Your first foray into The Bubble is administrative. Sign this. Initial that. Hand over your money if you’re paying your hospital excess for the first time that year. Sign more forms. Essentially agree to keep the peace, to not abscond, not bring in any contraband and follow the rules- that sort of thing. Essentially just the general admin rigmarole you’d expect if you were being admitted for any sort of day surgery at any Private Hospital. Once it’s all done and dusted, they ask you to take a seat outside in the reception area and wait for a Nurse to come get you. That’s where any familiarity it shares with a regular hospital ends.
The nurse will introduce themselves and generally make some small talk as they show you to your room, where they’re joined by another nurse. Then they’ll ask you to put all your belongings you’ve brought in with you up onto the bed, where as a team they’ll search through it. Not just like a quick peek, but they’ll take every item out of your bag, shake it out, even your not so cute comfy undies, and lay them out on the bed in all their threadbare cotton shame.
They’ll go through your make-up bag. Check if you’re safe with Tweezers/Nail Clipper/Nail Files etc. Depending on your psych history some get to keep stuff, some lose their belongings for the duration of their stay. You hand over all your prescription medications and non Rx meds you might need during your stay. From now on, all the meds you’ll take, you’ll get from the Medication Line where a Nurse dispenses and watches you take them from a tiny little blue cup not unlike a plastic shot glass.
Now that your clothes are strewn all over your bed, and you’re feeling oddly violated in this surreal environment, they’ll bring out the yellow lidded specimen jar. Just fill it up after you put your clothes away and bring it out to us at the nurses station when you’re done, they’ll suggest as they leave pulling the bedroom door behind them.
So there you’ll stand, in a strange room with a single bed complete with hospital linens (take your own doona), your name and your treating doctors name on a sign above your pillow. You put all your crumpled up clothes into the drawers provided, and store some things in the lockable wardrobe. You’ll notice that the coathangers are connected to the hanging rod so they can’t be removed. Over time you’ll notice other harm minimization devices in your room, the most apparent being the 30cm long cord attached to your bedside telephone. It’s deliberately short for obvious reasons. At first, things like that will stand out to you, but after a few days, they become part and parcel of your stay. You just won’t notice them anymore.
This is where you go into the bathroom and take a whizz. Generally, they’re looking for infection and sometimes pregnancy if you’re concerned about that. I’ve heard on the grapevine that they drug test it as well, but don’t quote me on that. There’s no punishment, they just like to know if you’ll be withdrawing from anything. They’ll ask you about all of that later when you check in with the nurse, anyway. That’s something you’ll get used to too. Constant check in’s. The phrase “Can we have a quick chat?” will be the most common of your stay. At first it can feel intrusive, but it quickly becomes a welcome relief from the boredom you’ll feel and something you might even look forward to if you make friends out of the nurses.
The first few days can feel confusing and boring and if you’re like me, you’ll feel desperate to go home even if you know you should be there. My first admission, I wanted to call home and beg them to come and get me. I cried on the phone to my mum the first two nights, and was still sulky on the third. Arriving on a Friday afternoon was a mistake I didn’t make again in my next admissions. The weekends in hospital are long and drawn out, especially if you haven’t accrued any leave yet. Some folks prefer to stay and watch television or play on the internet in their rooms. I found my bedroom to be a bit claustrophobic and prefered the common areas of the hospital where I could talk to the other unlucky folks who don’t have anywhere to be on the weekend. Lots of people go home for a few hours on the weekend, or alternatively have visitors come to see them in the hospital. It means that there aren’t as many people around as there generally are, so it’s pretty quiet and you take any entertainment you can get. Colouring in is a pretty popular past time, or crosswords or Scrabble on the Ipad. Sometimes you get lucky and strike up a conversation with someone as equally bored. I’ve met a lot of friends that way. Most people are grateful for the company. It’s a limited schedule on the weekend, so that means Yoga at 10am, an Art Therapy group at 1pm and Relaxation at 4pm. Remember to take a pillow and a blanket, and be prepared to have your toe tugged if you’re inclined to fall asleep and start to snore through the meditation.
So now you’ve made it through the weekend, and Monday has rolled around. There’s a compulsory ward meeting at 8.30am, but they’re not too strict about it. That said, don’t expect the nursing staff will leave you alone in the morning. They’ll begin knocking on your door at 7am, poking their heads in to wish you a good morning and to let you know that breakfast goes from 7am til half 8. It’s toast, cereal and fruit, usual breakfast fare. No bacon, eggs or mushrooms today. They save that shit for the weekend for the motivated folks who pry themselves out of bed for it.
