Illustration by Maya Cardinali

As this is sensitive, personal content, the author of this essay has chosen to remain anonymous.

Trigger warning: eating disorders.

Psychiatric Hospital. When you read those words, a few things probably come to mind: possibly a creepy gated facility, zombie-like patients wandering around in hospital gowns, lobotomies, nuns and orderlies strapping patients to a bed for electroshock therapy, just to name a few. Most people think that psychiatric hospitals are things of the past, or for people who have been deemed not competent to stand trial in a murder case. In short, most of what people think of when they think of a psychiatric hospital is something out of a horror film.

The year is 2019. I am 19 years old. For the past 6 weeks I have been living a psychiatric hospital. And I can tell you, it is not the horror show you are envisioning.

When my parents sent me to this facility they did not tell me that it was a psychiatric hospital—and I didn’t even realize that it was until I had been here about a week. I had my own misconceptions about psychiatric hospitalization too and I was completely against it. I, probably similar to most people, expected to be sedated and treated against my will. I expected to be trapped in a windowless, cell-like room all day and to be met with uncaring treatment. I expected that I would be treated like a criminal.

I’m currently being treated in a specific unit of the hospital that only cares for patients with eating disorders. The staff here are warm and caring—they treat us with respect and dignity. To them, I am not just a number—I am a person. They frequently bring us their movies and arts and crafts from home to help pass downtime on the weekends. They know all about my hobbies and passions, the names of my dogs, and where my little sister is going to college. They know when I like to be woken up in the morning and how I like my smoothies made. They have talked me off many a ledge and convinced me to eat even the scariest of foods, donuts included. I talk to them about my fears and hopes and all of the plans I have for when I discharge.

We do cry a lot.  I’ve shed more tears in the past six weeks than I have in the past several years.  Before I was admitted, I hid all of my feelings; I used my eating disorder and self-harm to conceal all of the difficult things I was struggling with.  But in the hospital, all of my go-to (and extremely unhealthy) coping skills have been taken from me, so, naturally, my feelings started to pour out of me sideways. My therapist has developed a chronic tissue deficiency in her office due to the fact that I use about eight Kleenex per session (and I have two sessions a week, so yeah, I go through a lot). 

To many people’s surprise, though, we laugh a lot here. To be honest, I haven’t laughed this hard in a long time. I am often gasping for air, my face bright red because I am laughing so hard.  Being here and beginning recovery is the hardest thing I have ever done and I wouldn’t be able to survive without the laughter. The laughs heard here are of a different kind: it comes from the bellies and mouths of those who have not laughed, I mean really laughed, in quite some time.  When it echoes through the halls it reminds me that yes, there is hope. Yes, there is a light at the end of this seemingly impossible tunnel.

The unit is unusually comfortable and not entirely miserable. Our group room is lined with large chairs and ottomans and most patients are wrapped in their blankets, coloring books and journals armed at the ready. We don’t leave the fluorescent lights on 24/7. And, after a few weeks, I was able to get my drawstrings and shoe laces back—I’m even allowed to shave with a disposable razor now. The unit we live on looks more like a house than a hospital.  We have a homey lounge with couches and chairs. We have a TV whose accompanying stand is stocked with movies. The linoleum floor is covered by a carpet.  It’s a drab carpet, but still, it’s a carpet.  There’s a screened-in porch and an art room. One of the walls is decorated with encouraging quotes written by current and former patients. The bedrooms do not look like that of a typical hospital: no panic buttons or adjustable beds are found here. My roommate and I each have our own dresser and we share a desk, closet, and bathroom. This is the closest I’ve come to dorm life in a long time; college has been put on the back burner in the midst of my illness. The grounds of the campus are actually quite beautiful. The green grass is flooded with brightly colored flowers and towering trees. There’s even a koi pond that we visit often. 

That’s not to say that I don’t feel trapped here sometimes—I do. The tiresome nature that comes with living inside of a psychiatric hospital often becomes overwhelming, especially after being inside for six weeks. We have to go through five locked doors just to get to meals. At this point, my hospital bracelet might as well be fused to my skin. Hearing codes come over the loudspeaker feels normal at this point and that sickens me. Each morning I put on a hospital gown to get my weight measured and vitals taken. I am constantly told where to go and when, when to go to sleep, when to wake up, when and what to eat; I’m essentially a 19-year-old child.  I don’t want this to be my life any longer.

Next week, I will be celebrating my 20th birthday here. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t sad.  As a little girl I never thought I would be bidding farewell to my teenage years inside of a psychiatric institution. I ugly-cried to my mom about it over FaceTime just a little bit ago.  Of course, I would rather be snuggled on the couch with my dogs watching reruns of “Parks and Recreation” or “The Office.”

But, I am surrounded by people who care for me unconditionally. Who love me, scars and all.  Who have seen me at my worst and help lift me up until we can celebrate my best.  Who have seen me cry over butter and a few weeks later witnessed me enjoying a scoop of ice cream. Yes, I am celebrating my birthday here, but I am giving myself the change to have so many more birthdays to come. This year, for the first time in a long time, I will celebrate my life. This year, I will commemorate all I have survived. This year, I will eat birthday cake and this year, I will struggle well, through every bite.            

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