I spent the remainder of my psychiatric hospital stay, after the initial hours in the triage ward (a.k.a. Suicidal Warehouse, in my head), in an adult unit with the inspirational name Adult Ward 4. I would come to learn, in time, that the fourth ward was about in the middle as far as how sick the patients were. The Suicide Watch ward was like Ward Zero, and there were seven or eight wards total. When I walked into to Adult Ward 4 from the triage unit, I had a 102.3 fever, and I had slept 2 hours of the past 24. The technician who admitted me seemed so scatterbrained that he had to take my blood pressure 4 times before he remembered the reading (still off the charts), and I spent most of this process with my head on the table just wishing everyone would leave me alone. Actually, I spent the first couple days I was there sleeping in a pool of fever sweat on a ~6″ thick foam waterproof mattress and wishing everyone would leave me alone.
But people don’t leave you alone in a mental hospital. The Unit had roughly 15 double occupancy rooms, each had its own bathroom with a shower and no door. There was a common area with chairs and couches (all waterproof for reasons you don’t want to know) in a semi circle around a television that was on for only a couple hours a day. I watched a lot of The Price is Right there as the list of approved programming was short. There were a few tables with chairs, and a small round table with a chess/checker board painted on it. There were generally two technicians on the floor per shift, whose job was interacting with the patients and maintaining order. There were also two nurses per shift, whose job it was to hide from the patients behind a huge high counter and hand out medications.
The technicians would let you stay in bed or sit on one of the couches and stare at the wall without participating in anything for a day or so, but after that they will get on your case unless you do something that looked purposeful. Heal, damn it! Socialize, play cards, participate in the nomadic topics of group therapy sessions, read a book or magazine, walk around in circles muttering to yourself, masturbate in the shower so loudly that the patients two wards over can hear you. These are all acceptable activities. One day we had a mandatory activity of coloring a picture of a camel. Everyone in the ward conquered this task with the resolute fervor of a class of college seniors taking final exams. I watched their fervor, realizing that this is life for them. They do not question any of this: the days of being locked in a large room with other sick people, the doctors and therapists who show up at random and try to conduct group therapy sessions with people who can not all focus on the same topic if their lives depended on it, the plastic wrapped food that they were served three times a day, the not being allowed to go outside unless you smoked, the not being able to pee behind a door, or sleep without someone screaming nearby. Most of them seemed unaware of how they got there, nor did they seem to care, nor did many of them have anywhere safe to go when they got out. This was all supposed to help me with my anxiety/panic disorder?
I do not aim to criticize a psychiatric hospital’s treatment of their patients, and I will not ever deny the therapeutic value of coloring – I drew a tutu and coconut bra on my camel that day, and the other patients thought it was hilarious. I just wasn’t ever convinced that I needed to be there. I mean, I’m sure many patients who are admitted to a psychiatric hospital believe that they don’t belong there. Prison statistics are probably similar, with similar wise restrictions on showing vulnerability to those around you. I never believed I didn’t need help. I wouldn’t have tried to call all the therapists I know and gone to the ER in the first place if I didn’t believe I needed serious help. As a result of my brief stay in the hospital, however, I now need help recovering from my experience in asking for help.
In Adult Ward 4, I looked to my right and saw a woman who thought she was in labor during most of her waking hours, and sat with her legs in the air doing Lamaze breathing. To my left there was an adult woman who acted, talked, and threw hourly tantrums like a 2 year old – lisp, didn’t pronounce Rs, wore diapers. Across from me there was a man who liked to throw chairs when he felt angry. I can’t neglect to mention the man who tried to kill a technician one night by choking her because she asked him to stop urinating on his roommate’s bed. He left bruises on her neck.
Speaking of roommates, mine was delightful. When she wasn’t disappearing into our room and returning wearing most of my clothes at the same time with my bra on the outside, she was having conversations with the voices in her head, which, from what I could gather were one of her dead lovers and one or more evil voices. All of them wanted to kill me. She would pace back and forth in our room many hours of the night, often circling my bed while I pretended to be asleep, talking to the voices about whether they should kill me while I slept or wait until I was awake so they would be the last thing I saw before I died. During the day she would wander around telling everyone I was a whore who slept with her husband and I couldn’t be trusted. She would cut in front of me while I waited at the nurses station for them to check my blood sugar and tell them, “I have a fever.”
“My diabetes hurts.”
“I need a glass of milk.”
“Someone took my pants.”
“Someone unrolled the toilet paper in my bathroom and peed on it. I think it was that whore behind me.” Oh, right, did I forget to mention that she liked to unravel toilet paper onto the floor and pee on it and blame me for it? Yeah, she did that. She was super fun. When I cleaned out my shelf in our room on the day I was discharged, I threw away my hospital issued deodorant, paper scrubs they gave me to wear, my toothbrush and toothpaste that tasted like melted plastic. My roommate came up to me while I sat in the common area waiting for my ride to arrive and said, “The damnedest thing happened! Someone took my toothbrush! I’ve been keeping it on your shelf and now it’s gone!” I briefly threw up in my mouth, then turned my back to her and walked out of her life forever.
I was released on the day after my birthday. Yes, I spent my birthday in a psychiatric hospital. No one mentioned it all day long- something that may have upset me if I was out in the real world, but it was kind of a relief in The Unit. I think if someone had wished me a happy birthday while I was in the hospital it would have depressed me more than anything else. The day my husband brought me home, he had roses and a giant cookie cake with candles waiting on the kitchen table for me. I just sat down and started crying about everything I had just survived. This was shortly before I ate the hell out of that cookie cake without using a fork. Don’t judge me. After that I took a long shower, scrubbing the molecules of hospital off me until there almost wasn’t skin. I then threw all the clothes I had worn at the hospital in a black trash bag and walked it out to the curb. I would have burned them if I wasn’t 110% convinced I would have accidentally set fire to something important in the process. Then I got on my cell phone and started answering a week’s worth of text messages, letting normal life soak in again.
I don’t really believe that there’s such a thing as Normal Life. The whole concept of Normal is a myth, and I will stand by that statement for the rest of my life. Everyone we meet is fighting some kind of battle. The things you struggle with daily might come easily to the person in front of you. They might not even be able to understand your battle, and that’s okay. You might want to be jealous of what an easy life they must have, being free of your struggle, but chances are good that they are also doing battle with something that you can’t even imagine. The entire world looks different to me after seeing the things I saw during my hospital stay. I flinch when someone uses the word “crazy” in reference to another person now. I have seen what severe mental illness looks like, and while I might not have been prepared for such blunt exposure, I now have a much deeper context and understanding of my own illness and mental illness in general. I’ve been humbled by and appreciative of those who have reached out and shared words of encouragement as well as some of their own struggles with mental illness because of my posts. Forming these connections adds a bright streak of depth and beauty to my view of humanity. Life is a mess, but the mess can be beautiful.