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What I Learned in the Psych Ward

In my experience, being in the psych ward is like being in a different world. In this universe, there are way more rules — but also more freedom.

In the mental health ward, wearing your own clothes is a privilege you have to earn. Things like makeup and jewelry — accessories I take for granted every day — are a rarity.

In the mental health ward, there are plastic utensils and no locks on the bathroom doors.

In the mental health ward, I have found people to be genuine, more like themselves. They don’t have to hide the scars on their arms or the ones inside them. They can be vulnerable and open and fragile and strong all at once.

When I was in a psychiatric unit, I made friends with people who brought me chocolate shakes and McDonald’s French fries while I wasn’t allowed outside.

These same people huddled around me and told me I was worthy of love and belonging. They drew me pictures with smiley faces on them, and hugged me every night before going to bed. These people, they told me I was special and different than others.

They looked at me in the eyes and told me life was worth living even when all I wanted was to die. They called me “sweetheart” and told me I had the most beautiful smile.

When I was in a psychiatric unit, I met a mother who flew across the ocean to comfort her daughter, and I saw siblings bring games and snacks to distract their loved ones.

In the psych ward, there was no social media, and therefore no endless comparison games or meaningless connections. Sometimes, there are no computers or cell phones — for privacy reasons — but it can allow you to get a break from the outside world. In the psych ward, I got to explore music and art and pet therapy. I colored and painted and sang and played. I did puzzles — tons of them. I ate terrible hospital food, but discovered you can order vanilla ice cream even if it’s not on the menu.

I met so many people in the psych ward, and each of them touched my life in a way that’s impossible to describe. Through these people, I saw the power of love and connection. I saw compassion in their eyes and kindness as they spoke. I saw courage and vulnerability and fearlessness. I was surrounded by nurses who believed in me and my recovery. I met with doctors who listened patiently and who honored my story.

In the psych ward, there are narrow quiet hallways and tight-fitted bed sheets, and it can be a scary, distressing experience. But it can also be one filled with joyful moments and unexpected surprises.

I may not have had the freedom to leave the building, but in the psych ward, I did gain the freedom to be myself, as broken as I may have felt. In the mental health ward, small day-to-day things aren’t considered small. In the mental health ward, a cold container of apple juice can make your day.

Psychiatric hospitals aren’t scary like in the movies. They are safe havens and life-saving and everything in between. They are there for people who need a safe space, for people like you and me.

During my latest stay on a psychiatric unit, I made friends with another patient, a tall girl with blonde hair and a thick Irish accent. Every morning her room would turn into a hair salon. She would braid the girls’ hair while we sat on her bed, laughing and gossiping. I remember her soft fingers running through my hair, and how it struck me then: life is really about cherishing the ordinary moments.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via sudok1.