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The Epiphany I Had While Restrained in a Psych Ward

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Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

Why am I here?

I pondered this as I lay restrained to the bare bed situated in the middle of the room; the sedation calmed my mind as I stared at the camera perched over the door and listened to the quiet, gentle humming of the florescent lights overhead. This question, however, is not to be confused with the philosophical dilemma that has plagued mankind since its first moment of self-awareness. I also knew why I was bound to the bed and sedated in the “safe room.” It seemed a good idea at the time; however, making a noose to hang yourself tends to get you a time-out in a mental hospital. Somehow the voices in my head that gave me that idea failed to take into account the possibility of the orderly making early rounds.

As I lay there the answer I was straining to find, much like the straining to get my hands out of the restraints, was why I was even in that hospital.

Why did I keep coming back here? I had lost track of how many times I had been admitted. Although the doors to that institution were automatic, they were revolving for me. Although I was diagnosed as schizoaffective five years earlier; as I lay on that bed feeling defeated, I like to think that moment is when my treatment truly began. I began to realize that something other than my psyche was broken and that I needed to change or be doomed to a life of hospital beds and 15 minute checks. All the therapy sessions had been a waste with the insights of wonderful therapists and doctors going in one ear and out the other.

While still restrained, I thought of my very first hospitalization. Arriving at night after the therapy groups had ended while only a few patients were still up, I was led to the large day room by a nurse after a lengthy intake process. I sat looking around and unsure of what was going to happen next. No one really knows what to expect their first time. Before my arrival I would have expected a dingy and mildewed building where the “mad” ran around in packs like dogs howling and barking like in the movies, not the cheery nurses, bright lights and sanitized atmosphere that I encountered upon admittance. After a few minutes a man came and sat by me. Sensing that I was a first-timer, he decided to impart upon me a few words of advice. These words; however, would later prove to be an impediment on my recovery. He said, “Always tell them what they want to hear, always come voluntarily so you can leave quicker and do not – under any circumstances, order the fish for dinner.”

I took that advice to heart; and even though the only place it ever took me was back to that same hospital, I never really saw the flaws in those words. Perhaps it was the psychosis that blinded me from the truth, or even the brain numbing drugs. Through my years of countless stays I met many like myself; those who seemed destined to call that place a second home. But what was the reason? Were we so hopelessly damaged that we could never function for long on the outside?

After a few hours I was released from my restraints and forced to sit in the day room for the remainder of the day. Sitting there I thought more about why that place had such an unseen magnetic attraction on some of us. Was it the bright, clean atmosphere or maybe the way every day is structured neatly in slots, trying to soothe us into sanity? Could it have been that when you spoke in group therapy, people listened and understood for the most part what you were going through? In there, the outside world and its troubles seemed to temporarily fade away and the chaos of life seemed to not be able to penetrate the locked doors and the clean glare of the fluorescent lights. The only real reminder seemed to be during visiting hours, when the families filed in with fake smiles and sad eyes. For some, an even harsher reminder was the absence of any visitors at all.

Who would want to leave when it was so safe and quiet here? When you’re in the mental ward the biggest decisions of the day are what you want for your meals and the most important question asked of you is whether or not you had a bowel movement. Here, when you are heavily medicated for the constant stream of voices telling you to kill yourself and that others are out to get you, the perils of the outside world are just too much.

But what can I do? Sure, in all my hours of group and one-on-one therapy sayings such as, “Fake it ‘till you make it,” and, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” had been repeated innumerable times. Countless coping skills, tools from cognitive therapy to change one’s way of thinking and reality testing practices had been drilled into my brain, but left there to gather dust. As the saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” I suppose you can lead a woman with schizoaffective disorder to reality, but you can’t make her accept it. I didn’t want to accept reality because that would mean accepting the fact that I was “crazy” (even though those in the mental health field do not like to use the “C” word). I thought that all the things they taught us were just useless and empty hopes – like the elderly lady repeatedly asking when Gary was coming to get her and the nurses telling her, “tomorrow.” Her husband Gary was long dead, and you can’t talk and hope mental illness away. I sat on the vinyl couch in the day room watching the carefully choreographed routine between the patients, nurses and orderlies. Lunch, smoke break, group, snack, group, dinner, smoke break and group — all like a beautiful ballet with an occasional outburst.

The next evening, a new patient was admitted during dinner — an obvious first-timer. She was led to the dining area by a nurse and looked around, much like the new kid at school, hoping for a smile or acknowledgement from someone suggesting it was OK to sit with them. I gave her a smile and cleared some room, and she quickly sat at my table and looked around while fidgeting. A dinner tray was brought to her consisting of bland hospital food including tater tots, formed to look like smiley faces. I always hated seeing those, as if seeing those happy potato faces would ease our troubled minds. I asked if this was her first time in the hospital and she gave a nervous nod, then asked if had been here before and what to expect. I thought about the advice I was given and how a hindrance it really was. I gave her a rundown of what happens during a day and explained how I’ve been here many times because (as I now realized) of me not accepting my illness and not utilizing the help and tools provided to me. I told her that even though some of the things they tell you sound lame or like pipe dreams, maybe it really is worth a try.

I now understood that to start the journey to recovery, I needed to dust off those skills that had been imprinted into my brain and try them, no matter how useless they seemed. I wish I could say that was my last hospital stay, or that I miraculously recovered and I am and will always be symptom free. But, dear reader, that would be “crazy” talk. I did however, decide that I would own this illness and accept the fact that it will be a part of who I am. Slowly but surely I started to connect more to reality. Sure I still have symptoms, but I can deal with them more effectively. Eventually I really did “fake it ‘till I made it” and now don a more positive attitude. I accept the fact that I will always have small set-backs and relapses, but I understand that how I deal with them will determine the course of my future. I will not let my illness confine me like those restraints in the safe room confined me to that bed.

There is a quote by William Arthur Ward that I believe rings true to any obstacle we may face, whether it is an illness or another type of hardship. He says, “We can throw stones, complain about them, stumble on them, climb over them or build with them.” By choosing to accept what is and not let it weigh us down, we can begin to overcome and rebuild. Although I do not know what my future may hold, I believe that my illness has made me stronger and I will use what I have learned to carry on. So, this is me; a woman who has schizoaffective disorder, with nothing but hope for the future.

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, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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Thinkstock photo via lupashchenkoiryna

Originally published: June 21, 2017
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