Making Friends in the Psych Ward

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader writes:

My name is Emily, and I’m writing in regarding your series on experiences under psychiatric care. On October 25, I was admitted to an inpatient hospital after having suicidal thoughts. Although I did not attempt suicide, there was definite ideation. For 15 years I’ve been dealing with anxiety, depression, and an eating disorder (which goes back and forth between bulimia, restricting and purging, and just restricting).

I spent 11 days inpatient, and I just “graduated” from an intensive outpatient program yesterday. I could go into lots of detail about what I went through, but here are the major bullet points I’ll remember for the rest of my life:

  • Bawling myself to sleep the first night, but then experiencing a calm in being isolated and separated from my daily life and the outside world. (There was joy in not having access to my cell phone or a computer; the break from social media was freeing beyond all belief.) While most people around me were talking about when they would be discharged, I felt an emotional and physical release, which ultimately turned into very deep revelations about myself and my core beliefs. Among them: I am unworthy of love. Arriving at that understanding as an inpatient allowed me to work through what it truly meant and to figure out a strategic plan for combating that line of thought once I was discharged to “the real world.”
  • There were actually some fun times in the hospital. One patient told me a story about how he was pulled over by a cop who asked if he could walk in a straight line. The patient’s response? “No, but I can snort one!” It was one of those “too soon or not soon enough” jokes on a psychiatric ward that made me chortle. Later on in my stay, I became friends with some women my age, and we sit together drawing in adult coloring books, sucking on the straws you use to stir coffee for the oral fixation, sipping on actual coffee, and pulling out of our coloring trances to discuss whether we were feeling anxious, angry, upset, depressed, etc. I also remember trying to do the worm in the common area, and every patient in the ward was laughing to the point of tears, myself included. I was told I looked like a fish flopping around on the land. I hadn't laughed like that in ages, and it felt so good to just naturally laugh like that while making a slight fool of myself.
  • Having my meds changed multiple times in a short time span and feeling like a guinea pig.
  • Seeing people detox off drugs and alcohol was terrifying and saddening, and it also made me reflect on my own drinking habits. I’ve now been sober for 46 days.
  • Making Girl Interrupted jokes to my best friends when I would call them on the patient landline—our only source of communication.

From a 67-year-old reader:

When I was 40, I had simple shoulder surgery that somehow went wrong—improper oxygen intake, most likely. By the end of that year, my IQ dropped from 132 to 78. I had cognitive problems, long- and short-term memory glitches, and some physical symptoms as well. For the next six years, I was in and out of the locked psych ward in my local hospital for major depression that was eventually deemed resistant to treatment. I was under suicide watch, so my room was filmed to ensure my safety.

I got to know a few patients very well over the years. Our paths would cross in a group or in outpatient therapy, and I found each patient’s story fascinating. We really wrestled with ways we could reshape each other’s thinking strategies.

One trick was to try to figure out what someone was in for, before they told us. Some were easy: the grandma who lifted her skirt up when someone came in the room, or the man hearing voices who just wanted quiet (so no TV or radio in common room). My only mistake was a friend I knew from different intakes who always had a journal and a pen. When her pen broke one day, I told her I had a pencil and tried to give it to her. I hadn’t been there long enough to realize she had a pencil problem—and it ends with the pencil in and through her hand. Not knowing that, I gave her the pencil, I hear running, and—yup, she’s done it, and now I feel terrible.

The group was so nice to me over the pencil incident—explaining all the good I had done and brought to the table—that I had to forgive myself (and now I know not to repeat it). Years later I ran into that woman at a seminar. She held up her pen to me and said, “I’ve accepted no #2s, so I bought a Mont Blanc that cost a ton, so I feel so good about it; it’s all I want. You gave me that suggestion.” It felt good.

Normally all the staff was great, but what I found the hardest was arts and crafts. The limited amount of things you could make were equivalent to camp projects for 8-10 year olds. But participation is a must, and for some, crafts were about all they could concentrate on. So, a tiled box, a pencil case, and a poem came home with me. I think I still have them.

***

My ideation of suicide remained for a few years, and I would put myself in the hospital when I didn’t feel I could trust myself. I felt very safe there and worked through the issue.

The hardest thing to see is those who come in being newly diagnosed. These individuals are doubters; they’re not sure they really have an illness or how long they’ll have it. That acceptance takes time to totally ingested, chewed on—and they either spit it out and leave or swallow and start accepting “this is your life.” It is truly tough.

This next reader bonded with one of her therapists:

Thanks for compiling these stories. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in my experiences. I’m not sure if my observations would be of value to anyone else, but I reflect on them occasionally and still marvel at how strange my experience was.

I agree with Eva that most people didn’t seem “crazy”—except for the cute guy I was chatting up at lunch who mentioned that he flies with the witches (moral of the story: don’t look for love in a mental hospital) or the older gentleman who would literally only converse about the weather. But yes, they were all memorable. And they taught me little nuances of patience and empathy that I don’t think I could have gotten anywhere else.

One thing I thought was weird about hospitalization was the occupational therapy. I had always pictured that as helping someone to relearn how to write after a hand injury, but I guess in this context it was about helping people find joy in life or some such. So we did little-kid crafts, which seemed bizarre, but it was better than getting yelled at by the nurses for lying in bed too much.

My hospital was in a college town, so we had an occupational-therapy student working with us. She and I were about the same age and liked the same music, so we struck up a sort of friendship. She would come get me early for craft time so I could help her set things up and we’d hang out and talk.

One time we went to a park and sat on the swings while she told me how she was cheating on her fiancé but it was cool because she was going to stop once she got married. I sort of laid out why I thought that was a bad idea and talked her through what she really wanted in her relationship. She thanked me for the advice afterwards. That conversation reminded me that we’re all screwed up in some way, and it also made me wonder what the hell my parents were paying this hospital for if I was the one providing therapy.

Another strange thing about hospitalization was the field trips. I assume along the same lines as the latch-hook rug making, the trips were meant to bring us some measure of fun. I thought of it as an opportunity to possibly run into one of my college classmates and have to explain to them why I’m bowling with a bunch of strangers and psychiatric nurses. Luckily I never saw anyone I knew.

Probably the worst field trip we took was to the movies. For whatever reason, the hospital staff had chosen Forrest Gump. I sat next to a guy who grew up near me and who I’d hung out with over the past couple of weeks. He had ended up in the hospital after some sort of a drug arrest and contended he was only there because of that issue, but having talked to him a lot, I sort of thought he was deluding himself.  At any rate, somewhere early in the movie we both realized the absurdity of taking deeply disturbed people to see what I assumed was meant to be an uplifting movie. We talked about how life is not like a box of chocolates; it just fucking sucks sometimes and you can’t do anything about that.

So I guess I appreciated the solidarity I felt with him over our hatred of the movie. He committed suicide a few months later, which further solidified my distaste for that awful film.   

If you or someone you know displays warning signs of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can help: 1-800-273-8255.