What Five Weeks in a Psychiatric Ward Had to Teach Me - OC87 Recovery Diaries

What Five Weeks in a Psychiatric Ward Had to Teach Me

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Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:

I live with schizoaffective disorder, which means that I have symptoms of bipolar as well as schizophrenia. Along with this diagnosis I also live with anxiety. I used to think all these diagnoses and symptoms meant I was a wreck, but the truth is, having an illness diagnosed is a strength, because once an illness is recognized for what it is, you can treat it.

I am very fortunate that my medications take care of almost all my symptoms, though some of them have side effects that can be a little hard to deal with. One of them is weight gain, another is that my hands shake. I grew up slim and had the hands of a surgeon. Having side effects like being overweight and having shaky hands often made me feel there were so many things I couldn’t do. One of the hardest of the side effects is lethargy and oversleeping. I often need ten to twelve hours of sleep each day just to function. For a long time, I had a hope that a new medication would one day come along that would take care of my symptoms and leave me without side effects. My doctor thought he had found that medication.

I still have a vivid memory of my psychiatrist, with best intentions, telling me there was a new medication out that would work better for me, and that I would need to get it less often. This was in no way an attempt to save the mental health system money. The new medication costs Alberta Health Services, my health plan, much more per dose than the previous injection. The problem is, with every medication there are people who just don’t respond well to it. In my case, the new injection sent me into a downward spiral of psychosis.

It took time for the old antipsychotic medication to leave my system and for the effects of the new one to show up. My symptoms began with paranoia. I was convinced that my neighbors could hear everything I did and were getting increasingly angry at me. I was terrified. I imagined them being members of an outlaw biker gang out for revenge. I already was more polite than most, but the paranoia of what they might do to me made me walk on eggshells. At one point, I imagined the two of them outside my door plotting to shoot me through the door. I shouted back at them. People going by didn’t know what I was doing or saying. I made plans to move out of my apartment, which was perfect for me and took me a long time to attain.

At the time, many friends came forward understanding this new psychosis was not me and tried to help me. A sister of my closest friend thought it would help if she took me out to a bar to relax and have some fun, another friend tried to talk me down from my delusional thinking. My dad was perhaps most concerned. At one point he let me stay with him, but I hallucinated that my neighbors followed me there and I was terrified that they were going to kill him. He ended up intervening and had the police and paramedics take me to the hospital.  Prior to this moment, no one had really known what to do.

During that period, shortly before I was hospitalized, while most of the world was celebrating Christmas day, I moved my TV and video game console into my bedroom and put a blanket over my head to reduce the noise of my breathing. I was eating canned ham on crackers because I was too afraid to cook anything. I was paranoid that these simple daily tasks were causing my neighbors to be infuriated.

I would hear ordinary noise coming from downstairs or next door and my flawed mind would interpret these noises as threats of reprisals for things I was doing, even though I was being as careful as possible to not make even the slightest sound. The fear gripped me and my delusional thoughts and hallucinations that backed those thoughts up added to my paranoia. It was a terrifying experience of psychosis at its worst.

It is a tricky mental health situation to experience psychosis. I was still taking my other medications which managed my other symptoms, but the new medication was supposed to work as an antipsychotic. Suffice to say it wasn’t doing its job. My psychosis drove me to a place of extreme fear and depression. I hallucinated that my neighbors were outside my door with a gun plotting against me.

Perhaps the worst part of the whole mess was that while I was dealing with all this, I had to work a job in my local psychiatric hospital as a creative writing teacher. It was a job I loved and had worked very hard to acquire. Teaching people very involved concepts to do with writing but my wellness at the job was next to impossible to maintain as I imagined patients and other staff members were commenting negatively about me. The supreme irony was that one morning, I was working at the hospital, and by that evening, I had to be hospitalized in another local psychiatric facility.

Going into the hospital as a patient was in some ways a relief. I was happy that something was going to be done to calm the storm in my head, but I had drifted a long way from reality. I was delusional and hallucinating, in addition to my constant paranoia, by the time I got help. I knew I was at the University of Alberta hospital, a teaching hospital in Edmonton, but I feared that I was going to be taken to jail.

The delusions, hallucinations and paranoia manifested in several ways. One of the hardest paranoid thoughts was that I thought I smelled horribly bad, and that people were disgusted at me. Aside from thinking I was going to be arrested, I thought people wanted to kill me. I was hallucinating that I could hear comments from everyone I was near. Then came the worst hallucination, a young woman who lived in my building was going in for surgery at another hospital around the same time I became sick and was hospitalized. While I was waiting in the emergency room, someone came in and stopped to have a talk with the triage nurse. In my deluded state, I thought he was describing what had happened to the woman, my neighbor, who had the operation.

