‘My daughter never visits me in hospital. She doesn’t like this place.’
An elderly woman told me this in a private psychiatric hospital several years ago. Sadness dripped from her words.
The thought of visiting someone in a psychiatric hospital (especially for the first time) can leave people feeling: Awkward. Uncomfortable. Fearful. Repulsed. Guilty. Ashamed. Misinformed. Unsure. To name a few.
What do you say and do if that’s you?
Last week I visited a family member in hospital, who is about to start their first course of ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy). It’s different for me though. I am not lost for words if I’m the visitor.
I know what it is to have my hope reduced to a spiderweb riddled with bullet holes.
I don’t need to ask for directions. I have inhabited so much of that hospital at different times. I know it intimately.
I know the way light moves through different rooms over the course of a day, on a string of endless days.
I know the feel of midnight and three am when I stumble from bed for a medication top up to keep the inside of my head from eating me alive. The floor-lit corridor feels like a submarine manned by a skeleton staff of night nurses. They glide quietly between writing up notes, dispensing medication, and checking their cargo of silent sleepers and tossers and turners.
I know the morning air. Eucalyptus disinfectant… as though the cleaners could wash away our nights, and the smoke of slightly burnt toast. If mania is on my menu, I bounce down the corridors to the dining room. I will have been awake for hours, running up and down the hospital hill, finding meaning in a pink plastic bottle top in a nest of leaves, the lightning in my brain making me question reality.
If it’s depression I will have been awake for hours too, my lungs too full of concrete, my skull too full of rocks and my stomach too full of slugs to make it to breakfast.
I know the hum and hurl of clothes flung around inside the washers and dryers, and that many (myself included), ignore the instructions to use only the hospital provided laundry powder.
I know the sight of prams lining the corridor of the MBU (mother baby unit), and the sound of babies crying in the early evening. I’ve seen some of the worst behaved visitors in this ward. I remember a mother of twins, whose husband roared in one day, snatched up their babies and left shouting:
‘I don’t want my kids growing up in a nut house.’
I know the medication rooms. The queue of patients, morning and night, each waiting at the window for their cupful of magic. I know It pays to know your medications, to recite their names and milligrams as you check what you’re given. If your hospital stay is long enough, you’ll encounter human error at least once.
I know the ECT suite. It is on your right at the end of one of the long blue carpeted corridors. The call sheet comes out the night before. You’re allotted a time between six and nine or so. The ECT room itself is as mundane as a dentist’s. An anaesthetist takes you out of the pain of living. You wake too soon for your liking, treatment done. And in time you start feeling better…at least that’s been my experience.
I could go on. But let’s move on to visiting etiquette.
First: If you have negative feelings about visiting that you can’t put aside for the duration of your visit, don’t come. We don’t have the energy to carry your baggage.
Always ask if we are feeling up to a visit beforehand. Don’t be offended if we say no. We may just not be well enough yet.
When you walk through the hospital, offer eye contact and a smile to everyone you pass. You could be making a huge difference to the day of someone who feels invisible to the world, even if they don’t smile back,
Offer a hug if we usually hug or if it feels appropriate.
Ask ‘How are you?’ but be aware it is not a casual greeting. Be willing to accept the unvarnished truth or very little information, because we may not have the energy to talk.
Accept that you can’t fix the reason we are in hospital. Don’t give advice unless we ask for it. If we don’t, assume we are working closely with our health care team and have considered all our options.
You don’t need to bring anything, but if you do – distracting activities such as movies, colouring, craft, music, or anything you know we would normally enjoy are good. If you bring flowers, please accompany them with a vase. It’s not always easy to find one in the hospital.
Gauge the length of your visit by how well you know us and how sick we are.
For me: Please don’t ever tell me you will pray for me. It will irritate me. I am an agnostic. If praying makes you feel good, do it in privacy. But I don’t need to know about it.
This account and the suggestions I’ve made for visitors are based on my experiences and the specifics won’t apply to all hospitals or situations.
But ultimately, it’s simple. Think of the person you are visiting. Decide whether you can leave unhelpful baggage at home. If not, then stay home. If you choose to visit – just be kind and respectful. That’s it.
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