“You should write about your time on the psych ward,” said a stranger from my writing group, licking his lips at the thought. What did he expect? Stories of lobotomies? No one has licked the windows in front of me, although I have stared out of them with other patients, discussing brave ways we could break out to walk to Starbucks and get some real coffee.
Electric Shock Therapy (ECT), that I know firsthand. It’s much more common than you’d think. It has burned away many patients’ memories as well as mine. It has also given life back to walking zombies who went back to raise their kids and be a part of their communities again.
Does he want to know about the strip search where they check for bruises? I came upon it unaware the first time with a brutal-minded nurse who left me crying hunched against a wall.
Perhaps we should start with what brought me to the psych ward.
My therapist suggested medication. I refused at first. Within four months, a brown paper grocery bag filled with almost-full bottles of medications that had caused serious side effects, sat beside my dresser. The side effects were far worse than the original problem. I broke into rashes, ran fevers and shook so badly I couldn’t hold a fork or see to drive. Sleep, when my brain allowed it, lasted less than an hour before my dry throat would close up. I became edgy and paranoid, began to hallucinate and started sleeping beneath my bed in fear. Worst of all my depression grew as did my suicidal ideation.
My bingeing gone violent, and my weight reached 320 lbs. Friends packed me off to an eating disorder unit where I promptly landed on suicide watch. After ten days, one of the doctors told me, “You really belong on a locked mental ward.”
Two friends finally convinced me to sign myself in to a local psychiatric hospital. I was tired. My soul felt as ragged and weary as a gutter-drunk on a three-week bender.
They brought me to the hospital and saw me through admission until I was brought upstairs to the ward. As the elevator opened, I realized this was real. I was about to be caged with unstable, possibly dangerous lunatics. I closed my eyes as I was shuffled to a wall to wait. Pressing my back against it, I slid to the floor. I willed my tears to sweep me, wave-like, away from this place.
When my sister found out that I was on a mental ward, she was in turmoil. She felt she had failed me. She had a 2 year-old and a 3½ month-old at home. Since she couldn’t bring the kids into the hospital, she figured out which windows belonged to the cafeteria. During mealtime she would squeeze between the bushes beneath the windows and hold up first my nephew, so he could blow kisses, and then my niece, so she could drool on her fist.
Maybe my sister’s grand gesture attracted Billy to me. Billy was a high school senior. He wore a baseball cap with a cartoon character on it. He had a tongue stud and was tall, blonde and handsome with a rubbery body that could mimic the motion of anyone or anything. He would never speak with me, I thought—an overweight, conservative woman pushing 30—but he often sought my company and sat by me in the cafeteria.
During visiting hours one day, my ex-boyfriend came to visit. Billy introduced himself and sat to talk with us. Afterward Billy asked me, “You really dated that guy?”
“Wow. I guess opposites really do attract. You do realize you are worth so much better, right?”
I didn’t. I couldn’t see myself through the eyes of this beautiful boy. I blamed his lapse in judgment on his mental illness.
Outside one evening on a cigarette break, three on a bench, the other five of us milling around, a full moon broke from the clouds. We all gazed at it until Billy raised his lips, wolf-like and howled to the shining night sky. Laughing we joined him, each howling our own salute to the glory of our soul’s own freedom even in the incarceration of our selves.
My second stay was about 10 years later—a respectable amount of time between visits. The medication had never really worked for me. Manic highs and brutal lows still plagued me through the years. When therapy, support groups and coping skills stopped working altogether, I knew it was time to try something else.
My doctor suggested ECT treatments. After seeing how well they worked for my roommate on my previous stay and discovering my grandfather had done well with them also, I decided to try them.They didn't work for me.
During this stay, one night in the dark, lying upon the thin mattress, my mind raced around the room looking for ways to end my life. A broken lightbulb from the bathroom could be used to cut my veins, but were the bulbs accessible or caged as I was? I was too afraid to go and check.
A plan formed slowly to slip away the next day when we were let out for a cigarette break. We were poorly attended and the grounds weren't fenced. Near the hospital campus was a mall within walking distance. A few dollars that had not been confiscated called to me from its hiding place in my dirty laundry bag. It was at least enough for a few bottles of pills, something that, in concentration, would end my suffering forever.
My spinning mind refused to sleep. Morning refused to dawn. Pen and paper were never far from me. Slowly words dripped silently explaining clanging tempests to my niece and nephew—how much pain I was in—why I needed to end my life and leave them.
God’s grace poured down upon me then, quieting the bedlam. I wrote about how much I loved my niece and nephew, what made them special, how they had touched my life. Before long my suicide note became a gratitude list. Now, despite the hopelessness that held my head beneath water, I was grateful for these babies, for my sister, for my family, for who I was.
I wasn’t cured. I still had far to go. But it was a turning point.
Then my therapist recommended that I ask my psychiatrist about a new medication she had read about. The medicine worked! For the first time in my life I was able to commit to projects and know I would be able to follow through.
After four wondrous years of being stable on this new medication, it started to wear off. Elsewhere in my life, too much volunteer work had led to burnout and several painful injuries. September brought on ugly feelings I hadn’t known in a while. Several things happened in succession, dragging me deeper. I slogged with every ounce of strength within me, refusing to isolate, staying out of my own head, helping others, taking care of myself, keeping busy and useful.
