Sending Our Son to the Psych Ward

By Stephanie Elliot 04/06/18

I remember walking away on the day we left him there, feeling regretful and horrible: what had we just done?

Boy with glasses looking at his reflection in window.
I was there with him, keeping him safe, and that was all that mattered to me at that time. Photo by Laurenz Kleinheider on Unsplash

No parent ever wants to admit their child into a psych ward, but when my son, who was on medication for epilepsy, began showing signs of personality disorder and suicidal ideation, we knew we had to do something extreme to get him help.

Luke was in the sixth grade and had been diagnosed with juvenile epilepsy two years prior. We tried several epilepsy medications and finally landed on one which we were thrilled to discover stopped his seizures. Unfortunately there were unexpected side effects.

Luke’s demeanor quickly changed. He became fearful of school, and suddenly could not handle crowds, loud noises, and general chaos. He was cranky and moody, sullen and down. Prior to that, he had been an active, healthy, and outgoing little boy who loved going to school. Now, he was someone we didn’t recognize. He was asking questions like, “What’s the point of living?” The night he asked, “Why am I even alive?” I knew that we had to do something. I knew he needed professional help.

In addition to his personality changing seemingly overnight, Luke was having other side effects. If he were in a place or situation he didn’t want to be in, he would literally shut down. He would lie on the floor, no matter where we were, close his eyes, and become unresponsive. These episodes (similar to vasovagal syncope) lasted only a few minutes but, as a parent, they were scary to witness. I would try to speak to him and he literally would not hear me. When Luke would ‘wake up’ from these blackouts, he couldn’t recall what he had been doing, who he had been talking to, or where he was, and this was only minutes after he had passed out. During a trip to Washington, DC that summer, at the Lincoln Monument, he had become so overwhelmed by the noises and crowds that he went to a corner, lay down, and promptly blacked out.

The night he asked me why he was alive, I tried to reassure him, saying that he had so much to offer to the world and that we all loved him and needed him there with us. Then I tucked him into bed, went into the living room and cried.

I didn’t know what to do. My little boy was so different from who he was just months before. I called the emergency room at our local hospital.

When my call was answered, I asked, “What should I do if my son is asking why he’s alive?”

The attendant on the phone asked: “Where is your son now?”

I told her that he was upstairs in his room, asleep. She asked if he slept in a room by himself. I told her yes. She told me not to let him sleep alone and said I should bring him to the hospital first thing in the morning. I went straight to his room and curled up next to his sleeping body. Sleeping next to my son, I knew he would be okay for the night. And that I would be okay too, because I knew he was safe.

You can’t just drive your son to a psych ward and drop him off. We had to admit Luke to the children’s hospital to be able to have approval from insurance for him to be transferred to a psychiatric hospital. And, although I had never gone through an experience like this, I knew that we needed immediate psychiatric care for our son.

The next morning when Luke woke up, my husband and I told him that we had to take him to the hospital to make sure he was okay. I explained that his medicine was not working properly so we needed help from the doctors. He readily agreed to go, which surprised me, but I was relieved and thankful.

At the children’s hospital, Luke was immediately admitted into a room. I hadn’t realized it at first, but they placed us on a suicide watch floor. Every patient’s door was open and there was an attendant outside in the hallway, always keeping watch over the children. That first night, I cried quietly while I sat next to Luke’s bed after hearing that another child was admitted because he tried to hang himself for the third time. This was heavy stuff, and I wasn’t prepared for it.

Luke, on the other hand, felt immediately safe. He could choose whatever he wanted to eat for his meals, he could watch anything on TV, I was right there with him, and the room was comfortable.

Luke and I spent just over 48 hours on the suicide watch floor. I didn’t shower, I didn’t go home to my other children; Luke and I stayed cocooned in the safety of that hospital room. I was there with him, keeping him safe, and that was all that mattered to me at that time. I knew without a doubt that he wouldn’t – that he couldn’t – harm himself while we were together. So, even though I slept on a recliner chair, I slept fully, knowing Luke was in good care.

