Memoirs from Inside the Psychiatric Ward Part one: The Push
I think I was born bipolar. The depression of duality. My mother said that I gave two short cries at birth (one for each personality, as she terms it) and then fell silent.
My mum took unbridled pleasure in reminding me throughout my childhood, that there was two of me. The ‘good twin’ and the ‘evil one’.
It was the latter whom she would goad with fists and a maternal rage so intense that I contemplated suicide at the ripe, old age of 14.
To be fair, it wasn’t just her. It was also the terrible thing that had happened to my sister, trebled with my father’s deplorable reaction to it.
I think that for each person who walks the line of a mood disorder, there is that one pivotal moment. That, one cardinal event, that pushes their minds into the security and haven of just slipping away.
That permutation of the unfolding of my life, was my cardinal, centripetal event.
I remember my mother’s tears and my father’s rage. Their raised voices and spiteful words. I remember too, my sister’s silent sobs.
After that, my mother became even more hateful, my father an even bigger drunk, and I, I became even more preoccupied with thoughts of death.
At 19, I visited my first shrink. I use the word visit, loosely. As it wasn’t a visit, but more of a crying session. I blubbered for the entire hour and a half that I was there. Like Alice in Wonderland, I cried an ocean of tears. And then after that, I stopped crying altogether.
I remember too, being depressed at my wedding. Well, not entirely, but more as if in a fugue. My mind heavy and lidded.
At 29, my husband unceremoniously dragged me to a psychiatric ward. It was my first time: a rookie. Nothing could have prepared me.
The admitting nurse and butch female security guard (at least I think she was female) took me into an ‘interview room’. A clinical room, bone-white, with only a colourful box of tissues tossed upon the table, for added hue.
I remember the misty, papery feeling of being there. As if I was peering through the picture of some novel, at someone else, rather than my own body. I remember seeing the colourful flowers brightly embellished on the tissue-box, and focused on that rather than the nurse’s and my husband’s hushed voices.
The butch security-guard searched my haphazardly packed bag. Giving back my husband all of my (self-prescribed) sleeping tablets, headache pills, dental floss and compact blushers-with the tiny mirrors glued on at the back. Strictly no mirrors allowed or anything else that could be used to inflict (self) harm. That made me sit up – pay attention! What no make-up?!
I remember too, signing the hospital waiver. A humourless letter which read that in the event of suicide, the hospital would not be held accountable. Son’s of bitches! Short-change me?! Happy to snag my money, but reluctant to accept blame, should anything go wrong under THEIR watch, in a lock-up facility, surrounded by a claustrophobic number of orderlies and hospital staff.
I hate fucking institutions! They’re all alike. Banks, governments, religions, (marriage?)… Each has its own agenda, their way of screwing you, and there’s always a catch.
The added tidbit was the nurse telling me, just before I was chaperoned to my room, that sex was strictly not allowed in this facility.
Stuff you, Bitch!! I have post-natal depression, panic attacks and rampant insomnia. I’m not horny like Charlie Sheen!
I said a reluctant goodbye to my husband, knowing that he was going home, and that I was going to the psychiatric ward. I didn’t want to be there. I just wanted to go back to my bed: my mausoleum.
And so began my several night ‘vacation’ at a top-class medical hospital in the D-ward, with a bunch of strangers and weirdos. It was a mixed facility. Which meant that the men’s quarters were on the same floor as the female’s. However, there was an invisible line drawn at the threshold of each four-sleeper room. No man should traverse the line into the domain of the female, and vice-versa. Messed up and dazed as most might have been, everyone seemed to comprehend this rule. And everyone behaved.
Except for the butterfly, or Danny-Fly, as Daniel liked to be known. He would stand there gazing at the threshold to the room I shared with 3 other women until, with concentration and determination, he ‘found’ the invisible line. Then he would make a show of standing firmly upon it and then just danced. Danced like a butterfly, spread his wings and fluttered.
