It wasn’t as bad as some movies make it seem. I wasn’t kept up at night by the screams of people being tormented by hallucinations. The staff fed us. We were not treated as subhuman, and yet it was not the glorified experience I read about, either.
I didn’t make friends who colored the lens with which I view the world; in fact, most of the people I met I will never speak to again. I didn’t talk to a therapist who made me want to live again, and yet, when I left, I did want to live again. In some way short-term psychiatric treatment was a catalyst for my pathway back to health.
Lakeview Behavioral Health Hospital. Patients called it the mental hospital, the psych ward or, my personal favorite introduction, “Welcome to your week of Hell.” I stayed in 3 West: the unit for patients age 15 and younger who were admitted because they were deemed a safety risk to themselves or someone else.
The unit housed as many as 17 patients during my six-day stay. Through the monotony of our daily routines, the unit stayed in flux with constant intakes and discharges. There were mornings we woke up to faces we didn’t have the night before. We spent most of our days staring at the walls and waiting for meal times.
A passive rotation
There isn’t much to do in mental hospitals. Technicians wake you up at 5 a.m. for vitals, and you stumble out of your room — half-asleep and mildly pissed to be awake. You collapse into the green and beige checkered chair that rests against the nurse’s station as a technician takes your heart-rate, blood pressure and temperature. You then stumble back into bed and, if you’re lucky, fall back asleep. Otherwise, you stare at the ceiling and wait. You wait for them to come open the bedroom doors again.
“Get up. Get up! It’s time to wake up!”
It’s now 6:30, and you walk into the main room again. Everyone is still in their pajamas and anxious to go to breakfast — not because it’s any good, but because it’s something to do. It’s a way to occupy our hands and mouths, so we are not talking about mental illness or about how we got here.
“Ladies, line up!”
Inevitably, only about half of the patients would be awake enough to follow the directive.
“I said, ‘Ladies, LINE UP!’”
Everything within the three-story building is divided by sex. Females sit on one side of the therapy room, on one side of the cafeteria. Males aren’t allowed to talk to females. They line up about five feet behind the females, and no interaction is allowed.
You quickly shuffle into a line by the door that leads to a stairwell and wait for the technicians to call for a count.
“Can I get a count?”
It is quite the miracle if you can get through the whole line without someone calling a number that didn’t belong to them. When the flow of the count is interrupted, it begins again.
Once that’s done, a technician buzzes the group out of the door and you trip down the stairs to the ground floor. You get buzzed through the door, out of the stairwell and through a set of double wooden doors.
Walking through those halls is a constant reminder that you do not have choices. You are reminded that as minor you don’t get to sign yourself in or out, that on a 1013: code for being so high of a risk to yourself and others that you are involuntarily committed into an “emergency receiving facility” — you are stuck on a mandatory 72-hour hold. You are trapped as part prisoner, part patient.
The cafeteria smells like dirty oil and sweat, yet you clamor through the doors — anxious to be fed.
You spend breakfast alternating between shoveling greasy hospital food into your mouth and trying desperately to make conversation with anyone else trapped there.
After breakfast, it’s time for “hygiene,” which is code for shower and brush your teeth. You have a bathroom in your room that you share with your roommate. This is the only time you get to yourself. The shower operates with a button that allows water to flow for about 30 seconds at a time, and you push it over and over again until you are done.
My roommate sang in the shower, and I thought this was probably her only time to herself. You don’t get to be alone in places like this.
Then the rest of the time allocated to hygiene is yours to catch up on as much sleep as you can. You lay on the hard, twin bed and let yourself succumb to sleep for every moment you can — not necessarily because you’re tired, but because there is nothing to do. I was the only person on my unit who brought a book; cell phones are not allowed; board games could only be played during free time between therapy sessions, and the television played after dinner. Sleep is a way to occupy the time.
Group therapy is next. You tell a technician what your goal is for the day. Most people just say whatever they think will get them out of the facility fastest.
“I want to stay positive.”
“I want to control my anger.”
Then the technician asks about your mood.
“How are you feeling today?”
It seemed like most people said whatever would get them out fastest, without regard to the truth.
“I’m feeling happy.”
This was the flow of most of my group therapy sessions. Someone — sometimes a technician, occasionally a person with a nametag that reads “therapist” — will ask you a question.
“What’s changed in your time here?”
“How have your feelings changed since your first day here?”
The patients look at the floor and tap their toes for a few moments, trying to formulate an answer that will get them out of the hospital.
For me and the people I met, every action conducted in the hospital is about trying to get out of there.
The rest of the day follows much of the same pattern. You stare at each other and try to make conversation during breaks. You filter your thoughts to seem well in group therapy. You line up and count off to go to mealtime. You stand in the gym or the rec room and try to decide what will be the least awkward thing to do. Sometimes, you succeed in doing something to take your mind off of everything. Sometimes not.
