Great question! I’ve been involuntarily committed 4 times, voluntary once. I tried to be committed once and was turned away – more on that in a moment.
The experience varies depending upon circumstance. Twice I really needed it. My reactions then ranged from a sort of stunned disbelief / numbed acceptance to relief. In fact, on both of those occasions I didn’t want to leave. Each ward has one doctor on call, otherwise you only ever see nurses. When I found out I was being released the first time I burst into tears. They hauled me into the doctor’s office, who demanded to know why I was crying. Didn’t I want to get out? I told him no, I was happy, the therapy was helping and I didn’t want to leave. He shrugged and told me I had to. They all but dragged me out – I sat in a numb heap, not even blinking hardly, until I got home where I cried for days. I found out later my insurance would only cover a few weeks in-patient. They kept me as long as the money held out, then kicked me to the curb.
The other two times… holy cow. Yes, it’s much worse than jail. In jail you might at least get a lawyer. There’s a system in place for the prisoners to have some sort of recourse to outside help. It doesn’t always work, but that’s for another thread. In a psych ward it’s just you, the four walls and a man who just met you who had control of your entire future.
My regular psychiatrist had encouraged me to use their new 24 hour hotline if I ever needed it. They were very proud of it! So one night I woke up and heard a voice that said, very clearly, “Children are a bother and you should be rid of them.” Huh. That was odd. I don’t have children. I don’t live with children, no one I knew had children. Confused, I remembered the new 24 hour line. I called, dubiously repeated what the voice said, then asked if I should increase my medication. Instead of answering, the nice lady on the other end asked to speak to my roommate. It was 1 am or so, but I dutifully woke her up and handed her the phone. They talked for a while then she covered the phone and said “I think she called the cops!”
Sure enough, a few minutes later in walked four of Denver’s finest. They talked to me for a few minutes, then put me in handcuffs, threw me in back of a squad car, and took me to the ER of Lutheran Medical Center in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. the hospital my doctor was affiliated with. We arrived at maybe 3 am or so. Six hours later a chirpy little pencil pusher came in to tell me she had news I wouldn’t like. I was being involuntarily admitted (not committed). The police were stationed outside, so I’d better not even THINK about running away!
I could hear the nurses outside complaining that I was walking around without closing my gown. “She’s not supposed to do that!” They had taken my clothes and my purse. The hospital gown they gave me was at least three sizes too small – there was no way to close it. I have degenerative disc disease and I can’t lay comfortably in one spot for too long, so I needed to walk. But they told me if I didn’t lay still they’d have me arrested, how would I like that?? (Lutheran Medical Center in Wheat Ridge, Colorado.)
I was so furious by this time that I demanded to see my doctor. I had been given nothing to eat, I certainly couldn’t sleep, I didn’t even have a drink of water or access to a toilet. They told me they’d bring in a bed pan if I insisted. Two hours later they transported me, in restraints, to the psych ward – a cluster of buildings on the other side of the hospital.
No one could reach my doctor, so I had to spend a day in group therapy explaining why I wanted to murder children. The fact that I didn’t want to murder children was simply considered denial, because it said right there on my chart that I definitely wanted to murder children! OMFG. My roommate that night was going through DT’s – there’s no distinction made between alcoholics and the mentally ill in most places. She had bolted an entire pizza and spent the night throwing it up, when she wasn’t screaming and throwing things. So day 2 with no sleep and no easy access to a bathroom.
The next morning, back in group, and I’m considering taking up smoking just so I can sit in the smoker’s lounge for 5 minutes – away from the bastards who keep telling every person present that I wanted to kill kids. The therapist was very tolerant of my foul mood. Why won’t I explain why I hate children? Why do I want to murder them? (yes, he said this in front of every other patient in the ward) I could feel safe here, I should just confess and talk it out. That was Lutheran Medical Center in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. Just in case you forgot.
Finally, totally livid, I went to the front desk and told them clearly that if they didn’t provide access to my doctor IMMEDIATELY they could take up the entire incident with my legal team. There was absolutely NO WAY I was going to wait for the 72 hour hold to expire. What do you know? Here’s my doctor! I explained what happened and apparently their sole complaint against me was that I threw my purse at a nurse instead of gently placing it with the rest of my belongings to be locked away. He asked me not to do that in the future. I told him that if I was not in the building, there would be no nurses to throw anything at. I also explained the thing about the voice, the call, and that all I wanted to know was if I should increase my medication. He had the good grace to look embarrassed, but he couldn’t admit he’d done anything wrong. Instead he simply signed the release. Damage done. Needless to say, I never called the new, very helpful 24 hour hotline again.
The last time I was suicidal, so they brought me to the nearest facility with a bed (by the way, each story is at a different hospital. I’ve never been to the same one twice). And there I sat. No group this time. In fact, there was absolutely nothing to do at all. We were told to sit. Get a drink of water if we wished, then return to sitting. I spent 3 days like that, silent, motionless, holding a glass of water at a table with maybe three dozen others, all similarly dressed, silent, holding a big glass of water. The doctor came in exactly once in three days, looked us all over, and remarked how glad he was we were drinking enough water! Then he left. After 72 hours I was given my first and last meeting with the on call shrink. When he asked how I felt I told him I’d never felt better! I was a new human being and I couldn’t wait to rejoin the world of the living. Had they attempted to keep me there I’m certain I’d be in jail right now. But he cheerfully signed off, after congratulating me on my speedy recovery.
Which leads to the one time I tried to get in but couldn’t. The next time I hit rock bottom I considered my options. Of the five I’d been to, the one I really thought had potential to help me was the one I went to originally. It was quite a drive – over an hour outside the city. But between that and sitting in a circle or getting puked on all night… I called my Dad and we headed north. Once we arrived we all explained that I had been declining and I needed immediate help. This was the best facility – please admit me. I spoke to a nurse who said she’d page the on-call psychiatrist, but I never saw him.
Hours passed. Then a chirpy little pencil pusher told us that since we’d passed several hospitals on the way to this one, it clearly wasn’t an emergency. I would NOT be admitted. I should return home. If I didn’t obey every command my family gave me, they should call the police and have me transported to the NEAREST facility that had a bed. And with that she smiled, handed my father a bill for a few hundred dollars, and left.
After a few moments of stunned silence, we did just that. On the long, uncomfortable, mostly silent drive home I made a vow I’ve kept to this day. I would rather die than ever go back to a psych ward. The system is entirely rigged to favor the insurance companies and screw the patients. If I saw someone in immediate danger I’d call 911. But under any other circumstance I’ll do just about anything to keep someone out. Unless it’s a flat-out emergency, they do far more harm than good.