Stories From the Psych Ward

Stories From the Psych Ward–Preacher’s Story (Abridged)

This morning I have the privilege of speaking to a group of pastors, and I want to convey to them the difficulty that the church today has in facing the issue of mental illness.  I am considering using this shortened version of “Preacher’s Story” from my book to dress the problem in flesh.  But I thought as long as I had it out and was tinkering with it, I would share this version with my Gentle Readers.  Enjoy.

Preacher’s Story

During our stay on the psych ward, Preacher and I had several long discussions.  From the start, the big man asked me a lot of questions.  I let down my defenses and told him my story.  When I was done, he asked:

“Do you believe you’re still a Christian?”

I sighed.  “Jesus promised everlasting life to everybody who would put their trust in Him.  Everlasting means forever.”

“Even though you tried to kill yourself?”

“Look—my mind isn’t what it used to be, but unless it’s changed in the last few days, everlasting still means everlasting.”

He paused.  Clearly, he could see that I was getting testy, but he asked one more question, in a tone more sincere than the others.  “How do you know whether your depression is sickness or sin?”

I just looked at him.  That was the question for any person of faith, wasn’t it…. 

 

As we continued our discussions, I learned more about my roommate.  He was pastor at a local church, and had taught—”…thoroughly, vigorously, and repeatedly…”—that there was no place for depression or even discouragement in a true believer’s life.  After all, the Bible says that “…all things work together for good…:” for those who love God.  Feelings of guilt came from sinful thoughts or acts.  Despair was a failure to believe the promises of God—or, possibly, a demonic influence in one’s life.

“Needless to say, we didn’t have any members in our church suffering from mental illness,” Preacher said with the slightest hint of irony.

 

Another time, he asked me, “Who knows what happened to you?”

“My family.  My pastor.  A select group of friends.”

“Will you tell the members of your church?”

“I don’t know.  Some would understand.  Some would think the way you do.”  I felt brave, so I pushed the limit.  “So what are you going to tell your church?”

He got up and walked away without answering.

 

After dinner, he came and sat down across the table from me.  “Do you know why I’m here?”

I couldn’t resist a little sarcasm.  “Let me guess:  you tried to drown yourself in the baptistery, or maybe you tried to perform an exorcism on yourself.  It must have killed you to come here.”

“Psych ward humor?  Not funny.  Actually, I cursed out one of my board members.”

“Seriously?”

“And then I went home and hit my wife.  And then I broke down.  It was not my choice to come here, but I should probably be grateful that she called the crisis center instead of the police.”

He told me of the struggles he had encountered in the military, before he got saved; and how, even after seminary, marriage to a pastor’s daughter, and 30 years in the pulpit with a reputation for preaching hellfire and brimstone, he still struggled.

He suffered from flashbacks and nightmares, fears, and rages.  He fasted and prayed, and never missed a Sunday. His church never knew.  His family took the brunt of it. 

“And then it all came out in a church business meeting.  Things got heated and I lost it, then went home and…you know the rest.” 

“I’m sorry for you—I truly am.  But I have a question for you,” I said.  “You don’t think you belong here, do you?”

“Of course not.  What does it look like for a pastor to go to the world for treatment, instead of to a Christian counseling center?”

“Did you have a choice?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“This is where my wife brought me.  Besides…”

“Go on.”

“I run the Christian Counseling Center.”

“You don’t believe in mental illness, but you run a counseling center?”

“There’s no problem that a proper understanding of Scripture can’t solve.”

I paused to let the irony of his own words sink in.  “How’s that working for you?”

Preacher studied the surface of the table.  I continued.

“Have you gotten medical tests and professional counseling since you’ve been here?”

“Yes.”

“Have they given you a diagnosis?”

“Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.”

“Is that a sickness or a sin?”

“A sickness.”

“And can the Lord still use a man even if he’s sick?”

Preacher looked up and nodded.  “But I don’t know if my church will even want me when they know about…this.”

“You want my advice?  Apologize for your behavior, but not for your depression.  Ask the members to pray for you and be patient with you while you and the Lord AND the doctors work this out.  They’ll probably come right alongside you and be completely understanding and supportive.  Unless, of course…”

“Unless what?”

“Unless their pastor did too good a job convincing them that depression is a sin problem rather than a sickness.”

Preacher sighed, shook his head, and swallowed hard.  “For once, I hope I wasn’t as good a preacher as I thought I was.”

His wife, listening at the door, spoke up.  “Don’t worry, Honey.  You weren’t.”

 

 

 

 

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Stories From the Psych Ward–Charlie’s Story (Teaser)

I have been encouraged by the response to my little stories and character sketches inspired by my stay in the hospital.  In the last week, I have been able to write 8 or 9 more, in preparation for collecting them in book form.  While I don’t expect to publish any more of them here in their entirety, I thought I would give you a taste of what awaits when the book comes out.

