The first time I was admitted to the psych ward, I was 16. I was still a minor, so I had the benefit of boarding with the youth in the juvenile behavioral unit in the local hospital. I wasn’t prepared in the least for what I would see and encounter, nor was my mind in a state to readily accept this place.

The tell-tale behaviors of mania and depression were present in me, leading up to the admission. But at first, my family and I didn’t know that these strange acts I exhibited were signs of bipolar disorder. While I waited for what seemed like hours in a hospital gown on a cold metal table in an ER admissions room by myself, Mom and Dad signed papers and consulted with the administration to see what could be done for my extraordinary outbursts and melancholy “suicidal” ideations—which, by the way, were not actually suicidal ideations or intentions. I simply had a sense of my life being cut short—a symptom of manic paranoia—which the hospital interpreted as a threat of harm to myself or others. This interpretation led to another tick against another piece of criteria for admission.

I had been seeing a psychiatrist who didn’t want to diagnose me at that age—for liability and precaution. She had met with us two or three times prior, but because I now needed around-the-clock monitoring, advised my parents to take me to the local hospital. Confused because I didn’t realize where they were taking me (my symptoms were that bad), I had no concept of what a psych ward was, let alone an extended stay in one. They said I may be there for a long weekend; it turned out to be three weeks.

My stay was rough because of the illness, but good for me. I don’t have regrets about the choices I made or my willingness to enter go there to begin with. It was the best place for me to be at that time, with the best help possible. Someone had to figure out what was wrong with me, as I clearly couldn’t. Bipolar disorder sort of snuck up on me at the height of my teenage-hood and hijacked my mind.

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Becoming Bipolar

I was finally diagnosed with biopolar disorder, after the three-week inpatient stay, during consultations with a doctor in the outpatient program. I think I knew all along that something was wrong when I was sick and not yet diagnosed; I just hadn’t been educated yet on mental illness. I was living it and realized—I’m bipolar. There is a reason my brain is malfunctioning.  I had only heard the term “bipolar disorder” for the first time the previous year, but I knew it was manifesting in me after speaking to my psychiatrist at the hospital when my symptoms emerged.

Based on my experiences at 16 in the juvenile ward, and at 24 in the adult ward, I’ve gleaned some wisdom that may be helpful if you are readying yourself to enter a behavioral unit:

What I Wish I’d Known Before I Admitted Myself

  1. Bring your best advocate with you. It may be your spouse, parent, close friend or relative—someone who knows you and is familiar with your situation.
  2. Breath. Recognize that the staff wants to help you, not hurt you.
  3. Be patient. It’s a process—here are steps to go through and paperwork to be completed
  4. Once inside, advocate for yourself. The doctor will see you. Be honest with him.
  5. Your picture will be taken, and no, they are not stealing your soul.
  6. You will be in a secured unit, locked in. At times they let you out of the unit for visits or short excursions.
  7. You must earn your way out. Your behavior can hinder your release if you’re not cooperating with the staff and patients.
  8. Read your patient rights and understand them.
  9. Your personal belongings will be inventoried, so they will take out shoestrings, belts, hoodies, nail clippers, razors, and anything else deemed potentially dangerous.
  10. Don’t mind the eccentric behaviors of the other patients, they’re fighting a similar battle.
  11. Accept that the insides of the building may not be the most aesthetically pleasing. (That said, don’t concentrate on abstract paintings if they have them. Abstract art is a bad idea for psychotic symptoms).
  12. There will be a TV on at some point. The sound may seem to be calling your name. It’s not. Try to tolerate the audio-visual stimulation, but if you have to, leave the room.
  13. Be mindful of the opposite sex (or the same sex if you’re so inclined). Establish personal boundaries and adhere to them; the psych ward is not a place to start a romance.
  14. Listen to the staff and don’t give them a hard time.
  15. Be friendly and polite. There are humans here, not second-class savages.
  16. Seek out a friend and get to know some people.
  17. Read.
  18. Give yourself time and space. You are on a journey to getting better and that takes time and space.
  19. Take a photograph in your mind’s eye. Journal about it. Capture the chaotic and colorful journey. Write about it. Express yourself. Get to know who you are at this time.
  20. Be kind, regardless. Don’t expect people to respect you because a.) everyone’s imperfect and b.) they can’t respect others if they don’t respect themselves.
  21. Challenge your mind and do a puzzle, but don’t read into it—it’s just a brain exercise.
  22. Take advantage of physical activity when there’s recreation time. Your body needs a physical outlet to help process the stress your mind is going through.

The admission and experience of staying in the psych ward was quite an adventure. I offer these pointers because knowing what I know now back then would have helped me get through the experience with less angst. While it was an unfamiliar and uncomfortable place to be, it was also the best place for me and worth it for my mental health.

Last Updated: Mar 7, 2018