Exactly 5 months ago today, I was released from a psychiatric unit at Vancouver General Hospital called West One. Being in West One was one of the best and worst experiences of my life. West One was a unit that had 20 beds in total – 15 for people struggling with addiction and mental illness, and 5 for those with just a mental illness. I fell into the latter category with 5 beds. In total, I spent 5 days in the unit, for a total of 6 days in the hospital (one was spent in the ER under psychiatric watch). It felt like an eternity, and from the first day I couldn’t way to get out, but I knew it was where I needed to be to get back on track, and less than a week was considered short term – most people in West One had been there for an average of about a month.
Phase 1: Getting There
I was having a bad night, and despite hating hospitals and ambulances, I finally agreed to go, provided I didn’t have to go alone. My roommate was kind enough to not only accompany me in the ambulance, but she also stayed with me the entire night, and remained at the hospital until I was comfortable for her to leave once I was settled into West One. When the emergency psychiatric team told me I needed to be admitted to an actual psych ward, I was absolutely horrified. I tried to assure them I didn’t need to be, knowing that was a complete lie, but at that point I had no say in the matter – they were legally obligated to keep me there.
Settling into my new temporary home
West One was exactly like the mental units you see in the movies – people of all different walks of life working towards their recovery. There was that typical room you would imagine – white walls with nothing in it for people who were too dangerous to themselves or others. My room was bright and shared with three wonderful roommates, who were quite different from me. Most people wore the same hospital given apparel – green or beige scrubs that were “one size fits all”. Spoiler alert: one size does NOT fit all. I could have fit three of me in one scrub top. It wasn’t a choice though – as a new resident, I didn’t have any privileges yet, which meant I was not allowed my own clothes, I couldn’t leave the unit (alone or accompanied) and I wasn’t allowed any personal belongings. Three days into my stay, I was allowed to have my clothes back, and was permitted to leave the unit for one hour, as long as I was accompanied. Two of my friends came to pick me up and took me out for dinner to Denny’s (practically gourmet compared to hospital meals). Eventually, I was allowed 10 minute fresh-air breaks every hour where I was given access to my phone so I could text friends and update them on my progress. Other than that, all phone calls to me had to be directed to the resident phone, via the nurse’s station.
How I spent my time at West One
In West One, I had to be up by 9am latest, to ensure I was up and not in bed all day. Every morning started with reporting to the nurses station for medicines, and was followed by breakfast and an evaluation (which was called a conversation) by a nurse. Each day, I had a new nurse and had to check in with her throughout the day. The rest of the morning I was free to do whatever I pleased – provided it was on the unit and was approved. I finished three word search books and made a point of getting to know every single person on my unit. Some people I only learned the names of, and other people I ended up getting relatively close to. West One had an activity room, where I could paint, read, play ping pong, or work out on stationary bikes. I did all four of these activities every day for extended periods of time. Generally, there were activities in the afternoon offered to all the residents, like arts workshop, yoga or relaxation. Arts workshop was my favourite, and I made bracelets for the people who were closest to me during my time at West One as a small token of my gratitude for everything they had sacrificed to help me. I was the only patient in West One who had a visitor every single day, from my dad, to my roommates to other friends who had heard. Additionally, a doctor would come every day to evaluate my progress and determine the next steps in my recovery process. Evenings ended up being the most boring, as the activity room would close and after dinner many people would go to bed, but that was when I had the best conversations with people. Before lights out at 10pm, I would again report to my nurse and take any medicine required before bed.
The People of West One
I met some of the most amazing people I’ve ever known in West One. Everyone was so friendly, and so open about their issues, because we were all battling our own demons. The thing that really touched me, was how supportive other patients were, despite their own problems to deal with, and how non-judgemental the whole atmosphere was. While I won’t use any names to describe the people I met, I will describe some of our interactions.
The first person I met when I got there, was a green-haired teenage boy battling heroin addiction and depression. He welcomed me to the unit and offered to show me around. For the first couple of days, he was going through serious withdrawal from the drugs, but helped me find my way around, explained the different activities offered, told me tricks about good menu items, and helped me get a pair of special hospital socks – Pillow Paws, which to this day are my favourite. It was his third stay in West One and he was more than happy to help me out, because he could see how terrified and out of my element I was. He had a guitar, which he used to sing songs and most evenings we would sing together – him playing and teaching me the words while I tried to harmonize. His dream was to get clean and become a psychiatrist, so he could educate kids on the dangers of drugs, because he thought if he knew what he was getting himself into when he started, he wouldn’t have done drugs.
Later in the week, I met a wonderful old lady who became a grandmother figure during my time at West One. She was very kind-hearted and loved to talk. We became close despite our age gap and often ate meals together, but ended up doing most of our bonding at arts and crafts. She saw one of the bracelets I made and kept raving about how pretty it was, so I helped her make one. Every morning she would find me and ask if I was going to the activity of the day, and insist that we go together, which was completely fine by me. After learning more about my life, she told me how much life I had ahead of me, and that I didn’t belong in a place like West One – I was too good for it. As an old woman, she was often tired, but was always up bright and early when I first met her. After we got close, she slept more and when I asked her why, she said it was because she spent an hour every night praying for me because she wanted me to go places in life and knew I would. I was flabbergasted – here she was, dealing with her own issues, yet she spent an hour every night praying for ME. Upon hearing that, I realized I needed to step up and begin to live life properly – there was so much to it.
Two of my roommates ended up becoming my “West One Moms”. They looked out for me, asked me to join them for breakfast, and were there to listen if I was upset. It was a very scary experience, and I would get upset my first couple of nights, but they were there to reassure me it wasn’t so bad. They were completely different – one was a quiet and softspoken woman who told me she worked as a high class lawyer in New York for a number of years, while the other was an eccentric artist that was bursting with energy. The energetic one would often compliment my art, and when I gave her one of my paintings, she went around the whole floor and showed everyone, claiming I was so talented. My main comfort was Brody, a stuffed shark given to me by my sister for my birthday, who could turn into a pillow by turning it inside out. The lawyer thought it was amazing, and when I left West One, she told me she was going to get a dolphin version of Brody and name it Ameera to remind her of me.
When I first went to West One, I was convinced it would be a looney bin with a bunch of nut jobs ; I couldn’t have been more wrong. I could also say that the people in West One were just like anyone else, but that wouldn’t be the whole truth. The patients in West One were even better. Each one of them had a heart of gold and had so much to offer – they were just facing setbacks due to illness and circumstance, but the resilience and kindness I saw in the ones I got to know was more inspiring than I can ever say.
West One wasn’t the Westin, but I learned more in those 5 days than I ever did in my entire life. Without the amazing doctors and patients in that unique place, I would be nowhere near as strong as I am today, and I am truly grateful to have had that experience. I also know I wouldn’t have been able to benefit from that experience without the support from my friends and family who were always there for me during such an emotional time for me and have no words to express my eternal gratitude to them. Like I said, it was the best and worst experience of my life.
Keep Surviving by Living.