When you attempt to play chess with your own brain, you will without a doubt lose. I have been battling with mental illness most of my life. It is a tiring and arduous task. A task, up until this past year, I had managed to some degree. However, I made the mistake of getting cocky. I started lying to myself, among others, that I was fine and had things completely under control. I thought I could fool the brain into believing I didn’t need treatment plans, medication, or any help for that matter. I could do this all on my own. I mean if that isn’t a sure fire sign of delusions of grandeur, I don’t know what else it. The truth is I fell. I fell hard. So much so, I ended up admitting myself into a psychiatric facility on December 14th.

The whole tale of how I ended up where I did is not important at the moment. What is, however, is what I gained in the 9 days I was at Clarion Psychiatric Center. I would like to preface this with everyone’s experience is different. Your experience really varies facility to facility and person to person. I will be speaking from what I personally went through at the facility I was admitted to. So, in no particular order of importance, here are 6 things I learned from my second experience of being a psychiatric facility.

1. Be Prepared. (If possible)
Since I knew that I was going to be there, I packed myself clothes according to the rules I had remembered from when I was there 16 years prior. Some things had changed but the majority of the rules had stayed the same. Most facilities will have what they allow and don’t allow on their site. I knew I was not going to be allowed a belt, anything with strings, or shoes with laces. So I packed my bag accordingly, though I was so out of it, I wore my boots with laces. No worries. They provided me with a sweet pair of croc-like sandals and non-slip socks. I was pretty styling in the footwear department.

However, that being said, no one gives a fuck on how you look. I wore the same pajamas to bed for 9 days. No one judged. No one made fun of (at least to my face) my 5 o’clock shadow. Yes, this is still an insecurity of mine. But no one made me feel less for it. Being in a facility like this is about getting better.

2. Let go of your preconceived notions.
There are a lot of stereotypes of what being in a psychiatric unit is like. The trope of drooling patients, mindlessly roaming the halls while you hear screams in the background has been drilled deep into our psyche. It has created such a strong stigma around these facilities that many forgo the help they really need because of fear of the unknown. Many of these facilities are filled with people just like myself. Everyday people who have fallen. And, yes, there are people who are there with serious mental illness. I once was jolted awake in the wee hours of the morning to a woman walking up and down the hallways screaming, “The Power of Chocolate!!!!” over and over again. This woman did not arrive until towards the end of my stay. Prior to her, the most annoying things were the Mental Health Teach opening the door to my room every 15 minutes throughout the night to make sure I was still alive and the lukewarm coffee. Honestly, most of my day was dedicated to listening to music, watching episodes of the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, group therapy, and some kind of art project. My favorite part of all was BS-ing with my friends. I met some really amazing people which brings me to my next point.

3. It takes all kinds.
The particular wing I was on was filled with people from all walks of life. There were teenagers struggling with identity and depression. Several people were there because they were battling with some kind of addiction. There were people like myself with mood disorders. And one of my favorite people there was a woman battling with schizophrenic. Not only did she propositioned one of my friends but she also offered someone a bra and a $10 bill to go.

But we all had one thing in common: We didn’t judge. Who you were before you walked onto the unit did not matter. As far as the other patients were concerned, that person did not exist in this reality. The transgressions you had committed prior to being admitted were not of their concern. Everyone was equal. We were all sick. It was one of the few places where I could really let all 2 inches of my hair down. No one knew who Lauren was. The concept of what the outside world had of me had no influence of their perception of me. I was exactly the person I wanted to be. It was very freeing. I was who I wanted them to see.

4. You have to save you.
One of the hardest things about being there was focusing on myself. It is not in my nature. I take care of other so I don’t have to deal with myself. Being trapped in a hallway full of people who needed my help, well, it was like being an unsupervised child in a candy store. My drug of choice was everywhere. I could have easily found someone to focus all my attention on and try to save. The truth is if I did that, I would never get better. I would continue to a pattern of behavior that landed me there in the first place. It is NOT selfish to focus on yourself.

And for the love of Jesus, do not worry about when you are going to get out. Everyone will ask you a hundred times if you know when you are going to get discharged. The fact of the matter is if you are focused on when you are getting out, you are doing yourself a disservice. You will become so focused on that discharge date that you will start to skate through your treatment. I have seen people who have been sent home who were not really ready to go. This is because they cheated the system. They did what the staff wanted to see even though that is not how they were really feeling. All to just go home. I understand. It is what I did the first time I was at CPC in 2002. I skated through. I dotted my I’s and crossed my T’s like a good little patient just so I could go home. Inside, I was still falling apart. I vowed not to do that this time around because I was focused on getting myself better.

5. It is ok to be vulnerable.
Fun Fact: I HATE I mean I FUCKING HATE crying in front of people. Nothing infuriates rage inside of me like being vulnerable. If we are in a fight and I start to cry, know that I have not broken down, I am fucking furious. This was a big hurdle for me. I have spent years bottling up everything inside. Hoarding all my feelings inside like a squirrel and its nest of nuts. I would only let little things here and there to be seen. But there is no one on this planet who knows how deep the hole really goes. Honestly, part of why I ended off like I did was because I grew tired of holding it all in. I was so good at not feeling that I forgot how to even do it at all.

I was always taught that those who cry were weak. It was in movies, books, and everywhere I turned. But the truth of the matter is it takes amazing strength to let go. There is a courage in asking someone to help you carry your pain. To know that you do not have to go through life carry it on your own. I let go of some really big things while I was there. There is so much more than I still need to unpack from my mind. When I did let go for just a moment, I felt stronger for it. I know it sounds cliche but the weight was truly lifted.

6. Life continues on without you.

This is probably the hardest part about being in a facility. Time seems to slow down. There are only clocks at the nurse’s station and the group rooms so you start to lose your sense of time and reality. You aren’t allowed cell phones or access to social media. You fall into a routine: Wake up, take meds, go to breakfast, smoke break, social worker group, watch some tv, allied therapy, lunch, smoke break, color, therapy group, smoke break, snack, mill about, journaling, dinner, smoke break, gym, shower, take meds, go to sleep. Sure things would switch up here and there but it was generally the same. I will be honest my 9 days there felt like a month. Your day became killing time until the next activity. And while you’re a trapped in this time warp, your life that you left is still going on without you. Whatever problems your life will be there when you get back. There is no magic to make them go away. Just tools to better handle them. This is why I want people who do go not to rush to leave. Make sure you are at least 80% ready to handle life outside. There is no easing back into it. It is like getting into a cold pool. You just have to jump in and if you are not prepared for it you could drown.

Most of all, I want people to know that ending up in a facility like this doesn’t make you a failure. It takes great strength to recognize that you need help and to reach out for it. And this goes for anyone who has been there before. A wise man named Tim told me,” You are not starting over. You are starting wiser.”

Bonus Tip: Give the staff the benefit of the doubt. The medical field as a whole is majorly understaffed and underpaid. They take on a lot. So if there is someone who is a little bit of sourpuss, take it with a grain of salt.


*This post originally appeared on the author’s blog, listed below.

Lauren Kocher has battled with mental illness since she was in the second grade. She was first diagnosed at the age of 16. Over the years she has become determined to eradicate stigma by sharing her story. She has shared her story on her blog “The Bipolar Mama” for the last 5 years. Recently, she has dipped her toes into the world of podcasting with “Living Beyond Mental Illness.” The podcast can be heard at https://anchor.fm/lauren-kocher When she is not sharing her fight, she is either on the track playing roller derby or spending time with her husband and children.