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When I Realized My Psychiatric Hospital Stay Wouldn't Be Like a 'Retreat'


Saying it feels odd to reminisce about being a patient in a mental institution is an understatement. I was a one at McLean Hospital’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Institute in Boston — a residential facility where people whose lives are severely hampered by OCD receive help. The prospect of a psychiatric hospital was incredibly daunting, but after years of mental anguish from compulsions to engage in odd behavior, I desperately wanted normalcy. I wanted relief from constant anxiety, overwhelmed and panic ridden by irrational fears. I wanted to curb the steadfast disintegration of my relationships with family, friends and colleagues and end the burden I imposed on them for enduring my intensifying degeneration. I wanted to halt my growing isolation and avoidance of ever more items, people and places my OCD deemed “contaminated.” I wanted rescue from a seeming endless misery and not deteriorate like Howard Hughes despite doing all to ensure such an end.

I wanted all those things, but admit I also wanted care somewhere I could pretend I was on a “rest vacation.” There’s always been stigma attached to mental health struggles, so inevitably some of that became internalized. I dreaded judgment from others, but how I felt about myself was worse. I needed to be somewhere I could hide just a little from the truth about why I was there.

At McLean, the residential buildings resemble New England mansions covered with ivy. Many creative minds have resided there — famed MIT mathematician and Nobel Prize Laureate John Forbes Nash received treatment, as well as Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Lowell. Sylvia Plath wrote “The Bell Jar” borrowing from her time there while Ray Charles and James Taylor reflected in popular songs about their stays. I hoped McLean’s setting and storied past would enable a self-delusion that I’d just be sojourning for a few weeks at a “special” country club.

But after my arrival, I found McLean lacked in the pretentious elitism my country club reverie required. Inside the historical structure I would reside was an austere, drab… institution. The common areas and bedrooms were bleak. The dorm-like bathrooms were locked. One had to notify staff if one needed access and basic amenities like soap and toilet paper, as the bathrooms contained none owing to this being an OCD clinic. It was a shock that forced me to acknowledge why I was really there — not to vacation or pretend, but to get better.

And meeting the other patients gave me encouragement and hope. There were no over-medicated zombies as seen on TV. These patients were kind, smart and skilled. One taught me some piano. Another gave me a beautiful sketched portrait. Indeed, aside from me and a few other lackluster patients (apparently “frantic hand washing” and “freezing in fear” aren’t too dazzling), McLean is still an unexpected destination for impressive talent. Yet, no one was there for their gifts but what felt to be a cruel curse. The surreal reality we were in psychiatric hospital was made transparent daily by our cognitive behavioral therapy involving grueling exposure and response prevention exercises, and in occasional hushed crying at night. So despite the scenic grounds and my co-patients’ artistic acumen, any semblance of a “retreat” was swiftly eviscerated by emotionally taxing psychological challenges designed to make us better. McLean was incomparably the hardest work I’ve ever done and most rewarding, important personal investment I’ve ever made.

Despite this sense of immense achievement and gratitude to live a functional, happy life again, I wouldn’t be sharing my experience. The stigma attached to mental struggles isn’t lessened when one seeks medical care. People don’t respond with effusive praise or passive disinterest when one states one was a patient in a mental hospital. The usual response is an awkward one with trepidation to know why. So, as I’d done with my OCD and for the same reason — dread of being viewed as abnormal — I kept McLean a guarded secret, so as to just be a regular person.

But the age of social media has yielded an extraordinary amount of opinion on mental health. Everywhere there’s conjecture and analysis, too often comprised of armchair psychology and layman’s assessments. The assumptions and trite commentary helped me realize the mental health conversation must be had openly and honestly. If more of us who’ve dealt with mental health struggles share our stories, perhaps the misinformation and stigma will diminish.

See, I came to know a bunch of mental patients quite well. They were all exceptional and ordinary, hyper-aware, decent people who sought help discerning why their own mind was the source of an incommunicable torment. They included a professor, a devoted mother, a music prodigy, a decorated veteran, a retired postman, an affluent businessman, an art student, a nurse and an attorney. They’re people everyone knows but may not know everything about. So when it comes to mental struggles, I appeal for consideration before comment. Those comments directed at someone far removed may unknowingly also apply to someone in your life hiding in plain sight.

I choose to no longer hide so others can see we are a great many from all walks of life. Increased visibility yields commonality and those suffering need not feel isolated in their pain. Most importantly, with less undue stigma and increased awareness, people in need of help may seek the treatment they deserve. There’s no shame in needing help. There’s no shame in wanting to get better. There’s no shame in being infallible. Everyone has a struggle. It’s what makes us human, and what makes me a regular person.

Follow this journey on The OCD Memoirist.

Photo by Esteban Giacobbe on Unsplash