Content warning: Discussion of suicide, hospitalization and mental health
There’s a needle in my arm, pumping vials of blood. I’m afraid of needles, and they promised me I wouldn’t have to get blood drawn today, but there are nurses holding down my arms on either side. I’m crying so hard, I can’t breathe. The doctors won’t tell me when I can go home.
It’s four in the morning, and I’m jolted awake with my heart in my throat, unable to stop shaking. I know I won’t fall back asleep tonight. My recurring nightmares aren’t abstract, but rooted in reality: they’re memories from my stay in a psychiatric hospital six years ago.
I was supposed to spend August 2016 acclimating to my freshman year of high school, navigating new hallways and buying a dress for my first homecoming. Instead, after admitting the intensity of my suicidal thoughts to my psychiatrist, I was ushered to the emergency room. Following a night in the ER, I was transferred to an adolescent psychiatric unit, where I stayed for the next six days.
For those six days, I wouldn’t see beyond a dark building with bulletproof windows and auto-locking doors. Every day, I followed the same schedule: Breakfast. Vitals. Medication. Group therapy. Lunch. Visitation hour. Evaluation from a psychiatrist. Dinner. Sleep and repeat.
I repeated, but I was always careful.
I thought of the patient who had a panic attack, screaming and shaking on the linoleum floor, only to be dragged by a doctor into another room, where he was injected with a syringe full of sedatives. This was when I learned to retreat to the bathroom if I felt an anxiety attack coming on. I was always careful.
I had hushed conversations with my roommate only after the lights were off. We were discouraged from forming friendships in the hospital and punished for giving hugs and exchanging phone numbers. Each meaningful conversation had to be kept a secret. I was always careful.
The hospital, on the other hand, wasn’t always careful. I remember the sheet of paper a nurse mistakenly dropped in my room, containing reminders for “patient management.” Engage in threat de-escalation. Get back-up if you are afraid of being attacked. This confirmed my greatest fear. I was viewed not as a teenager suffering from depression, but as a safety hazard.
I sobbed uncontrollably, just wanting to go home. When the psychiatrist made her rounds, she didn’t ask me how I was feeling, or how I was adjusting to life in the hospital. She simply verified that I wasn’t having suicidal thoughts or becoming a liability risk, then moved on, leaving me to cry alone.
When I entered the psychiatric unit, I imagined that I would learn how to manage my mental health, leaving the facility with a renewed desire to live instead of a desperate wish for death.
I was sorely mistaken.
As I quickly learned, the hospital wasn’t designed to treat my depression. Rather, it was intended to keep me under constant watch until I was no longer a danger to myself. The lack of humanity with which I was treated told me that, while my immediate safety was prioritized, my long-term well-being was beyond the hospital’s concern.
After my discharge, I was eager to put the experience behind me. But my hospitalization followed me beyond those doors, becoming the most traumatic experience of my life.
Immediately after I got home, I began waking up multiple times a week from nightmares, in fear that I had somehow returned to the facility. I had frequent panic attacks, trapped in the memory of pills being coaxed down my throat by a gloved hand.
My mental health when I left the hospital was arguably worse than when I entered. I had another suicidal breakdown less than a month after my discharge.
This time, my parents turned to intensive therapy rather than a repeat hospitalization. Over the next months, my memories of the hospital become less palpable, therapy tugging me from its grip. My well-being slowly began to improve and eventually reached a state of stability that I hadn’t experienced in years.
Still, my time in the hospital will always be a part of me. Even now, when my depression is infinitely more manageable and my suicidal thoughts have dissipated completely, the pain of my hospitalization strikes me in the form of recurring nightmares.
Suicidal thoughts are terrifying at any age. I was only 14 when I was hospitalized. Rather than being cared for, I felt as though I was being punished for my depression.
It’s four in the morning and my palms are sweating. I grab at my soft comforter, looking up to the posters lining my walls, so different from the scratchy sheets and peeling paint in the hospital. As I register my surroundings, I remind myself that it was only a dream.
Slowly, my breathing returns to its normal rhythm. The trembling in my limbs comes to a stop. I let my head rest on my pillow, knowing I’m safe now.
Even as I calm down, I can’t fall asleep again. I’m terrified that I may be struck by another nightmare, turning into my younger self for the duration of the dream. I’m terrified because I know that, for her, these dreams were once her reality.