Night terrors, and life inside a psychiatric ward….

Last night was… hell. Night terrors. I hate them. I used to suffer incredibly with them, but now they’re quite rare; I have nightmares often but night terrors are kinder to me now than when I was younger.

What is a night terror? Different to a nightmare, I must note. The blissful thing about nightmares is that when you wake up, you can probably remember the nightmare…or at least remember there was one…and can quickly recognise it was just a “bad dream.” There may of course still be feelings of anxiety, but nonetheless…it was a bad dream. Get up, get a glass of water…go back to sleep. Sorted.

Night terrors are slightly more extreme. I wake up having no recollection of if/what the nightmare was…but in a state of absolute terror, hyperventilating, heart rate going nuts, convinced that at any moment something hideously awful is going to happen etc. Often, by morning, I’ve largely forgotten it; the only way I know is if someone says they heard me yell, or they were in the room at the time. But if I manage to fully wake up from it, at the time, I have more of a recollection.

Last night…two episodes. The first one I woke up, and heard me yell (though the power I felt inside didn’t match volume). I was terrified. I had no idea where I was (home) and couldn’t move a muscle (sleep paralysis). Consciously, and calm now, I can completely understand what was happening. At the time, I was convinced someone had injected me with paralysis-inducing drugs, or that I was off my head on rohypnol…and that, therefore, an abuser was going to come and torture me whilst I couldn’t move. I tried so hard to move, but there was just nothing. All I could do was cry, but I couldn’t even move my head to stop the tears rolling to my nose…so then I was irrationally convinced I was going to drown AND be tortured by an abuser whilst I couldn’t move. Absolute terror. My head went into over-drive about what they’d do to me.

Thankfully, out of the corner of my eye I glanced a friend’s teddy bear I have kinda kidnapped recently. That seemed to register with some part of my head; if I was back in the land of being tortured by abusers, then I wouldn’t have my friend’s bear next to me. I glared at it, willing it to wake me up (come on bear, do a dance) and suddenly “woke” up, gasping for air…somewhat similar to a flashback except I had never been in a different “world.” I got up, shaking, got some water…and went to sleep. This happened twice in the night.

This morning I was making breakfast and wondering…why? Was I too stressed? Generally my sleep is more haphazard the more stressed I am, as is the case with anyone I imagine. I thought back to the last time I had experienced a night terror. It was when I was in the psychiatric ward earlier this year. Suddenly I stopped trying to find an answer for my episodes last night, and thought back to my experiences there.

People ask me sometimes what it was like. I had always thought they would be terrible places. (Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t great). However, I was expecting metal doors and wailing patients, gruesome therapy techniques like drilling holes in your brain…being trapped in a straightjacket…

It wasn’t like that.

I was admitted in February, when depression seemed to absolutely swallow me. The first time, I was discharged before I felt ready…a few days after being discharged, I left home…intending to commit suicide. It came extremely close. Needless to say, I was re-admitted.

Without a doubt, I stabilised whilst there. But I think this would have been the case wherever I was; it just was easier this way for everyone. I wasn’t stressed about putting a ridiculous amount of pressure onto my friends, because they didn’t need to babysit me 24/7 until I stabilised, and – as far as I’m aware – they were less stressed knowing that there were professionals within metres of me whilst I stabilised. Less stressful for all. Good stuff.

However…the “professionals” were clueless. They had no concept of PTSD and impact of child abuse, I’m sure. In flashbacks they’d tell me and other victims to “stop being silly” “grow up” and that they’d “come back when you’ve calmed down.” They tried telling me I was schizophrenic…and then said it was autism…and then said anger issues. I protested to each, saying that flashbacks are a symptom of PTSD and I was abused. Hello?

It was a patient ‘v’ professional kinda atmosphere. When I was first admitted, I was the newbie. I was also terrified. I still had images of Frankenstein appearing or something ridiculous. But, in actual fact, most of the patients seemed more aware of the world than the professionals did. But yes, anyway. I was the newbie.

It was like starting a new school. There were ‘groups.’ The cool group, the boring group, the bitchy group, the arty group and then the ‘everyone’s welcome’ group… in which everyone was a part of, but there was a random hierarchy.


I immediately fell into the ‘loner’ group, but “worked my way up.” Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? We went in there to get better, hopefully. At no point was I actively trying to “work my way up”… it just kinda happened. If you showed people respect, then you were shown respect. It’s a simple way of life, but some just didn’t get it. I actually heard the words “I’m bipolar. It means it’s impossible for me to be nice to anyone.” And that made me kinda sad. I met a few people who used their “label” to hide behind…I guess it felt safer, and felt less like a daunting responsibility. But, unsurprisingly, they also confessed they’d been pretty much in hospital constantly for anything up to 5 years. They said I’d be the same. I politely said “no, thank you.”

