72 Hours


You want to know what 72 hours in a psychiatric hospital is like. You wanting to know is OK. Everyone who hears this part of my story wants to know what 72 hours in a psychiatric hospital is like. Even I, more than 16 months later, want to know what 72 hours in a psychiatric hospital is like, because I was and wasn’t the one who checked himself in at the end of a disastrous relationship.

The rooms are bright, and the doctors wear white coats over casual clothes, and doors don’t lock. Clocks don’t have hands, as if time doesn’t pass, or, to keep us – still, now, I think that once you’ve checked in, you never check out, even though you do check out, if that makes sense – from counting the 72 hours, one minute at a time.

Jewelry and belts are out, as nooses can be knotted in leather and gold. You won’t find a mirror, utensils are plastic and come in one variety – a spork – and toilets have little water in them (as if anyone would attempt to drown themselves in a toilet). Doctors don’t – can’t, really – remember your name; too many patients, not enough doctors.

Medication is suggested, and sometimes forced, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get a say in the pills you’ll be forced to take.

We can try lithium, the woman who became my psychiatrist asked me (and that’s another thing, you see therapists and social workers and group leaders and psychiatrists, and you have no say in the therapists and social workers and group leaders and psychiatrists you see, because you are stuck inside a suite – I use this word liberally – of locked rooms).

No, I said. I’ve heard about the side effects.

We could try Lamictal, she said.

What is it?

It was originally developed as an antidepressant, she said, but it proved ineffective. Then it was used to treat epilepsy.

Is there any harm in my trying it? I asked.

A few people have experienced severe side effects, she said.

What sort of side effects, I asked.

Their skin starts to fall off. She says this matter-of-factly. I look at her. But if I prescribe this for you and you notice something happening, we would stop immediately.

At least she was honest with me about the side effects, I thought, and then I told her I would try Lamictal, which I continue to take every day.

I had a say in the food I ate. Each morning, I was given a menu of choices for the day, and I selected what I wanted. No dairy if I didn’t want it, or meat, or desserts. But I wasn’t allowed to eat the food in my room. And I wasn’t allowed to open cans of soda, or drink from cans of soda. Sharp edges and veins don’t mix in a psychiatric hospital.

My wife wasn’t allowed to sit in my room, which I left only to eat, so she and I sat in a hallway, where staff could see us. No inappropriate touching. No plotting to escape. No escape, really. While my wife and I were talking one night, a woman carrying two packed bags kept trying to push open a fire escape door. The door, like all others, was locked.

Clocks continue to not have hands and no one wears a watch and no one will tell you the time and if you’re in a bed by a window you can watch the sun move across the sky, but can you really tell time by the movement of the sun? Day and night, that’s how you tell time when you’re in a psychiatric hospital.

The beds are comfortable to a point, and curtains divide rooms in half, offering some privacy. Not enough, though. The man is the next bed brought only 16 pairs of white underwear with him, didn’t understand why he couldn’t smoke, and demanded that nurses help him find peace.

Can’t help with that, one nurse told him, though she promised to check into the meds he got to help him sleep.

Wake up in the middle of the night and you cannot turn on lights in your room and sometimes an on-duty nurse will give you another sleeping pill, but if your doctor hasn’t approved you using sleeping pills, the nurse will not give you anything.

You’ll see men who bark and rock and walk in circles, and women who cry and demand phone privileges and who leave rice crispies on lunch trays – which happened to me, and which remains one of those moments during my 72-hour stay that continues to amuse me.

Stay in your room all day, and staff thinks you’re depressed. Don’t spend time in your room, and staff thinks you might be manic. Go to Bible study on Sunday if you want, or Saturday game night, anything to disrupt a routine that is not your routine but has become your routine.

Collect your belongings at the end of your stay – if you’re allowed to leave; staff and doctors can insist you stay past your 72 hours of observation – and promise that you’ll meet with someone after and promise that you’re better and promise that you’ll continue meds and promise that you’ll never be back, but staff have heard these promises and may take bets on the ones who will return.

Beat the odds and slowly get better and look back on those 72 hours as when everything changed and when everything began, or continue spiraling downward and wonder why you didn’t couldn’t wouldn’t get better.

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image – Phoebe