what I learned from my time in the psych ward

This topic is tricky. I hope it sounds intriguing, because being hospitalized for mental illness definitely led to some of the most bizarre and most interesting experiences of my life. It’s hard to talk about though. For one, obviously the events that led me to the hospital — once in California and once in Mississippi — are the lowest points of my life thus far. For someone who has had as many dark moments as I’ve had, for me to immediately and definitively declare those times to be the very worst should indicate how painful and scary they really were. I was confused, sad, and, mainly, lost. I felt a hopelessness that no sane living creature should ever feel, and that feeling of absolute misery with no light coming in led me to the Last Resort, my last-ditch attempt to dig my claws into life before depression convinced me to do away with it. I preface with this because I want y’all to understand that my very memory of those hospitalizations is oddly warped. I explain in another post that my memories being depressed seem to have an instagram filter over them; they’re bizarrely distorted in a way that makes articulating those memories difficult from where I’m sitting now. I will try my best.

First off, I’m just going to say it — the mental ward in California was a five-star resort compared to the one in Mississippi. Now don’t get it twisted, I will be the first to say that overall the psychiatric care I received in Mississippi did ten times more for me than the “treatment” prescribed to me by healthcare professionals in California. Of course I understand that each doctor is different and that I must have just been unlucky with my doctors in California, but I have always found it funny that the state said to be at the cutting-edge of mental health research and care only made me crazier. I will elaborate on that discrepancy in another post maybe, but for now I just wanted to be clear that I will be focusing on my time in these two hospitals’ psychiatric units specifically, not on the care I’ve received outside of those instances. 

I spent a full week on the psych floor of a hospital in Southern California, and it was, frankly, a lovely vacation. We had optional activities scheduled throughout the day, from AA meetings to Epsom salt foot soaks, and I ate steak and apple pie every night (okay I know beef is bad for the environment and eating it is a questionable choice for an animal rights proponent but I was losing my s*&t okay leave me alone). All that time and all that discussion with doctors and counselors, however, ended up doing me very little good other than giving me a place to stabilize. I was prescribed a long list of drugs entirely new to me, including three different types of neuroleptics. That may not mean much to you if you don’t know about medicines, but neuroleptics can potentially yield some pretty scary side effects…like tardive dyskinesia, for one. While my experience was altogether pleasant, the actual treatment and therapy I received was not nearly sufficient. I didn’t feel like they had truly listened to me or even considered me as much more than a box they needed to check off before they could clock out. Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that, just a month after being discharged in California, I was right back where I started, only two thousand miles away.

I walked into cement block of a building, carrying my bag of things frantically assembled by my mother and following a nurse that looked at me with the uneasy pity you have for someone who is about to walk into a situation you know they aren’t prepared for and may not belong in. The kind of look you give a girl who’s about to get an IUD put in for the first time, or a college freshman in line at a bar that takes everybody’s fake IDs. She went through every one of my belongings, removing anything with strings (yes, even my favorite sweatpants because of their elastic tie) or edges that could even almost be perceived as sharp. There were other things, like deodorant, that she may have just taken out for fun, for all I know. She locked all of my prohibited items, which apparently comprised 75% of my belongings, away in a locker and sent me into the fray with nothing but the clothes on my back (hospital pants and a three-day-old tee shirt) and a brown paper bag with my four articles of clothing deemed to be safe. I will forever remember the sound of those big doors closing behind me as I took my first look around the floor I would be calling home. They shut with tectonic force, and the echoing boom of their shutting culminated in a decisive *clink* that made it very clear to me that I was stuck. There. Alone. With no one who knew me or my heart. To the people working the unit, I was just another patient in room 7. 

Again, let me be clear: I’m not at all accusing anyone or any institution of wrongdoing. The healthcare professionals who work in places like this particular psych ward have priorities and packed schedules that understandably limit their ability to connect with each patient one-on-one. All I’m saying is that, as one of those patients, I felt like I was drowning with no hope of a lifeline being thrown to me.

I scanned the floor for any face that seemed familiar as I choked back tears. I was shown my room, a tiny bed with a sink, a doorless bathroom, and one small window that looked out over the back parking lot. I was told when meals were and what was expected of me, but then I was just…there. Once the nurse left, I was once again reminded of how alone I was. What struck me about everything was how gray it all appeared. It was late December, and a smoky haze emanated from the industrial complex outside into my little room and out into the rest of the floor. I looked around and saw monochrome existence. Each person within that scene bore their great burden somehow silently and loudly at the same time. Their faces were wearied, in varying stages of resignation, but just under them pulsed an energy, a desire whose source I couldn’t at first identify. In a gray room full of gray people clad in gray hospital clothes, I thought I had finally made it to the end of the world. The very limit of human existence, of what a person can withstand before giving up. I understood that I was a cog in a machine that ran endlessly and monotonously regardless of any personnel change; I was an ID number fixed amid a system designed to do just enough. 

