All of the patients on my floor are women with various mental health conditions from bipolar, depression, severe anxiety disorder, and self-harm. It surprises just how different each patient is; there are moms, grandmothers, teenagers, professionals, retirees, and homeless people with no access to medicine.
My first two days in the ward, I do not have cafeteria privileges so I spend most of my day on the Emotional Recovery Unit in and out of group sessions. I listen intently as the people in the group share. A tall, lean, athletic woman remains quiet most groups but nods her head in agreement with others. A married woman simply explains she had a breakdown. The mental health professionals coach us on how to handle stress, recognize triggers, and practice health coping mechanisms. I write in my journal how much these women’s feelings sounds like my own; feelings of worthlessness, loneliness, and feeling like a burden to my loved ones. I do not utter these feelings out loud. I am a television reporter, and I am trying to conceal that fact. I work for the number one rated television station in the area. I know these women have seen me on-air at least once. I am embarrassed and ashamed that my mental illness has brought me to the brink of attempting suicide and being hospitalized. Even in the psych ward I am battling my own guilt, shame, and stigma of mental illness.
The day I get cafeteria privileges I get to eat at the table with the other female patients. There the women speak even more candidly. A woman shares that police found her on a mattress in her trailer home with no heat or food. Just her two dogs, a and random momentos. The tall lean woman who always stays so quiet in group shares how ashamed she feels struggling with depression in her high stress job as an emergency room nurse. She admits that it is not her first time in the psych ward. I can not believe that a medical profession is in the psych ward with me sharing my struggle of suicide and depression, and is willingly talking about it. Her bravery makes me feel bold.
“Well I’m a news reporter, and I …” it surprises me to hear the words leave my mouth.
“I knew you looked familiar,” says the woman sitting next to me. My hearts starts beating rapidly, and I wonder if I’ve made a mistake.
“That must be pretty tough to handle,” the ER nurse says. Her empathy matters. It stirs something in me, a feeling I’ve never felt or a my mental health battle; a feeling of unity.
After lunch the mental health professionals let us go outside to relax. One of the cafeteria doors opens to a small fenced in area behind the psych ward. It’s a small grassy area with two benches, a picnic table and a large brown fence cutting us off from the real world. You’d think the psych wards patients had just been released to Disney World. Everyone rushes out the door clamoring for a spot under the sun.
I choose one of the benches underneath a pine tree, and I stare up at the sky. I inhale the warm summer air, and as I exhale I relax into this moment. There is no deadline to chase, parents to satisfy, or scale to beat.
“Can I sit here?” I turn to see a skinny, white woman with grey hair and green eyes. I nod and welcome her.
“That was brave of you to talk about your job,” she says.
“Yea I guess people were going to find out anyway,” I reply.
“Can you believe I used to be an account executive? A big one too,” she says sticking out her chest in pride. Part of me wants to doubt her since I’ve heard a few made up stories from some of the paranoid patients in the ward, but something about her steady tone and calm volume of voice assures me she is genuine.
“I was really good at my job. I did these big presentations and I was always getting promoted,” her voice starts to drift. “Then, I started freezing up in front of my bosses. I couldn’t seem to get ahold of myself. Once I was so nervous I couldn’t even start the overhead projector, and I’ve used that thing for years.”
I get lost in her story. She has struggled with anxiety and depression for years. The battle brought her to the psych ward several times. It wasn’t long though before she lost everything; her job, her ability to live on her own, and a lot of her pride. My anxiety was starting to make me lose focus at work also, and even the simplest tasks felt impossible at times.
“I know how you feel kid. Trust me, you are not alone.” I am not alone. It is such a small thing to say, but if you are fighting the darkness of depression where it looks like no one is there in your pain, it’s huge.
The next day I decide to share my story in group. Something strange happens. A bit of the shame starts to break away. I am not alone. There are hundreds, even thousands of people living with mental illness. Hearing the women in the psych ward share their stories, made me feel brave enough to share mine. And the more I share the more I move towards acceptance. Acceptance set me free. Once the chains of shame and guilt fell away I was able to grab a hold of therapy, medicine, and my life. And, now I share my story as much as I can. I want others to feel the warm embrace of acceptance in what often feels like a lone fight of the mind.
By Lauren Hope