No, being in a mental hospital is nothing like being in Girl, Interrupted. To be completely honest I’ve never watched or read Girl, Interrupted, but the Wikipedia synopsis did not hold the promise of an accurate portrayal. And from what I’ve been told, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest isn’t particularly enlightening either.
Girl, Interrupted is based on one person’s stay at the McLean Hospital. The story does seem very exciting. Personality disorders collide in a crazy romp in the tunnels beneath the hospital. Having lived at McLean for three weeks, I can say is that it felt like an emotional wellness boot camp. We spent weekdays from 9-5 at the Academic Center, learning about coping strategies, aspects of different emotions, and interpersonal skills. Our daily dose of excitement was seeing the two geese whom we had named “Damian” and “Amanda” strutting around the courtyard. Oh, and one time a girl made macaroni and cheese for all the residents. That was a good day.
I guess the best way I can describe a mental hospital is like a cross between camp and a prison. You meet lots of new kids and young adults, but you aren’t always allowed to go outside. You color and play cards, but you submit to mandatory searches of your body and your possessions. You are always provided with food and water, but if you try to run away, you will be tackled.
For some people, hospitals are a substitute of prison. Kids dealing with substance abuse, impulse control, and aggression are committed rather than incarcerated. For others, hospitals are the only place they’re able to make friends, the only place they feel they can be themselves.
Maybe this whole prison/camp comparison doesn’t capture the whole picture. Another way mental hospitals could be defined is by their various contradictions.
Mental hospitals are fun. There’s no school, you get tons of sleep, and you play Mario Kart with other kids.
Mental hospitals are boring. You can’t see your friends, bedtime is at 10:00 and in some cases you don’t have Internet access.
Mental hospitals are happy. You take up painting, you practice meditation, you get your body on a schedule.
Mental hospitals are sad. You’re forced to confront your demons, you meet people who have tried to end their lives, you are someone who has tried to end their life.
Mental hospitals are safe. You are protected from the world, you are provided for, professionals are available to help you.
Mental hospitals are scary. You shake with fear as you curl into a ball in the corner of your room while a girl is forcibly restrained as she screams, “Let me die” over and over again.
And so on and so on. In a hospital, there is only one thing that truly grounds you. The fact that you are not free. You aren’t allowed to go where you want, when you want. You don’t know when you’ll see your friends next. You can’t go home and sleep in your bed, even if you want to, even if you call your parents, even if you wait at the door to the ward and cry, refusing to go back to bed until finally you have to be forcibly dragged to your room and given a sedating medication.
And it’s humiliating, being dependent. You’re at an age where you can operate a metal death machine, yet in the hospital, staff knock on the bathroom door every five minutes just to make sure you’re still alive. In action flicks, heroes may get beaten down or shaken up, but they hardly are shown as completely vulnerable, lacking dignity. How are you supposed to be the protagonist in your story if you’re incapable of even saving yourself?
The lack of freedom in hospitals certainly makes them unappealing, but that one perspective doesn’t take into account the fact that facilities can and do differ greatly. I would know; I’ve been to three over the course of two hospitalizations. Using our first analogy, I’d say two hospitals were like camps, while one was definitely a prison.
This assessment could of course be impacted by the my particular set of circumstances. The first time I was hospitalized was for talking about dying, the second time, for putting words into actions.
The first hospitalization was split between two facilities over the course of eight weeks. The second hospitalization took all of three days. Hospital Numero Uno was like a bouncy house, fun, but delicate and temporary. Number 2, like I said, was a school, stable and demanding. The last one felt like prison because it essentially was a punishment. Looks like you attempted suicide, now go sulk in a corner with no phone. Between the three I had a little mix of everything.
Truthfully, there is no quintessential “mental hospital experience,” maybe because mental hospitals aren’t exactly normal. You go to mental hospitals when you’re cutting, when you’ve been drinking too much, when therapy and medication aren’t working, when you want to die. It’s kind of like purgatory. Living in one is like living in a dream.
So do mental hospitals help? In some ways. Finally the cuts that have covered your body for years are allowed to heal as you learn to care for yourself.
Do mental hospitals hurt? Oh yes. Things that are too painful to speak of are put under a clinical microscope while you just cry and cry.
Am I healed? No.
Alright, but I am better off than I was one year ago, aren’t I? To that I say I don’t know. Of course that isn’t the right answer according to all stories about mental illness. You’re supposed to come out the other end slightly shaken, but overall not the worse for wear. But I’m not cured. I’m not even sort of cured. The movies may have gotten that part right. Sometimes there is no happy ending.
Will a hospital make you better? Deep breath. I don’t think so. It didn’t for me, but from what I can tell it’s not supposed to. A mental hospital can be a place to learn and explore and discover, but probably its greatest virtue is in being a pause button for life. It’s a place to take an inventory of your health, a place for you to eat and sleep and think. The real work only begins when you press play.
So should you go to a mental hospital? “No” is my gut reaction, but then again it’s not like black and white thinking makes for great advice. To me, it seems much easier to be normal and to not have disorders and illnesses that rule your life. But if normal isn’t an option, then I’d suggest trying medication. If meds don’t work try therapy, and if therapy doesn’t work, then yes, try a mental hospital. I’ll warn you though, a bout of mental illness that gets you into a mental hospital is bound to put up a serious fight.
Be prepared for tears, sleepless nights, and the loss of more than one friendship. And be prepared to find out that sometimes help doesn’t help, because I certainly wasn’t.
Am I glad I went to a mental hospital? No. It messed up my GPA. It’s sad, but it’s true. I also wish I had been around at school to build better friendships, to keep tricking my family into thinking that I’m fine, to not miss out on the dysfunctional bonding experience that is junior year. As for my hospitalization, I don’t really know what to think of my stay. I remember moments of belonging and happiness, watching another patient recreate the Napoleon Dynamite dance, strategizing for the zombie apocalypse, and laughing with my roommates about the fake deep quotations scrawled on the walls of our bedroom in blue pen. I remember other moments; when my friend was tackled for trying to run away, when my roommate ripped apart all their beautiful artwork, when another friend pointed out to me the painted ceiling tile their girlfriend, who had since died by suicide, had left behind from her stay at the same hospital. It was an experience in my life. That’s about all I can do to sum it up.
In the end, hardly anything in life is like what you see in movies. Unless you’re a teenage wizard who goes to a British wizarding school. Or a clown fish who’s bad at keeping track of things. Or the owner of a shrimp business who is developmentally disabled and who also has a passion for running. The problem with movies is that they’re either overly idealistic or overly dramatic. Real lives are more nuanced, more nonsensical, and more boring. So do with your lives what you will, and take care of yourself in any capacity you can. There’s a good chance your experience will differ completely from mine.
Insert “Life is like a box of chocolates” quote here.