There’s the option of a Mindful Meditation at 9am. Then compulsory groups begin at 10.30am. That gives you 90 minutes to put some make up on if you’re so inclined, or to sit outside in the smokers courtyard to yak about how poorly you slept and how the nurse with the torch woke you up on the hour, every hour. Yes, not unlike school camp, they do multiple bed checks over night. Groups that run are usually based on how to cope with Anxiety or Depression, but cover everything from Sleep Hygiene to Love Languages. Their limited to 10 places each, so you have to be quick to get your name on the board when it’s wheeled out at 9.30 on the dot.
Groups break after an hour. That’s half an hour to dick around before lunch. What’s for eating each day makes for great conversation over the dining room table if you’re seated with someone you don’t know very well. When your day is as limited as it is in hospital, meals are a hot topic. If the hot food isn’t to your liking, I heartily recommend the Cheese, Ham & Pickle on white bread as an alternative, but get there at 12 on the dot, because they run out quickly.
It’s not unusual for people to retire to their bedrooms after lunch for a nanna nap. Groups don’t start again til 3pm, and it’s not uncommon for patients to be in the midst of medication changes which can make people pretty tired. It’s not encouraged, but no one says anything. They might wake you if your Psychiatrist is around and wants to speak to you, or the Nurse wants one of his/her check-ins, but otherwise they leave you to kip. The more active and energetic patients seize the opportunity to go to the local swimming pool & gym for an hour accompanied by one of the group facilitators.
3pm group is generally a little less intense than the morning session. I’m a big fan of Creative Art in the afternoons. It’s a break from the rapid input of information that the morning groups provide. Some groups will watch a Ted Talk that’s pertinent to mental health in some way, or they might take a stroll as a group to the nearby park, which is great if you don’t have anyone to come and check you out for escorted leave.
The time leading up to dinner is usually spent in front of the television in the main lounge room, chatting with other patients as they knit or craft or work on homework for their Shrinks. Folks with leave come and go, walking up to the local shops for snacks or a magazine. There’s the typical lament of what’s for dinner, but the optimistic enthusiasm for dessert. It’s pretty common to gain weight during your stay. I blame the large helpings of apple crumble, personally. Meal times provide a great chance to get to know your fellow patients. I’ve had some great dinner conversations with all sorts of folks. Middle aged women, grandfathers, goth rockers in their 20’s, lawyers, doctors, the unemployed, artists, singers…all types of individuals. It’s amazing to find common ground with people who are inherently different from you, that you wouldn’t break bread with in any other circumstance. It’s humbling and comforting all at once.
The night rolls on, and people disperse back to their rooms or the lounge or to Music therapy if the girl with the guitar is scheduled to appear. She sings everything with the same melodic intonation in her voice, regardless of the genre, but she’s kind and funny and takes requests and you learn to live with it. You’ll drink copious amounts of instant coffee, Milo, or if the mood strikes, flavoured tea during the evening. Warm beverages are a standard as everyone shuffles around in their pyjamas and dressing gowns. It’s like a big sleepover, with snacks from the vending machine and DVD’s on the telly but with people you barely know. You’ll meet other patients families as they come for an evening visit. Eventually, when they turn up for the third or fourth time, you’ll consider them your own visitors which is odd but par for the course when public spaces are limited to two lounge rooms. Having a visitor is something you look forward to all day. Living in the bubble is incredibly insulated, so news of the outside relatively limited and you begin to crave information about how the rest of the world is doing. This feeling of being shut off from the world seeps in very quickly when you’re in hospital. It’s actually kind of soothing not being bombarded by information every second of the day.
Around 10pm, the smokers courtyard closes. Quarter past if the nurse is feeling particularly generous, unless you get the grouchy bloke from the other ward who acts like the world is ending if you haven’t finished your ciggie by the second the clock strikes ten. People file back inside and fix their final hot drink for the evening. It’s then time to add yourself to the medication queue. The first few times you’ll have to give them your name and room number, but it doesn’t take them long to recognize you by sight. Depending on how long you’ve been there and how many friends you’ve made, you’ll exchange cuddles and head back to your room for lights out at 11.30pm. You might put in a call to your family on the phone with the incredibly short cord that leaves you leaning off the bed and half way on to the bedside table in order to make it all work, but you’ll get used to it. And then finally, (pharmaceutically assisted) sleep will take place. That’s it. Another day closer to check out day, where hopefully you’re feeling better than you did when you arrived. It can be a hell of a ride, but it’s somewhere safe to go when life feels like it’s getting dangerous. I hope I’ve taken some of the mystery out of the unknown, or given you some pause for recollection if you’ve been in hospital before. Your stay(s) might vary a bit from mine, but essentially that’s the gist of it if you’re fortunate enough to be admitted in the private system. I’ve been lucky to have 3 incredibly comfortable stays at the one hospital, and it’s somewhere I wouldn’t hesitate (okay, maybe I’d hesitate a little because it’s always a tiny bit frightening) to go again if I’m not doing well. I hope you’ll find somewhere safe and comfortable to be if you need the same care, too.