At 3 p.m. you get “Reflection Time.” If you’re lucky, you sleep through it and get to escape into the world of dreams. I dreamt of laughing with my friends and summer nights. Or I dreamt of my girlfriend — listening to her tell stories and holding her hand.
The people closest to me knew where I was, and I hoped they were not terribly worried about me. I did not want to cause stress.
If you don’t get lucky enough to sleep, you spend an hour and a half staring at the muted green walls of your room. You get to spend that time reminiscing in all of the hurt and lonely that put you in the room.
You go to dinner. Come back. Group therapy. Gym. Group Therapy. Stare at the walls and try to make conversation. Sleep. A technician opens the doors multiple times per night to make sure no one is dead.
You begin the day again, and all you want to do is get out — of the green walls, group therapy, hospital food and the vague air of despair.
Living Past a 1013
Every girl I met in that hospital was there under a 1013 — myself included. I came into the facility on a Monday morning, and I wanted to die. I slept alone in a waiting room, waiting for an intake nurse to let me upstairs to the adolescent unit.
I got upstairs at 1 p.m., and when I walked in, everyone was staring at me — like they thought I was crazy. If I wasn’t so scared, I would’ve laughed. As if these people have any right to judge me. As if they aren’t just as crazy as me.
I thought this would be the kind of place where you don’t talk about what put you there. It seems like the kind of thing you would talk around — like it would hurt too much.
But that was the first question anyone asked me. Not, “What’s your name?” Not, “How old are you?”
“So, why are you here?”
And it wasn’t just me. That’s what we asked everyone new.
“Why are you here?”
I found a group of people to sit with, but that’s about all we were to each other — people to sit with. I think if there were enough tables, we all would have sat alone. We would have allowed ourselves to sit with only the contents of ourselves for entertainment, but we were never allowed the gift of solitude.
Sometimes we’d talk about our lives outside of those walls. Sometimes we talked about recovery. We pretended that we would keep up with each other after our hospital stays ended. we gave each other our Instagram usernames, but I knew as well as the rest of us that we would never keep up with each other. Our stays would end, and we would move on with our lives — without another word shared.
A false intimacy existed between the patients. We shared stories and feelings that some of us would never tell our best friends, and yet there was a distance — a sense of detachment that made it easier to confess.
The week went on. We followed the same routines and had the same interactions every day. Nothing changed — except my mental health.
Something about being in a place where someone’s whole job is to open the doors on sleeping patients and make sure that no one is dead made me not want to be the body they found. I didn’t want to be the person that gave that job purpose. I didn’t want to be a patient anymore.
I spent the first few days wishing I could be home. I wasn’t focused on my treatment or my recovery. I wasted hours thinking of all of the things I was missing: final exams, final projects, the last week of freshman year and end-of-year parties. I never mourned missing a test as much as I did those first nights, and in that, I found my reasons to trust treatment and pursue recovery.
It was the second night of my stay in the hospital, and I laid down on the hard, twin bed. My neck was sore because the staff never gave me a pillow, and my stomach was turning from the hospital food. I felt like my life was happening to me — like it wasn’t my choice anymore. I wanted that choice, that freedom and that normalcy.
I wanted to take my finals. I wanted to work on my projects, because I wanted my life back. I wanted to see my friends. I wanted to laugh until I couldn’t breathe and tears streamed down my face, because I wanted to see my friends’ smiles again.
I didn’t want to stare at the green walls or the yellow lighting of the inpatient facility. I was sick of feeling like a patient. I was sick of being trapped without any control over my life and my actions, so I worked on getting healthy again. That was my ticket out. Recovery was my path back to normalcy.
I hated every second of my time at Lakeview Behavioral Health Hospital. I spent every moment wanting to leave, wanting to be rid of that place, and feeling confined. But I got something good out of it. I got a pathway back to my mental health. The hospital gave me a therapist, medication and coping skills. It gave me a way to be active in the work it takes to be healthy and start healing. I started healing.
I went down three flights of stairs and through a few sets of double doors. My hands were shaking with anticipation — and fear — for the life I was coming back to. The world seemed different now. I was seeing things through a lens of being okay — with myself and my life.
Everything seemed more hopeful. I knew that from now on it wouldn’t hurt so much and so often, and I knew that when things hurt — as they inevitably would — I was significantly more prepared.
I do not pretend that my journey of recovery will be easy, but I do believe it will be possible.
The hospital wasn’t as bad as I feared it would be. It wasn’t as amazing as I hoped it would be, but it was impactful. It was a marker between lifetimes — between versions of myself, and for that I am grateful.
This past spring, VOX took a deep-dive approach to covering mental health among teens, a topic of ongoing importance. Click here for VOX’s coverage of mental health.
Haley, 14, is a rising sophomore at Grady High School, and she promises she is capable of writing light-hearted things. They just haven’t happened yet.
The collage was created by Leena A., 16, from North Atlanta High School, at a VOX-hosted teen-takeover at the High Museum of Art last spring, where teens made art focusing on mental health.