Joy in a Mental Hospital

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

Two readers emphasize the brighter sides of their time in psychiatric care:

My experience after checking myself in at a mental hospital was almost entirely positive. I had been diagnosed as bipolar at 25. At the time, I was fresh out of a top-10 law school, but I had managed to endanger my career through a series of poor decisions.

After a brief round of treatment with lithium, Prozac, and Tegretol, I decided that sanity was overrated. I quit all my meds and slipped into a five-year period of uncontrolled mania. It was, in all honesty, the happiest time of my life.

I was completely manic (and happy) for five years of marriages, near marriages, and one-night stands. I slept one to two hours a day and salsa danced until five in the morning.

But after five years of partying, drinking, and dancing, my professional life was in ruins. Then one day, I woke up tired. The mania was over, and my thought space became a maze of reflections upon poor decisions, broken commitments, and manifest incompetence in both professional and family life. Bedridden, I slept and cried for months. Finally, I begged my mother and an ex-wife to drive me to a mental hospital.

As soon as I was admitted, I was given the hospital rules, a mountain of blankets, and a schedule. After years of making bad decisions, it was liberating to be told what to do.

I met other patients who, like me, had made messes of their lives. We reassured each other. We told each other we we would fight our mental illnesses together. And we proved to each other that we were not alone, that there were other people like us, and worse off than we were.

There were arts and crafts and shared TV. But above all else, there was joy—because we had plucked ourselves away from our lives and could rest and look at our existences from afar, and make decisions about our lives as if we were deciding for someone else.

I remember thinking, at the time, that checking myself into the hospital was the only good decision I had ever made. I even promised myself that I would do it again every year during vacation time. I never did, but that does not change my conviction that being at that mental hospital saved my life, and that hospitalization is the best option for many people at the end of a very short rope.

This next reader details his “quite positive” experience in a psych ward, noting several moments of kindness and support from strangers:

I’ve found the whole thread on psychiatric hospitalization to be worthwhile; I’m grateful to Eva for starting it. The story told by the woman who took her boyfriend to be committed was of course especially harrowing. I was sorry to read that she would intend to complete suicide rather than go back to a mental hospital. I really, really hope she never faces that situation. If (God forbid) she ever does, I really, really hope that she has or finds some motivation to endure it.

I’m not sure if there’s much I could say to her to talk her out of her intentions; she formed them in response to her own experiences. But, having read her story, I would like to share my own story of being hospitalized.

This was about exactly eight years ago. I was in my senior year of college. I had gotten to the point of tentatively testing whether my belt would hold my weight when I decided to go to University Health Services. They suggested I should go to the hospital.

I had to wait a little while for an ambulance. (I had offered to take public transportation, an idea which the clinician rejected.) I contacted my girlfriend to let her know; she got the idea in her head that she might be able to come and stay at the hospital with me, and packed overnight clothes for herself in my backpack, which she brought to me with a few of my things. She rode with me in the ambulance to the hospital and then had to go back. I wore her pajama pants for most of my stay. (I am male. The pants were purple.)

Most of what I remember from my time in that unit is, in fact, quite positive. The main negativity I remember is the realization that the staff (about whom I have no complaints in general) were monitoring me and evaluating my behavior. Of course this was odd, and it colored my interactions with them and the way I carried myself, but I understood why they were doing it. I’m sure the food wasn’t great.

Mostly I remember friendship and solidarity with the other patients. There’s the guy I roomed with my first night. We barely spoke to each other, and he was released after a day or two. But as he was leaving, he wordlessly passed me a piece of paper with “for any reason” and his phone number written on it.

There was another guy who I think was a few years younger than I am, but who seemed much more world-wise, who laughed at/with me (in a friendly “look at this nerd who thinks he’s getting high” kind of way) and gave me a high-five as I reacted with bemused surprise to the effect that a med seemed to be having on my vision.

Another patient’s family sent her edamame and she shared it with me and some other patients. It was a few days into my stay, and it was the first time I had had edamame. I in turn invited a newcomer who was passing through the dining room to come sit and eat edamame with us. Now, whenever I eat edamame, I remember the first time I had it, and it is a pleasant memory—a comforting and reaffirming moment from a dark time of my life. I usually have an impulse to share that memory with my dinner companions, but I suppress the impulse.

I have since studied to be a Christian pastor and hope to be ordained before too long. During my candidacy process I did disclose my hospitalization and my history of depression. Generally, one doesn’t want to talk too much about oneself when offering pastoral care. But I’ve wondered sometimes if there will come a time when the right thing to do will be to share with an individual or a congregation that I have been admitted to a mental hospital. Inpatient psychiatric care is not the end of the world, and I think it’s important for people to know that.