I Thought I Was Better Than the Other Patients on the Psychiatric Ward
Editor’s note: Names have been changed in this piece to protect identities of each individual.
The minute I set foot in the psychiatric unit, I think, That’s it. I’m officially “crazy.” A beat later, it occurs to me that indeed, I still have a whole lot of stigma left inside me.
In my experience, the first day on the ward is the hardest. I sit at one of the round tables surrounded by complete strangers and notice most of us are in the midst of an acute crisis. In other words, we are far away from displaying our finest selves.
There isn’t much to look at. The walls are painted blue and grey. There are a few tables and chairs as well as a TV set up in the corner of the “leisure area.” Everything is out in the open and no one is able to hide.
I decide to walk around the unit until I come across a shelf filled with board games and thick stacks of magazines. And art supplies, like coloring books and washable markers (of course, there are no scissors in sight). Even pens aren’t allowed, which makes me feel like a 3-year-old.
My first day on the unit, I sit in my spot all day long. I refuse to do anything or speak to anyone. At one point, I noticed one of the other patients pacing around the ward. She ends up walking around in a circle for what seems like forever.
In the afternoon, I walk up to the nurses’ station and watch a man throw a fit about his human rights. The nurses politely ask him to leave and I watch as he storms away. I don’t know much about who he is. And I thought he definitely needed to pull his pants up.
The next day, I meet a man named Ray. He’s quirky and witty and from what I gather, he appears to have two personalities. Our nurse brings him a cup filled with a bunch of different colored pills, and I wonder what effects they have on him. I quickly discover Ray and I are the only people on the ward who speak French. So we stick together as I’m the only one who’s bilingual and can understand him.
When the nurse asks Ray to rate his mood, he shakes his head. “Je ne comprend pas,” he says. After silly gestures are exchanged, I can’t help myself. I giggle and start translating for them. The nurse is stunned. “I had no idea you spoke French!” she tells me. I give her a weak smile. Then, she says that I should befriend Ray since it appears I’m the only one who can understand him.
The whole afternoon, I laugh as Ray curses his doctor and this so-called terrible place. We’re in our own little bubble, and I listen intently as he complains about his inability to go outside to have a cigarette. He goes on about Mary and Joseph and Jesus and spirits and life after death. At first, I’m frightened and confused. But then I realize I am no weirder than him. That we are both ill, and both people standing on the same level. And so even though he’s a man who’s lost touch with reality, I do not judge him.
I even start to like him.
My heart softens as he tells me he’s been stuck on the Psychiatric Assessment Unit for weeks. I notice there’s only a mattress in his room, and all he does during the day is talk to himself. I’m the only company he has, and my heart fills with empathy. I wonder what will happen to him once he leaves.
The thing about this place is that we’re all on our knees, all in vulnerable spots. And so it’s easy to open up. When the other patients loudly and bluntly ask me about my diagnosis, the reason I’m here, I’m not ashamed to tell them. After all, we’re all in the same boat, trying to sail at sea. I don’t know if I want to laugh or run away (not that I’d be able to) or both. In the end, I stay where I am and I listen.
Ray might be struggling, but he is kind and gentle. He makes me laugh for the first time since I’ve been here, and for that, I’ll be forever grateful. For the first time, I think recovery is possible.
I also befriend another patient, Victoria. She’s a housekeeper and she tells me she doesn’t agree with her doctor. She doesn’t think she’s delusional, even though she’s been diagnosed with psychotic depression. We play cards and color. She offers me a can of soda before I get transferred to a more luxurious unit. She gives me a hug and I can already tell I’m going to miss her.
The last person I say goodbye to is Roan. Roan, with his grey hair and black notebook, who didn’t leave my side throughout the entire weekend. Roan, who asked me a million times whether or not he could trust me. I said yes every time.
I guess the lesson here is when I stepped inside the psych ward, I realized I had a lot of prejudice inside me. Deep down, I believed I was superior and better than the other patients. I thought I was better than Ray, who looked like any other homeless man on the street. I thought I was smarter than Victoria, who hadn’t finished school. And I thought I was cooler than Roan, who wore round glasses just like Harry Potter.
I know that outside the psych ward, I would have immediately judged and marginalized these people. I would have taken the attitude of “me vs. them.” I would have avoided them at school, at work and on the street. Frankly, I believe I would have avoided making any contact with them because I would have thought they were “weird” and “not like me.”
But after being stuck on the same psych unit as them, I realized we are all equal. We are all people and we are all worthy of love and belonging. Ray, Victoria and Roan didn’t come from the same background as me. They hadn’t been blessed with a happy family and ideal upbringing like I had, and yet, they were the bravest and kindest people I’d ever met.
So if there’s one thing I learned in the psych ward, it’s that we’re all in the same boat, trying to ride out the tide. We are all made of stardust, and we are all deeply human.
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 Pablo_K.