Making Friends On The Psych Ward



mhw2017

Health

Our shared madness meant that none of us had to be alone.

Posted on October 07, 2017, 17:01 GMT

Eleni Kalorkoti for BuzzFeed News

The general women’s ward held nearly 50 of us, ranging
in age from 18 to mid-seventies. We sat in the “dayroom” in
rows of stiff armchairs below the ceiling-mounted television
most of the day, apart from short trips to meeting rooms and
the dining hall, or the afternoon rest period when we were
permitted back into our sparse bedrooms.

Keeping us in the dayroom with its pale walls and sliding
glass door — the locked portal to the magical smoking porch —
made things easier for the three nurses who were tasked with
performing safety checks every 15 minutes. With so many
patients, by the time they finished one round, it was time to
start the next.

What do 50 madwomen do all day, from 7:30 a.m. vitals to
evening meds? We colored. We talked. Many smoked. We traded
advice. And we watched out for one another’s looming crises,
knowing no one else would.

I knew that my fellow patients would be my strongest allies
as soon as I arrived on the ward at Peachford, an Atlanta
branch of Universal Health Services, the country’s largest
psychiatric chain. I was 22, coming straight from campus
at Emory University, where I was working on a PhD in women’s
studies, after six months of escalating anxiety, depression,
and self-harm that left me increasingly reclusive. I arrived
clutching a green-striped sock monkey. It was my comfort
object. I took it to classes and meetings at school, and to
bed. But the nurses insisted I couldn’t have it on the ward.

I gripped it tighter and sobbed as the nurses plied at my
will. Then a few women came over.

“Why can’t she have it?”

“Can’t you see how important it is?”

“She needs it! What’s the big deal!”

These women didn’t know me, but they understood the shock of
learning the arbitrary rules of a psych ward. Unlike my stay
at Emory’s unit a month earlier, where I could have my monkey
but no hardcover books, here I could have books but no
monkey. As patients we couldn’t win, but we could fight the
irrationality of it all.

I forfeited my monkey as the nurses muttered something about
how contraband could be hidden inside it. Fine. Take it. I
sat in the corner and cried while woman after woman came by
to offer comfort.

On the sheet of paper where we could request toiletries like
toothpaste or deodorant, many had scribbled “Social Worker.”

I didn’t understand why I had been brought here, in a cop car
from the general health offices at Emory. I was self-harming,
yes, but the cuts weren’t deep and my head felt clear. Still,
my doctor wanted to head off the likelihood of another severe
breakdown, one where I felt less certain of my own safety.
Finding a bed available at Peachford, she sent me on my way.
By the time I signed all the paperwork, hours later, I could
no longer tell if my stay was voluntary or involuntary.

By the second day I was settled but still angry about being
admitted. I hadn’t seen a doctor or my social worker. As it
turned out, this was normal. On the sheet of paper where we
could request toiletries like toothpaste or deodorant, many
had scribbled “Social Worker.”

I pulled up at the coloring table, covered in sheets of
mandalas. It was the hot spot on the ward, with 10 of us
often crowded around it, chattering for hours. We were one
another’s therapists.

A longtime patient on the ward, an unusually tall woman we
all called Mountain Mary, led the table. She’d been there for
weeks and no one had given any indication she would be
getting out. Mary had settled into the patterns of the place,
a ward mother presiding over many of the younger women. She
didn’t stand in line for meds, just waited it out. She had
pride of place. But she also stayed close at hand, on the
lookout for staff behaving badly.

As a newcomer on the ward, I looked to Mary for crucial
information about my new day-to-day. She knew how long you’d
have to wait to see a doctor or social worker, and what time
we were allowed in our rooms. Mary knew all about the
arrangements for getting a ride home — how you might not be
picked up until 10 p.m. — and which nurse to ask for a smoke
break. Most important, though, she was a grounding force. Her
voice carried across the ward and reminded you that this was
real, that you were real.

While on the ward I felt as though I was constantly separate
from my body, watching myself from a distance due to my
extreme anxiety and depression. Mary’s voice was like a hand
heavy on my shoulder, more useful than medication or
mindfulness exercises. Her confidence in this unfamiliar
space was a reminder that we weren’t powerless. She had
carved out a space from which to lobby, and taught the rest
of us to do the same. Watching Mary, we learned how to
request the hospital’s patient advocate number, for example,
and how to post complaints about Peachford.

The staff’s determination to ignore us meant that most of the
direct patient care, the literal hand-holding and
tissue-fetching that psychiatric patients demand so much of,
was left to the community of residents.

Other patients helped me remember to laugh. Some days, the
hospital would offer us “leisure activities,” like putting on
music and asking us to move our bodies based on a feeling or
an imagined scene. Technically known as recreation therapy,
the therapists would ask us to stretch, dance in our seats,
or play games meant to build our confidence and expressive
skills.