Most of the times we would just ignore him; or Kimmy, the more volatile of us four, would tell him to fuck off and then push him – literally shove him, from our doorway.
From the way her wrists were bandaged and her familiarity with the place, I knew that she had been there before. She was no rookie.
I watched silent and bewildered. Quickly learning the inner-workings of a sanatorium. An insider’s knowledge that no book, or movie, or psychology degree could ever impart.
My first night was my most distressing. There I was exhausted, anxious, terrified even. I stayed up, despite the evening’s tranquilizer, worrying in the shadows, that one of the strangers with whom I shared a room, would snap, and strangle me with the dental floss she secreted in a condom courtesy of one of her cavities! After a fitful sleep, I awoke unstrangled and alive.
After that, the nights became easier. Each of us drugged to the hilt. On some nights, I would awake, my mind foggy and dulled, to the silent sobs and whisperings of the demented (or where they my own?) and then slip back into a dreamless sleep again.
It was the days that were hard. We had work to do. Mental work.
We would meet in groups with our assigned the-rapist (Thank you Angelina Jolie, for that classic term!!) My roommates thought he was dishy, but I just thought he was preening and de trop. A show-boater. You know the kind? The one who thinks he’s smart and proficient!! The type who’s not really good at his craft, but just in it for the money and the title… and maybe even the chicks!
We each had group sessions to attend. The schizophrenics and histrionics to Group A, please. The bipolars and depressives to Group B. The substance abusers and alcoholics to Group C; and the otherwise, still unclassified, to Group D. I’m not sure which scared me more: having a label. Being classified as clinically depressed! Or being unclassified like the ones in Group D who were lost and uncategorized in the land of the mad!
The-raping was just that, an unrelenting desire to pick what’s left of our minds. Like buzzards, our ‘dishy-consummate’ psychiatrist and counsellors hovered, waiting to chew on the carcasses of our pasts. Monopolizing our Freudian-like slips or key phrases: like mommy didn’t love me, or uncle so-and-so ‘loved me inappropriately’.
What a bunch of whiners. Not us the patients, but them! Those institutionalized know-it-alls. The one’s who assumed control over your medication, your highs, your lows, your fate and when you could leave.
Everything was ‘optional’: even the ‘group’ sessions. There were craft classes, gym, and even board-games in the stylish lounge which tried to emulate a relaxed, casual atmosphere. But everyone knew that we were lab rats, being watched and scrutinised. The more you smiled and greeted the staff and partook of the ‘optional’ activities, the quicker they released you. Excessive crying, tantrums, and lethargy meant more time in there.
For most of us, that was our ultimate goal: to get out! So we behaved and said the things they wanted to hear.
I know I earned an extra night when I flung the thermometer at the nurse who was trying to do her usual rounds (of checking my temperature and BP) while I was under a deliciously-drug induced nap. They were dishing out happy-pills like they were Halloween candy.
I took the gym class, I said what my shrink wanted to me say, I ate (the food was crap!), I socialized. That wasn’t really too bad though. I got to know a few of the others. They weren’t all like Danny-fly or the pretty 18 year old who blow-waved her hair every 5 minutes and who talked to the mirror and her reflection in the reinforced windows.
Most were normal, high-functioning people. People with degrees and careers – who, like me, were feeling disjointed and surreal in an out of sync world. Inside there are no distinctions. Race, gender, sexual orientation or clinical diagnoses all meant very little. I realized one incontrovertible truth: that all of us, including the crazies in Group A, had some common thread weaving us all together in the tapestry of that D-ward for that moment and time. We were all scared. We were all lonely, and looking to be understood. The camaraderie and comfort we lent each other simply by our solidarity and presence were infinitely more healing than the one-on-one sessions with the shrinks and the fistfuls of pills.
In hindsight now, I am not bitter about being strong-armed into the psychiatric ward. It gave me a welcome break from the clouded reality and depressive thoughts that were feeding upon me from the inside.
Would I want to go back there again? Hell no!
But given the nature of my illness, that question will always seem a little bit too ajar…