To be clear, the real point of psych wards like the one I’m talking about is medication stabilization, often after a traumatic experience, psychotic break, or life-threatening situation. This isn’t the place you go to have therapy and truly heal. It’s a place to keep you alive for long enough to get you out of whatever dangerous cycle landed you there. I ended up being there for only two days, thank God, because I had shown enough improvement in that time. Many others were not so lucky, however. I saw grandmothers who had been there since before Christmas with no family willing to come get them, high schoolers who had been sent there after an argument with their parents, moms and dads and husbands and wives who were all there in hopes that some thing could change. My point is that a place meant to do just enough to keep its patients safe has potential to be a place of greater learning, healing, and rebounding than it was in my experience. The way that system functioned when I was there was not particularly helpful to anyone. I am thankful that I was there because I needed to be under medical surveillance, and I was able to find healthcare professionals and a treatment plan that actually helped me elsewhere, after I stabilized. I can’t help but think, however, back to all the people I met there that may not have had the good fortune to be able to find effective help afterward.

Those faces that had at first seemed so unfamiliar, so distant, so, so sad, eventually came to be friendly. The most valuable lesson I learned had nothing to do with anything a psychiatrist or counselor told me; it was that we are all in this sh*tstorm of a life together. We are all looking for the same thing and trying our best to figure it out along the way. Again, there were people from all walks of life — other sorority girls, high school athletes, grandparents, drug addicts — brought together at the end of the world. We did puzzles, talked about boys, our ambitions, our fears…we connected. In a place where fear and hopelessness seemed to blast out of the freaking air ducts, we made friends. We found community.

People have a remarkable ability to dismiss things that fall outside their frames of reference. Coming from a place of privilege myself, I never considered the experience of a patient in a mental institution, an inmate in prison, a homeless person or an addict. I may have feigned sympathy or even genuinely felt sad for the “less fortunate” occasionally, but those feelings (and the people that inspired them) remained a safe distance from me at all times. My neat, pretty little life came with its own perspective, responsibilities, and concerns, and it seemed like it didn’t have room to bring other, unfamiliar players on board. It took being institutionalized to completely shatter that worldview.

We are all just a hair’s breadth away from crisis at any time, a fact I’m sure is becoming increasingly clear in the current crisis. You never know when you could be one of them. You never know when you could be the weakest link, one of the people pushed to the outskirts of society because you don’t fit in anymore. You never know when your very life could be in question. I guarantee that you would be shocked if you discovered the number of people you know who have found themselves in positions like the one I’m describing, positions no one would have ever dreamed they’d be in.

By keeping our distance from the ugly parts of life, we leave ourselves completely unprepared when the ugly rears its head in our own lives. We also perpetuate the lack of empathy that, I think, plagues modern America. It could be any one of us at any time that ends up in crisis, but we take our stable day-to-day lives for granted. I could be wrong, but I don’t think someone who had just met me would ever guess that I had been in a psych ward, let alone two psych wards (not to brag or anything 😏💅🏻 lol). I’ve said this before, but you don’t know everyone’s story, and — hot take — you don’t even know your own. Not yet. Maybe being more openminded when it comes to people or topics that seem foreign or unfavorable to us could help us communicate across the chasm we’ve etched into our world. In a time when everyone seems to be rushing off to their respective ideological bunkers armed with accusations ready to be cast at the “enemy” on other side, I hope that any part of what I’ve said may remind you that, as much of a cliche as this phrase is, we are all much more similar than we are different. We all want to be loved and heard, to make our parents proud and to be remembered. Though our stories may diverge, landing me in a psych ward while you’re in a job interview, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are qualitatively different people with you on the Good Path and me on the Bad. It could happen to you. It could happen to you next year. Or tomorrow. It could happen to a sibling or a parent when you least expect it. Once you find yourself there, at the edge of all things with nothing to cling to, you can finally see the fundamental nature of human being. That palpable undercurrent of energy I picked up on the faces of my fellow patients, even at their most downtrodden, flowed, I believe, from our innermost desire to belong. We all want to feel like we belong in this world. That desire drives us to carry on in search of that belonging, even when we feel lost or isolated from everything and everyone else. My experience in psych wards taught me the importance of belonging and of doing what I can to help others gain it. I learned a whole new meaning of empathy. Before that, I had never considered the great number of people who plug along, day after day, even in the most dire of circumstances, just looking for their place amid the chaos. We’re all doing the same thing, whether you’re in Whitfield or the Hamptons. No one is more deserving of finding their place than anyone else is. I pray that we all find where we belong and that we can help others toward their own. We’re all in this together.

P.S. I know this probably left out a lot of the details you may be curious about, but there isn’t really much to tell…we were woken up by a nurse at 5 a.m. to get our vitals done, then breakfast, nothing, lunch, nothing, dinner, nothing, nothing, nothing. We were told to expect classes taught by the counselor working that day, but there was only one (of the six on the schedule) that actually happened when I was there. It was rrrroooouuuggghhh. Zero out of ten, would not recommend. I read LITTLE WOMEN in the forty two hours I was there, if that gives you any indication of how boring it was. No disrespect to ole Louisa. If you have any more questions about this experience or about anything at all, please don’t hesitate to ask. I made an ask.fm so that you can do so completely anonymously. For me to make a new ask fm after my last experience in 2013 — when someone asked if I knew that without makeup I looked like “a retarded mouse that got slammed in a door” — took some courage, so please continue to reach out. I’ve already started picking some good ones for a future post on all my deepest darkest secrets mwahahaha. Thanks for reading. 


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