When people hear, “I’ve been admitted to the looney bin,” their automatic response is usually to stutter, change the subject or frown apologetically. It isn’t exactly typical water fountain conversation. The problem with this response is that it would usually trigger shame in someone.
I’ll let you in on a little secret.
I am not ashamed of being in the mental hospital. (Anymore)
When I entered here, I expected to fight the monsters inside my mind, but what I didn’t expect was to fight alongside the bravest and most genuine people I’ve ever come across.
I awake to the sounds of chattering nurses, high-pitched beeping machinery and rolling wheels against the grainy carpeting. “Time for vitals!” I hear as I will my eyes to open to the nightmare that is my reality.
Another day. I survived another day. I wrestle with whether I am grateful or disappointed about this fact.
My sleepy eyes try to adjust as I sit up, offering up my arm to the nurse who shows no empathy for awakening me in such a manner. When she finishes, I drag myself from the bed and quickly examine my attire for the day. The same jeans from yesterday meet my mustard colour hospital socks. I chuck on a tshirt and a hoodie (with the strings cut out ofcourse) due to the icebox that is the day room. No makeup. Disheveled messy bun. My inhibitions are left at the door. I walk out to the day room and sit until we are called for breakfast.
My mind returns to the day I admitted myself to the mental hospital.
It was a beautiful day outside. Fitting, as I feel like I have not seen the outside for quite some time. The sun was shining. Birds were chirping. Inside, I was dying. How could the outside world look so deceivingly beautiful while my world stung with contrasting darkness.
As I changed my clothes into something a little more flattering, I tried pretending I didn’t care that someone else had to be in the bathroom with me, watching to make sure I didn’t have anything dangerous on me. As I willed myself to say bye to my best friend and was taken back to the observation room, I tried pretending like this wasn’t a big deal. I was fine.
Everything was fine.
I ate my first meal in the darkened room with only a recliner to my name and the fluorescent light that beamed down on me. I stared at my tray of food. The thing they called steak, potatoes and asparagus looked back at me, taunting. I peeled my eyes off of my food long enough to take in my surroundings. A rumbling, noisy TV hung on the wall. Rows of recliners lined the room with bodies in them, sleeping or blankly staring. White, sterile blankets laid on my lap. The public phone sat on a table to my right.
Tears welled hot in my eyes and refused to obey as they fell, lonely and afraid. Everything was not fine. What was I doing here? How did I get here? What was going to happen? I was alone.
The next 48 hours were a blur of nurses, fluorescent lights, TV noise, hospital food, drugs and fear of the unknown. I tried to predict what exactly they were looking to observe in this “observation” room.
The next day, I found myself being admitted to the inpatient behavioural health center.
And now, here I am with 15 other strangers at my side every hour of every day — each one of us with a different story. Different chains bound around our hearts, but everyone showing their cards to each other. Showing up to life honestly and more bravely than ever before. I quickly learned in my first group therapy session that we were expected to be blatantly transparent here. Before I had even met anyone, we sat in a circle and were prompted to state our name, what brought us here to the hospital and our goal for the day.
“Goal for the day? I could barely get out of bed today. Wasn’t it enough that I was here? How could I bear my soul to these strangers?”. I fought it for a couple of days but I soon stopped caring after realising that everyone here was at rock bottom.
“My name is Shani I am here for bipolar, ptsd, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.”
Ironically, this has become the easiest part of the routine during group every day. Depending on my mood, I will leave it at “I’m here for sadness.”
Sometimes it takes too much energy.
Sometimes people aren’t really asking to hear the answer.
Life in the hospital is sometimes simpler than expected. My accomplishments every day consist of completing puzzles, colouring pages, making it out of bed and taking my medications. If I don’t isolate and stay out in the day room surrounded by other patients, I am especially proud of myself. If I manage to have a conversation with someone who is in front of my face instead of at the other end of the phone, I feel like I have achieved a great victory. And if I am so bold as to tell the nurses what I’m feeling, I have achieved so much that I might as well be set free to go home.
My work here is done.
If only it were that simple.
I was only expecting to stay a few days in the hospital. Assess the damage, prescribe some meds and send me on my way. They were my plans anyway. I didn’t plan for the new diagnosis’s ( is that even a word) that would come along the way.
But a couple days have turned into a couple more. And a couple more days turned into a week. A week has turned into two weeks and so in, which in the confines of the white hospital walls feels like an eternity. By this weekend, I am convinced that the sheer fact I have been here for so long has contributed to my depression more than it has helped.
Ive watched people come and go through the doors, and today, I only know of one other person who has been here longer than I have. This was not what I expected. This was not what I had signed up for.
Long nights are made longer when I have no visitors. Days are stripped of joy once my friends go home. Motivation is lacking and hope is dwindling.
Today in group session though, I looked into the faces of those who sat across from me. I looked into their eyes, I opened my ears and I heard their stories. Some people told stories on their arms. Some told stories with drugs. Some told stories with their eyes. Some even told stories in their silence. Stories are always there; we just have to pay attention enough to know how to listen. It turns out that everyone just wants to be known, and loved anyways.
While I struggle with my time in the hospital, I have learned something that I will never forget: The hospital is where people defrost. People will limp inside, wounded and cold and shut off. They look for the exits, hide in their rooms, wrestle with running to and from the life they had created for themselves. And when they realise none of those things are working, they slowly but surely crawl out into the light. Their hearts flicker.
Maybe it is the camaraderie as we talk and colour outside the lines of our colouring books. Maybe it is hearing a key on the piano or a string on a guitar that makes our eyes dart and souls perk up a little. Maybe it is hearing our favourite song we hadn’t heard in years or memories of doing puzzles with our grandparents as we concentrate hard on putting the pieces together. Maybe it is seeing a show on TV or being able to have a conversation about something we genuinely enjoy.
Each person slowly receives a spark — a sliver of hope — that brings us back to life, if only for a moment. That is the most beautiful and honorable thing in the world to watch.
As the days have passed, my medications have changed and things are beginning to look up. (And down in other health areas) Talk of discharge has carried my hope through what will hopefully be my last few days here, yet there is a fear that comes with being released. It is the fear that though i have changed, the world has not, and it will be sure to envelop me again in its snare of impending doom. It is the fear I will never be strong enough to stand on my own two feet outside of these four walls. This is the moment when I pull out that sliver of hope. Whatever got my heart beating, whatever made my eyes light up, whatever moment made me realise I am still alive and am not going down without a fight — that is what will save me from myself. That is the hope that will tell me that I can do hard things, and there is a purpose for me in this world.
That is what this mental hospital has taught me.
That we are all human, we all matter and we are all fighting for our lives. We show up — trembling and fighting — and we win, because we are all worth the fight.