Why Couldn’t I Keep My Phone?

N.B.: I debated back and forth about writing this, and debated about posting it as well. Ultimately I decided to do so, if only because I wanted to express my frustration and anger, but I wanted to note that my aim is in no way to discourage anyone from seeking help, and that I recognize that this is a singular experience with a singular institution, and I cannot necessarily make any sweeping judgments based on that. However, based on what I hear from others, I don’t think it’s as unique an experience as it should be. 

Last week I spent two hours at a psychiatric hospital. I’ve been thinking about it off and on since, and decided to write something about it – if for no other reason then to help myself process what was a nightmarish experience, for all it was only two hours and chosen voluntarily (thus putting me ahead of many others).

The reason I went in the first place is shockingly mundane: I’d run out of one of my medications and needed an emergency refill, and the only way I could find to do that was to go to a CPEP, or Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program. (The funnier part of this story is the fact that the reason I was out of my meds in the first place is more or less the reason why I take them to begin with. You can see the problem here.)

I walked to the CPEP near to my apartment after work. I started getting nervous pretty quickly, standing in a foyer while I was checked in. Between me and the hospital was a locked door. There was an irrational part of my brain that was convinced I was going to end up involuntarily committed and was trying to make plans – would I be able to tell my girlfriend? My parents? It had been a really, really rough week for me, mental health-wise, and while at that time I was doing better than I had been, it still freaked me out.

A nurse came and retrieved me, taking me through the locked door (which then locked behind me). I waited in the hallway and watched an elderly woman change into a hospital gown, her clothes and other belongings signed over, presumably for safekeeping. Holding onto my tote bag (containing, to wit: wallet, two books, phone, and headphones), I started to wonder what I’d gotten myself into. Were they going to take my clothes? My belongings? I asked the nurse with me if I would have to give up my stuff, and she said they would take “some of” it. She asked why I was there – I told her, trying to laugh, that really I just needed a medication refill.

I ended up getting to keep my book and my wallet, and I kept my clothes on. No phone, though. (That made me anxious, too. What if someone tried to call me? What if my girlfriend got worried? It wasn’t just a matter of simple communication, either – having my phone taken away made me feel powerless, isolated.)

I waited in a hallway again, seemingly because the rooms were all in use. “We’re going to put you in a brief room,” the nurse said, which didn’t really mean anything to me, but I nodded, because when I’m scared I tend to clam up. In retrospect there were probably a lot of questions I should’ve asked – when can I expect to see a doctor, what kind of protocol do I have to go through – but I didn’t. I just waited.

The nurse did the usual weight-height-blood pressure check, had me sign a host of forms, and ushered me into a waiting room without saying anything further. Confused and nervous, I sat down and waited.

Another note – there was no privacy. When I was being weighed it was in an open room almost immediately adjacent to the doorway. The waiting room was across from that room. While I sat there, several police officers and EMTs walked through and out the door – a door that had to be unlocked by one of the staff.

I had my book, at least. I read, but as time went by I got antsy. I know about hospital wait times, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt so profoundly ignored as I did for that first hour, sitting and waiting for someone, anyone, to tell me what was going on, when I was going to see someone, when I could get my medication and go home. Eventually I stood up and went out into the hallway, because the longer I sat the more anxious I got. I couldn’t sit still, I couldn’t focus on my book, small sounds started to grate.

I stood there until someone noticed me, and then asked politely what was going on and when I might expect to see a doctor. “Oh, it could be a couple hours,” said the staff member who had taken my stuff.

I was a little incredulous, and I was starting to feel claustrophobic, trapped. I expressed a wish to leave, which was largely ignored. At that point a doctor who was just passing by stopped and asked why I was there. When I told her, she took me across the hall into the waiting room and asked me a series of standard questions, what medication I was taking, what pharmacy I used, the psychiatrist I usually saw. It was fairly clear she hadn’t been assigned to me. She assured me that she’d send a prescription over, and it would be just a little bit longer. The same doctor came back maybe twenty minutes later to confirm the pharmacy and tell me that she’d sent the prescription and I just needed to be released by one of the nurses.

Finally feeling like something was happening, I sat down again and read for a while. I kept having the urge to check the time, wondering if my girlfriend was freaking out about the fact that I wasn’t home yet. I could feel my blood sugar plummeting, since I hadn’t eaten since lunch and didn’t have any food on me.

Someone came in and asked me a few questions, set up an appointment the next week, and left. Someone else came by and confirmed who I was, but when I started to ask what was going on she said that she was just checking where all the patients were and walked away.

The overwhelming feeling I had was that I’d been abandoned. Cut loose. I felt confused and powerless and anxious, completely isolated. When I asked what I was waiting for, I got vague answers or dismissals. Someone said I was waiting for “aftercare”. Someone else said the nurse needed to discharge me. What either of these things entailed, or whether I needed to go somewhere or say something, was never made clear.

The impression overall was: we don’t care. We don’t have to listen to you, or worry about your feelings. I went into the CPEP feeling nervous but relatively okay. I left furiously angry, anxious, and on the verge of tears. After two hours, and as someone lucid and able to advocate for myself.

It scares me, the idea that this is what healthcare looks like for mentally ill people in dire straits – people who are sick, who are suffering. As I burst out to my girlfriend upon arriving home, “if I hadn’t been depressed and anxious to begin with, I sure as hell would be now!”

I understand lack of funding and lack of resources. I don’t feel like I can personally blame any of the staff at the facility I visited. But I can say that, when I was assured by the doctor I spoke to that “if things get worse, you can always come back here”, even as I nodded and smiled the foremost thought in my mind was “no way in hell.”

There has to be a better way than this.

About the title of this essay: I’m aware of the “millennials and their phones” jokes that would be easy to make. Maybe it would even be fair. On the other hand – like it or not, in this day and age cell phones are a major means of communication. They mediate huge forms of social activity and enable a large portion of our communication.

There’s a movement that advocates going screens free as a healthy act. I have found it healthy to step away from my devices when I can. But that is a choice.

Having that taken away – not, perhaps, against my will but without the option to say no – underlined the painful, isolated feelings, and the sense that I was being treated as something other than a complete adult. In one gesture I lost both a chunk of personal autonomy and all ties to my community. Humans are social animals, and a support system is vital for mental well being – but suddenly I couldn’t reach mine.

I have a hard time understanding why, in asking for help, I was (however temporarily) signing away that much.

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