Trigger Warning: sexual assault, mental health, trauma
“It might be easier for you to check yourself in so that we don’t have to, uh, you know…” the woman across from me trailed off, burying her head into her clipboard so that her eyes wouldn’t meet mine. She wasn’t giving me an option. It was a threat.
Heaving shallow breaths, my body shook as my eyes lingered along the minimal posters on the barren wall. I expected more warmth from a therapist’s office. Everything felt so cold, desolate and unfriendly.
She went over what my stay would be like. At the very least, it would be 36 hours, but even though I was voluntarily checking in, they could Baker Act me for an additional 36 hours if I didn’t seem noticeably better. COVID-19 limited guest privileges, so the only way I could contact my support system was through a phone call, and I would have to fight for one of the two phones. The therapist told me to take whatever medicine I was given. She advised that I talk to other patients, saying I otherwise might never know what wisdom they could give me.
I vividly remember my drive to the psychiatric hospital. I remember my roommate trying to cheer me up by playing “Silvertongue” by Young the Giant through the aux. I remember texting a guy that I had gone on a few dates with that I would be absent for a few days (I ended up never reaching out to him again). I remember passing Donut Connection while thinking about how my ex-boyfriend and I would go there every Saturday morning to purchase a dozen crème-filled donuts. I remember scrawling my mom’s phone number on a piece of scratch paper, asking my roommate to call her as soon as I was dropped off because I didn’t have the courage to call her myself.
I must have not looked nearly as bad as I thought I did, because the receptionist thought that my roommate was the one checking in. The receptionist went as far as taking her phone and giving me a visitor’s pass, before I, unfortunately, had to inform her that I was the one who was a threat to herself. I almost laughed. It all felt so silly until my shoelaces and wooden hairbrush were taken away. I spent a couple of minutes with my roommate before I was taken to a COVID-19 room to isolate for 24-hours before being thrown to the sharks.
After isolation, the depression and anxiety unit felt like a complete stimulus overload. A big, burly man laughed in the face of a petite woman as he slapped a handful of cards on the table before them. An old woman with no teeth stood petrified in a corner. A man in a hospital gown stared blankly ahead as an IV bag hanging from his arm. A woman in pajamas rubbed her eyes as she sipped on steaming coffee despite it being 3:30 p.m. I understood why those people were there — they had something wrong with them. I remember thinking that they were insane. However, I wasn’t like these people. I was there because of circumstance.
The patients were meant to interact with one other, so our only connection to the outside world was one big television and two phones. I sat by myself at a table meant for four, clutching my favorite book in my hand. It wasn’t long before the mismatched duo playing cards approached me as if I was the new kid at school. They insisted I join them.
I learned that card games were a cultural part of psychiatric hospitals. Every ward had at least one deck of cards and at least 20 people desperate to find something to occupy their time. Eventually, a small group formed around us, each person demanding that their favorite card game be played next. I hadn’t heard of any of the games before. Each version had been collected from a psychiatric hospital stay in Tampa, Houston, Atlanta and other southern cities. It hadn’t been the first stay for many of those surrounding me. Some bounced from institution to institution while others tried to reintegrate into society, though some found themselves drawn back into the system through circumstance.
During the card games, we would chat casually as if we were at a club meeting and not on suicide watch. The older woman who’d stood petrified when I’d arrived had been a lawyer. She told me about the landmark cases she’d worked on in her youth. When she learned that I was prelaw, she begged me to attend her alma mater FSU for law school, but I politely declined. We spoke for a while about the abuse she suffered at the hand of her former husband. Despite him no longer being alive, the trauma never parted from her and is what had brought her into the system.
It wasn’t until the second day that I had the chance to speak with the man with the IV in his arm. He seemed much more lucid that day. He had been admitted through the Baker Act after not responding to an awry electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatment.
The patients spoke a different language – one composed of acronyms and medications. I picked up on a lot of the lingo rather quickly, but ECT was one I could never figure out. Eventually, I worked up the courage to ask the man with the IV. I was appalled to learn that something like ECT still existed. It seemed archaic and medieval, like a scene from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” His initial zombie-like appearance suddenly made sense. The patients who received an ECT treatment behaved like they were on autopilot for the first two days before adjusting back to themselves. Despite his state, I enjoyed talking with the man.
I regretfully didn’t talk to the woman in the pajamas until my second-to-last day there. As an insomniac, I had a lot of trouble sleeping due to nightmares. I walked around the unit every early morning, the only other people awake being the nurses and the woman in the pajamas. She never slept, but just quietly sipped her daily decaf coffee. I don’t know how it started, but we eventually started talking. She was the first person to ask why I was there.
Most patients freely offered up the opportunity to extrapolate on their misfortunes and all the misdeeds cast against them (which they had every right to do based on the horrors they’d experienced), so I was shocked by her inquisitiveness towards me when she politely asked why I was there.
I swallowed, my chest heavy, and said, “I was raped by someone I had trusted. I was unconscious, and he took advantage of me.”
Those were the images that kept me up every night. It was the feeling of betrayal and worthlessness. If I had been taken and discarded like that, then what was I worth? I confided to the woman all the insecurities that had arisen from my trauma.
“Me too,” the woman admitted in response. “But that doesn’t make you weak or too trusting. It makes him evil and unappreciative of your trust. I’m glad you’re getting help now while you’re young. I’m 20 years older than you, and I’m just now making peace with what happened to me. Get help now. Work on yourself now and make sure you live your life to the fullest despite him.”
It wasn’t so much the medicine or therapy that made my experience so worthwhile and restorative. I learned from the other patients. We were all normal people caught in the crossfire of terrible situations. The people there were no different from people I could meet in class or the park. They were complex, driven and interesting, but also hurting, broken and wanting to get better. Just from speaking with them, I gained special insight into myself, my situation and what it means to trust again. Not one of them hurt me or was malicious, so I was able to open up to those 20 strangers to allow myself to heal. My experience showed me that strangers can be kind and patient when the people you know and trust might not be. All in all, I’m grateful for my time in the psychiatric hospital.