 

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​What I discerned, though now I realize was an auditory hallucination, was the most brutal and terrifying description of a cold-blooded murder that I had ever heard, and I was convinced it was revealed to me in this way because I was the number one suspect in this crime. It didn’t console me that later I got a text from the woman I thought had been murdered and she didn’t know anything about my delusions. I still believed I was a suspect in a murder, and I was convinced I was going to jail for the rest of my life.

I ended up in a secure psychiatric ward of a city hospital, and my recovery was slow.  In some ways I felt safer being in the hospital, but my mind continued going a mile a minute and it was hard to keep still. All I can remember about being in the locked ward was feeling the unfairness of my situation. I hadn’t gone off my medication. I hadn’t stolen anything or hurt anyone, and here I was, locked up like a prisoner. I found solace in writing short poems in my room, and in the many visitors who came to see me. For a brief period, I felt I had a good case for a lawsuit, but I soon realized not only that it would be hard to prove anyone was at fault, but also that I didn’t want to get my psychiatrist into any kind of trouble. I recognized that the fault could not be placed on any one individual.

Fortunately, my time on the locked ward didn’t last long, though my paranoia and psychosis did. I was relieved to be transferred to the open part of the psychiatric ward because you could get passes to go to the mall, you could wander the hospital, and there were activities like support and education groups and even time to go to the gym to play sports each morning.

I ended up spending five weeks in total in the psychiatric wards of that hospital.  As I tried to go about my day, I kept hearing a running commentary, warning me that my food was being poisoned, telling me jokes, and making toilets flush when no one was in the bathroom. I even had voices tell me that people were breaking into the hospital to attempt to kill me. More than once nurses came into my room to find me lying on the floor behind my bed and tried in vain to explain to me that the hospital was a very safe place.

When I look back at that time, I try to focus on what the experience had to teach me. The first thing I learned from it was that I must accept that I have a mental illness that will never go away. Even after nearly twenty years of mental health stability and recovery, I was simply one medication away from becoming very ill again. The other thing I felt I learned from my hospital experience is that it is so important to tell others what I went through, so that stigma can be lessened. If there is less stigma, more people will feel okay to come forward at earlier parts of their illness, and those who are experiencing symptoms will be treated better.

Stigma towards mental illness and the people that have it is tragic. I was fortunate that I didn’t lose my job when I got ill, although I did have experiences that I am embarrassed by and even ashamed about. Writing the book “Alert and Oriented x3” was how I was able to cope with the negative feelings of my hospitalization. I felt by explaining what I went through and showing how I had done no wrong that I was absolved of guilt. I also went back eventually to being close with friends and family who saw me at my worst. It was extremely fortunate that two of my bosses, one who was my supervisor at the Schizophrenia Society and the other who oversaw my community creative writing and wellness classes, came to visit me, along with friends and family members. All I had to cling to when I was in the hospital was the hope that my doctors could help heal me and the fact that there were people on my side, willing to help me in any way was critical.

In the end, I decided the best thing I could do was to write a book about the experience. I took the poems I wrote while in the locked ward, added commentary with them to explain my state of mind, then added in essays and other poems, a glossary of psychiatric terms, and statements from my family and closest friend. As a final attempt to make a realistic portrayal of being hospitalized for psychosis, I added in scans of my actual clinical notes. I titled the book “Alert and Oriented x3,” which is a nursing term and made it a free download on my website for anyone to read. Along with my other efforts, it is my dream to change the way people look at mental illness and to remind myself that I need to maintain my mental and physical health and always stay vigilant, eating properly, sleeping enough, and taking all my medications on time as prescribed, for the rest of my days.

This is a poem (untitled) that I wrote while in the locked psychiatric ward of the Grey Nuns Hospital.

Time slips past
As we love many things
Lessened senses
As such age brings
Harder to hear
Harder to see
Harder to know
Who surrounds me
Those that care
Know I also do
The final door
I exit through
The final step
Brings a life anew

​EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: Gabriel Nathan | EDITOR: Laura Farrell | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | SITE ORIGINATOR: Bud Clayman

 

 

Leif Gregersen is a writer, teacher, and public speaker mostly working in the mental health field with 13 books and numerous articles to his credit. Three of Leif's books are memoirs of his journey and full recovery from schizoaffective disorder. More information about Leif, his writing, and his blog can be found at www.edmontonwriter.com.