Charlie’s Story

            It was sometimes hard to tell the patients from the staff on the psych ward.  The techs were encouraged to dress in street clothes rather than scrubs, and to do their best to fit in with the community; so clothing was not always a clue.  The first night I was there, I was convinced that one of the patients was a tech, and that one of the techs was a patient.  There was also a visitor that I thought was a patient, but then again she probably should have been, so she doesn’t count.

            Some of the others you couldn’t miss.  There were the ladies that shuffled around the ward in hospital gowns and robes.  There was the elderly man with a walker, who wouldn’t speak or even look up when spoken to.  There were the patients who would stand too close and speak too loudly and tell too much of their stories to strangers.  There was one young man who wandered the halls in a daze, day and night.  And then there were the Charles Mansons.

            There were three “Charlies” on our ward.  These were men who had neglected their own physical well-being.  Painfully thin, they looked like they had not eaten in a month or two, and their piercing eyes made you wonder what—or who—they might be hungry for.  With long uncombed hair and bushy beards, they tended to stare at anyone who came near.  One moved a chair into the hall near the nurses’ station, and sat cracking his knuckles and intimidating the visitors (and some of the patients).

            I got to know one of the Charlies as our circumstances drew us together throughout the day.  Though frightening in appearance, he was one of the gentlest and most tragic figures I have ever met.  And his name really was Charlie.

            At 6’4”, he towered over all the other members of the community.  He couldn’t have weighed more than 180 lbs. (160 without the hair and beard), though he told me that just months earlier he had been over 300.  He lay in bed all day and all night, his feet hanging over the edge, and his eyes watching the hall through the doorway.  He said he slept, but if he did, it must have been so lightly that the slightest sound or movement would awaken him.  He told me that he had slept away the past 9 months of his life, and that he might sleep away the rest of it.—he had nothing to wake up for.  I took that remark as an invitation to ask him his story.

            Oh—before I forget—he wore a red union suit.  You know the kind; the one-piece long underwear with the drop-flap in the back?  That’s what he wore, in slightly faded but still devilish red; and that’s all he wore, regardless of how often the techs would bring him other clothes to substitute or put on over his own.  One day he wore a shirt to attend dinner, but I never saw him with pants or shoes.  At least he kept the flap buttoned up.

 

Interested? I’ll let you know when the full version is available.  Sorry, Beth–you’ll have to wait a little longer for Charlie to tell his tale!

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Stories From the Psych Ward #5–Maureen’s Story

This is another in the series of fictionalized accounts inspired by people and situations I encountered during my stay in the hospital.

Maureen’s Story

As I was becoming acquainted with the members of the community on the ward, I saw Maureen.  To be honest, I thought that she was a tech the first time I saw her.  She was sitting in the activity room reading, and each time Eva or Gwen had a question or problem, they looked to her for help, and she responded in a calm and comforting voice.  When she got up, she carried herself with the confidence of a professional, and when Eddy need a translator, she stepped in and told the nurse what he was saying.  But, at the same time, there was something about her…

The next morning we met again in community meeting, and she volunteered to go first in listing her goals for the day.  Her goals were reasonable and attainable, unlike some of the ones mentioned by the others.  The only thing that gave a clue to her illness was her last goal:  that when her husband left after visiting her in the evening, she would like to say goodbye without breaking down.  So she was there for some sort of psychological condition that made it difficult to maintain emotional control.  I could certainly understand that, in light of my own problems!  And the more meetings we both participated in, the more I felt like I knew her.

The second afternoon I felt comfortable enough to speak to her.  We were sitting alone in the activity room when I asked her if she would mind if I asked some questions, since she seemed to know what was going on.  She told me to go ahead.

So I asked her about ECT.  Ever since I had arrived on the ward, the nurses and techs seemed to be urging me to ask my doctor about some therapy that “worked wonders” to restore stability in depressive patients; but I didn’t know anything about the treatment or even what the letters ECT stood for.  I asked her to tell me what it was and how it worked.

Electroconvulsive therapy was a shock therapy, she told me.  The doctors hooked electrodes to the forehead and gave a little electrical current to reset the mind to an earlier, healthier state.  She showed me where they would put the electrodes, and explained how it was different for left-handed people.  She knew what she was talking about, and explained the technical medical procedure to me in terms that I could understand.  Even so, I was surprised by it all.  Her description called to mind something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and I wasn’t aware that anything like that was still being used.  It certainly didn’t sound like something I wanted to do.

I thanked Maureen and complimented her on her knowledge and ability to explain things.  She told me that she had been a nurse—a hospice nurse until she couldn’t handle it any more, and then an in-home caregiver.  She told me how she would get discouraged at work—so disturbed by her discouragement that on two occasions she had driven her car off the road on the way home.  Another time, more recently, the mere thought of having to go to work made her so anxious that she had backed her car into a tree in their front yard.  That event had landed her on the psych ward and in the ECT program.  She spoke about her experience in a matter-of–fact way, and I felt free to ask more; with Maureen it was more like talking to a family member than to a stranger.

Why do the nurses and techs promote ECT so much?

The doctors who work on this ward specialize in it.

