What I Learned in the Psych Ward

By Amber Cullen

On March 19th, 2012, it was highly recommended that I go to the psychiatric hospital. Later that day, I was self-admitted (meaning I chose to go in…I wasn’t forcefully admitted) into the psychiatric hospital in Sylvania, Ohio. I desperately needed help, and I didn’t trust myself to be alone (as I had seriously contemplated suicide the previous day).

*  *  *

 My roommate was there because she tried to kill herself—her anxious, quick breathing, twitches, and darting eyes triggering my own anxiety—her husband wouldn’t even talk to her when she called from the hospital. He didn’t care.

There was the young woman who had been in the ward for a while, who showed me the ropes (and the secret stash of ice cream). This place had become her home.

Another woman had been there for four days, depression crippling her so that her boyfriend recommended she go to the hospital even though she didn’t want to. She told me during my first day there to be careful about Day 3, because you will literally start to feel crazy. She was realistic and firm, stating ways she would still be able to commit suicide in this place that took extra precautions to remove any possible weapons. She wasn’t implying that she would take action; she was simply stating the way it was.

On the other half of the hallway were the older folks, many whose minds were deteriorating. There was Helen, who I loved dearly, who always smiled and offered me a job at her gift shop. I listened as she told me about her plans.

There was the older women who talked about Jesus all the time—proselytizing to the nurses, the front desk workers, everybody.

We had one older man who came to the younger people’s side of the ward because “you about damn lose your mind over there,” referring to the side with the older people. He opened up to us about his struggle with alcoholism as we all did a puzzle together.

There was the woman with a developmental disability who was in a room all by herself, screaming constantly. None of us knew what she was experiencing in her mind; she couldn’t communicate it to the nurses. We were thankful when she was moved. Our hearts ached for her, but our minds couldn’t handle the trigger of her distressed screaming.

There was the husband who came in during visiting hours every day to walk up and down the hallway hand-in-hand with his wife. (She had to do crosswords all the time to calm her anxious mind.) All of us loved watching them, so encouraged by the love he showed her. He gave us hope that the stigma of being in the ward wouldn’t follow us out; he gave us hope that we could be seen as “normal” to the outside world. (Although no one ever stated this out loud—it was unspoken.)

On my third day there a woman stumbled in laughing, bitter, and feisty. It was her third time here for drug rehab. Her eyes told a deeper story.

I was there in the psych ward, a straight A, perfectionistic college student, because my entire worldview was being turned upside down and inside out and I was falling. I didn’t know this in the ward, though. All I knew is that I couldn’t function due to severe anxiety, severe depression and hopelessness, that I was thinking of killing myself, and that I needed help.

During my five days in the ward, I met the strangest hodge-podge of people with different labels. Drug addicts, divorcees, singles, college students, professionals, alcoholics, men, women, old, young, grandparents, people who clearly weren’t all mentally there, people who were mentally there, people who needed a little lift, people who had hopes and desires once they left this place.

And we were all struggling on our individual journeys. Together.

It was raw interdependence like I had never experienced before. We trusted and bonded with one another in our varying experiences. We shared vulnerable stories with one another because maybe we could encourage each other in this journey and help each other out. People in labels that I had never interacted with in my entire life became my friends. My “me” worldview was slowly (and so painfully) shifting.

We may have been labeled “crazy” by the outside world, but I knew that my ward mates had my back, and I knew that I had theirs (even as I was so fragile, I still knew this). After all, we were struggling with things together—we understood. But the psych ward was definitely not all roses and daises. Every time someone left, the unspoken thoughts followed them out. How would they be perceived now by others in the world? Would people treat them like people? Are we damaged goods because we’ve been in the psych ward? Are we crazy? The unspoken thoughts and fears were always there. The fear of being misunderstood by society. Of being outcast in social groups and by everyone we know. Of being alone because it’s thought that we’re “crazy.”

But isn’t this fear of isolation a fear of us all?

*  *  *

The people I met in the psych ward taught me incredible lessons.

The drug addict was struggling alongside the college-educated professional.

The perfectionistic student was struggling alongside the pregnant mother who talked to herself.

The recovering alcoholic was talking to the suicidal man, and the retiree to the wife and mother.

And aside from talking to one another, these pairs were also listening to one another. Stories and experiences were being shared, and bridges built between people.

And all were struggling, interdependent—together.

In the psych ward, I was beautifully humbled. I learned that everyone in this world is on the same playing field—we’re all human and working through this thing called life. I learned that there’s no room thinking I’m better than ANY other human being—it took being stripped raw to the core and being surrounded by addicts, professionals, and other ward-mates to teach me that. I learned that I cannot assume people’s stories or motivations, and that listening is a powerful tool to love. I learned that empathy is a catalyst for change.  

I got a taste of the Kingdom of God in the psych ward.

And five years later, I still want more.

18450230_10213069165107706_1993344936_nAmber Cullen is a European-American storyteller who is learning to lead a life of active repentance from White supremacy towards the work of collective healing and flourishing. She is currently the Director of Communications and Advocacy at South Street Ministries (a member of the Christian Community Development Association) in Akron, Ohio. Originally from Akron, Amber’s story has taken her from her hometown, to the corn fields, to rowhomes, to the shores, and back to Akron once again, with a deep conviction that we can care for one another better. Amber is interested in the intersection of cultural organizing, arts, conflict transformation, and healing.

This reflection and others can be found on Amber’s blog.


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