Special SectionsLife lessons learned from inside a psych ward

During my junior year of high school, I spent eight days in a psychiatric hospital. Apart from a new set of coping skills and thought exercises, I managed to learn a few things along the way.
Savannah WahlgrenSeptember 10, 202021874 min
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Trigger warning for suicide, self-harm and eating disorders

I’ve found that most people have an extremely inaccurate idea of what life inside a psychiatric hospital looks like. People think that patients are drugged and locked in padded rooms. As someone who spent eight days in a psych ward, I won’t lie and say that there wasn’t a room set aside for solitary confinement or that if you didn’t follow the rules you didn’t get a shot to calm you down, something we all called “booty juice,” but most other conceptions of what life looked like are very wrong. I want to share with you all the lessons I learned during my time there and hopefully dispel some myths and stereotypes along the way.

It’s important to enjoy the little things.

When you first go into a psych ward, you lose everything. You lose your shoelaces along with your dignity as you’re forced to strip in front of a group of doctors and a nurse dumps out your bags onto a table to check for hidden contraband. You have no contact with the outside world. The isolation makes sense: you’re supposed to be focused on getting stable, yet what it ended up teaching me was the importance of enjoying the little things in life.

As at a regular hospital, psych ward food sucks. Every once in a while, though, we got some pretty good snacks. A favorite of our unit was Smucker’s Uncrustable PB&J’s. They were a piece of heaven in our personal slice of mental illness hell. These horrible little sandwiches that are probably full of all sorts of preservatives and processed until there’s hardly anything natural left were something to look forward to in our monotonous days.

We found similar joy in playing infinite games of UNO, where when you win you simply deal yourself in again. We never kept score of who was winning because that wasn’t the point. In retrospect, it’s kind of a good metaphor for going through the mental health system alongside others. It doesn’t matter who gets out first, only that we go our own pace and are there for each other along the way.

When you’re going through a crisis, it can be the little things that keep you going. At my worst, I was kept going by my guinea pigs; I had to be there to take care of them. It doesn’t matter how small your thing might be, all that matters is that it works.

Never judge a book by its cover.

I met a lot of different people while I was in the hospital. People had a variety of mental illnesses and were in there for a range of reasons. When I first got admitted, I was scared about being alone, as weird as that may seem. It didn’t help my fears that when I got there the other patients were all in group therapy, leaving me to wait awkwardly alone. Eventually, they all trickled back into the sitting room and went back to their activities, each one giving me a small smile, but two girls playing cards asked if I wanted to play, giving me the welcome that I needed.

Almost every single person I met while I was in the mental healthcare system was incredibly understanding. Even though we were ultimately there for ourselves, we supported everyone else in their journey to recovery. I realized that our own struggles gave us our biggest strengths. The girls with schizophrenia were the kindest. The girls that struggled with self-harm were the saddest for you when you relapsed. The girls with eating disorders gave the best compliments. Sometimes the only people that can truly understand you are those that have been in your position. We could empathize with each other on a level that even our therapists could not.

These people that society ostracized proved to be the kindest and strongest people I have ever met in my life, and I honestly feel privileged to have been able to call them my friends. We still check in with each other every so often and share where we are in life now. We saw each other at our worst, and now we get to see each other striving to be our best. Mental illness does not make someone into a villain, so don’t think that you can anticipate the type of person someone is just because of their diagnosis.

It gets better.

Anyone that has ever gone through a mental health crisis is probably sick of being told this; I know I was, but it can’t be more true. If someone had told me three years ago that I would be a successful college student who actually looked forward to every day, I never would have believed them.

One of my psychologists told me something that changed how I thought about my situation, though. She told me that, as young adults, we have such little life experience that what we feel when we’re on the brink of calling it quits is the worst thing we have ever experienced. We have no measurable comparison of another moment when we felt this way or previous experience that we can use to figure out how to get out of our current situation. With that in mind, it makes sense that it felt like my world was ending because, to me, it was.

I am here to tell you, though, that you can fight this. I won’t lie to you and say that it’s easy. My journey of getting better was the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life. The secret, if there can be one, is to want it. You have to want it more than anything you’ve ever wanted. It is a fight for your life, so you have to give it everything you’ve got.

If you are currently in a crisis, please use the resources below:

Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

Crisis text line: text HOME or START to 741741 to text with a trained crisis counselor

Savannah Wahlgren

2 comments

  • Amy

    September 11, 2020 at 8:10 am

    Savannah thank you so much for sharing your story…it has given this mom hope.

    Reply

  • Margaret

    October 7, 2020 at 11:13 pm

    This is wonderful—every bit of it. I’m so proud of you, Savannah, for sharing such an important story and continuing to de-stigmatize mental healthcare. So proud to call you my friend! <3

    Reply

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