Waiting for Visiting Hours: Memories of the Psych Ward

It’s been almost two years since I was last hospitalized (yay!), but I’ve been reading through some of the journals I kept while I was there, and it put me in the mood to reflect yet again on some of my experiences.

In every psych ward I’ve been in, visiting hours were restricted to an hour or two a day. After lots of experiences with this, I’d actually forgotten that for people in regular hospitals, they usually let people come throughout the day and only send them away at night; I remember asking a friend of mine who was in the hospital for medical reasons a few years ago when I could visit, and being surprised when she said, anytime. In the mental hospital, they seem to think it’s a distraction that needs to be limited. Though at least everywhere I stayed, they had visiting hours every day; I’ve heard of places that only allowed them a few times a week, if even that, I think on the theory that you needed to focus on their program and on getting better, and less contact with the outside world would help you do that. I would have really hated that.

Usually visiting hours were in the evening. The countdown in my mind would begin two or three hours in advance, and I would begin to compulsively check the time every few minutes. What was tricky is that sometimes I knew in advance that people were coming, but a lot of times it was possible that someone might be able to show up, but I didn’t know for sure. I was in the hospital rather regularly for a while there, and my friends were very supportive but they had other stuff to deal with in their lives, too. That made sense to me. But the days when I didn’t know if anyone would come were hard, because I would always hope. Even if it was a really long shot that anyone would be able to make it, I couldn’t not hope. I would tell myself not to do that, because I was likely to be disappointed. But that instruction to myself went largely unheeded. And I actually found a journal entry I wrote in one hospital, on a night when no one came, saying that I couldn’t really regret having hoped, because the hope had helped pass the time. It’s nice to have something to look forward to, even if it’s only a possibility, especially in an environment like that.

The thing is, the psych hospital is so incredibly boring. I can’t even describe how boring it is. I don’t think I’d ever thought before that boredom might actually kill me. There were moments when I felt like I was seriously going to go out of my mind because of it. I think it was the combination of not just being bored, but being both bored and locked up. Before I’d ever been to such a place, I imagined that it would be filled with constant drama, and colorful characters, the way it’s portrayed on television. And yes, those elements were sometimes present. People had very dramatic meltdowns every so often and had to be restrained. Sometimes exciting things happened, usually involving interpersonal drama between patients. But for the most part, it was just so tedious. Some hospitals tried to schedule groups all day, and some only had a couple, but in my experience even the former were often using the term “group” quite loosely, and things weren’t nearly as structured as they might initially appear when you saw the impressive schedule on the wall of the day room. The groups tended toward the ridiculous and I got next to nothing out of them, but I usually showed up anyway because 1) appearing to be “making an effort” counted big time in convincing them to let you go home, and 2) I was so, so bored, and at least it was something to do for a while.

Usually my options to pass the time were: 1) read, 2) write, 3) watch television, 4) walk up and down the halls, and 5) talk to the other patients. I read a lot. A lot. My friends were very good about supplying books—my co-blogger Petra in particular brought lots of them. But even with a regular supply from the outside world, sometimes I managed to read them all before a fresh batch arrived. The hospitals always had a bookshelf of random items, perhaps castaways from past patients, but it was rare to find anything there that was even readable. I wasn’t looking for high quality, and I couldn’t focus on anything too literary; I just wanted something that would engage me enough that I would forget where I was for a while. But the books already on the unit usually weren’t able to do even that. The last time I was in the hospital, my sister Melyngoch was awesome about filling my request for psychological thrillers, and her selections were all good, but I remember having moments of panic when I realized it was only morning and I was almost done with a book, and there wasn’t another one waiting for me.

And reading wasn’t always an option. For one thing, much as I love reading, I found that I would hit periods of just not being able to do it anymore. There were also times when I was so disabled by depression that my concentration was just gone. Also, it could be hard to find a place to do it. If you stayed in your room and read, that was considered “isolating,” and the staff would continually bother you and about it and warn that if you weren’t willing to “socialize” (i.e., watch television in the day room with the other patients), you were less likely to get discharged. Sometimes I’d try to compromise and read in the day room, but the noise of a television in the background made that harder.

