The Psych Ward, Ten Years Out

I VOTED metal button with union bug
Vintage Johnson County, Iowa union made I VOTED button, circa 2012-2014, I think.

A few days before Halloween in 1998 my mother hauled me out of the chair I’d been living in and into the car and into the hospital, where I signed a great many pieces of paper, including the ones that said I was committing myself to the psychiatric ward. I seem to remember that I was riding in a wheelchair, although that seems unlikely, since surely my legs were still working, even if I wasn’t inclined to use them. But the wheelchair is an appropriate metaphor (although I realize this is about to be hugely insulting to wheelchair users, for which I do apologize): some one had to push me, because there was no way I was going to move anywhere unless acted upon by an outside force.

I was what they call a voluntary committal, which is to say that I was not ordered into the ward by a judge. I would not say, however, that I went voluntarily: I was not volunteering for anything at that point, although I suppose if God had said, “Hmm, we need someone who’s willing to die,” I would have stepped forward.

Due to the vagaries of medical fads and the travesties of managed care, psych wards nowadays function as little more than holding tanks for the suicidal. As soon as they decide you’re not going to do yourself in, they let you out, regardless of whether or not you feel any better. As Kay Redfield Jamison points out in Night Falls Fast, this discharging is not a particularly good or helpful policy, since a great many suicides occur just after people are let out of the hospital.

The psych ward was, I suppose, useful to me in one way. I loathed the place. It was small and crowded; the windows didn’t open and the blinds, which were set in between two panes of glass, could only be tilted, not raised or lowered. The furniture in the main room was uncomfortable, and uncomfortably close to one’s fellow residents. The smoke leaked out from the smoking room. The TV was always on. If you sat in your room to read or think or just not be around people, they marked you down as unsocial. There was another little TV room where you could watch movies borrowed from the hospital library, supposing you could get someone to go there for you, or had privileges enough to go by yourself. They would not give you caffeinated coffee, not even in the morning, though they’d sell you pop at 8 p.m. They had an alarming fascination with your bowel movements, or lack thereof. And they would not let me vote.

Somewhere, in all my stacks of paper, I still have an evaluation form they sent me after my hospital stay. I have been carting it around all these years because I keep thinking that someday maybe I will be mellow enough to complain about the experience without screaming, but that day has not come.

I was only on the ward for five days, but I was under the highest level of lockdown the whole time. I could not leave the ward, no matter what, not even in a straitjacket with multiple attendants. That meant I couldn’t go to one of the many absentee voting booths set up around the hospital during the weeks before an election. I asked every doctor, every nurse, and every aide I saw. “How will I be able to vote?” Not one of them answered me. It was an off-year election, and I suppose that most of the other people on my ward, who mostly had schizophrenia and were fairly heavily medicated, were perhaps not very in touch with current events and thus not as interested in the whole business of participating in the democratic process as I was. But I was appalled.

So I suppose you could say that it was, in the end, my belief in democracy that saved me from depression. I worked as hard as I could to get out of that place. I spent all my time in the common room and played Yahtzee with people who didn’t know where they were. I watched day time television. (Seriously, all the stuff they tell you is bad for you in the outside world they totally push in the psych ward–the place is smoke free now, but when I was there, I swear the answer to every complaint was “go take a smoke break” or “go watch TV.”) My mother very kindly started bringing me coffee in the morning. It was, for some reason, permissible to have someone bring coffee to you, but they’d only give you decaf. I ate the horrible hospital food and stopped making extra-big circles around the COFFEE option. And it worked, I guess. I was discharged on election day. I walked the four blocks home to my mother’s house, got in my car, and drove to my polling place.

It was a long time, and a lot more ups and downs, before I really got better, and even today, there are parts of me that still aren’t always better. This year I’ll be spending thirteen hours in a chair at the Meeteetse Town Hall ensuring that the machinery of democracy is working smoothly. I know most of the people who read this will vote, or have already, but I’d urge you all to think of anyone you can who might be prevented from voting and try to help them get to the polls. My mother now works in the psychiatric department where I was once a patient, and she assures me that everyone there will have the opportunity to vote this year. I hope that’s true for everyone on the outside, too.

As for me, I’m still cynical as all get out, and I still think voting is the least thing you can do to make the world a better place. But it’s still important to me — so much so that, you might say, voting saved my life.

10 Replies to “The Psych Ward, Ten Years Out”

  1. Oh Laura, what a difficult thing to go through. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I’m glad to know you and so glad that things got better. 🙂 I’m voting early in just a few hours.

  2. thank you. We need to hear this (that’s the professional side of me talking). I need to be reminded of a time I couldn’t or didn’t do enough to help you myself.
    One thing: we asked everyone on the unit I run if voting were of interest, we would help them get a ballot. There’s a deadline for mail requests, and some of our patients are from out of county. For them, it’s too late now, though it wasn’t when we asked. For some, it’s geography and timing. But I will remind our entire staff that any Johnson Co. resident should be given an opportunity to vote; there’s satellite voting in the hospital all day.

  3. Mom, I don’t think anyone could have helped me then. In that sense, Dr. C may have been right about not being able to do anything for me. Don’t blame yourself.

    Mostly I’m just surprised that I’m still so angry about it all these years later. I suppose I just think that having opinions is the thing that makes us individual people, and if you are denied the option of having an opinion, then essentially you’re being told you’re not a person. It’s sort of like the point I made about the sit-in so long ago.

  4. Thanks for sharing Laura.

    What I don’t really understand is not giving people coffee. That seems (to me) to not make sense. I have gone through caffeine withdrawal before, and it is not pretty. With the headaches and irritation, I suspect I would not be a pleasant person to be around – no matter where I was.

    So – I hope that particular policy has changed ALONG with the voting policy.

  5. Yes, I also do not understand the coffee policy. There is also now a no smoking on the ward no matter what policy, which also strikes me as perhaps not particularly helpful to the patients the ward is trying to serve — but, again, we get back to the point that the psych ward is not primarily there to help patients; it is just there to keep them from doing themselves in.

  6. update from the front: we do have real coffee now, though as it’s hospital coffee it still lacks something (but not caffeine). Smoking–was partly driven by staff who brought it in as an OSHA thing, partly by accrediting agencies, partly by we’re doctors, dammit, we should care about your health (when the author of this blog was a lump, there was smoking in the OB waiting room). But we do hand out piles of nicotine patches and gobs of gum.

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