What would you pack for a stay in a psychiatric hospital?
Think first about what you will need in the first half hour after you arrive. You don’t actually pack these, but if it’s your first time they’re worth knowing about.
Here’s what I aim to bring to get me through the admission process:
My dignity and a fullish bladder.
On the bedside table next to the perfectly made bed sits a sheaf of forms to fill in and a plastic specimen jar, which I am expected to urinate into. The sample will be tested for drugs I haven’t been prescribed.
Next, I find dignity harder to produce than urine. So, I cling to whatever fragments I can summon while I watch two nurses search my bags.
They wear disposable rubber gloves as though they could catch my illness from my luggage. I doubt they wear them to keep my things clean. Maybe they are to prevent finger prints left as evidence of this invasive act. They probe the bags’ innards for weapons of self-destruction.
Logically, of course I understand the reasons for these ‘Welcome To Hospital’ bag searches.
But logic doesn’t negate the thick layer of unpleasant feelings this process provokes.
I feel small, powerless, infantilised, and untrustworthy. Even my illness doesn’t reduce me the way watching those nurses go through my bags does. I will it to be over and spread a thin smile over my clenched teeth.
One manic admission early on I’d packed a razor to shave my armpits. It was (almost triumphantly) confiscated. These days I don’t bring razors in my first lot of hospital bags. I import them via my husband once I’m well enough for armpit shaving. I know other patients do the same.
A few years ago, after I’d endured the bag check, I opened the cabinet above the sink in the bathroom to put away my toothbrush and was confronted with the previous occupant’s contraband. Pink and sharp. Some black hairs still trapped between the blades like mangled baby spiders. Left behind and then overlooked by the cleaning staff. The razor posed no danger to me. I was manic, verging on psychotic. I touched it (just to be sure I wasn’t hallucinating) and then buzzed for a nurse.
She looked embarrassed and removed the razor (without wearing gloves). I felt for her. It wasn’t her fault the system’s not perfect…
As for selecting tangible items to take, if you are anything like me, the process of packing will be hampered by the symptoms of what is putting you in hospital. Think a complete absence of short-term memory and concentration, manic multi-tasking, or a head full of rocks. Getting anything at all in the bag is a challenge.
Back in the early years I’d work on the naive assumption that I wouldn’t be in for long. I know better now. I arrive with several bags, ready for my invariably long, long haul flight back to sanity.
For what it’s worth, here are my top five psychiatric hospital essentials:
Yoga mat – To provide a semblance of control and an exercise spot for times when I am on fifteen-minute obs (observations) and can’t go outside for walks.
Headphones and music source – To help block out roommate noise until I get the single room I’ve requested and campaigned for – usually three to five days in. Also good for walks up and down the hill the hospital is on, when I can go outside.
Post it notes – To measure manic episodes. The more post its are stuck around the room, especially with hastily scribbled obscure notes on them – the worse it is.
Extra blanket, warm socks, jumpers – the air conditioning is centrally controlled. No matter what the season, at some point my room will be arctic.
Distractions – Most time in hospital is spent waiting for treatments to start working. And while I wait I continue to suffer. Distraction is all I’ve got. In the beginning when cognition, memory and concentration are bad, when I’m speeding through mania, uprooted by psychosis, or trudging through depression, distraction is almost impossible. To begin with it’s just taking PRNs (medication as needed) to ease symptoms, breathing through the day, and not thinking about what the next day might hold. Slowly I progress to watching movies or TV shows on a lap top, writing, and eventually reading books. The quality of my reading material is a useful barometer for my wellness. Once I’m back to books I’m getting better. So, I always fill at least one bag with distractions.
I suppose whatever you pack, you may like to picture a couple of gloved up nurses unpacking and inspecting it, before you put it in your bag.
This post was partly inspired by listening to Honor Eastly debate the pros and cons of packing her vibrator in her hospital bag, on one of the episodes of her brilliant memoir podcast No Feeling Is Final.
You can find that podcast here:
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