My Time on the Ward


(Alberto Ayora) — Not many people understand what it’s like to be on a mental ward.  Just in hearing those two words, most people imagine Winona Ryder playing folk songs in Girl, Interrupted or Jack Nicholson walking the halls in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Sadly, it’s not nearly so entertaining.  Mental hospitals are about sitting in a room of half-comatose people, while being told that “drawing your emotions” will somehow lead to a miracle breakthrough, while you watch someone drool down the front of their shirt.  Mental hospitals are about being segregated from all the “healthy” people outside, staring at them through barred windows, wondering when you might be deemed well so you might rejoin them.

However, once you’re inside—once you’ve been classified defective, it becomes very difficult to rejoin the rest of the world.  You find a lot of people that go in and out of the same hospitals, “relapsing” into their schizophrenia or depression, never quite able to reintegrate into their outside existence.  They become institutionalized. They start believing that they need the hospital, that they need their doctors to watch over them every moment of every day.  It becomes an interminable cycle.

Patients at Worcerster State Hospital
Patients at Worcester State Hospital – courtesy of Life Magazine

Sadly, it’s incredibly easy for someone to be thrown into this cycle.  All you need to do is infer that you may be feeling hopeless, that you may be “in a very dark place.”  All you need to say is “I should just drink bathroom developer or something…”  A few words and you’re trapped in a system—trapped under a classification that makes it very difficult to escape.

I should know.

When I was sixteen years old, I was hospitalized against my will.  I’d walked into a community health center looking for help, after weeks of depression, after being locked in my room and unwilling to speak with anyone.  I was hoping to talk with a therapist that might help me return to some kind of normalcy, but within twenty minutes of speaking with me she stepped out of the room to “take a phone call.”  When she returned, I was told that the ambulance would be there in a few minutes and that there was nothing I could do about it.

“But, I don’t want to kill myself,” I said.  “I didn’t say that I wanted to or anything like that, because I don’t.”  When she pulled her chair closer to me, I felt a wave of condescension coming on.  She understood that it felt that way, but given my prior history with that “sort of thing,” she felt that I was in danger of harming myself.  She couldn’t take that chance.

My prior history consisted of a few days of hospitalization for “suicidal thoughts,” when I was thirteen.  However, that was right after my brother’s death: a consequence of grief, confusion, and anger.  In short, it was a completely different situation.

“But, your prior history…” she repeated.

Well, given our collective prior history, I could potentially sprout gills and a tail and live in the ocean, but that was a while ago and not likely to reoccur.  She smiled at that.  It was the most infuriatingly complacent smile I’d ever seen in my life.  She didn’t have to respond, the police were already at the door.

Years of being brown in New York City had already taught me to become as compliant as possible whenever the police were involved.  I smiled as they escorted my mother and me to the waiting ambulance.  I thanked the orderlies that walked us through the hospital and into the mental ward.  When my mother burst into tears, I did nothing.  I was acutely aware that all the orderlies and nurses were staring at me.  My mother was wailing on the floor, but they were staring at me.  They were waiting for me to react, waiting for me fight in some way, so they could pin me to the floor and pump me full of every medication imaginable.  So, I did nothing.  I had no power to change anything.  I was trapped.

Woman in mental hospital.

All these memories came flooding back, as I read Angie Epifano’s article in The Amherst Student.   At the time of her hospitalization, throwing Angie into such a disempowering situation was probably seen as justified.  The college’s policy is that any talk of suicide has to be taken seriously and that “professional help is needed, even if you don’t think [someone] means to succeed.”  However, if you take such a zero tolerance stance on something as complex and mental health, you risk throwing someone into a system that will most likely do more harm than good.

In my experience, hospitals are more concerned with controlling symptoms that in addressing the underlying causes.  The preferred term is “calm,” which often means filling someone full of medications and hoping that they’re lucid enough to respond to therapy.  During my time on the ward, I was pressured so often to take medications that I began wondering whether the drugs were being manufactured somewhere in the building.  I weighed the doctors’ recommendations against the sight of people wandering the hallways, drugged up to the gills and unable to speak.  Thankfully, I was a minor, so every attempt to medicate me had to go through my parents, two of the most stubborn people you’ll ever meet in your life.  By the time the doctors started threatening court orders, my father had already yelled at half the hospital, threatening his own lawsuit if I wasn’t released.  Angie was not so lucky.

Angie’s depression and feelings of hopelessness were a logical consequence of her horrible experience at Amherst.  In a similar way, my depression and isolation was a logical consequence of seeing my family fall apart after my brother’s death.  However, neither of us encountered individuals that were willing to treat us as an extension of a systematic problem. It’s easier to say that something is wrong with the individual, that they need to be “helped” behind closed doors, far away from prying eyes, far away from everyone else.

High Royds Asylum
High Royds Asylum

I’ve already encountered people that have questioned whether Angie’s account of her hospitalization was completely accurate.  “That might be her interpretation,” one councilor told me.  “But that’s simply not the way it would happen.  She would have been interviewed again, on entering the hospital.  If they had had any doubt as to the danger she posed to herself, she would never have been admitted.”

However, I think back to my own time sitting across from a psychiatrist, telling him “no—absolutely not—I do not want to kill myself.”  Afterward, he nodded at his paperwork and made a note.  I was admitted regardless.

I know how easy it is to sweep someone away for the sake of “helping them.”  It’s the result of a system that refuses to see an individual’s suffering as an extension of a systematic failure.  Until the day that one person’s trauma, depression, or feelings of hopelessness are recognized as a crisis for the entire community, more and more people will fade into the margins, becoming another statistic that Amherst will simply attempt to suppress.