Impressions at the Psych Hospital - Part I
September 13, 2022
Writings from the Nuthouse, Redux
Even while I am in the midst of some of the worst times of my life, I always recognize the experience will shape and change me for good. I knew that. Not for those first few days when I was in the ER waiting for a bed. I spent most of my time kicking and screaming and rebelling against my confinement. I was not in my right mind. I minimized what I had done. I’ve always done that with behavior in relation to my mental illness.
I maintain I wasn’t trying to kill myself. I just fall into so much pain, pills seem to be the only solution. I know I’ll wake up. But somehow, I think if I can just sleep for a while, a long while, when I wake up, things might be different. I might wake up in a better place. Heaven? I don’t know. Just anywhere but where I was.
Maybe it was a suicide attempt. I just don’t know. That’s what I wanted, but I also knew I wouldn’t succeed. So if you want to die, and choose a method from which you know you’ll make a full recovery, is that a suicide attempt? I don’t know.
I very much do want to buckle down and get through this life. I want to arrive at the end having Persevered through all of it. But sometimes it just all gets the best of me, and all I can think of is how I might feel some relief.
Regardless, the days I spent in the psych hospital are precious to me. The brief relationships I formed with patients and staff helped me in a way no other experience could. I am transformed from having seen into their hearts and minds.
I see now where I am on the continuum. I am not that sick. I am very sick, it’s true. Much sicker than ever before. But I’ve a long way to go before I’m as sick as even the healthiest of patients in the long-term unit. I would say I’m lucky, but I don’t believe in luck. Everything happens for a reason. I did what I did, and the outcome was exactly as it was because everything happens for a reason.
I make it sound as if I had no choice but to do what I did, that it was planned long ago. Not true. I am always responsible for my own choices and whatever ramifications they hold. I did the crime, I did the time. Seriously hard time. I didn't want to do it, but after the pills wore off and I was done being a rebellious child with an enormous sense of entitlement, I settled in and did the time.
The biggest gift was seeing we all have so much in common, there is so much overlap. To connect with the sick, patience and tolerance are crucial. And decency. Decency and a willingness to fall a little bit in love with each of them.
It wasn’t hard for me. I spent hours each day at the table in the common room in conversation with my beautiful family. I’d ask questions, listen intently to their answers. I learned pieces of all their stories. I fell a little bit in love with each of them, even the angriest of them. I had the incredible fortune of seeing brief glimpses of the child inside, the child inside all of us who remains desperate for acknowledgement, love, and belonging.
Unlike the other patients, I had power. I had agency. I would not be in the long-term unit long-term. I always knew that, and within a day or so, staff knew that, too. You can’t hide the truth of who you are for long. That goes for hiding the good as much as the bad. The good parts always prevail. Even in the seriously mentally ill, if you have the great fortune of spending time with them, you see their goodness, their pure hearts.
Some patients were very angry. Like rebellious teens, they’d act out against staff in not only passive but overtly aggressive ways. It was exhausting to watch; I can only imagine what it was like on the receiving end of such unrelenting verbal abuse. Staff just got tired sometimes. They weren’t evil, they were worn out.
At first, I thought staff were all monsters. And it is true, some of them did play serious mind games with patients. Silly. Such unequal opponents. No challenge at all. Thankfully, there were only a handful of those.
The great majority of staff were pretty incredible, people with big hearts who perhaps didn’t always enjoy their work, but who nonetheless found it meaningful and rewarding. In the beginning, it was easy to see only the ugly behavior in those few staff that were simply ugly all around. I initially lumped all staff into one category: Assholes. As my anger faded, I saw more clearly. Things got really clear really quickly.
I was worn out, too. As a caregiver I was used up. I had nothing left. My self-care had been zero. I’d let myself fall so far; I hadn’t realized I’d been swallowed up in my mother’s existence. I hadn’t carved out what I needed for me to be healthy in mind and spirit. That’s how I ended up in the hospital in the first place. So, finally, I saw our shared humanity.
It was easy to see myself in the patients. I began to really take in how much we are all alike, how much overlap there is in each of us. Mental illness simply magnifies our core characteristics. The balance is gone, there is no equanimity. It’s easy to label the sick, to say “he’s angry” or “she’s passive”. Even though they are every bit as complex as anyone, only one or two traits are really apparent. So, they get categorized and labeled.
It's common to hear people reject the idea of labels, and they can be destructive. But it’s necessary in an institutional environment. Only when people are labeled is the institution able to apply the correct protocols. The challenge is in being able to alter those labels based on a patient’s behavior. That’s where the system is broken. It doesn’t allow for variation.
Just like I did at first, institutions have tunnel vision. A determination is made, and patients are boxed and contained. A patient may get better, and staff may not recognize the improvement because they’re conditioned to see them just one way. Thankfully, I was not one of those patients. In contrast with the others in the long-term unit, it was clear I was high functioning. It was clear I didn’t live there; I was only in for a visit.