This is the second in a series of posts about my recent struggles with mental health. You may be interested to read the first post first.
A psych ward is a funny place. About the only other places you get such a random assemblage of people, stuck together for so long, are jury duty and prison.
The mental health unit has characteristics in common with both. Drawn from a surprisingly broad cross-section of society, the hand on the lever of this lottery is mental illness. Once you’ve “registered” in this particular Powerball, it’s only a matter of time before failures in the medical system, stress, and coincidence bring your number up. Some people try not to accept the summons, but you can only put it off for so long.
And like prison, those in the ward have very little control. Doctors abide by the same scheduling habits as cable installations. Meals show up around regular hours, but orders are skimpy and frequently wrong. Sometimes this reaches the realm of comedy, such as the guy who randomly got four—count ‘em FOUR—prune juices with breakfast. One guy said, “It’s enough to make you laugh,” to which I replied, “Dear gods, don’t make him laugh!”
If you need or want anything, plan early and ask often. Ask before you actually want it, in fact. What distinguishes the veterans from the first-timers is how they get what they need. They know exactly when to get louder, talk more, pace faster, move objects. This is classic agitation at its finest. The rest of us who aren’t willing to trade the shreds of our civility for what we need look on in an awkward combination of embarrassment and admiration.
Anything that helps kill time is a valuable commodity, but residents aren’t working with a full bank of options. No cigarettes for those whose days tick down ash by lengthening ash. No freedom of movement—the whole natural world is look-but-don’t-touch beyond glass windows, and without fresh air, we all pale, cough, and itch in the dry, controlled environment. I asked for yarn and a crochet hook to keep my fingers from being fidgety, but security measures mean that even dental floss only comes in six-inch increments. When I pointed out that you couldn’t do much with six inches of anything, one lady cackled until I got the joke and blushed.
We talk to each other because there’s nothing else to do. Some people are desperate to tell their stories; once the floodgates are broken, the pain of their lives flows out, carrying the flotsam and jetsam of broken relationships, fractured trust, crushed hopes. Others fold in on themselves, all raspy paper angles, like grim, silent origami. The staff tries to draw these shy ones out of their shells, but it ends up being a ridiculous commercial on TV or a silly conversation among the more gregarious inmates that prompts them to eventually break the silence. And what they say often surprises us with its unexpected dry wit or snappy observation.
The truth is, there’s no way to know what’s the truth about anyone in here. Some stories, told with wild gestures as misplaced punctuation that breaks sentences in odd places, can’t possibly be true. People adopt credentials they never earned, claim other people’s whoppers as their own. There’s no fact checkers, no Snopes, no common acquaintance to call out a lie.
One guy has set himself up as a kind of professor, soliciting consultations at group meetings, so he can share his accumulated wisdom and expertise. What he doesn’t impart to others (in his too-rich language, full of ten-cent words misapplied and mangled) goes in notebooks that curl with the force with which the words were pressed from the pen. Another woman swears that she’s a trained law enforcement officer. Her stories start out plausible, with all the right jargon, but veer unexpectedly into obvious delusion before swerving back to the reasonable. Her timing doesn’t match her storytelling, either; she interrupts other conversations mid-stream, holds forth for a few minutes, then paces away rapidly before she finishes the sentence she started.
Next to these folks, I sound just as braggadocious when I mention that I used to teach college, or that I’m fluent in French, or that I ran for school board. I could claim that I earned my Ph.D., that I travel the world, that I have 100,000 Twitter followers, and it would sound no more or less true than anything else I claim. Experiences are hollowed out to just the visible shape, the lives outside our ward far away and nearly irrelevant to the problems that landed us here.
Whatever stories we’re telling, whatever tales we’re selling, we’re all con artists on the ward. We’re on the grift, we’re looking for the next score. But the get-rich-quick schemes we’re peddling promise a healthy life instead of riches.
We know the real road to this treasure is long, hard work, but the wait seems impossible. With the zeal of newfound converts, we’re sure the new meds are going to do the trick: stop the jitters, feed the craving, push back the dark, deliver blessed sleep. We profess our dedication to the routine of self-care and reflection. We vow to sidestep gaudy temptation and all her lures—so seedy and threadbare by sober daylight, but delicious, seductive, irresistible in the dark stretch of night.
We call family and friends, throwing out line after tenuous line into the river, trying to catch anything secure enough to weigh us down against the relentless current. Even estranged, unhealthy bonds look good enough to hold in here, though you heard them spill the numb-lipped story of damage done by the same person with whom they’re now cuddling and caressing the phone handset.
Practical, long-term solutions feel like magical thinking here. It’s clear that none of us can wait long for real improvement, not when the next drink, the next hit, the next catastrophe might show up before we even get home from the hospital. Logic demands that we cook up something faster, and so we mastermind the new scheme for a windfall of happiness and safety.
Too bad the house cheats. Too bad we’ll never make it out the door with our stolen goods. At least, in this place between folly and failure, we’ve got plenty of fellow grifters to appreciate the beauty of the plan.