But on the third day of our stay, a bed became available at the psychiatric hospital down the street. When I told Luke we had to move him to another hospital to get him the proper care, he began to shut down again. He had to be transported in an ambulance, and he threw up as the attendants moved him onto the gurney. I didn’t want to see my little boy go through this, but I knew this was what had to be done to get his mind back to how it was. He was in a downward spiral because of the medication and he needed a safe intervention to wean him from it. This would be heartbreaking, but we had to do it. We felt our son’s life was at stake.

Dropping Luke off at the psychiatric hospital was one of the most harrowing things I’ve ever had to do as a parent. Patients had to remove shoelaces and belts, and surrender any jewelry they wore. Because we went straight from the children’s hospital to the psychiatric hospital, we didn’t have clean clothes for Luke. He didn’t have his toothbrush or anything comforting from home. My poor son cried and begged us not to leave him, which completely broke my heart. There were strict visiting hours only in the evenings, and patients could make one phone call at night. It felt like we were sending him to jail.

Thinking about it now, more than four years later, I still get that gut-wrenching, hollowed-out feeling in the pit of my stomach. I still cry thinking about the experience. I see a vision of my husband and I, walking away on the day we left him there: we’re walking in the hallway, leaving our baby, and leaning onto one another for support, feeling regretful and horrible. What had we just done?

The very next night, we were first in line at visiting hours. I ran to Luke, hugged him, and asked him how things were. He said the food was okay, but that first night he had to sleep on a mat in the hallway—they didn’t have a bed for him. I was furious. They sent us there because a bed was available, and then to hear that my son, alone and afraid, had to sleep in the hallway on a mat; that was too much. We told him we would get him home as soon as we could, and I had hoped he would only be there for a couple of days.

The next night when we visited, Luke was in better spirits. Someone had set up a keyboard so he was entertaining himself and the other patients by playing the piano. He was also reading some superhero comic books, and had met a couple of nice kids. Still, I didn’t like him being there, and it felt wrong to only spend an hour with him then have to return home without him. A piece of our family was missing. But, without treatment, I feared the worst. He needed help to safely get off those meds and onto a new epilepsy medication; his mental health and even his life were at risk. I had to keep reminding myself of this as we left him there, night after night.

During the days, he met with a psychiatrist, and honestly, I don’t know what they discussed. The doctors did a quick wean of the medication — that was why it was important that he be under hospital care 24/7; no one knew how he would react to the medicine change.

When we met mid-week for an evaluation after he had been there three nights, I was certain the doctor was going to discharge him into our care. So I was devastated when they informed us that he had to stay through the weekend. And when we had to tell Luke he was not coming home with us he broke down and had another blackout.

I honestly do not know how we did it, or how Luke, at such a young age, managed to come away from the experience unscathed. As parents, we only want the best for our children, and to see Luke completely change due to a medication he was prescribed that helped his immediate disorder but caused such other mental effects, well, it was hard. I often said to myself that I would have rather seen him have seizures than to watch him change into the person he was becoming – someone who didn’t want to be alive.

Luke spent a week under round the clock psychiatric care and while he didn’t come home with his original personality, he was on his way to getting better. When he got home, we enrolled him into the homebound school program and then we eased him back into regular school very slowly. I knew that he was recovering when he said to me after one of his first successful full days at school, “Mom, I don’t know why I thought I couldn’t handle going to school.”

Today, Luke is a healthy, beautiful, seizure-free and med-free 16-year-old who has had more than his share of hard times. But what’s the saying—what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Thank God for the outcome we got – for Luke is stronger, empathetic, and the kindest of young men. We are thankful for the psychiatric care that he received and we are thankful that he never did anything to end his beautiful life.

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Stephanie Elliot is a book editor, essayist, and the author of Sad Perfect, a young adult novel based on her daughter’s journey through ARFID/Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. She lives in Scottsdale with her husband and three children. Check out Stephanie's Instagram or follow her on Twitter.