The other thing I did a lot, possibly a crazy amount, was write. I don’t know what the staff thought about me writing all the time and carrying a notebook everywhere, but no one ever said anything to me about it. Journaling is generally considered to be a healthy coping skill, so I think that put me in the clear. The biggest challenge was that you couldn’t use a regular pen, but were restricted to what I can only describe as a pen-like writing thing (I noted on the boxes of them once that they were manufactured for use in high-security prisons). They’re not easy to write with, and if you’ve lost your writing stamina over the years from too much typing, it’s even more challenging. I still have most of the notebooks (sadly, I forgot one journal when I left and was never able to get it back), and they’re full of notes, but the entries in them don’t tend to be really long, and are not overly devoted to emotional processing. Instead it’s a lot of brief comments about the mundane details of life on the ward, or sometimes just me saying something like, “I don’t even know what to write but I’m so bored that I’m writing anyway.” Sometimes I would write what the other patients were up to, and that’s entertaining to read back over. For example, one man claimed to have 27 PhDs and to have founded the very hospital in which we were staying, among other accomplishments. I also wrote about how my ears perked up when I heard someone on the phone saying that he was trying to get in touch with the Latter-day Saints, because they sent out people to visit the sick and afflicted, and he wanted them to come witness a document he needed to sign. (I remember that after that I kept an eye out to see if a pair of missionaries or other Mormon types might suddenly appear, but it never happened.)

I did watch television once in a while, especially if they showed movies at night. There were even occasional moments when we were watching a decent movie in the evening, and things were pretty quiet, and you could almost pretend you were just hanging out for a low-key evening with a group of friends instead of locked in a unit. That was okay. But in general, I just don’t find it at all interesting to watch random stuff on television (I’m more a binge-watcher of television shows on Netflix), and I find it pretty annoying to have it on in the background. And sometimes I paced the halls, but the sheer tedium of that meant that I never lasted long.

My best experiences in the hospital, without question, were in places where I was able to connect enough with some of the other patients that we could have conversations. When it happened, it helped so much with making life there bearable. The best was when you could get so involved in talking to someone that you didn’t even notice the time, because then the days went by so much more quickly. But that really varied for me. Sometimes it happened, and sometimes it didn’t. And patients were always coming and going, and sometimes you’d make a connection with someone and things would feel good, and then they’d get discharged the next day. I can say that I interacted with a lot of very interesting people. One very articulate and quite coherent guy explained to me that he was there because God had told him to smash the computers at his work. His doctors claimed he was bipolar, and he said that was playing along so that they would let him back out, but he knew better. He was fascinating to talk to. I vaguely remember another very strange argument I had with someone about whether Christianity or Islam was founded first. He just wouldn’t believe me that it was the former. In one hospital, I really clicked with a couple of women, and we used to get together and color in coloring books, and chat for hours. One older woman claimed that she’d realized that she had a talent for coloring, and then she tried to boss everyone else around regarding what color they should use for which part of their picture. But we laughed and laughed, and it felt good. In my very first hospitalization, I actually made some good friends, and after working all day in therapy groups (uniquely in that hospital, the groups were actually helpful), we would hang out and chat about all kinds of things. That was the only time I got hospitalized that I wasn’t bored for a good amount of my time there, but because it was my first experience, I had no idea how unusual that was.

But there were other times when there was no one I felt like I could talk to, and that made the experience almost intolerable. We had our cell phones taken away, of course, and most of the places didn’t give you any computer access, so reaching out online wasn’t a possibility. There were always phones, but usually it would be just two for the whole unit, and they had a ten-minute limit. Also you had to not mind that they were in a public area, and everyone (patients and staff walking by) would be able to listen to anything you said. I used them when I could, though, to at least touch base with people.

And almost every day, as I mentioned above, I’d find myself getting more and more impatient as visiting hours got closer. When people were able to come, I can’t even describe how amazing it felt to see them. To get to talk to people who knew me in the outside world, who knew me as more than a mental patient—it was like I’d died and gone to heaven. It was my lifeline. I feel like it would be hard to overstate just what a big deal it was for me when people came, and how much of a difference it made. People have sometimes asked me about whether it’s a good idea to try to visit friends who are in the psych ward or whether that might be imposing on them in an uncomfortable way. I’m hesitant to make any recommendations for anyone else, because I know not everyone felt the way I did, and I would definitely listen to what the person said they wanted. But I can say that for me, having people visit mattered a lot. I felt a little bad sometimes when I knew they had to drive significant distances, which was occasionally the case, but I never turned down anyone who offered to come, even if I didn’t know them all that well.  To this day, I feel an enormous debt of gratitude to all those people who visited me. Going through this made me understand in a way that I never had before how really sometimes the best gift you have to offer is just your presence. That there are occasions when it doesn’t matter if you feel like you have the right thing to say, or are the right sort of person. Sometimes showing up is everything. I could probably stand to remember that more.

