Living with mental illness: What it's really like to be an inpatient in a psychiatric unit

Fiona Kennedy talks about when she was an inpatient at Galway University Hospital

What comes to mind when you think of a psychiatric hospital? Scenes from one flew over the cuckoo’s nest? Padded cells? Maybe you picture Carrie from Homeland, or lots of drugged patients shuffling about in pyjamas. Ok, that latter one isn’t so far from reality, but the rest? It’s a million miles away.

Prior to my admission to the psychiatric unit of Galway University Hospital three years ago, my only other experiences of hospital were brief stays when my kids were born. I had no idea what to expect, although to be frank, I didn’t particularly care either. Hospitalisation came at a time when we were flat out of alternatives and clinging desperately to whatever life ring we had been thrown – in this case, inpatient care and new drugs.

Once I got over the first few days, most of which I barely remember, I settled into the rhythm of the place – the constant noise, the artificial light, the heat, the smells, the lack of privacy (I was one of six on a public ward), the timetable... And there was an unexpected sense of comfort in it all, in completely letting go of responsibility. I was told when and what to eat, when to sleep, and handed medication at regular intervals. I was also watched to ensure I took said medication. I didn’t have to take care of myself, or anyone else, and that’s exactly what I needed. It was an escape, respite, refuge even. It was the polar opposite of my life.

Anything that reminded me of home was almost too hard to handle. I found it incredibly difficult to speak to my husband, and the overwhelming level of guilt I felt for the stress I was causing him meant I could barely look at him, never mind hold a conversation – what do you talk about when all the normality has been stripped away? He brought the kids in to see me a couple of times a week. Thankfully, they were young enough to find the whole environment exciting rather than intimidating. At 2 and 5, automatic doors, water coolers and trips to the hospital café were a treat. Having to say goodbye when the time came to leave was heartbreaking for all of us. My son couldn’t look at me, and my daughter kept asking me to come home. I can only imagine how difficult it was for my husband.

As the weeks passed, coping with the long periods of time in which there was nothing to do became my biggest challenge. Once I got past breakfast, showering and making my bed, which took me until 10am, I was at a loose end. The first couple of weeks this didn’t matter, I was too withdrawn to even notice what was going on around me. While there were activities scheduled for a couple of hours on weekdays, I wasn’t obliged to join in so rarely did. I couldn’t concentrate on reading, and spent hours fixating on a game I had on my phone. There was no therapy available as I was being treated publicly, and I was so anxious I found it difficult to talk to the other patients. The TV seemed like it was permanently tuned into chat shows or soaps, which only made me feel worse so I generally avoided the shared spaces.

Once a week I got out to see my therapist, and a couple of times a week I briefly met either my consultant or one of her team. There were nurses on hand if I needed to talk, although I found this really difficult. It takes me a long time to trust someone enough to be honest with them, and given that there were different staff on every day establishing trust was a challenge. Some I could speak to more easily than others, some brought me out of myself, some were patronising, others made me want to pull the covers over my head. New student nurses were nervous and didn’t know what to say to me, and I didn’t have it in me to make it any easier on them. A lot of the time, they were simply too busy to be able to sit and talk.

Other than that? Mostly I just had to wait - for the new medication to take effect, to feel something, to want to see my family, to believe that I had a future, to want to go home and take my life back. It was a horrible, horrible time, I really don’t have the words to properly describe it. I was scared to go home, scared even to leave the hospital grounds. When I did start feeling again, mostly it wasn’t all that nice. I was incredibly, explosively angry, or so I’m told as I really don’t remember. I cried a lot. And then there were interminable stretches where time seemed to slow almost to a standstill and I couldn’t see that I would ever get better, would ever want anything more for myself, never mind deserve it. It felt as though I would always be this half person - alive, but not living, and that it was entirely my own fault.


Fiona Kennedy writes regularly about mental health issues on her blog

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact Samaritans free any time from any phone on 116 123 or visitwww.samaritans.ieto find details of your nearest branch. You can also find online information