By January a strange phenomenon pulled me into the gyre. One moment, feeling strong and grateful, I was smiling and singing. The next minute, feeling mostly the same, I was bawling—not just crying, but howling like an animal—and hyperventilating. Sleep abandoned me. Routine became impossible. Eventually, taking my pills and insulin on schedule was too difficult a chore. My life became a full-speed, downhill, out-of-control slalom.
My endocrinologist tested my blood sugar at 600. He knew my psych history and suggested in-patient treatment. I was grateful to finally be able to stop fighting so hard to keep myself together.
They kept me in the emergency room for almost 24 hours. They had to get me physically stable enough to turn me over to the psych ward. This time around I didn’t collapse against a wall crying when I was led in. Sitting in the chair beside the nurses’ station, I watched the activity wide-eyed with exhaustion and relief. A friendly denizen of the ward, obviously well acclimated and in good spirits, came and shook my hand.
“Hi. I’m Tim.” He reminded me of Mr. Tumnus, the faun from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I hadn’t fallen into Narnia, but if he had invited me home to his cave for tea and cakes and jam, I wouldn’t have minded, even if he did plan on turning me over to the wicked White Witch.
Tim was retired from the hotel industry. He had the magnetic vibe associated with hospitality. He enjoyed putting people at ease and encouraging them to join in. Tim made me want to get up and shower and show up feeling ready for the day like a normal human being. When you’re depressed, just showing up can seem impossible. Showing up prepared with a positive attitude is often too much to hope for, but Tim made me want that.
He played concierge for us, renaming each room to make the place sound more like a day spa than a psych ward. He helped keep the tables in the dayroom clean and tidy. His enthusiasm charmed people out of their melancholy and made each meal feel more like Alice’s tea party in Wonderland than just more mystery meat on a locked mental unit. Taking care of us helped him overcome his own anxiety. Shortly after he was released, he ended up back at the hospital because outside he didn’t have a crowd of people to dote on.
Tim’s roommate Paul, a scientist, was humble and compassionate and very depressed. A couple of times I heard Tim whisper to him that one of the other patients was having a bad day. Paul, without looking up from his food, with which he always seemed to be having a silent conversation, (“I really don’t like you.”) would say, “I’ll go talk to her.”
One such person was a precious, striking young girl named Selene who wouldn’t eat, speak or take her prescribed medications. She didn’t participate much, but mostly curled up in chairs with a blanket over her head. She had been on the ward for several months. Tim told me later what transpired.
Paul asked her what should have been an obvious question that no one else had thought to ask. “Why won’t you take your meds?”
“Because I don’t want to get addicted.”
Paul asked what had been prescribed. He was an MD among other things, most of which caused so much stress he had ended up here. He quietly told her how the medicine worked, what side effects she might have, what benefits she might see and, most importantly that it was not addictive.
The next day, Selene began taking her medication. Within two weeks she was eating, talking, laughing, participating and even dancing and doing yoga in the hallways. She was soon released and returned to school and work and family as the person they’d known before the onset of her illness.
Alex was 27, well-to-do and a responsible business owner—Again, not someone who would normally mix with me, especially now that I was 48. I’m not sure why Alex was there. So many of us become experts at hiding our afflictions. But Alex, a curious, outgoing young man, like Tim, enjoyed getting people involved in conversations. Where Tim was professional and smooth, Alex had more of a party attitude.
Together we withstood the mind-numbing routine of the ward. Sugar free hard candy, caramel apple flavored, velvet on my tongue, was a decadence the nurses didn’t allow. My mother smuggled them in stuffed in her pockets and transferred them into mine when no one else was looking. I shared them gladly with the other patients, passing them like little plastic bags of costly powder—my one act of rebellion in this place where dignity was banished.
At one 10am meeting we made stress balls out of balloons and sand. The constant thud, thud, thud of the ball as it passed from my left hand to right, accompanied me as I walked the halls, up and down, touching the doorframes at each end. Later, sitting at the table in the dayroom, waiting for the next session to begin, I still played with my stress ball. Paul, so quiet and bored, sat across from me. He raised one hand and signaled for me to throw him the ball.
Tossing a ball on the ward was forbidden. I grinned and threw it anyway. He caught it overhand with ease and tossed it back, signaling for me to do the same. We volleyed back and forth, me anxious I’d miss the catch. When the occupational therapists entered, I slipped the ball into my pocket. As some patients argued and cursed and railed, Paul and I sat silently smiling. I suppose this was his quiet act of defiance that day—the playfulness that restored our dignity.
When Tim, Paul and Alex told me they were all leaving at the same time, well before I would be ready, I was inconsolable for days. In just a week, these three men had finally communicated to me what so many people had been telling me my entire life—that I was worthy of love and friendship. They had included me in their little clique like “one of the guys.” Here were men who had seen me pale with swollen eyes, face scrunched up, crying, head between my knees, hissing like a snake to release the air backed up in my hyperventilating lungs. I could tell them anything. Anything. And they would smile and tell me how great I was. For three days before they left, Alex followed me around like a puppy, keeping me supplied with tissues, niggling out my thoughts, assuring me I was incredible and on the right track. Who knew they made men like this?
Of course there are always the patients who forget to put on their pants or scream all night, but those who have suffered the demoralization of mental illness—of every word or movement being suspect, of losing control of all the little things in life tend to band together to remind ourselves of who we really are. We get more healing power from each other on the psych ward than from any professional source.