I believe psychiatric hospitals are beneficial and I admit that I learned many precious and invaluable lessons during my stay in one. However, I also firmly believe that our mental health system is badly broken and there must be a better way to help the mentally ill other than “scaring us straight,” which is exactly how many of us felt.
The morning check-in consisted of a mental health worker asking for a daily goal from each patient. The most popular response was, “stay positive and have a good day.” I never claimed that as my goal because it wasn’t true.
My goal was not to stay positive and have a good day; my goal was to have a laser sharp vision that focused only on the now. I could not look behind or ahead. I had to live in the moment, which was something that I found impossible to do in my life outside the hospital.
I chose to live without hope. Hope when applied in the wrong way can do you in when you’re in a psych hospital. If you get your hopes up that you might be going home today, only to find out that you’re not, devastation frequently follows. I didn’t want to feel that devastation; I knew it would crush me. A million times a day I felt crushed and had to continually rebuild my mental and emotional endurance to make it through. I couldn’t afford the crushing blow of hope.
Patients in a psych ward say what they think staff wants to hear. Most of the patients that were in the hospital with me were there because of suicide attempts and were horribly, debilitatingly depressed. I knew that for many of them, their peppy answers about staying positive and having a good day were based on a terrible desperation to get the hell out of hell.
I wanted out, too, and I found my own ways to be dishonest, trying to convince psychiatrist, staff, and myself that I was healthier than I actually was, and that I was no longer manic. I wanted to be released back into the real world, a world with sky and trees, and edible meals; a world with privacy and one in which I could take a shower or go to the bathroom without asking for a mental health worker’s permission. I needed permission to get my shampoo, toothbrush and toothpaste, when to take a shower, if I could have a tiny pencil to write with, if I could use the phone, and I always prayed that clean towels would be out and available, so that there would be one less thing that I had to ask permission for. I missed the world I left behind where I had some shred of dignity and a say into what and when I would do things.
I missed living in a world that values the outdoors and the need for daily sunlight and fresh air. In the hospital only the smokers get to go outside the locked doors. At times I would ask a smoker how it felt outside, and never did I receive an answer that contained an ounce of appreciation for that small privilege that I would never receive because I didn’t smoke.
I voluntarily checked into the hospital. I was stuck and there was no getting out until the hospital staff decided that I could be released. But I did get out, and I did get better. And as much as I hated the experience there was something at times that was magical about the whole thing. The magic was that we really did change. We came in crying, or in my case terrified and belligerent, and we transformed into people who could both laugh and cry in a difficult situation. We learned that it is possible to care deeply for people who are more or less complete strangers. Those strangers, the other patients and staff, become your family while you are there. Although the system is broken, it has saved many of us. Now let’s work together to improve it.