I recently encountered Covid restrictions and a lockdown as an inpatient in a psychiatric hospital. And while the specifics are relevant, my experience was more complex than donning a mask and staying inside. But let’s start with the specifics.
There is the loss of the hospital dining room and its well-stocked salad bar. This normally bright spacious room filled with chatter and choice has closed, gone into mourning. The ability to choose your own food and sit where you liked – a small token of independence – replaced by a tray delivered to your room at 7am, 12 pm, and 5pm with a sharp rap at the door. You get little choice and a small window to eat before the kitchen staff are back to collect your tray.
There is not being able to leave the hospital grounds until discharge. No opportunity to test where you are at with a short visit home. Another small freedom lost, and you become totally reliant on visitors to bring you anything you might need from the outside world. Until restrictions turn to lockdown and the visitors are banned from visiting.
All staff start wearing masks, and the buzz of their anxiety fills the hallways like a swarm of bees. Within a few days patients are told to wear masks anytime they are outside their rooms.
For anyone who has lived on this planet for the last year, none of these restrictions or lockdown conditions will sound unusual. Everyone has lived some version of them.
But my experience of them as a psychiatric hospital inpatient was different to my experience of them when I’ve been well and at home.
Even with access to an excellent private psychiatric hospital, being an inpatient strips me of autonomy and leaves me feeling as vulnerable as a slug on a busy highway.
The admission process alone – which includes providing a urine sample for drug testing and the thorough inspection of your bags (for any means of self-harm or suicide) by two gloved nurses – is a humiliating experience.
It screams: ‘You cannot be trusted’ and whispers sharply: ‘We are in charge of you now.’
It’s made worse if the nurses attempt light conversation about the contents of my bag.
‘‘That looks like a good book…’
I don’t have the energy for it, and it makes me feel like a toddler they are trying to distract from something unpleasant.
As a patient in a psychiatric hospital I frequently lose the right to my feelings. For example:
One of my admitting symptoms (usually prodromal to mania) can be intense pathological irritability. It is completely different to feeling irritable in a normal context. And it is not the same as the irritability I feel when I am forced to interact with one of the nurses whose attitude grates on me even when I’m well.
I try to be polite, but when my tone slides into curt, she cocks her head and says:
‘Your irritability levels are quite high today.’ before self-importantly noting this down as a symptom for the day. And I am powerless, because if I protest that would just be further proof of my mental illness to her.
And then there are the cringeworthy names I am called, mostly by nurses and kitchen staff:
‘Dear, Darling, Love.’
I am ‘Darling’ to only my mother. ‘Love’ never fails to sound derogatory to me. As for ‘Dear’ – one of my worst and earliest hospital experiences involved being called ‘Dear’:
Fourteen and a half years ago when I was less than a week into my first episode of mental illness, I experienced a severe psychotic episode. I was led into the Special Care Unit (the highest security locked ward) of the psychiatric hospital by two nurses, one gripping each elbow. On the way there, one of these nurses said:
‘Don’t worry Dear. You won’t remember any of this in the morning.’
The next morning I was so sedated by the (necessary) medication I‘d been given, I may not have looked as though I had any memory of the horrors of psychosis. But I remembered all of it. The proof is in the account of that night in my memoir being published this year.
If I knew where to find the nurse who called me ‘Dear’ (on that occasion), I would give her a copy to show her just how much a patient experiencing florid psychosis can remember.
There are many other factors that contribute to my sense of infantilisation in hospital. But elaborating on them would take me well over my word limit. So I’ll leave it here, for now.
Thankfully this recent admission was short (two and a half weeks) but the combination of the inherent lack of autonomy in being a psychiatric inpatient and the above mentioned Covid factors hugely amplified my vulnerability.
And I have never felt so powerless.
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