I would sit in the back corner with two other young women,
Andrea and Carly, and giggle like misbehaving schoolgirls. In
the depths of our respective psychiatric crises, we had no
desire to play theater games. It was ludicrous and we knew
it. Staff members intermittently cropped up to scold us as we
whispered our way through the activities. It was the most
normal any of us had felt in ages. We were almost happy.

To the staff, our breakdowns were distractions,
inconveniences that interfered with keeping 50 women in line.
As I witnessed on my first day, they’d typically ignore
crying. Shouting might merit shouting back or eventually
offering a sedative. It was clear that, understaffed as
Peachford was, our nurses couldn’t take even a few minutes
away from their administrative tasks if they wanted to keep
up with checks and get everyone to meals.

The staff’s determination to ignore us meant that most of the
direct patient care, the literal hand-holding and
tissue-fetching that psychiatric patients demand so much of,
was left to the community of residents. Seeing one another
smile and laugh on that locked ward meant more than it would
have anywhere else. We wanted that laughter to carry the
weight of the bad times and help us to get free. So we kept a
close eye on one another. We checked on the storms and
offered to steady the ship.

I was feeling particularly anxious one morning after a rowdy
night, when a patient had chased a doctor around while the
rest of us huddled on the smoking porch. I got in line for my
meds, then sat in the dayroom. Instead of letting me bide my
time until breakfast, my body launched into a full-fledged
panic attack. Breathing shallow and rapid, hands numb, I
approached the meds window again.

“Can I have my Ativan? It’s in my chart.”

“Not until I’m done with morning meds.”

I was already panicking. Waiting out the remainder of the
morning meds session wasn’t going to help. But I am quiet by
nature and I’d watched other patients cause a ruckus at the
meds window, without success. I sat down in a corner chair,
curled into myself, and prepared to let the panic run its
course.

It was in that moment of resignation that my new friends
rallied around me, and confronted the staffer behind the meds
window.

“She’s having a panic attack! She needs her meds!”

Andrea and Carly sat down and held my hands while I let the
anxiety flood through me. I’d been having panic attacks
regularly for a decade — the experience wasn’t that scary
anymore, just terribly unpleasant. But at least I wasn’t
alone.

Our shared madness, regardless of diagnosis, meant that none
of us had to be alone. And so as much as other women helped
me, I loved feeling like I had something to offer them: my
many years in and out of therapy, taking a slew of
medications, learning my way through the system.

Making friends and swapping stories was good for the soul,
but could only do so much in the absence of meaningful
treatment.

This was especially true of my relationship with Carly. Not
quite 18 — I wasn’t sure why the hospital had even put her on
the adult ward — Carly reminded me of myself: intelligent and
mature, but with a disorganized mind that kept her from
keeping on the academic path.

At the time we met, my life was also a mess. My arms were
covered in cuts. My self-harm had escalated to a point where
I would scratch at my arms with paper clips while sitting in
seminars, unable to restrain my frustration. In my Atlanta
apartment, I lived on dry cereal and M&Ms because I
couldn’t manage to cook.

Still, I had some insight to offer her. Before this
hospitalization, I had been in recovery from self-harm for
almost five years. I had gone away to college and four of the
happiest years of my life — making friends, winning
fellowships, and starting in a top PhD program. I had fallen
in love.

I told Carly what I knew to be true: that life really could
get better, and that college would be an incredible
experience for her. I talked to her about her passion for
music, the older brother she adored, and how to build the
relationships she needed to thrive. I wanted her to have all
of it.

My stay lasted only six days, the maximum time my insurance
would pay for, even though little had changed for me
psychologically. Making friends and swapping stories was good
for the soul, but could only do so much in the absence of
meaningful treatment.

I took a leave of absence from school and moved back home to
Staten Island to recuperate. It took several months away from
work and school to get back on my feet, eventually easing
back into a remote job as a ghostwriter. The following
August, I returned to school for a shorter course of study,
completing months of dialectical behavioral therapy, a
skills-based therapy focused on managing distress, while also
earning a master’s degree in women’s studies. Today, I’m
happily married to the woman who stood by me during my time
at Peachford, taking my calls when I was inpatient, grabbing
my meds from the cabinet at home, advocating for me when
anxiety shuts me down.

I send Carly the occasional Facebook message, and noticed
recently how her face has changed; suddenly she looks like an
adult. When I commented on this transformation, I could hear
the laughter in her response: “That’s what I’ve been hearing
this year! I never thought that would happen!”

She’s been working, spending time with her parents and her
cat, and continues to cultivate obscure musical interests,
the activity that seems to make her happiest. In our new
worlds outside of coloring sheets and demeaning theater
games, of hours of dayroom TV and nurse checks, we’re still
taking comfort in each other. And we’re doing OK. ●

Allison Bird Treacy is a New York–based freelance
writer, poet, and cat lady. She spends a lot of time baking
and runs a food-focused side project at kitchenfemme.com.

To learn more about depression and anxiety, check out the
resources at the National Institute of Mental Health here and here.

And if you need to talk to someone immediately, you can
reach the National Suicide Prevention
Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.
Suicide helplines outside the US can be found here.

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