couldn’t touch the ground or the bathroom sink, they stared at me blankly. There were no special accommodations here, and no exceptions. I’m not sure how I got through this day, or the ones that followed, as I am still horrified by the details. I think it’s a perfect example of suppression in order to survive. The human mind is powerful and incredibly resilient.
My roommate was a prostitute (or so she said), and a schizophrenic. She screamed a lot. I don’t say this to be judgmental, these were simply facts. I retired to my bed (a plastic mattress in a wood frame, kind of like a dorm) and refused to move. I was encouraged to attend “group sessions.” Yeah, right. If I had to stay here for four days I would just carry out my sentence catching up on some sleep. Or so I thought. I kept shutting my eyes really tight and opening them again, as if trying to wake up from a bad dream. Me, Caroline Brent, former high school cheerleader, magna cum laude graduate from Auburn University, damn good nurse, lover of nights out on the town, traveling, reading, and writing… sitting in the “crazy house.” **I call it this because I’m trying to make a point, so please do not be offended. At this time, that’s what I knew it as. Many people still call these facilities by this name. I will never use the word “crazy” again, but it’s because I know better.
I was angry. So, so angry. At anyone and everyone. Angry that I couldn’t articulate how I was feeling, angry that those close to me couldn’t relate, and angry most of all that this happened to me. For this reason, I denied contact with my parents or friends for the first days I was institutionalized. To be honest, the only reason I finally opened the lines of communication again was because I needed clothes. It’s a good thing, though, because you need people in your corner. Life is far too messy, and I was in a situation far too sticky, to go it alone. I digress.
I was admitted in the early afternoon, and by dinnertime I figured I should try to eat. I wasn’t eating much as is, but this day was especially taxing on my body and I had used up all my energy reserves. When I walked out into the general population, I immediately saw a familiar face. We will call her *Sarah, and I had known her for many years. Although we had never been close, we instantly connected here. She, along with two others, were my saving grace. We walked into the cafeteria and sat down together. Three others joined us, as Sarah had already connected with them. I looked at the line for food, but my stomach instantly twisted into knots. I had stayed seated, unsure if I would even be able to eat, when *Sam first spoke to me. “You have to eat. You have to show them what they want to see, or you’ll never get out of here.” I remember him saying these word so clearly, because I later found so much truth to them. Even with all the advancements our society has made, there is still very few resources and very little understanding for mental illness. It’s simply swept under the rug.
I remember my meal of choice for the entirety of my stay, because it was so bizarre: A cup of croutons, shredded cheese, and ranch. Thats it. I’m a picky eater normally, but this was a new level. I had to eat though, and this was the only combination I could stomach. Just as Sam said, the employees would sit and watch us, taking notes. It was almost like we were in a big experiment- animals being tested and observed.
Sarah, Sam, and I were inseparable for the duration of my four days. Along with *Cody. Cody was significantly younger than the rest of us, and was incredibly kind and gentle. The kind of person you want to keep close and protect. He was admitted for suicidal ideations, which broke my heart. People are mean, and school is hard. Another shocking fact about my stay? More than half of the patients were admitted for suicidal thoughts or attempts. The others were in for drug detox. I only met two patients who were in states of psychosis, like the ones you see in mental hospitals in movies. So, if these places are housing so many hurt and hurting individuals, why are they/we being treated as untouchables? Sterility, disdain, judgement… the list goes on. How much more would these people benefit from some empathy? An ear that actually listens? A safe place to unload feelings that are crippling and destructive?
The rest of my days consisted, more or less, of preschool activities. I’m not kidding. Puzzle time, snack time, ball-throwing activities, and outdoor time. When I say outdoor time, think prison. A fenced in yard, maybe the size of half of a basketball court, with a big concrete slab. We laid on that slab and talked about life outside of here. We played four square, and laughed at our circumstances. Even at night, an employee would come in with a flashlight to make sure we were still breathing. Every hour, on the hour. We weren’t allowed shoe laces, drawstrings, cutlery, makeup… the list goes on. Such a strange, alternate reality. It was almost like we escaped life for just a minute. Like everyone went on living, but were were in a place where time stood still.
Sam and I became the closest, as we were going through very similar circumstances. We spent our free time writing and reading, unloading and venting. He was my safe haven in this dark place. I want to a take a moment here to remember Sam. He has since passed away… taking his own life. It is his story, and so many others like his, that keep me from staying silent. His spirit was so good. He was kind and selfless and genuine. I refuse to let these people fall through the cracks of the system, and society, any longer. No more.
I had many surreal, ironic moments. There was an employee who was also a bouncer at a local bar. I recognized him, and he knew me. He said “You aren’t the type to be in here,” but I don’t think that’s the truth. I think we are all the “type” to be in need of a hard reset. The mind is complex, and can get stuck very dark places. This isn’t abnormal, unstable, or “crazy”… its LIFE. The inability, or unwillingness, to relate to this simple fact is why psychiatric facilities feel more like prisons. It’s why there is so much shame associated with illness of the mind. The stigma is so strong, for the simple fact that people fear what they do not understand.
I won’t go into detail about the care itself, because I am sure I will dedicate another post entirely to the shortcomings of mental illness resources. I will say that these four days were not enlightening. I did not have an epiphany, I wasn’t healed…. and honestly, I wasn’t even helped. Medication was thrown at me. My sessions with a psychiatrist were brief and void of all emotion. These places bring whole new meaning to the phrase, “Fake it till you make it.” I was acting. You put a smile on, you eat your meals, you color and draw and participate in group activities. You act fine. That is the only way out…And that is so very wrong.
Stepping out into the sunshine after four days of confinement, life was exactly as I knew it before. I still struggled through OCD treatment. I was still depressed and scared and anxious. It took me a long time to find healing and peace, and I definitely did not find any inside of those four walls. So, why did I tell you this? Was this whole story pointless? Did you waste five minutes of your life reading it? Ehh, depends.
More than anything, I tell my story so that you will understand how very messy life is. Everybody has their shit, and we are not entitled to judge anyone else’s mess. I once was institutionalized, but you would never know that if I didn’t tell you. My life online looks funny, light, and blessed. I try to keep it real, but even then you don’t see the darkness. Thats the human way, right? Going forward, I’m asking something big of you. I’m asking that you not only walk in someone’s shoes… but that you walk with them for as long as they need. That if you can’t understand someone, you make it your mission to do just that. What if THAT became the human way? What if, along with trading fashion tips and fitness advice… we also swapped shoulders to lean on? It’s not a revolutionary thought, but one that I am passionate about nonetheless. I’m asking you to meet someone exactly where they are, and then sit down and talk a while. Who knows, you might find out you were standing in the same place all along.
*All names have been changed