Is it considered experimental?

She didn’t think so—her insurance covered it.

How did it work?

The science wasn’t definitive on that, but apparently when the appropriate parts of the brain go into convulsions, some harmful neural connections were disrupted.

Is it a one-time thing, or do patients need more that one treatment?

It varied, but always several sessions were needed, and sometimes many were necessary.  She herself had received more than twenty treatments, and was scheduled for another the next day.

She was so calm—so matter-of-fact that her statement took me by surprise.  Here was this young lady who appeared healthy in every way, telling me that she had a severe mental illness requiring drastic treatment measures!  It was more information than I could process right then; so I thanked her once more and excused myself.  I went to my room and tried to take a nap, but I couldn’t get Maureen or our conversation out of my head.  It was like I felt an emotional connection with her—not a romantic one, but something else I couldn’t explain.  Finally I got up and asked the nurse to give me something for anxiety.

After dinner, it all became clear to me.  Maureen had company, and they were sitting in the music room.  As I passed by, I looked in and did a double take.  I knew Maureen’s family—better than I wanted to.  And then I knew Maureen.

She had been married to my cousin a few years back, and the break-up had been very unpleasant, with both families more involved than we should have been.  The last birthday party where relatives on both sides attended had been broken up when the neighbors called the police. 

Whether it was the passing years or my mental state, I had not recognized Maureen until I saw her with her new husband.  Once I realized who she was, I began to think about the awkwardness of our situation.  Could we be in the same emotionally-charged group meetings without some family friction coming out?  I thought that I could handle it; after all, I wasn’t the one who had called her those things (that was my brother).  But I wasn’t sure how she, especially in light of her fragile mental state, would handle it.  I asked to speak to the nurse privately, and described the situation.  She agreed that it might be a problem.  She told me that she would speak to Maureen’s therapist, and one of us might need to be moved to a different ward.

The next morning I was informed of the decision:  it would not be a problem for Maureen to be in sessions with me as long as I was all right with it.  My presence wouldn’t bother her at all.

After all, she didn’t remember me.

She didn’t remember my cousin.

In fact, she didn’t remember ever having been married before.

The treatments had wiped out the memories.  Maureen was blissfully unaware of that tragic chapter of her past.

I wondered if maybe I should look into getting the treatments myself.

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Stories from the Psych Ward #4–Ethel’s Story

Here is another in my series of fictional accounts inspired by people I met while I was in the hospital.

Ethel’s Story

 

            Ethel sat at the table and sobbed out her story after lunch.  Most of the community members had wandered off, but I sat back and listened, and a couple of others came and went.  Her roommate Dierdre sat across the table from her as Ethel             melted down and opened up.

            To be honest, none of us knew Ethel.  She had arrived sometime in the past day or two, and kept to her room.  I hadn’t seen her in community or group meetings, or in any of the activities.  Dierdre had convinced her to come to the dining hall for lunch once or twice, but only after most of the others had left.  Though most of the women either wore casual clothes or hospital gowns with robes, Ethel wore a dress.  It had been stylish 30 or 40 years ago.

            I was accidentally aware of part of her story already.  My room was across the hall from the pay phone, and with my door open (as it always had to be) I couldn’t avoid hearing some of the conversations.  Ethel had been called to the phone earlier that morning; and, though I could only hear one end of the conversation, I could tell that it was her employer, and that it wasn’t good.

            “Yes, sir; in a day or two, I’m sure…No, sir, they don’t think it’s anything serious, but the doctor wanted to admit me for a day or two for observation….No, sir, I’m sure it had nothing to do with the job; I just haven’t been sleeping well…No, sir, I’m going to be fine, and…sir, I understand I don’t have any sick time left but…No, sir, please don’t do that.  I promise I’ll be there in a day or two…yes, I know how busy you are…I understand, sir, and I would never ask you to hold my position if I weren’t…Oh…Oh…I see…Yes, sir, I understand, but can’t…Yes, sir.  I’ll be in to pick up my check…Goodbye.”  And that was the prelude to the crisis in the dining room.

            What I didn’t know until that afternoon was that Ethel’s husband had passed away within the last month, and that, in her own words, she was stuck.  She had to adjust to living on her own, and she had no idea how to cope.  She didn’t drive; her husband Ron had always taken her everywhere.  She had never written a check or paid a bill or used a credit card; Ron had handled the money and gave her cash each week for grocery money.  They had never had children, and she had always stayed home as a housewife until a year or two earlier, when her husband had asked her to get a part-time job to help out.

            She had enjoyed being a housewife.  She loved to cook and sew; she made her own clothes.  Her pies were always a hit at the church socials, and all the neighbor kids looked forward to trick-or-treating at her house, where they always got her homemade pumpkin popcorn balls.  Her life had been what she had always expected it to be:  breakfast at 7; pack a lunch for Ron; household chores like washing and ironing and dusting and mopping the floors until noon; soup and a sandwich for lunch; a soap opera or two on television, and then dinner on the table at 5:30.  Evenings were often spent with knitting or needlework while Ron listened to the ball game, then to bed at 10.  If it was a rut, she was glad to have been stuck in it.

