Impressions at the Psych Hospital — Part III
Note: All characters have been fictionalized to protect their identities.
September 25, 2022
Writings from the Nuthouse, Redux
(From 9/8 notes)
I’m being discharged from this surreal place today. It’s 5:30 am. I woke an hour ago and this entry began writing itself out in my mind until I was forced to rise and get it down on paper.
Ellen came out. She was hungry. She sat across from me, absorbed in her third applesauce cup which she held on the table before her, all the while mumbling in her small soft voice. She rarely spoke directly to me, most often she spoke to herself. Only occasionally was I able to decipher her words. I heard her say, “My dad liked apples. Poison apples…”
It’s easy, now, to look behind the unwashed hair which obscures most of her face and see how lovely she is. Her hair is thick, dark from roots to chin, where it turns orange blonde and drops to her waist. She’s young and very beautiful; she’s large but soft and compact. She’s other-worldly, she looks as if she stepped from a Botticelli.
I didn’t see Ellen at first, how incredibly lovely she is. The first day I was here, I tried to talk to her. I can’t remember what I asked, but she got frustrated with me. “I don’t have to talk to you,” she mumbled and got up and went to her room. I didn’t bother her after that. But as I sat at the big table, day after day, chatting and interacting with the others, she felt safe. We began to engage.
I asked her about her favorite color. Purple. She told me about a dress she had with purple flowers. She described it in detail, her eyes trained all the while on the drawing in front of her. She only drew one thing — cats — which she filled in with intricate paisley designs colored with oranges and purples and greens.
There’s Sam, a schizophrenic who suffered a serious head injury in his 40s, he is the angriest of all. He’s in his 70s now, destined to be institutionalized for life. The knowledge he’s being detained against his will is always present, but that is the only thought that persists. That is the whole of his understanding.
He emerges from his room to stand at the high counter and shout at staff, calling them names, names I don’t even want to put to paper. He paces, he never sits. He yells for perhaps fifteen minutes, then returns to his room for a couple hours.
Some staff are able to calm him, soothe him, give him something to focus on for a few minutes, providing the unit a temporary reprieve from his rage.
Some staff simply bait him. Patty, the unit counselor, knows the exact place to strike, that place where he is most vulnerable and still subject to deep wounding.
“Sam, your mom called and told me to tell you not to swear,” she said in a sing song voice.
I gasped aloud, shocked by what I’d just heard. I was stunned, in disbelief. I stared at her. She looked down, avoiding my eyes.
Momentarily dazed, Sam asked, “My mom called? Why didn’t she want to talk to me?”
“Go to your room, Sam,” Patty said sternly. Dejected, he turned and walked off.
My heart broke. I was horrified to witness such a thing. There were few staff of Patty’s ilk. Most staff were incredibly kind, patient, empathetic, and gentle with patients. I thank God for that.
What strikes me most is these people who suffer so greatly, they are their best selves. Sam will always be this, his best self, the person he is right this moment. He doesn’t know how to be anything else. There is no notion of the need for personal growth, there is no inherent drive within to find life’s purpose and meaning. There is no concept of developing character, of becoming a better person. Those concepts simply do not exist in the seriously mentally ill. They are instead replaced by extreme anger over loss of agency, loss of freedom. Or, to the other extreme, total submission and total placidity.
I’ve never hated it here. That doesn’t mean I’m not extremely happy to be leaving. But I have fallen in love with these incredible people in the long-term unit. Even the really angry ones have gifted me a depth of understanding I would not have received in any other way under any other circumstances.