6 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Lynnette. Your experiences in the psych wards, waiting to be visited and otherwise cut off from the world (other than through TV) sound exhausting. I’m sorry that I wasn’t ever able to be one of your visitors, but I’m glad that others closer to you visited you so much.

  2. For many years I was on the outside waiting for visiting hours to visit my wife. The hardest days were the holidays. I’m embarrassed that until reading this I hadn’t considered how hard the wait would be on the inside. Thanks for sharing this and thanks for opening my eyes.

  3. Thank you, Ziff. I very much appreciated your support from a distance, even though you were never geographically close enough to visit.

    CS Eric, to be fair, it wasn’t until I went to visit another friend in the psych ward that I gained a greater appreciation for what’s involved on the other side! Thanks for reading; I’m glad my perspective was meaningful to you.

  4. If this is too personal for here, I totally understand, but there have been a couple of times when I think I probably should have been hospitalized, but I am fairly terrified of the idea, and minimized my symptoms to avoid it. I wonder, have you found anything useful from your in patient treatment? Or essential?

  5. That’s a really good question, Enna. My first thought is that for all the things that the hospital doesn’t do well, there is something that they usually do manage, and that is to keep you safe. That’s why I had therapists decide to keep sending me back. They were well aware of my ambivalent feelings about hospitalization and they took my complaints about various aspects of it quite seriously, but if they thought my life might be in danger, they didn’t hesitate to send me there anyway. I can’t really fault them for that decision. It was hard sometimes for me to figure out when I’d crossed the line and was actually in danger, because I suffered from chronic suicidality. But to be honest, there were times when it was nice to just have the option taken out of my hands for a while, to get a break from wondering every single morning, “should I kill myself today?”

    More generally, there were also times when it was good to get away from my life for a little bit. Being in the hospital meant that I literally couldn’t do anything about a lot of my life stresses, and there was some relief in that. It could be a way to kind of get a breather and a little more perspective. There’s a lot to be said for that.

    So I think those were the two major benefits for me of being hospitalized. My first time there, the treatment (groups and things) was actually also really helpful—they pushed me to do a lot of emotional work, but they knew what they were doing and I got a lot out of it. I was disappointed to find that quality treatment like that wasn’t the norm, because that hospital stay turned out to be useful in so many ways. But I never had another one like it.

    My therapists would often push me to come up with what they would call “a hospital outside of the hospital” when things were bad, but it wasn’t clear that I was at the point of needing inpatient treatment. We would think about the benefits of hospitalization and try to figure out if we could build them into my life without my actually having to go there. So we worked on structuring my days, making sure I had a lot of contact with the people in my life, and sometimes even having me stay the night with friends when I felt iffy on the safety question. That could be helpful as a less drastic measure. Also, I have no idea what mental health care options might be available to you, but something I wish I’d taken more advantage of was the option to do residential. I did that twice, both after a hospitalization, but a lot of people came there as an alternative to the hospital. You had some structure and people keeping an eye on you, but more freedom than in the hospital (they let us keep our cell phones, and go on walks every day—stuff like that). Also my insurance company would have loved it if I would have opted for that instead, as it’s much less expensive. So if you feel like need something but you’re wary of hospitalization, that might be something worth exploring.

  6. CW for descriptions of suicidality

    Lynnette, thank you so much for this. I have dealt with feelings ranging from passive thoughts of death to active suicidal ideation for my entire adult life and it has become so normal to me that I feel like I am also a poor judge of when those thoughts become truly dangerous, if at all. I’ve had a few periods, though, where I believed I had crossed a line into needing hospitalization, but i was so irrationally paranoid that i would go there, and be abandoned, and be unable to end my life, that I never vocalized my thoughts to family or my counselor.

    This really helps me to see it as a potentially positive break from my triggers. Thank you for that. Luckily now I have (finally) found a medication that has kept most of my suicidal thoughts at bay, but I’ve been here before and had a medication fail, so I try not to get too complacent.

    I just have to thank you again, your openness has been such a help to me <3


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