The Game– Or How to Survive in the Psych Ward

The object of the game was to get out by Monday morning. And we devised a strategy to get the hell out.

“We” was me and two girls on the ward who were around my age. I ended up making a few friends after all. Both of them were in their late twenties or early thirties and had kids. One was about eight months pregnant and constantly complained about the no smoking rule; the other looked sixteen but was in her late twenties and was married with two kids. We had all checked ourselves in on Friday, looking for a little help, and had walked blindly into a hell we were desperate to escape from.

We knew we couldn’t get out before Monday because of the check-out rules. Therefore, our unifying goal was to get cleared to leave by Monday morning. ASAP.

We began to treat our time in there like a game. We certainly weren’t receiving any therapy or treatment. (Not including medications, which they handed out like candy. Especially the sedatives, and especially if you were bad). So to us it was all a big game– if you played your hand right, you got out. But if you broke one of the rules, you’d be stuck there for longer.

To win the game, you had to follow the strategy. You had to put on a happy face, pretend to be social, and, above all, you could not mention that you were still horribly depressed and hated everything about being stuck in inpatient hell.*

*The strategy, by nature, is incredibly perverse and that alone is enough to make me sick. I checked in because I wanted help– but going in only made things worse. The experience did end up scaring me straight (for a few months) but that part comes later.

Pasting on a smile at group was the easy part.

The hard part was pretending to be social. The nurses made notes about everything you did, including when you went to sleep and for how long. Staying in bed and missing group or a meal was a strike against you. Sleeping all day was another strike. Even spending the day in your room was a strike.

This meant that, even though I wanted to sleep the weekend away, I had to hang around the common area and pretend not to be miserable. I had plenty of studying to keep me busy so I forced myself to try to catch up on Energy Law in one of the almost-comfortable arm chairs in the common area– even though I’d rather be studying in my shared room, away from distractions. But the absence of distraction afforded by my semi-private room was not worth the strike on my chart, so I posted up in the common area and tried to learn Energy Law.

Above all, crying was not allowed.

Crying got you a big black strike. As soon as the nurses noticed tears they would be marked down in your chart. An ugly black inky reason to keep you there for another day. Crying was a sign of instability, weakness, a symptom of your disorder, the catalyst that brought you in there in the first place. Crying was not okay.

Unfortunately, all I wanted to do was cry. I was trapped in a place I never thought I would be. I was completely isolated from all technology, friends, and any semblance of the real word. I was desperately lonely, I missed my dog, I missed my friends, hell, I even missed school. Every part of me wanted to lie face first into my pillow and sob myself to sleep until it was all over.

This was not an option. Crying was not part of the strategy. And I had to get out by Monday; I would consider no other possibilities. So I learned to cry discretely, and appropriately. It was appropriate to tear up, sniffle, or cry occasionally– no loud sobbing!– during group.

So I learned to hide my tears. I discovered that if I walked casually into my room without a nurse following me, I could sneak in a few minutes of desperate crying before washing up in the bathroom and heading back to the common room, ready to get back into the game.

After all, the object of the game was to get out. And I was getting out.

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5 responses to “The Game– Or How to Survive in the Psych Ward

  • cabrogal

    I was just listening to a mother on the radio who is lobbying to ensure that the state doesn’t close the hospital her 16yo daughter is locked in as then she would have to be released.

    As an aside she mentioned that her daughter had been sexually assaulted in there and it had made her condition worse.

    I’d estimate that more than half of the women I’ve heard from who’ve done time in a locked ward say they’ve been sexually assaulted while there.

    I think involuntary commitment helps people overcome lunacy about as well as prison sentences help people overcome criminality.

  • Opiophiliac

    Sounds all too much like my time in the ward. I’ve been lucky enough to have to play that game three times. Three times is enough for me! Strangely enough: this has only made my depression worse. All I’ve learned is how to hide my symptoms better. It is no wonder that when someone commits suicide their friends and family never see symptoms. You always hear them say, “but he seemed so happy” or, “he didn’t show any symptoms.” Perhaps he was simply hiding his depression, afraid of what would happen to him; what the label “Suicidal” would mean to his future. The mental health system in this country is absolutely abominable. Thanks for the post, it was very insightful.

  • riverfacklam

    Very well written, and I can definitely relate.

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