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How Making Paper Flowers Changed My Experience in the Mental Hospital

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I find nature to be so incredibly beautiful and I believe flowers are the most awe-inspiring of nature’s jewelry. Ironically enough, I can’t seem to keep a real plant alive for more than a season, but I’m still trying. Thank goodness for paper flowers. I remember discovering them at a small fair when I was a very little girl. The fair was filled with games made by the parents, like bobbing for apples, donuts hanging from a string, “win a goldfish” and most importantly, the paper flower field. The first time I saw the field, my jaw dropped. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. The ladies told me I could walk through the field of glorious paper flowers and pick one out to take home. I remember how happy I was, twirling and dancing through what seemed to be an enormous field of vibrant paper flowers. It was gut wrenching trying to decide which one gave me the most joy.

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I was hooked from that day forward. My mother and I went home and quickly figured out how to make them ourselves, which was much more rewarding, as I could choose the colors. Since that wonderful day, I have been making paper flowers. I’ve been making them for over 45 years, now. I just love that you can purchase a pack of colorful tissue paper along with some pipe cleaners and make a huge beautiful bouquet. I’ve since made them for all sorts of occasions and for the people I love. I’ve made gift toppers, decorations for birthday parties, bachelorette parties, baby showers and of course, to decorate my campsite at music festivals. They may seem childish to some of you, but you have no idea how much they helped me as well as many others when I was first hospitalized for my mental illness. I did not know then, but I soon learned paper flowers have magical powers. They do.

Upon first waking up in the hospital, I didn’t know where I was, what happened or why I was there. I was completely confused, scared and feeling very nauseous, and extremely out of it. It was the weekend, which meant the doctors weren’t there and I couldn’t get any answers. The nurses and staff simply told me to take the medicine and try and relax and get some more sleep. How could I sleep, though? There were men and women on my floor who were all very sick, both mentally and physically. There were people with various types of mental illnesses, as well as people struggling with addiction, going through detox. It was all very scary to me. This of course, put my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) into overdrive.

Needless to say, I’ve never been more frightened in my life. A very sick man whose room was next to mine, continued to just walk into my room and yell at me for all hours of the night. Each time, I was rattled to my core. I was in survival mode. The only objective, for the near future, was to stay safe somehow. The staff had to do room checks every 15 minutes to make sure no one was trying to die by suicide. What I really needed was some serious sleep to recover. I felt unable to sleep, though. My hospital stay was horrible, that is, until I finally discovered the art therapy room.

As soon as I was well enough, the staff walked me into the art room, knowing from what my family said that I was an artist. I was finally able to breathe. The therapist was a very kind woman, who encouraged me to walk around and decide what I might want to do. I knew I wasn’t really able to draw or paint, as my hands were shaking too much from the fear and medication. I was pretty frustrated until I opened one drawer to discover it was filled with colorful tissue paper. The sun came out for a brief moment, and I smiled. I knew what I wanted to do. Make a paper flower. I sat with my head down and made what was to be the first of hundreds of paper flowers during my hospital stay. It was the prettiest paper flower I had ever made, at least in my mind. And I smiled. Some of the patients smiled and the therapist smiled, too. That’s the magic. I began to feel a bit better. It was the first time that the staff, doctors and patients began to get a glimpse of who I really was. Before, I was only this frightened “crazy” lady who didn’t communicate, other than in confusion, anger and fear. The art therapist suggested I pre-make a bunch of them to keep myself busy, as I wasn’t going to be allowed to use the scissors outside of the art room. That is exactly what I did.

Making paper flowers gave me something to do, and kept my hands busy. Working on the flowers also distracted me from what was going on around me and from being so afraid. Every day I would work in the art room to make flowers to get me through yet another day.

As I’m sure you have surmised, the paper flowers started to pile up in my room and on my walls. I have always felt the need to make my surroundings beautiful, and this was a tough task given how sterile my surroundings were in the hospital. As the paper flowers began to overtake my room, I was feeling a bit better. Because of this, I began to join the group sessions and listen to the other patients and therapists. I wasn’t necessarily talking, but I was listening. I was finally able to focus enough on what others were saying. I wasn’t the only one who was devastated, confused and angry – It seemed like we all were. I started to feel an overwhelming sense of compassion and empathy towards the other patients, and even some of the staff. So, I started to give people paper flowers. 

When I knew someone was having an extraordinarily bad day, I would try and give them one of my flowers. Each person accepted them differently and some didn’t want them at all, which was fine. The people who accepted them would admire the flower and I would see a glimmer — if ever so small — of hope in their eyes. Some would give me a smile and say “thank you,” and sometimes they would tell me I turned their day around. The patients proudly displayed them in their rooms or gave them to other patients or family members who visited. I also gave flowers to doctors and staff who were kind to me. These silly little flowers were working for me and I was feeling better and better.

As I was making these flowers and handing them out, I was also making friends. Even the man who kept barging into my room, stopped doing so after getting a flower. My friends started to ask me to teach them how to make them. I agreed and started teaching people one at a time, and in return, I asked them to give the first flower to someone else before making one for themselves. So, that’s when the flowers went “viral.” I had a huge number of patients making flowers with me all the time. As the days passed, the art therapist even asked me to teach the class on how to make them.

Picture the nurse’s desk, the therapist and doctors’ offices — the hallways and rooms that were first hard, cold and blank — covered in beautiful paper flowers. They were everywhere, and I was receiving them by the dozens.

As I was getting better — and as my friends were getting better — some of my paper flower protégés were sent to the first floor where they would soon be sent home. I missed them and vice versa. So, I devised a delivery service where the art therapist and some of the staff would deliver the flowers back and forth from the third floor to the first floor. They knew how valuable these flowers had become to our recoveries. In addition, these friends were continuing to make the flowers on the first floor and beginning to cover that floor with flowers, which I was unaware of at the time. When it was time for me to move to the first floor, the walls, offices and rooms were covered with flowers to welcome me. My friends were gone, but the flowers were there. People I didn’t know were making them. They knew me by reputation only, but I immediately had new friends. Paper flowers do have magical powers, yes they do.

I have since been hospitalized two additional times, and each time, I have done the same thing: Fill the ugly world with paper flowers.

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.

Photos via contributor.

Originally published: May 16, 2017
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