I guess my thoughts were: I am severely depressed. That means I’m at rock bottom. I can’t fall any further. I could stay here and save the effort of climbing the ladder, but that’s pretty miserable. I think I’ll try climbing; there’s nothing to lose.

But anyway. I started off as the uncool loner. Then when I was noticed more, and people saw the self-harm marks… or heard me screaming down the corridor in a flashback (and actually came running to help me – not the staff), or they’d see me crying and/or staring into space…this wasn’t how I wanted people to see me. But they did. So I then became the one everyone protected…I was the little 5 foot petite girl who was abused and cries a lot, and we all need to protect her.

THAT lasted about a day because my patience wore very thin. The day after, a girl was admitted and it became very clear that she, also, was a victim of abuse. She started flashbacking in the TV lounge. We called for staff. Nothing, of course.

Now…everyone tried to bustle me out of the way, but equally clearly didn’t have a clue what to do…but bless them, they were determined to try. But I did know a little more about what to do. I knelt next to the girl, held her hand and talked to her…trying to talk with some humour dashed in as well. I asked one patient to get some water and splashed her face. I tried asking if she could tell me what she could see or hear. She could. She clutched my hand, I told her it was okay; she was safe now…and she woke up.

From that point me and the girl became “teachers” which I hated. But it was needed seeing as the staff dealt with it all so wrongly. Then a middle-aged woman, who knew about other areas of mental health, started to dare defy the staff too and educate the patients. Gradually, a new group emerged…the “helpers” and within a few days, pretty much everyone was a part of it. They all chipped in, offering advice based on their own experiences, and instead of using their label to hide behind…they used it to help another through a difficult time.

It was quite an incredible transition. Of course, me and the two others “in charge”, as it were, were quite often told off by the staff. But our answers were always the same, “we’re not doing this for us. We’re ill too. But the patients need help, and you never come.” Blunt, but honest.

It empowered everyone. One man, who had evidently had some form of breakdown, had never spoken coherently to anyone. He stumbled around, mumbling under his breath…and sadly everyone’s immediate reaction when meeting him was nervousness. But he was also exceptionally intelligent, and also a fab musician so it turned out. If I played keyboard and sang, he’d come alive and start dancing and laughing. Until we got told to be quiet, and then he’d go back into his shell again. One night, I was curled up crying…and he came over and said “it’s okay…we safe now” in absolute coherence and with emotion. He took his jacket off and put it round my shoulders. I was so stunned at his calmness; his “normality” that my tears stopped, and I smiled gratefully at him. Then the staff saw, and told him off for being in my space – apparently they were able to determine for me what my personal space was – and he went back into his shell, and ran off. He refused, however, to take the jacket unless I said he could.

One woman had extreme OCD, and hated herself more than I’ve seen anyone do. The staff shouted at her if they perceived her to be “silly.” She wasn’t being silly; she absolutely believed that she was disgusting and worthless. She couldn’t understand why we wanted to help her; it moved her to tears frequently. It took a while before she’d let us hug her, even though she wanted a hug, because she didn’t want us to become “contaminated.”

By the time I left, she was a different woman. Still very ill, but able to walk to the dining hall alone…and to smile at people, and to almost take a compliment. We all struggled with taking compliments. It seemed a common symptom of all mental health problems.

My friend and I both had a good sense of humour, and both believed humour to be the best form of therapy. So we’d often park up in the dining room, and chat and giggle. Other patients would come and join us, and have a cup of tea… and suddenly they’d be laughing too. And they’d be calmer. It was such an incredible transition.

But then we’d get told off for being too loud. And told to go to our rooms. We were frequently scolded for laughing; the staff told my friend they felt she had some hyper disorder thing. I was shocked. A disorder because she laughs? I spent a lot of time with her…at no point was her laughter out of control, and without reason, or dysfunctional. It cheered us up. She often said “we’re only allowed to be depressed in here. You know, just in case we forget.”

So sarcastically true. How could we forget? We couldn’t. We were all in for our own horrible reasons, all being swallow by a mental health illness. But we laughed at the illness. We’d tease each other; not to be harsh…but to tease the illness, and make it weaker. We’d laugh playfully at each other’s little quirks. Apparently I’d been screaming “Get off me!” in a flashback. My friend tried to make me laugh afterwards; “it was a little humorous. You were clearly scared. But I couldn’t see anything on you! It must have been Casper the ghost!”