            It wasn’t that she couldn’t have had a career if she had wanted one.  After high school she had taken a secretarial course at the local business college, and she was a good typist, and better than average at taking dictation in shorthand.  But then she met Ron, and there was no need to work.  He always had taken care of her, and even apologized when he sent her out to work.  And then he wasn’t there any more, and all she had to count on was her job.  And now she had lost her job, and she was stuck.

            Dierdre had been listening intently, and questioned her about losing her job.  Didn’t she know that her employer couldn’t legally fire her because of a disability, and the problems that landed her here counted as a disability? 

            Ethel said that she knew, but it would mean she would have to tell her boss where she was, and why—that she had “gone crazy”—and she couldn’t do that.  She worried what the church ladies would say if they knew she was in the “nut house”.  She said she was just glad that she didn’t have any children; her mother had been “put away” in her later years, and now here she was herself.  At least it would stop here.

            Nonsense, Dierdre argued.  Nobody thought like that any more—this is 2012, for goodness’ sake!  Mental illness is a sickness—a treatable, curable sickness that she shouldn’t be ashamed of.  In fact, Ethel should be proud of herself that she was getting help!

            Ethel just sobbed and shook her head.  She couldn’t accept what Dierdre was telling her.  She expected that she would be locked up for the rest of her life, and even if she got out, what would she do?  No one would hire a crazy lady for their office.

            Dierdre shifted gears and suggested that Ethel could work from home.  She understood that a lot of medical transcription was still being done that way, and she would be able to use her skills in a productive and profitable way.

            No, it wouldn’t work, Ethel maintained.  She didn’t have her typewriter any more, so how could she work from home?

            She was stuck.

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Stories from the Psych Ward #3–Trevor’s Story

(This is another fictional account inspired by people, conditions, and situations I encountered during my stay in the hospital.)

Trevor’s Story

            “Pick a card—any card!”  Like any good huckster, Trevor called to the passersby around him and fanned the deck smoothly and beautifully before him.  The others in the hall ignored him, but Cindy and I stepped over to see what he was doing.  Anything to offset the boredom.  The receptionist frowned disapprovingly at the cards on the counter of the nurses’ station.

            Trevor went through the motions with a flourish, making the cards we chose appear like magic at the top, middle, or bottom of the deck—wherever we wanted.  After a couple of minutes, I tired of the game and decided to head on down the hall.

            “Pretty good trick you’ve got there,” I said, “but I’ll catch up with you later.”

            Even as I walked away, he said, “I can do it every time—nothing to it!” and when I didn’t comment or turn back, he called out, “What’s next on the agenda?”

            Well, since Trevor was new on the floor and seemed to want somebody to talk to, and since I was standing right in front of the white board where the schedule and announcements were updated twice daily, I stopped and waited for him to catch up with me.

            “It says here there are ping pong and checkers tournaments in a few minutes, and then snacks.”  I pointed to each item on the board so that he would know where to look next time.  He spent a moment scanning the schedule for himself. 

            “When’s the poker tournament?”

            I looked at him and shook my head.  “They haven’t had one since I’ve been here.”        “Maybe we can start one.  I’d get in on the checkers tournament, but everybody has their own set of rules.  You have to know the rules if you’re going to play the game, I always say.  By the way, my name’s Trevor.”  And just like that it seemed I had a new best friend, at least temporarily.

                        Over the next several hours I heard Trevor’s story.  I don’t remember all of it, and I can’t tell it like he did, but it went something like this:

            “I don’t know why you’re here, but I’m here because I’m a drunk.  I don’t go to meetings and I have no interest in stopping.  Drinking is my hobby, and I can’t wait to get out of here and have the next one.

            “They tell me the police brought me in last night.  I don’t remember what happened, but know I was just drinking at home, and I must have said something to somebody, because the next thing I know, the cops are there, and they say I blew a blood alcohol of .44, and it was either jail or the crisis center.  I would rather have gone to jail, because I’d be out by now, but as it is, I’m here on “involuntary” admission and I have to wait for the doctor and a judge to agree to let me out.  I didn’t see the doctor this morning, so hopefully he will sign off when he does his afternoon rounds, and get the process under way.”

            I didn’t tell him my experience was that the doctor only came by in the morning.

            “In the meantime, I’ll play the game by their rules.  I’ve done it before, you know.  Not here, of course, but four years ago I went into a rehab facility upstate, and I went to their meetings, and followed their instructions, and did my chores, and graduated from their program.  I even have a certificate saying I’m fixed!  I stopped at the first gas station I saw and bought a case of Budweiser on the way home.

            “My wife—my ex-wife—made me go to rehab that time.  She said my drinking was ‘just getting to be too much.’  That’s nonsense.  I never drove drunk, I never hurt anybody, I never lost time from work (I was working at the bank back then), and I was home every night.  What it really came down to was she wanted kids and I didn’t want any part of that.  I turned 35 while I was in rehab, and she came to see me on my birthday.  I thought she would be happy to see me clean and sober, just like she wanted.  But no—she served me with divorce papers—just like that!  On my birthday!

            “I didn’t fight her.  I finished the program and came home and got an apartment and let her do her thing.  I had some friends in NASCAR, and they got me a job on one of the pit crews, so I was out of town most of the time and didn’t even have to run into her at Walmart.  I could drink to my heart’s content and never have to listen to her complain.  One thing changed, though—I started drinking more of the hard stuff and less beer.  I’ll still have a beer or two to be social, but I’ve graduated to vodka these days.  Not the cheap stuff, either—I always said, if you’re going to have a hobby, you’ve got to be willing to spend some money.”

            As it turned out, the doctor was not inclined to recommend Trevor’s release until he had “gotten some benefit from the program”; and once Trevor knew that, he became a model member of the community.  He attended every meeting and activity.  He met daily with his therapist and his social worker.  He opened up and told his story in group session, admitting that he was a drunk, and that his drinking had gotten out of hand recently.  And then he began to share the issues behind his addition.

            “My parents are both gone, and the only family I have left is my sister.  She and I are best friends, and she lives just down the street from me, so we see each other every day.  I have dinner with her and her husband Stan two or three times a week.

            “When she got pregnant, she was thrilled, and so was I.  She had a difficult pregnancy, and Stan had to be out of town quite a bit, so I spent a lot of time helping out.  So when my nephew was born, it was almost like having a son of my own.  I wanted to make sure that he had all the world could offer, and I was the best uncle any child could have.  For 18 months, I was happy and had everything to live for.  And I never drank if I knew I was going to see him.  Then, three months ago…he…he…”

            At this point Trevor broke down and started sobbing.  Eva handed him a box of tissues, which he used thoroughly.  No one spoke as he wept in anguish and utter despair.  Minutes passed.  Then he spoke again, through the tears.

            “One morning, he just didn’t wake up.  They said he had a heart defect.  Even the doctors hadn’t known about it.  One day he was there, the next day….We were all devastated.  My sister tried to kill herself—took a bunch of pills, but they didn’t work.  I started drinking more—a lot more.  Even today…I don’t know how…I can go on without him.”

            The tech in charge of the meeting made sympathetic noises that were meant to give comfort, but Trevor wasn’t quite finished.

            “His name was Ethan…Trevor…he was even named after me…. I don’t remember much about the last three months.  I know Stan came to check on me once, and took away six or eight bottles of vodka, but he didn’t know about the case in the trunk of my car.  And here I am.”

            “Are there others of you who have lost a loved one?” the tech asked.  More than half of us raised our hands.  “There will be a group session on Bereavement and Grief this afternoon at 1:30, right here.  I encourage you to come and listen to Angela—we share her with the hospice program, and she’s really good.  I think it would benefit you, Trevor, and some of the rest of you, too.  Thank you for sharing.”

            “I’ll be there,” Trevor said, dabbing his eyes one more time.

            And he was.  He never missed a meeting, session, or activity, and he never missed the opportunity to tell us that his daily goal was to get clean and sober to honor little Ethan’s memory, and to be there to help his sister deal with her own grief.

            On Friday the order finally came through for his discharge.  I went with him as he had his vitals taken, he was given his med list and prescriptions, and he got his belongings back from the secure room.  As he stood by the nurses’ station and put on his belt, he said to me, “See?  I told you they’d let me out of here—piece of cake.  No jail time, either!  You just have to play their game.”

            The receptionist hung up the phone and told him that his taxi was waiting downstairs.  That struck me as odd.  He pushed a button on the elevator, and as he waited for it to reach our floor, I asked him a question.

            “Why’d you have them call a cab?  I thought your sister would be coming to get you.”

            The elevator arrived and he entered it and turned to me with a smile.

            “Sister?  What sister?  I don’t have a sister.”

            And the elevator door closed.

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Stories from the Psych Ward #2–Andy’s Story

(This is another in the series of fictional accounts and character sketches inspired by my stay in the hospital.)

Andy’s Story

            “Hey, Andy,” I said to the big man as he carried his dinner tray over to my table.  “Missed you at lunch.  Thought maybe you wore yourself out on the piano this morning.”

            He put his tray down and settled himself across the table from me without a word.  He took the cover off his plate of baked ziti and carrots, and placed it off to the side.  He picked up the menu slip tucked under the bowl of cottage cheese, and compared it to what was set out before him.  “I asked for two rolls,” he said in disgust, and pushed the one in front of him first one way and then the other, as if thinking that the second one might be hiding.

            When satisfied that what he had was all that he was going to get, he took a long drink of black coffee (decaf, of course) and looked up at me.

            “Got some bad news,” he grunted, and started salting his carrots.

            “I’m sorry,” I said, conscious of the fact that my therapist kept telling me that I wasn’t supposed to be sorry for things that I didn’t do or couldn’t control.  But old habits die hard, and I didn’t see what it could hurt to be polite.

