Mental illness has a universal human component to it in that it takes specific parts of the human experience and magnifies it and distorts it until life is out of balance. Who hasn’t suffered grief, loss, fear, trauma, sadness, elation, euphoria, anger? There are times when we can balance all of those things and cope with the rest of life very well. Then there are times when coping is a foreign concept that eludes us on our best days, and all we can see is black, or hot pink, or grey, or white, or whatever color has overtaken our brain. Depression always seems to be a color, doesn’t it?
I know of few places where the human experience is more raw, emotional, and exposed than in a psychiatric hospital. Maybe a Walmart on a Saturday afternoon, but I can’t think of many other places. People come into the hospital at the extremes of their emotions and their misfiring brain chemicals, and it makes for a very colorful atmosphere.
I use “colorful” more as a metaphor than a euphemism. While I did see some things that scared the living shit out of me (that was definitely a metaphor – the bathrooms in that place were open for safety reasons, and I refused to shit in a toilet without a door in front of it) the experience was unique in that life was as real for everyone there as it was ever going to get. I love things that are real, honest, straight forward. It’s not always easy to look at that kind of reality, but it can also be breathtakingly beautiful.
There were a few such moments of beauty in such an unlikely setting as a hospital during my stay that left a lasting impression on me. Earlier I briefly mentioned the lady in the 24 hour triage ward who closed her eyes amid a din of vocal psychoses and began singing You Are My Sunshine.
Her voice was imperfect, she didn’t pronounce all the words, but she sang with a smile in her voice, and it was the most beautiful sound I heard when I was there. The other patients, myself included, momentarily went silent wherever they sat or stood and listened until she stopped singing. When the singing stopped, the rest of the patients were calmer, like they had been reset, or medicated. Music is a powerful drug.
The power of music also fondly calls to mind a patient, I will call H, from the adult ward. When H was awake, she never smiled and she never stopped talking. She talked in a low, urgent voice about three main subjects on repeat: how she lost her baby, how the bad man is going to try to trick her again, and Mardi Gras. She lit up when she talked about Mardi Gras. She wanted nothing more than to be out of the hospital in time to go home to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.
One of the technicians on staff was a soul music aficionado, and had made some playlists of uplifting music to play on the ward during his shift. I loved it, and so did the other patients. I loved seeing them transformed as they listened to the music, related to it, danced to it. Every time the music came on, though, H would go into her room and go to bed.
One afternoon the technician played several Bee Gees songs in a row, and a 1970’s style party broke out:
My roommate, generally obsessed with murdering me, was as happy with the music selection as a little child, and danced around and around a pillar in the middle of the room waving her bed sheet behind her. A woman who exclusively talked and acted like a 2 year old grabbed me by the arm and told me she was going to teach me to dance. She told me to stand and face her and do exactly what she did.
She raised and lowered one shoulder with the beat of the song. I followed suit. I waited for more instructions, but they never came. I started doing the robot, and she copied everything I did, and we were both laughing.
She was free and happy in that moment, and it was beautiful. I remember the emotion in that moment, when I found myself laughing beyond my control. Then I went back to sitting and observing after my roommate cut in on my dance partner and pushed me away just to spite me. It did not hurt my feelings as much as she hoped it would.
The music soon changed from The Bee Gees to Stevie Wonder, Uptight (Everything is Alright):
The mood in the room exploded. Everyone was happy, and even the techs and nurses started dancing with the patients. Everyone was able to lose themselves for a few beautiful moments and forget about why we were all there together.
I noticed, in the middle of the song, H had come out of her room and was talking in her low desperate voice. I couldn’t hear what she was saying over the music, but she still did not smile, and she had a fantastic case of bed head. Then, as she talked, she started to tap her feet a little to the beat. Then the shoulders started moving. Then she started stepping side to side, never quite leaving her doorway. I smiled and looked back at the other patients and enjoying the song immensely.
A moment later I glanced toward H’s door again when I heard a whoop from a technician and a, “Go H! Go H!”
One of the female techs had led H away from the door to dance with her, and H was stepping and spinning and clapping and throwing her hands in the air to the music. She had some moves, too! Her soliloquy about Mardi Gras, or going home, or her baby never stopped, but her body took over. The song drew to a close and the technician took H’s hand to spin her one final time, and the most beautiful thing happened.
It was the only time I ever saw her smile. She went immediately back to bed after that, and the music changed to something a little less exciting. Everyone slowly came down from their happiness and the hospital life routine continued. For the rest of the day I replayed those moments in my head again and again. They were what got me through that day to see another.