content warnings: psychiatric hospitalization, self-harm, suicidal ideation, psychiatric abuse
I WAS (totally) NOT MYSELF IN THE HOSPITAL (but oh boy do I wish I wasn’t)
A text message to my sister: “Spending the night at the hospital, don’t worry, will update soon :I”
Then three days later: “Hey so actually I’m gonna be here a bit longer so I’ll need you to bring me some stuff…”
She showed up with a HUGE duffel bag full of everything I might ever need and I thought,
“wow, thanks for the total lack of faith in me ever getting out of here.” She ended up being right though. I stayed in that hospital for two and a half months. Also yes, this particular hospital lets patients keep their phones. Lucky me.
They say “talk to your nurse if there’s anything,” but when you go up to her, take the craft supplies kit’s pencil sharpener out of your pocket and confess why you pocketed it in the first place, she rolls her eyes and says you must have not actually wanted to do it if you’re here telling her about it. They keep the pencil sharpener at the nurse’s station for a few days, then it’s right back out in the open.
- “Hey so I know I don’t have any outing privileges yet, but I have to go to court on Tuesday."
- "Oh okay, let me just check… I don’t see you on the list.”
- … "The list?"
After a bit of clarification, she goes “oh, so it’s just unrelated, not the thing that people normally go to court for.”
I’m sorry, the thing that people normally go to court for? Oh. Court-mandated psychiatric holds.
I’ve only ever met one patient who won their case. I get it, they were manic and confident as hell. As I tried on the ill-fitting blouse I planned to wear to court, I wished I were either of those things.
The staff doesn’t check your bags. Just loosely, that one time when you arrived, but not in the many weeks that have passed since. Not unless you straight up tell them that you have something you shouldn’t, so most people know not to tell. Every time you come back from a supervised outing, and later from unsupervised outings, every time visitors bring you more stuff, you think of how easy it would be to do the worst if you wanted to.
It's not that I don’t want to.
I’m just not committed enough.
I learned the hospital had a swimming pool. A whole sports centre actually, but I was only interested in the swimming pool. A schedule of fitness activities was on the wall next to the nurse’s station. I asked my nurse if I could go.
- “First you need to meet with someone from the sports centre to make a fitness plan."
I’m not trying to get fit, I’m just BORED.
- "Okay then, can I get an appointment?"
- "Actually, no, over here you don’t have access to the fitness program because this is a short-term ward."
That was the first of many no’s “because this is a short-term ward.” There was a lady who had been there for a year.
When your memory is an absolute trash fire and the nurse says you already took your evening meds, you’re gonna believe him. Even as you lie awake that night, keeping track of the passage of time by counting how many times your door gets slightly nudged open by whatever staff member got tasked with conducting your 15-minute checks. Even though you have never once struggled to fall asleep while taking this particular medication. Even then, you think he must have been right. I mean, it’s a part of his job. They have those little single-dose packets with your name on them, along with today’s date; surely they would have realized if it was still back there, unopened. Apparently not.
I should have fought harder.
Gotten up instead of tossing and turning until morning.
Said “I could be wrong but I’m pretty sure I’m not,” instead of whatever else I actually said.
Asked them to check just to make sure.
But they’ll see it tomorrow and realize their mistake, right? And they’ll apologize. Ask if you were okay, if you slept at all, something like that. Surely they won’t just discard them without saying a word and hope you didn’t notice or care. Of course by then you’re already experiencing early withdrawal symptoms, nothing too bad yet, nothing you can’t handle for the few remaining hours before your next dose. Or maybe it isn’t withdrawal at all, maybe you’re just getting sick, or maybe you always feel this crappy… No. You’ve skipped your meds enough times to know exactly what it feels like, and this is definitely it. But you don’t say a word, let them believe they got away with their mess-up. Because they did.
Why didn’t I say something?
Why didn’t I make it embarrassing for them?
Rather than being the one too embarrassed to speak, or move, or do anything that might suggest I had any care for my own wellbeing.
Because surely I wouldn’t still be stuck here if I did.
A friend gifts you a pre-marked origami squirrel project, to be completed with nothing but paper and glue. He figures you probably aren’t allowed scissors or anything of that nature. Little does he know.
Neither of us know it yet but the squirrel’s name is Celeste, she’s a little wonky because my cognitive skills weren’t the best while making her, but she goes on to live a long life watching over me from the top of a very much non-hospital shelf.
Another friend gifts you a colouring book, complete with a 12-pack of pencils and a two-holed pencil sharpener. Little does she know.
Neither of us know it yet but this gift will be my undoing.
There’s one psychiatrist for the whole ward. Actually not even that, because that one psychiatrist also works on other wards and has his own outpatient clients in another building. I have my own outpatient psychiatrist in that same building. The ward psychiatrist wants to plan my discharge, but he says I have to see my actual psychiatrist first. They set up an appointment for me, and on the day of, armed with my fancy allowed-to-go-out-alone-on-hospital-grounds privileges, I travel the network of underground tunnels that connect the different buildings. I play my favourite game: trying to guess whether each person I cross paths with is a staff member or a patient.
