'I remember just relief': What it's like to check yourself into a psychiatric ward

It took truly letting go of control over her own life, for about five days, for Brynne Frauenhoffer to gain real control over her life and mental health.

By letting go and getting help, Brynne Frauenhoffer found the control over her life she was seeking

The journal a nurse gave Brynne Frauenhoffer in the psychiatric ward, in which she wrote about being there. (Courtesy of Brynne Frauenhoffer)
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Brynne Frauenhoffer has been coping with severe anxiety and depression since she was a teenager.

But one night a few years ago, when Frauenhoffer was in her early 20s, she reached a crisis point.

"I called my mom at around two in the morning, and it was the second time that day that I told her I didn't necessarily want to die, but I didn't want to be alive anymore," said Frauenhoffer. "I just knew that I was past a point of managing my illness on my own."

She called an Uber, went to an emergency room and asked to be admitted to the psychiatric ward. 

Life in the ward

"I just started to cry and I was like, 'I'm just really sad? I sometimes think about killing myself, just put me in the psych ward.' It was sort of unchartered territory for me. But I just had to be brutally honest with strangers how I just need to be locked up here."

Frauenhoffer says it was jarring to see the sign declaring Psychiatric Ward and to hear the door close behind her knowing she had given control over when she could leave to others.

There was a part of me that felt like I had to fix it... I was weak if I couldn't manage everything all by myself.- Brynne Frauenhoffer

"Just the recognition of ... that's where I am. Recognizing multiple times throughout the day, when other people in the ward would be upset or in some sort of distress, and I would try and be there for them... I was like, wait, now I'm one of them. I am not a nurse, I am not a social worker, I am not a doctor. I am a patient here. There is something pretty helpless about that."

The ward itself, though, was reasonably cozy and inviting, Frauenhoffer says, and she was able to stop pretending to be "okay".

"When I think back to it now, I remember just relief." 

Surrendering to treatment

During her time in the ward, Frauenhoffer didn't go outside, but could see out the windows. She didn't have shoes on, only socks. If she was in her room, someone would check on her every 15 minutes and there was a mirror angled at her bed so someone could always see in. 

Nurses took Frauenhoffer's shoelaces, cut the drawstrings out of her sweat pants and took her cellphone. 

"You realize how many ways someone could try to hurt themselves that [the ward] attempted to prevent. And there's just like constant reminders of the ways people may have tried to in the past."

Nevertheless, Frauenhoffer found she was able to give herself over to treatment.  

"It's funny … I didn't resent any of the restrictions. Because other patients did. But I was just so glad to not have to keep up this illusion of myself [as someone who was well]." 

Still, she says, "It was pretty bizarre. It's like my life was distilled to just this ward for that amount of time. Like nothing on the outside was real to anyone else."

Five days after checking herself in, Frauenhoffer went home.

Brynne Frauenhoffer (Andrew Jessop)

'I know the happiness is real'

Frauenhoffer, a playwright, found herself talking and writing about her experience.

"People who have a harder time opening up about that reached out to me privately and asked questions about it … I'm grateful for that because it makes that painful part of my life feel like it was worth something. It was worth going through." 

Frauenhoffer has also worked to overcome alcohol addiction. She said that letting go of control helps people find the support they need.

"There was a part of me that felt like I had to fix it. I was weak if I couldn't manage everything all by myself."

"And that's humbling. And it's not fun all of the time to be like, 'Well I have limitations'."

Giving herself over to therapists, doctors, friends and family ultimately helped her to recover and heal, said Frauenhoffer. 

"There was a time in my life where the love couldn't get in from other people. And now love can get in. My depression and anxiety don't keep it out."

Sometimes Frauenhoffer said she still gets anxious and low, and at those times it seems as if happiness can't truly exist, everyone must be faking it. But now she bounces back faster. 

"The disease is still there, but my life feels really full. And I know the happiness is real."

This story appears in the Out in the Open episode "Letting Go"