            I wondered if Andy was going to say any more as he dug into his meal as if he hadn’t eaten in, well, at least six hours.  He usually was pretty predictable:  ask him a simple question, then just listen and nod as he rambled, riffed, repeated, and ranted over the topic at hand, or any others that came to mind.  His favorite topics were popular music from the ‘40’s; classic action movies from the ‘70’s and ‘80’s; literature that he hoped to read one day; ancient and new age religions (which he considered one and the same); and government excesses.  After three days I couldn’t tell if he was a republican or a democrat—he was an equal-opportunity critic.

            But this time he didn’t follow up his remark.  He ate everything on his tray, and even a piece of pizza that Ben put up for grabs.  We weren’t allowed to share food, but the techs didn’t say anything, and Andy really seemed to appreciate anything we didn’t like, didn’t want or hadn’t ordered.  At 6’1” and 300 pounds, he looked like he might have been a linebacker 40 years ago.  The big man enjoyed this institutional food more than just about anyone else on the ward.

            Only after he had put the cover back over his plate and the tech had picked up the tray did he speak again.

            “They’re putting me out of here tomorrow,” he said.

            “That’s great!” I responded stupidly.  He had called it bad news, and he had said they were “…putting him out.”  Most of us talked about being discharged, going home, getting out, or splitting the joint.  Some, like Artie, told us every day in group meeting that his goal was to be discharged “tomorrow.”  We all knew that he wouldn’t be going home any time soon—he was plain crazy and just didn’t know it.  At least most of us realized that we were only moderately sick and would soon be better and be glad to go home.

            But Andy was different.  He used a napkin as a tissue, and then wiped what might have been a tear off his cheek.  “This place is like a vacation to me,” he said.

            “What do you mean?” I asked, growing genuinely interested.

            “It’s quiet here.  I can sleep when I want to, my meals are delivered to me, somebody else remembers to give me my pills.  The halls are wide enough that we could have wheelchair races if they would let us have wheelchairs.  I can play the piano as much as I want, and I can watch TV and complain about the food.”  He laughed heartily and pounded his fist on the table.  I wasn’t sure if it was out of exuberance or anger.

            “You can’t do those things at home?”  Duh—another stupid remark.  If he could do those things at home, then this wouldn’t be a vacation to him, would it?  But he answered me anyway.

            “I can complain about the food, but who’s going to listen?  I cook for myself.  I used to be a good cook.  These days it’s mostly microwave crap.”  He paused to blow his nose again.  I refrained from saying anything stupid.

            “They cut off my cable, but I have a TV and a good collection of movies I can watch—I probably have 20 or 30 tapes I’ve picked up over the years.  Did you ever see Terminator?  I’ve got all those movies.  They have some pretty good tapes in the tv room here, too.  They don’t have DVD’s because they don’t want anybody breaking one and going on a cutting spree.  I could have DVD’s at home, but I have a VCR that I picked up at a yard sale for five bucks, so that’s what I use.”

            Andy was getting more serious.  “My house is in pretty bad shape,” he said, barely above a whisper.  “I need to get to work on it.  I’ve been meaning to for a long time, but I just couldn’t.  It’s not a good place to go back to.”

            “Where do you live?”  It wasn’t exactly a stupid question, but Andy looked at me as if it was.  We both knew that we weren’t supposed to share personal information that anyone could use against us when they got out.  Spill your guts in group—tell everybody your worst fears and most twisted imaginations, but for heavens sake don’t mention your last name!

            “I mean, do you live in the city or out in the country?”  I mentally patted myself on the back for a good recovery.  That made it sound like a reasonable and non-intrusive inquiry.

            “In the city.  Down on Union Street.  That’s one of the problems.”

            “That’s not one of the worst sections of town,” I countered.

            “The city says my house makes the rest of the area look bad.”

            After a moment he continued.  “Two years ago they took my dog away.  The neighbors said he barked too much, but hey—a dog’s gotta bark.  You know what I mean?”

            I nodded.

            “Last year they gave me a ticket cause I didn’t cut my grass.  Cost me almost a thousand dollars to pay somebody to clean up and mow the yard, and then pay the fine.  And they’ll be after me again when I go home.”

            “Don’t you have a lawn mower?”

            “Oh, yeah—I have three.  Two of them don’t run, but I got them cheap a few years back, and once I get the parts it won’t take anything to fix them up.  The other one is out back, and it worked the last time I tried it.  I’m not sure it will start now, though.

            “The neighbor wants me to take down a tree that’s leaning over the fence, and I’ve got a bunch of tires stored in the back that I need to get rid of.  I used to pick them up and resell them, but it got so I had more than I could sell, and you can’t put them out with the trash, you know?  And there’s quite a bit of other trash, too; I bagged it all up and put it on the curb, but the city won’t pick it up unless you put it in their pretty green bags, which I didn’t have the cash to buy, so my black bags sat by the sidewalk till the city threatened me with another ticket, so now they’re on the front porch.  The neighbors called the health department.  That’s why I’m here, you know.”

