How finding pockets of normalcy in a mental hospital prepared me well for losing normalcy during COVID19
My name is Katia, and I am a suicide survivor. In 2016 I attempted suicide, and shortly after submitted myself to the mental hospital which resulted in a 3-day stay while my doctors and the nursing staff assessed whether I was ready to return to the world. I learned a lot about the value of maintaining whatever amount of normalcy I could despite having most of my personal possessions taken from me, limited control of my diet, schedule, and activities. Here’s the TLDR; Do what you can, accept what you can’t do.
When I first came to the hospital, my clothing, jewelry, phone, everything was taken from me including my bra. I requested to have my wedding band on, which was mercifully allowed.
I didn’t have a lot of control of my schedule (they strongly encourage you to attend the different therapy sessions but it’s up to you to attend), had some input on what I could eat (I opted for healthy foods that were similar but poor replacement to what I would eat at home), and had a long process of getting the correct medication from my nurses which unfortunately I had to take late. In addition: I couldn’t call anyone at my leisure because, although the phone was on most of the day, and the calls were free, a woman who pretended to talk to her mom was “using the phone” most of the time.
Even though I had submitted myself the night of my attempt (physically I was okay, and emotionally by that point I was stable, I wanted to be safe than sorry) and felt good enough to return to work (I had meetings for crying out loud!) my doctor informed me I was there until she felt ready to release me and made sure I had a 5150 placed on my charts.
So, taking a mental inventory of what my new normalcy was the first step to staying sane in mental health ward. What can I do? What can I not do? For how long? How can I maximize my comfort and happiness while I’m here? All of these questions helped me frame an understanding of this new environment and how I fit into it all.
Knowing I couldn’t change the system at the moment, fighting would have made me seem belligerent, and while I didn’t have complete freedom, I did have options. And that felt like a good place to start. I could choose what I ate from a menu of things, I could choose how I spent my time (sessions, workshops were strongly encouraged but not mandatory) and how I related to and treated my fellow patients and the staff.
Accepting that I couldn’t go home even though I felt fine was frustrating, but once I accepted this was what it was, it allowed me to focus on what I could do during my time there, which, I believe, is what allowed me to go home as soon as possible (which was after 3 days).
Coming to terms with the fact I couldn’t change the things I had no control over allowed me to discover and focus on the things I could do, and how I could proceed forward.
I realized early on we could have access to certain items such as drawing paper, pencils, and also any books we might have had with us or that were available on loan. I also discovered we could have (lukewarm) tea, and that, while my meals weren’t exactly like what I ate at home, I could order something similar and make do. Likewise, when were given options for workshops/classes and especially “outdoor” time, I tried to take advantage of this opportunities with the hope of discovering something new and having a nice change of pace.
I leaned into the Japanese book I had brought with me in my purse (I finished it by the time I left there). I requested things like my deodorant so that I could smell like myself, my hairbrush so I could brush my hair, and even on day three I was allowed to put some makeup on which really helped me feel normal again.
As an artist professionally, I spend a great deal of time drawing every single day for my job and on my personal time. It was a huge relief that on our down time I was allowed to do precisely that: drawing for myself, and also drawing for the other people who were in there with me. In fact, a friend I had made was having a tough day and when I started to draw her, she perked up a bit and I could tell it delighted many people to be drawn, to be seen. This made me feel the most like myself: I was doing what I loved and touching people with my artwork.
The tea, while not hot like I preferred, nor the Earl Gray that I enjoyed, was a welcome comfort. And my meals, although not my husband’s delicious fried rice, was nutritionally similar to what I would eat at home.
I took what I could, adjusted when possible, and leaned into the things that I retained.
When Normalcies Collide
I had one brush with my normalcy coming up against someone else’s perception of what my normalcy should be, and it almost landed me in hot water.
For this to make sense, I think it’s important you know this about me: I always shower before bed, and always put perfume and deodorant on once I’ve dried off and brushed my teeth. I can’t explain why… this is just my way of getting ready for sleep, and I like to sleep in which is why I don’t shower in the morning.
I suppose this is uncommon because it didn’t make me popular amongst the nighttime staff for some reason. I asked for my makeup bag at the nurses station at 9:30pm after my shower, and when the nurse asked me why, I explained its because it is where I keep my perfume, and I would like to apply it before bed. She responded with a tone of frustration and confusion, asking me why I would need to do that. Having never had to explain this habit to anyone, and this was my first brush with the nighttime staff (who was noticeably less kind and patient than the dayshift) I was completely dumbstruck.
I had asked politely and it seemed like a reasonable request, why was I getting push back? It was okay to ask for my makeup bag earlier today, why am I not allowed to ask for it now? Why did I have to explain?
And, being questioned aggressively like this, I had no “sane” answer. I almost panicked: I was doing very well and on everyone’s good side. I knew that having the nurses like me influenced my ability to leave sooner rather than later. And here I was, accidentally upsetting a head nurse.
Mercifully one of the other nurses, overhearing this conversation, piped up, “Oh yeah, I hear a lot of the Youtube girls do that, it’s a thing!” and offered to grab my bag for me.
When she returned with my bag, she explained to me in a lower voice: some of the staff here are so used to behavior that is not neuro-typical it is hard for them to recognize when someone is making a reasonable request.
I learned that day that my normalcy can seem unusual and unreasonable to others. Remaining calm, taking the time to explain my situation, and trying to see their viewpoint helped me out of a sticky situation.
Moral of the Story
So, to everyone whose normalcy has been greatly altered, find out the parameters of your new normalcy is. Embrace that this is where we are right now, and that we don’t have much control over the situation. And do what you can to continue doing the things you love and bring you comfort. Even if it means drinking lukewarm tea.