Sometimes the staff’s lanyards make it obvious. Most of the time it could go either way. Never have I been 100% confident guessing “patient.”
I let the receptionist know I’m there, then I take a seat in the familiar waiting room. I look around and for the first time I wonder how many of the people here are actually inpatient right now.
Which is not unusual at all, but still.
I wait an hour. I think this has happened at least once before, but I begin to worry that my nurse will think I’ve run off or something. I can’t have that, not when we’ve just started talking about me finally being let out. I’ve been nothing but well-behaved. I’ve done everything they wanted me to: spending my days out in the common areas instead of my room, going to all the (optional) group activities, never once doing anything that might lead them to forcefully restrain or sedate me, or send me to the isolation room like they clearly love doing to so many of the other patients. I’ve done everything right (by their standards, not my own).
Okay, by this point the psychiatrist is clearly super late. The other patients start asking each other what time their appointment was supposed to be. “One-thirty,” says the woman beside me.
Wait, that can’t be right.
I’m at one-thirty.
I confirm that we’re waiting to see the same doctor (we are), then I ask the receptionist about it. “Your appointment was actually cancelled.”
“At the request of the ward.”
But they sent me here. They let me go.
And you let me check in.
She tells me I can go back to the ward now. The ward that has presumably decided they’re not going to discharge me after all. The ward where I will continue to be stuck until they say otherwise. I begin to spiral.
I’ve been gone over an hour.
What’s another ten minutes?
Or another hour?
I barricade myself in the bathroom. I take out the blade I’ve been hiding in my phone case, from that pencil sharpener my friend gave me. I am careful; I don’t want to need medical care, I don’t want anyone to find out. I still would like to eventually leave this place.
I don’t take the tunnels back to the ward. I take the scenic route, I go outside. I figure the cold air might feel nice, help me calm down or something. I lie in the snow for a little while. It genuinely helps.
Later, when I confess to having harmed myself and they ask me to give them the blade, I figure the truth is too complicated… “I actually don’t have it anymore. Literally the only thing that made me stop is that I put it down on the toilet paper roll holder thingy and it fell between that and the wall and I couldn’t get it out. I can show you if you want.” (Note: years later, in that same bathroom after an outpatient psychiatrist appointment, I chance a look. It’s still there.) Nah. Too much work. I give them the second blade from the pencil sharpener. Because remember, I had two of them.
They’re supposed to keep you safe while you can’t. Keep you safe until you can. Isn’t that why you’re here? And yet.
I actually get in less trouble for hurting myself than I do for going out in the snow without a coat on.
The next day my nurse gives me a paper with a bunch of “more appropriate” coping skills on it.
One of them is “go out in the rain or snow.”
I will forever be confused as to why they kept me there for that long. “Typically we like to send patients from this ward to DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) or the day program, but I feel like you wouldn’t do well in a group setting.” Bitch, I graduated from theatre school, how’s that for a group setting? (I eventually went one to complete the DBT program, and let me tell you, I carried that group on my back.)
“We’re not sure where to send you.” Home. Send me home. I’m not doing any therapy here or anything, I’m not getting my medication adjusted, I can go do the same thing at home. Also I’ve seen you discharge a freshly turned eighteen-year-old with no place to go. I’ve seen you discharge unhoused people, people from Indigenous communities so far away they have to fly back home, all kinds of people whom I highly doubt will be partaking in any outpatient programs at this particular juncture, so clearly this “not knowing what to do with me” business isn’t a hard rule.
“My EI ends next week so I need to go back to work.”
And that’s what does it. Of course it is. Of course it’s work. What else could possibly matter that much. After 12 weeks, they finally let me out so that I could work.
I spend 12 weeks in that hole; I spent a lot longer than 12 weeks crawling out.
I thought back to my fellow patients, the ones forcefully sedated, restrained, put in isolation. I thought back to this one patient in the room next to mine, and how when they gave him the thing that knocked him out for twelve hours straight, I had wanted them to. I am ashamed to have thought that. I am ashamed that I took something that I fundamentally disagree with, something I think should never happen, and genuinely and repeatedly wished it upon innocent strangers. Of all the thoughts I am ashamed of, I am most ashamed of that one. He didn’t even do anything, he just talked a lot and I guess my brain just chose him as the person to hate (interesting choice since the hospital staff was right there). Yes, while I was in there I hated him. I hope he’s doing alright.
VIOLETTE KAY is a theatre artist and administrator based in Montreal, Canada. In recent years she wrote and performed in A Joy that's Mine Alone (Art Apart, National Theatre School of Canada) - inspired by her experiences of living with bipolar disorder and running a music school - and composed the award-winning score of Geordie Theatre's From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea.