The Silent Pain of a Children’s Inpatient Psychiatric Unit

Today I’m following up on the conversation about the disparity in the treatment of children with mental rather than physical illness by sharing my very personal experience of a pediatric inpatient psychiatric unit. This was a hard post to write, my hope is that someone will be comforted and feel that they are not alone.

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I was devastated. How was I going to tell her that in a few moments I would walk through the heavy, metal door and she would stay behind?

It’s been a number of years now, but when I reflect back to our experience of having my daughter hospitalized on an inpatient psychiatric unit, my chest aches a little and I find I don’t want to linger on the memories for long. I’ll keep this simple.

    1. The inpatient unit is the right place for a child who is a danger to herself or others.

      Keeping my child safe was exhausting, and at times, terrifying. I was traveling to Seattle when it all fell apart. All of my young children were with me and I feared we would not arrive safely. We made it, and we even survived the night, but the next day when we arrived at the hospital for our other appointments, I knew I couldn’t leave that day with any confidence that I could keep my child safe. She was admitted that evening. I was simultaneously overwhelmed with grief and relief, which brought guilt along as its companion.

    2. The purpose was not treatment, but stabilization.

      I didn’t understand this until well into my daughter’s hospitalization. I thought the medical professionals would have answers and brilliant insights for us, that it would be more therapeutic. Maybe it was but I was too exhausted to notice. I recall a behavioral program involving a frog and choices, but it didn’t work for my child who could have cared less.
      One idea: perhaps parents need 24 hours to rest and catch up on sleep from whatever severe circumstances led them to need inpatient hospitalization for their child before they can be expected to learn something.
    3. The demands on the parents were unrealistic – at least for me.

      I was stuck in Seattle with five other children for many days. Thankfully, I had family less than an hour from the hospital and my sister was able to watch my children while I was gone. I was expected to be at a meeting with the doctors and staff each morning, and then had another appointment each afternoon. There were required classes and trainings for parents, and time spent with my daughter too.
      There was no time to see my other children during the day. I missed my husband. I missed my kids.
      The day Russ finally arrived, I walked out of a meeting and saw him. I nearly ran into his arms and the tears I had been holding back for days rushed out of me. It was a relief to no longer be alone in this very unfamiliar, difficult place.
    4. My daughter was content there.

      This was a strangely familiar environment, not unlike an orphanage, albeit smaller and much more controlled. There were lots of rules, but she enjoyed following them. With her history of complex developmental trauma and attachment challenges, it may also have been a relief to have a break from the very difficult challenge of living in a family with people who loved her, a mother and father who were committed to her forever, and siblings who shared her room, her life, her school, and even her friends.
    5. It was a step along the way.

      While inpatient care didn’t seem to provide long-term benefits, it turned out to be a helpful step along the way to residential treatment, which was the key to healing for my daughter.
    6. You can always find good folks.

      As a friend recently pointed out, no matter what path of suffering you go down, there are always good people to be found. We met a couple whose daughter shared a room with ours. The girls became friends in an odd sort of way, and we were thankful to have people who met our eyes with compassion and shared a common sorrow. We recognized their path as being much harder than ours and our hearts were broken for them. We’ve lost touch now, but I still think of them from time to time.
    7. Shame was my companion.

      I felt shame that my daughter needed this level of care, that I hadn’t somehow found a way to keep her safe and kept her from getting this sick. I didn’t want anyone to know how bad things really were – even as I write this years later, I recognize that some people will only now realize the severity of her challenges.
      I told very few people that I was nearly living at the hospital. There were no visitors, no cheerful nurses, no volunteers, and certainly no celebrities.
      There was a large, locked door, that slammed shut behind me, isolation, loneliness, and fear of the future.
      There were professionals who wanted to teach me how to be a better parent, no matter that I had many healthy children and did not meet my daughter until years after her severe trauma occurred.
      Let me add, however, many wonderful parents have children with mental illness – there is no place for judgment here. We need to offer compassion and kindness to weary parents.

This experience was a low point for me. We got through it, and my daughter was kept safe; for that I am thankful.

Thank you for reading, for sharing my life and for giving me the courage to step out of shame and speak truth. My precious daughter fought for wholeness and she won that battle – I’m certain she would want others to know it is possible.

Please join the conversation here, or on my Thankful Moms Facebook page. If this post or Toni’s post, Celebrities Don’t Visit Kids in the Psych Unit are helpful to you, please share them. Shares and comments mean the world to me.

encourage one another,

Lisa

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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.

45 Comments

  1. Ginger
    October 20, 2016

    I too have walked in these footsteps feeling the same discouragement, shame, the “why couldnt I help this child”. We have raised 5 others of our own and 43 foster children. Why was this so difficult. This son was so broken and damaged when we got him at 2 as a foster child. He was given to his bio father at 4 when they were able to prove paternity. He was returned to us at 5 even more broken and damaged. We were able to maintain him until puberty hit. He then became very violent; hitting and hurting us. No one knew how bad it was and when we had him put in inpatient the first time I crumbled in a heap sobbing. It was no easier the 2nd time. The first time he went to residential treatment wasn’t easier, nor was the 2nd time. He came back home after graduation and one month later announced that he was moving in with his bio dad. That lasted 3 months, up to the point when bio dad pulled a shotgun on him and ended up breaking my son’s wrist. He is now in an independent living facility and I am praying he has decided to cooperate and get on his feet. I will never give up on him. I can’t. He is my son and I will always love him no matter what, but it isn’t an easy road to walk.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 21, 2016

      These are the hard stories, Ginger, of love and long-suffering. You’re doing it – you’re loving with courage and determination and I’m cheering you on from a distance. What that love looks like, how you live it out and the limits you place on what is safe for you and your family, no one can judge. I am praying for you now, even as I write these words.

      Reply
  2. melody monberg
    October 20, 2016

    You are always so good at speaking the reality of life. Thank you for sharing your pain…it brings hope and healing to so many of us walking that road now.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 21, 2016

      It’s good to hear from you, Melody, and I’m glad this post feels hopeful and helpful.

      Reply
  3. sonya
    October 20, 2016

    As always, I so appreciate your honesty + courage.
    While I have not left a child at an inpatient facility, my sister has spent time in one. Thank you for helping me see more clearly what my mom + lots of other parents have gone through.
    My heart just aches for parents going through this pain.
    ~

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 21, 2016

      I’m glad this post is helpful, Sonya. I imagine those were hard times for your entire family.

      Reply
  4. Lisa
    October 20, 2016

    Hi Lisa,

    Thank you for sharing your firsthand experience with a children’s inpatient psychiatric unit. And also for sharing Toni’s experience yesterday. I know it took a lot of courage to be so vulnerable. Thank you for trusting us to hold your story with love and compassion.

    I don’t have experience with a child in inpatient psychiatric care but I have experience being in a unit myself. I vividly recall how lonely I felt in the psych ward. The enormous metal door felt like an ocean separating us from the rest of the world. As adults we were expected to be on our own several times throughout each day. I am so disheartened to hear that the same is expected of children.

    When I was admitted I only had the clothes I was wearing so the staff gave me a pair of horribly itchy scrubs to wear until my husband could bring me more. They were so uncomfortable. I can’t imagine a child who has difficulty processing sensory information having to wear those scrubs and successfully participate in the program. I was appalled to learn from Toni’s experience that the staff at Children’s Hospital didn’t make sure the children changed their clothes each day.

    There is clearly a discrepancy between how children with mental illnesses are treated compared with their same age peers with physical illnesses. I am saddened and angered by this. Children with mental illness need to know they are loved and valued just as much as any other child.

    Lisa

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 21, 2016

      Lisa, thank you for giving us insight into the experience of an adult on a locked unit. It’s all so difficult and unfamiliar. Safety is paramount, we understand that, but can there be some comfort? Soft clothes? Small kindnesses to you, and in our case, to the parents and kids?

      Reply
  5. Spike
    October 20, 2016

    Just went through this. My daughter was just discharged yesterday. She self-admitted in the 23rd. What a thing. She attends Pullman High, she’s my first born, we’re happily married, we’re a middle class happy family and she wanted to die – she asked for help before doing anything and now we build. But wow. Just wow.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 21, 2016

      Thank God – truly, thank you Jesus, that she asked for help. I pray that she is doing better. I hope you have support and she is surrounded with love, good friends, and a very good therapist. It is frightening for us as parents.

      Reply
  6. Beverly Regier
    October 20, 2016

    Everything you say resonates. It’s been a long time since we’ve been there, but all those thoughts and emotions can still be fresh. Thanks for being brave enough to write.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 21, 2016

      It’s amazing how those thoughts can come back. Another memory, a powerful one, surfaced last night when I was talking to Russ about this post. I had forgotten. Wow, that was a tough experience… So good to hear from you, Bev.

      Reply
  7. Christa Davis
    October 20, 2016

    Oh Lisa,
    Thank you so much for being willing to be vulnerable. This is such an important conversation. Sadly, often made more difficult in some facets of the Christian community. I come from it at a slightly different angle as my mother suffered mentally. One Dr told me she was in the worst 10th percentile. I can so relate to the guilt, shame, judgement, and fear. Guilt when I couldn’t make her happy or avoid making her mad. Shame that if I dared bring a friend home, what would we meet, would she be friendly or slam the door with a crass comment. Judgement from those who saw her at her worst and as a child I somehow felt it was my fault, I couldn’t make things right, keep her happy. And finally fear – would I turn out that way as a mother myself?
    As He always does, God gave me a source of healing. Running and riding my horse became my physical release. I had a legitimate reason to get out of the house, breathe fresh air and be alone with God. Farm life was my saving grace as it involved a lot of outside time – even the daily milking of the cow was a delight. The mother of the family we shared the farm with stapled pages of hymns on the barn wall. I could make a joyful “noise” and no one heard or cared. The biggest grace God provided was my sweet papa who never gave up on mom – even when she was at her worst. Yes, we spent time behind those harsh metal doors where a room full of adults were saying and doing strange things – it felt surreal.
    Perhaps this is sharing too much. The last thing I want to do is make the road more difficult for someone else. I guess I’d merely love to encourage everyone to grab onto those precious moments, when life is sweet – they sustain you when it gets hard. My unbelievable papa was still caring for my mother the day before he lost his battle with cancer. I was blessed to see up close what honest purely unconditional love looked like. I praise God for that when life gets hard and his wise gentle words echo back in my ears. He always encouraged me to look for the silver lining in any circumstance. For that, I’m simply thankful.
    Thank you for sharing your heart and your hurts Lisa! It’s so much better to be flesh and blood than white washed tombs. All my love, Christa

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 21, 2016

      Christa, your perspective is a gift to all of us. Thank you for taking the time (and energy in the midst of your own trial) to reflect and write this. I am grateful. What a treasure your father was, and I love the example of the mother of the other farm too. Your gratitude for the gifts Jesus gave in the midst of the suffering of having a mother with mental illness is remarkable: your father, the neighbor, the farm, your horse, chores, music. Gratitude helps me survive too. How would we live without Jesus? Blessings to you, Christa.

      Reply
  8. Shar McMinn
    October 20, 2016

    Hugs. Thx for sharing such a hard trial I pray writing it helps others and lifts a burden from you.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 21, 2016

      Writing is good therapy, right, Shar??

      Reply
  9. Kim Cissell
    October 20, 2016

    Oh, my goodness, you express these things so well! I am so glad to see you reaching out to moms in this situation. You are doing a wonderful thing creating this safe place for moms to talk. My daughter is 34 now and has managed her bipolar disorder beautifully for the last 11 years…but we all went through years of hell before she came to terms with her illness. It was lonely and frightening. Often is was a great relief when she was inpatient because we had a few days of reprieve from the uncertainty and turmoil. Keep up the good work, Lisa. These moms need you.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 21, 2016

      It’s so good to hear from a mom on the other side of this long road, Kim. Thank you for sharing with us.

      Reply
  10. Melissa Kugler
    October 20, 2016

    Thank you for being vulnerable and sharing. I am soaking get up every word and my heart aches as if it were my family member. Love you friend.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 21, 2016

      Much love to you too, Melissa.

      Reply
  11. Lois E. Lennox
    October 20, 2016

    My son has a child with mental disorders. He estranged himself from me so he would not get judged is my only thoughts on this. I lost a son and a grandson. The grandson is probably 18 now. I only know this much. My son must have felt terrible pain from this. I do know the grandson would be in and out of institutions. I know when he was about 5 and 6 yrs. old that I was almost no… I was afraid of him. He talked of even killing people. This is my grandson. Oh well. what can one say. These things are real.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 21, 2016

      Lois, I’m so glad you commented. It’s not too late – I hope you can reach out to your son in his difficult journey.

      Reply
  12. Angelica Chavez
    October 20, 2016

    Reading this post felt as if it were written for me. We are currently working our way thru this and thankful for your post.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 21, 2016

      That does my heart good, Angelica. You are not alone.

      Reply
  13. Kedron Annotti
    October 20, 2016

    Your courage to share is so inspiring Lisa..The Lord is using you to bring light on a subject few talk about with such honesty and transparency . As a mama who loves Jesus I see this gap and pray for families in this– but I pray that as a church we can come alongside parents and be present for the long haul- praying for your reach to increase.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 21, 2016

      I am grateful for your prayers and encouraging words, Kedron. I didn’t expect this to topic to mean so much to people. Maybe we’ve all needed an opportunity to speak.

      Reply
  14. Deborah
    October 21, 2016

    It took us years to get our adopted daughter help. We were repeatedly told that things she did to harm herself were ‘normal’. It wasn’t until she physically assaulted me and I called the only adolescent psychiatrist in the county twice a day for days that anyone took us, and her needs, seriously.

    The aloneness. The grief of knowing something is so wrong with someone so dear and no one listens.

    And yes, the shame…I had less than a handful of loving praying friends who stood with us…but I had them.

    Thank you.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 21, 2016

      I’m glad you had a small circle of friends to hold you up through the journey and that you finally found some help. Blessings to you.

      Reply
  15. Michelle
    October 21, 2016

    Dear Lisa- this is all too familiar. Guilt for leaving my son in the adolescent psych unit. Guilt that I wasn’t a better parent for him. More guilt for the relief, both mental and physical. Two years later, days got harder and harder until inpatient again and then placement in an RTC. At that point, a couple of family members drew closer to support, but all the rest of my family (which is very large) refused to speak about it or go see my son for the 9 months he was there because it was too hard for THEM. That includes family that worked in the same parking lot. Talk about feeling isolated. These feelings are still too familiar and yeah, they are hard to think/write about. You are not alone. It’s good to know that I’m not alone as well.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 21, 2016

      You are not alone, Michelle. It’s sounding like we need a retreat for moms who need to recover from the trauma of having kids in inpatient treatment. What does that say about the experience of inpatient treatment for parents?? Blessings to you.

      Reply
      1. Julianne
        October 21, 2016

        Amen….

        Reply
        1. Lisa Qualls
          October 22, 2016

          …and amen.

          Reply
  16. Samantha
    October 21, 2016

    Lisa, your story and openness flooded me back to when I had to admit my daughter not just once but 3 times. It is hard. There are very few that understand the grief, guilt and pain that go with it. Since we had our daughter just less than 2yrs it brought all kinds of heartless responses ‘you gave her back?, right?!’ ‘ your family is just fine without her’. It has been a rough 7 years for us. Multiple residential treatment facilities, therauputic placements, and yes she is still our daughter. We have a very unique relationship. It is nothing like what we had envisioned standing in front of the judge on that adoption day, but she is still ours for better or worse, and we get the privledge of speaking life into her through our examples and prayers.
    Thank you for your openness and willingness to speak of such a hard place and time.
    ~Samantha

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 22, 2016

      Thank you for commenting, Samantha, and for sharing your story. I’m sorry for the judgment you’ve experienced – you have shown perseverance in the hardest of circumstances. Nobody has the right to judge, no one can imagine your life – well, maybe some of us here can! Many blessings to you. Press on, sister.

      Reply
  17. Abby Hartger
    October 21, 2016

    As a mom of a child who has many psychiatric hospitalizations I am thankful for those that understand the pain and frustration. That’s why I am so thankful a brilliant person came up with my job. I work as a Parent Support Partner. I am that friend/mom that holds the hand of other parents with kids that have severe emotional disturbance (mental health), autism, and developmental delays. Without my PSP holding my hand my family would not have had hope and I wouldn’t be able to give another parent that some hope. Finally, after many years of pain God has given me a purpose and the gift to pass hope on to another family.
    Thank you

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 22, 2016

      That is a brilliant job, Abby. When we can find purpose in our pain by helping others, it helps us make sense of it. That’s why I write this blog. I love that you have found your purpose – I needed someone like you!

      Reply
    2. Linda Brauer
      October 23, 2016

      Beautifully stated, Abby. No one should have to travel the path alone, not sure whom to trust, or if we are even headed in the right direction, let alone be blamed or blame ourselves, when there is nothing we wouldn’t do. You lead by example.

      Reply
  18. Ashley Stern
    October 22, 2016

    Thanks as always, for your honesty! What a wonderful legacy your daughter has given to so many aching families through her story faithfully chronicled by her sweet mom!

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 22, 2016

      She was a gift to us and to the world. Thank you, Ashley.

      Reply
  19. Jennifer Stillwagon
    October 22, 2016

    I am so happy my cousin/best friend shared this with me. I currently have a daughter who is going through this. I too have never felt so alone and so many other emotions than I do currently in my life.

    Thank you again.

    Jennifer

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 22, 2016

      I’m glad she shared it with you too, Jennifer. You are not alone.

      Reply
  20. KT
    January 28, 2017

    We are living this right now–2 ER visits and one week long hospital stay already in 2017. Thank you fur writing so candidly on this often taboo subject. It can make you feel like a crazy person sometimes and it helps me to know others have walked this lonely road too. Our daughter also faces significant trauma, and for now the only answer is a therapy appointment once a week, and meds. I know she needs so much more but we are fighting a system that doesn’t kick into gear until something really traumatic happens. I hate that about our mental health care system.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      January 28, 2017

      Me too, KT.

      Reply
  21. Trisha
    February 3, 2018

    Our AS8 is in inpatient at Children’s Psych for the second time this month, right now. It’s a relief that we are being heard now. I’m both trying to prepare my heart and other 5 kids for his return and also know that he may need residential care. I’m researching options but can’t believe how challenging it is to find help. Thank you for writing and yes—the isolation and shame shrinks when I see/read I’m not alone.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      February 5, 2018

      Many blessings to you, Trisha. I hope you find just the help he needs.

      Reply

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