Doesn’t sound funny now. But at the time, it had me rolling. It was needed.

I never gave in to the staff. Something I’ve always held on to is the ability to laugh no matter how dark the situation is, and it was clear to anyone with eyes that the laughter and light-heartedness was having a very positive effect on some patients, who would otherwise have stayed locked in their rooms and lost in their pits of despair.

Mealtimes were interesting too. Old school canteen style. I never quite got the hang of it. Apparently we were meant to book meals, but when I arrived I was refusing to eat…so this was never explained to me. I became the comedy act – “oh here she comes, the girl unable to book a burger.”


What I did realise whilst there was how valuable art is. Suddenly I couldn’t answer emails and do my work and run around like a madman organising rehearsals. Initially this stressed me out, but then I knew it wouldn’t help…so just stopped thinking about it. Suddenly I had endless amounts of free time, with which I could either structure a day and make sure I didn’t get lost…or I could lie in bed staring at the wall crying. I did both.

I drew a lot. I’m more naturally a writer, but when talking to the psychiatrist it became evident that the images of my past were causing half the problem. So I drew the images, so that I could see they were out of my head. It worked.

It also became apparent to me how stretched the NHS is. We were lucky to see a psychiatrist maybe half an hour a week. Apparently our support nurse was supposed to catch up with us every day, but this hardly happened. They would often show signs of frustration if we asked to talk to them, so we rarely did. We’d find another patient instead.

Going on “leave” was the ultimate goal. Suddenly the idea I was allowed an hour out, to go to flippin co-op with a fellow patient, became the most exciting thing ever. We’d plan it perfectly, spending all morning getting excited for it. Sounds beyond ridiculous now. But it was a taste of freedom. A chance for us to show that we were normal; we could go to the co-op.

Even more exciting was being allowed out with friends, but it did feel worlds apart. It was mad, actually. But the excitement I – and everyone else – felt when we were approaching a 2 hour leave with friends, was incredible. We’d tease the others who had to stay and eat their “school lunch” and boast playfully about what we’d do. The truth was, you could only go outside for fresh air if you were a smoker and needed a cigarrette. I came extremely close to starting smoking again just so I could escape once an hour for five minutes. One of my friends did do this.

Night-time was also interesting. Depending on how “at risk” you were depended on how much sleep you got. When I was re-admitted the second time, a woman came round every 15 minutes with a torch, and would shine it on my face to check I was still breathing. I was incredibly grateful for their efforts to keep me alive…however I was very tired.

The staff were good at keeping people alive. They weren’t so great at giving you a reason to want to stay alive. They kept the physical body safe. The soul was forgotten.

I hope to God I never have to go back. Although there were many giggles, and I made some amazing friends who I’m still in frequent contact with, the place still was damaging. The stress and the idea that laughter should be bad, and the shame that intensified with each flashback…these were all damaging. If it hadn’t been for the patients, I’d have just stayed locked in my room and just got more lost in the pit of despair.

Nonetheless…it’s an experience I’ve learnt from, and was eye-opening for me too. It also allowed me to see where the line was for me; at which point I’ve fallen too low and need professional intervention…and this makes it easier for me keep an eye on where I am.

I often think of the other patients, and wonder where they are now. I hope they’re okay. I hope they remember to laugh.


One thought on “Night terrors, and life inside a psychiatric ward….

  1. I think psychiatric wards, old people’s homes and prisons have a lot in common. Thy’re the places we put people where we don’t want to know about. They’re society’s “naughty corner” where those who act outside of the standard deviation are sent until they start acting normally, or die so we can collect inheritance.

    I understand that I’m saying this as someone who is knowingly part of the system, and so must be considered slightly hypocritical for saying this, but it’s shocking and insane (pun retroactively intended) that those who are meant to care for these people (prisons less so) are so clueless, and often actively hostile. Why can a psychiatric ward not be a place of laughter? Why is it considered normal for us to send our non-contributing citizens to a place where they’ll quietly rot until we can burn our bridges (literally, in the case of cremations) and collect inheritance? Why do we lock away criminals and expect them to magically become fully functioning members of society when they’re away from society, among like-minded people, and are going to be the Valjeans in their own personal story anyhow?

    I have nothing constructive to say, just “aaaaaaargh”. The world will only change once the priveliged lose their grip on power, law-making and trend-setting. Unfortunately, that’s almost a logical impossibility.

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