            “Oh?”  I didn’t want to pry, but Andy didn’t need much encouragement to continue.

            “Yeah, the health department came to my house, and they looked around and made some calls and asked my some questions, and brought me over here.  I told them I was fine with the way things were, but they didn’t agree.  I have a lot of things, you know, and I’m working at sorting through it all…to be honest, I’ve been saying that for years, but I really need to…I can’t even get to my piano.  It’s been a long time–that’s why I was so rusty this morning.”

            “I could tell what you were playing.”

            “Yeah, thanks…but…they’re gonna take it all, you know.  They’re just waiting for me to get home, and then …I can’t go back there.”  The despair—the hopelessness—the helplessness—his entire being sagged under the weight.

            “Isn’t there somewhere else you could go?” I protested.

            “No.”  He rose and started to leave.  As he passed me he put his hand on my shoulder.  “Thanks for singing with me this morning.  It made me feel good.”

            “Me too.”  And then he was gone.

            An hour or so later an alarm sounded and we all had to gather in the activity room to be accounted for, and to keep us out of the way of the crash cart and emergency responders.  Andy wasn’t there.

            The nurses and techs can’t say anything, so nobody asked.  But eventually the rumors started   He had a heart attack.  He threatened his therapist and had to be restrained.  He tried to force his way through the security door.  He went into diabetic shock.  No one knew, but everybody had a guess.

            Dan, his roommate, said that Andy had told him that if they tried to make him leave, he would slam his hand in the bathroom door and break his fingers so they would have to keep him longer.  But Dan was always after attention, so nobody took him seriously.

            All I know is that I never saw Andy again.  I’ve been tempted to drive down Union Street, but I haven’t gotten to it.

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Ted’s Story

Here is an offering from what I hope will one day be a collection of stories inspired by my stay on the mental health ward.  The characters were inspired by people I met, but the names and situations are changed, and their histories, motivations, and thoughts are completely fictional.  I came to trust and appreciate the members of my “community” too much to expose them to ridicule, disrespect, or even public exposure.  There was no “Ted”; but there was a man who inspired me to create “Ted” for my own enjoyment (?) and possibly yours.  Methods and practices portrayed are accurate enough to give you an idea of what life was like as a patient on the ward.  Warning:  this is not a “feel-good” story, but few of the stories from the psych ward are.

Ted’s Story

            Ted lay flat on his back, his arms at his sides.  The room was dark, but by the light from the hallway he could see water stains on the ceiling.  The open door allowed the conversations and random sounds from the nurses’ station to enter the room uninvited. 

            As long as he was awake, Ted thought he might as well do his physical therapy exercises.  No one would put the bed rails down for him, so he couldn’t sit on the edge of the bed or reach his walker.  He determined to do his therapy regardless of their efforts to restrain him.

            He wiggled his toes.  He couldn’t see them or feel them, but he assumed that they were wiggling.  They had better be, he thought.  Then left foot toes curl, straighten, point, repeat.  Right foot toes curl, straighten, point, repeat.  The twinge in his ankle told him that pointing his toes toward the wall was working.  He wondered how many times he would have to do the exercise before he was steady on his feet again.  It didn’t matter.  He would get there.  Or die trying.  Or die giving up.  Or just die.

            He bent his arms at the elbows.  That was better; he could see his hands in his peripheral vision.  Back down, and up again.  Straighten the fingers. Straighten the fingers.  He tried to focus his gaze on first one hand, then the other.  Both were knotted into fists, and neither wanted to let go of the anger and frustration it held.  Ted gritted his teeth and lowered his hands to his sides.

            “Theodore….Are you awake, Theodore?  How are you doing, buddy?” 

            It was Wallace, the tech.  They didn’t call them nurses or even nurses’ aides; they called them techs, short for technicians, as if they thought the body was a machine and the mind was a component that could be adjusted or reprogrammed.  Ted ignored the young man and continued to stare at the ceiling.

            “Theodore….Wake up, Theodore. We need to get some information from you.”

            Idiot.  Do people sleep with their eyes open?  And what information could they possibly need in the middle of the night?  And how many times, the patient asked himself, did he have to tell them that he wanted to be called Ted?  Only his mother called him Theodore—or his wife when she was angry with him.  He stared at the ceiling.

            “Theodore, I can see that you’re awake.  I need to ask you some questions.”

            Ted slowly and deliberately closed his eyes.

            “I’m still here, Theodore, and I’m going to ask you some questions which will help us to take care of you.  Do you understand?”

            Ted made no response.

            “We’re here to help you, Theodore.  We need to make sure that you get the right medications, and the right diet, and everything you need to help you get better.  But we need you to talk to us.  Okay, buddy?”

            The patient opened his eyes, but pointedly did not look at the tech. 

            “Ted,” he said.

            “Okay, that’s a good start.  You like to be called Ted?  I’ll make sure that your nurse knows that.  Now, how are you doing?”

