I was laden with milk, my arms filled with the incredible warm softness of my five-day old baby. Snuffling, and startling into starfish arms every now and then. Pink velvet skin, translucent enough in places to see the faint network of blood vessels sustaining a life that a week ago had been completely reliant on me. My first entry into a psychiatric hospital was like many people’s first-time admissions. I felt I didn’t belong there.
If you ask most people whether they are likely to be admitted to a hospital in their lifetime, they would probably say:
‘Yes, it’s possible.’ Or ‘Yes, I’ve already been. I had my appendix out.’
But if you ask most people who have never been in a psychiatric hospital if they could see themselves being admitted to one, they’d reply or think:
‘No! That would never happen to me.’
And so it was for me. I didn’t want it, could never have imagined it, but I was being admitted to a Mother/Baby Unit in a psychiatric hospital with my five-day old baby, because except for falling asleep for fifteen minutes while my caesarean incision was sutured up, I had not slept in six days. On the morning of my discharge from the maternity hospital, my nurse, Charlotte, had walked into my room to find me curled up on the floor, crying. My husband clumsily cuddled our new daughter.
I still couldn’t sleep when Charlotte made my bed and sent my husband out with the baby, to give me some rest. My crying resumed. The inside of my head felt like it was filled with lightning and sand. I pressed the buzzer after twenty minutes. Charlotte looked at me, and listened to me stutter. She said:
‘I think you’ve got more going on than the baby blues. I’ll talk to the obstetrician about referring you to a Mother/Baby Unit for post-natal mood disorders.’
I was profoundly relieved because I knew I could not look after a baby with my head full of lightning and sand. Even so, when we arrived at the psychiatric hospital my immediate gut reaction was:
‘I’m not staying. I don’t belong here.’
My admitting nurse’s name was Andrea. I wanted to go home, pleaded to go home. And she was patient and firm, as though parenting a toddler throwing a tantrum. She was practiced. In the end I agreed to stay for just one night, to catch up on sleep. It was a good thing I stayed. Because what happened next is the fabric of nightmares.
Two days into my stay in the Mother/Baby Unit, I suffered my first major psychotic episode. I lost touch with everyone else’s reality and my dangerously unwell brain grew its own version of a reality. I began to switch between my world and everyone else’s. I laughed at things that were not funny. I was tortured by a system no one else knew about. I saw blood in a sunset. I uttered the words:
‘I don’t have a baby.’
Not because that is what I believed. Of course I knew I had a baby, but I thought I had to tell people the opposite of the truth, or worse would be in store for me and my little family. I was doing the best I could in alien territory.
But here’s the thing: My best was never going to be good enough. This was a monster I could not out-think. I was unbelievably lucky we had private health insurance. It meant I was an inpatient in a private psychiatric hospital when I had this first psychotic episode. It was diagnosed immediately and treated appropriately. Appropriate, in my case, was a transfer into the hospital’s Special Care Unit and being started on high dose anti-psychotic medication. Because I was diagnosed so rapidly and received the right treatment, the psychosis subsided quickly. Within days I was back in the real world. Within a week I was out of the Special Care Unit and back in the Mother/Baby Unit.
I still can’t bear to think: ‘What if?’
What if I had been home with my baby when the psychosis hit? All that warm softness in the care of someone whose brain had been hijacked by one of the most severe and dangerous psychiatric symptoms out there.
I don’t dwell on the hypothetical. Instead I am thankful I was in the right place at an awful time, a place I had been desperate to leave as soon as I’d arrived. As for my firm belief that I would be in hospital for just one night when I agreed to stay – the universe did what it does in the face of most of my firm beliefs. It laughed.
In the last eleven years I’ve had many admissions, some of them months long. However, instead of viewing a hospital stay as something that must be avoided at all costs, I now see it as just another piece in the toolbox of things I use to get me healthy. And this shift in perception makes it immeasurably easier to go into hospital when I have to.
This post is dedicated to Charlotte for directing me to the right place, and to Andrea for keeping me there for long enough to see it was right. I will be grateful to both of you for the rest of my life.
What are your beliefs about psychiatric hospitals? Have you or someone you know ever been an inpatient in one? I’d be interested in your thoughts and experiences, and would love you to leave me some comments.