When I returned to school after being in the hospital for seven days, I didn't want to tell anyone where I had been. Unfortunately, I am not a gifted liar. Given my past of living overseas, I probably could have gotten away with saying something along the lines of "trip to Europe" or even just muttering a convincing multisyllabic German word. Most people didn't know I was struggling with bipolar to begin with.
I think it would have been easier if I had been at the hospital to have my appendix removed. Being there for psychiatric care is an entirely different beast. The greatest difference is the people. It would be easy to dehumanize them and write them off as a bunch of "loonies." Yes, there was a woman who played Monopoly with herself each day at lunch and lost. There was a man who told us about the aliens that stole the bodies of government workers and listened to our phone conversations. There was a guy with the same birthday as my mom and no teeth who promised to take me out for crabs in his taxi cab if I gave him my number. But I was in that section of the hospital, too. So what did that make me?
I think I've managed to figure it out (for the most part).
The hospital serves its purpose for being a safe place for you to stay while everything your medications are adjusted. For me, that was the most crucial part. The second most important part, surprisingly, was the people. Not the occupational therapy, not the movies on drug abuse, but getting to know the people I shared those days with.
At first I was very scared of the people in the ward. I was the youngest one, at eighteen. The way that some of the older men talked to me made me uncomfortable. I just wanted to be left alone to do my crossword piles and fantasize about killing myself. But a young grandmother with depression reached out to me. She began to save me a seat at meals and group therapy, and she explained the rules to me. Her diagnosis wasn't so foreign to me; I've struggled with depression as well. With her encouragement, I reached out to the some of other women in the ward: a young woman attending the college I will attend in the fall, my roommate who was a mother struggling with bipolar disorder, and a woman with severe anxiety who liked to play cards and talk.
We played a secret version of hangman on the white board because we weren't allowed to actually draw a "hang man." We watched Duck Dynasty together. We talked about our families, about how our lives have been changed because of our illnesses, about life outside of the hospital. Slowly, I felt more comfortable around the men of the ward. Yes, there was still one guy that creeped me out, but once I realized that he couldn't really do anything besides tell bad jokes, he lost his power over me. We became awkward "hospital friends." One of the nurses brought Wii games in, and the whole ward "bowled" and played "tennis." No one could beat me at Jeopardy!, and my new friends cheered me on. I tried to get the quieter patients involved by doing puzzles. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.
I became much more comfortable at group therapy. I wasn't afraid to talk about my own life or ask the nurses questions. I became determined to get as much as I possibly could out of the hospital experience.
When I left the hospital, everyone hugged me (even though that wasn't allowed). They all wished me the best, and I wished them the best. I was one of the lucky ones that got to go home for Christmas. Thinking about my stay there makes me sad now. Statistically I know that some of those people have had to return to the hospital, I know that some still have their lives claimed by illegal drugs or refuse to take their medicine. These "repeat offenders" are called "frequent fliers." The nurses know their names and their lunch choices from memory.
One rule they are very strict about (unlike the no hugging policy) is no contact after release. It's frustrating to not know how people that shared such a critical time in your life are doing, but I choose to believe that it's for the best. After all, the hospital is a strange equalizing property. And, to answer my initial question, I did belong there. Everyone in that ward is equal. You don't have your fancy clothes, your job, your jewelry, or your status to hide behind. At the hospital, you are just a person fighting for a better future. Fighting to survive. Everyone has the same mission: to get better. It's like a bizarre party with bad food. All you have to do to get invited is to want to be there, to value your own life, and to push yourself towards a brighter tomorrow.
I was talking to a young man there about friends, and I said "You were probably much cooler in high school than I am" and he laughed. He responded "But we're both here, aren't we?"
If you are interested in reading more about my hospital experience, including some of the funnier moments, please let me know in the comments. Writing was such a freeing experience for me today!
As always, thank you for reading.