            Long pause.  “Fine,” Ted said, a little louder than necessary.  He wondered if the tech could detect the sarcasm in his answer.

            “Well, you wouldn’t be here if you were really fine, would you Ted?  Do you know where you are?”

            “Hospital.”

            “That’s right, and we’re going to take good care of you here at the hospital.  Do you know what day it is?”

            It was Saturday when I came in, thought Ted, but who knows how long I’ve been here, being poked and interrogated and locked into this bed?  Give me my watch and a calendar, and maybe I could tell you! 

            But he kept his thoughts to himself.

            “Do you know how you got here, Ted?”

            “Wife.”

            The tech checked the paperwork in his hands.  “That’s good!  Your wife Elaine brought you in yesterday, and you spent some time downstairs while we waited for a bed.  It’s Sunday morning now.”

            “Eileen.”

            “Do you know why you’re here, Ted?” the tech went on, ignoring Ted’s correcting him about his wife’s name.

            Not that it mattered to Ted.  He had no feelings for her one way or the other.  Except that he would never forgive her for what she did, as long as he lived. 

            “Do you know why you are here in the hospital, Ted?”

            At least the tech changed the tone of his voice when he repeated the question.  Give him that.

            “Ted, stay with me buddy. Do you—“

            “Tried to kill myself.”

            “When did you do that, Ted?”

            “Last night.”

            “Have you tried to kill yourself since you have been here?”  Wallace asked.

            Ted groaned inwardly.  How could anyone do anything in this place?  They had taken his belt and his shoelaces; the windows were sealed; there weren’t even any call bells, because the cords might prove to be a choking danger.  And someone looked in at you every fifteen minutes to make sure you were still breathing.  The only thing he could possibly do was to slam his head in the door—except for the bed rails that kept him from getting to his walker.  He ignored the question.

            “I need you to answer some questions about how you want us to help you.  Can you answer some questions for me?”  Wallace sounded insincere again, and maybe a little bored.  Ted just looked at him.

            “So, if you are having a bad time, how would you like us to help you:  talk to you, or put you in a quiet place?”

            “Quiet place.”  Ted wished this was a quiet place.

            “When you are having a bad time, do you like to be touched?  Do you prefer to be touched on the hand, the arm, the shoulder, somewhere else, or not at all?”

            Ted was quiet for a long time.  “No touch.”

            “That’s good.  We need to know how we can help you and make you comfortable while you are here….”

            Every curse word Ted knew was in full force as he formulated his responses; but he kept them to himself.  He refused to lower his dignity to the level of these….even his alternate vocabulary failed him for a moment.

            “If you are having a bad time would you rather be helped by a man, a woman, or either one?”

            Ted just shot Wallace a look of disgust and disdain.

            “During a bad time, do you prefer to be helped by a man or a woman?”

            “Man.”

            “And why is that?”

            Ted shut down.  Why did it matter?  Why ask him his preferences, if they weren’t going to accept his answers at face value?  Why nag at him for answers that they wouldn’t like?  It was as if they had been taking lesson from Eileen, may she…

            “Ted?  Stay with me buddy….”

            If only she had minded her own business.  He could have made it down into the garage—it was only one step, for Heavens sake!  He had it all planned out: get to the stair, turn the walker sideways…

            “Ted—I need you to answer my questions.  Why do you prefer men to help if you need to be restrained?”

            …lower the walker onto the step, and move down after it, then again to the garage floor…

            “Ted, you know that you need to talk to me.  Are you thinking about the answer?”

            …shuffle past the driver’s side door, then open it and get inside, at least enough to turn the ignition….

            “Ted. Ted.  If you don’t answer my questions, then I will have to put you down as ‘Uncooperative.’  You don’t want the doctor to think you were uncooperative, do you?”

            …then just relax, breathe deeply, and in a few minutes, go to sleep…

            “Ted—I’m going to ask you just once more.  Why would you rather not have a woman help you when you are having a bad time?”

            “Eileen.”

            “Good.  Thank you, Ted.  I’m sure they will let her come see you tomorrow.  But are you ready to answer my questions?  We don’t have many more, and then I can let you go to sleep.”

            “Go ahead.”

            “All right.  We’ll go on to the next one.  If you have a severe response to a situation, would you prefer to be restrained, or to be given a shot to help calm you down?  We know this isn’t going to happen, but we have to ask so that we have it on record just in case.  When we’re done, I’m going to tape this paper inside your closet door, so that any of the nurses or techs have access to it right away.  So what is your preference?”

            “Repeat the question.”

            “If we need to restrain you…”

            “Eileen.”  Let Wallace the tech think he was being uncooperative; Ted knew the truth.  He could imagine her in a strait-jacket, or getting a tranquilizer shot, or both.  Maybe one day he would forgive her for stopping him and calling the ambulance; but until then, he could enjoy his little fantasy.  It gave him something to live for.

            Ted smiled, closed his eyes, and pretended to go to sleep.

 

 

 

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