They tried to make it nice.
They festooned the rec room in plastic Christmas decorations and bought us all donuts. There was even a special meal—dressing and gravy with a slice of turkey. But store-bought donuts and cafeteria holiday dinner didn’t change the fact that we all—patients and nurses included—were spending Christmas in an L.A. psych ward.
I hadn’t wanted to spend Christmas there, but I needed to. I’d been sick for years at this point and was not getting better. I ended up calling my family and talking to them through the sole payphone that we all shared on the floor. I can only imagine what Christmas was like for them; for my parents to talk to their daughter while she was far away and they couldn’t physically see me. But for me, the person actually in the hospital, it was soul-crushing.
I still did it, though, because what was the alternative? Being sick forever? I told myself I’d do whatever it would take to get well and this was it.
In this coronavirus crisis, there are people with COVID-19 waging their battles against the illness mostly alone. Surrounded by only doctors and nurses, loved ones can’t physically visit, and no one can physically comfort them. But the same goes for those staying at any hospital these days, as most have shut down visitation. Behavioral health centers treating mental illness are no different and I feel awful for the people who can’t have visitors and must go through this stress-inducing crisis alone. But when you’re severely mentally ill, not going to the hospital isn’t always an option. Sometimes it’s the only option to get someone back on track. Sometimes it’s the only way to save a life, as I know it saved mine several times.
But life, thankfully, is what you make it. And you too can survive your mental health crisis in the middle of a global pandemic, even if it’s just you…or just you and your fellow patients.
This goes for yourself. You shouldn’t spend a lot of time judging whether you’re doing this whole survival thing right or wrong. The point is to survive and stay healthy by whatever means are at your disposal. If that’s medication, take your medication. If that’s meditation, fire up the Calm app and get to relaxing. If that’s by keeping a regular schedule, do it. But don’t beat up on yourself if you have a bad day, or week or month. You’re going through a global crisis. It’s OK to not completely have it together. I know I don’t.
This is again for you should you decide you have to be hospitalized. All people have value, including you, including other mentally ill people—because, in the end, that’s what we all are, just people who want to be loved and give love. Sometimes that comes out in weird ways that don’t make sense to everyone else. Sometimes it doesn’t even make sense to yourself, but that’s what each of you is on this hospital journey to figure out. For every hospital stay I’ve had, I’ve bonded with someone or with a group while there and I was all the better for it, learning from them and them learning from me.
Don’t like art? So what. Go to the art class. Not an alcoholic? No one cares. Go to the AA meetings in the hospital anyway. I went to every group, every therapy session, every “exercise” activity even though all I wanted to do was go back to bed because, again, this is about getting better and you have nothing but time now. Might as well fill up your hospital social calendar.
If something doesn’t feel right, speak up. This goes for any black person encountering any hospital system. Too often, the needs of African Americans go ignored by biased doctors, due to preconceived notions about race—that we somehow feel less pain or are “tougher” than other people. This is garbage and leads to so many unnecessary injuries, illnesses and deaths in our community, thanks to doctors who don’t listen.
The goal is always to get better and to be willing to do whatever you have to do to find that stability. No matter how alone you are—no one came to visit me once during my UCLA hospital stay, including my psychiatrist who promised to come through on Christmas and then promptly, did not—you can find solace and comfort in yourself and within the kindness of others.
My hospital stay wasn’t pleasant. I was terribly lonely and I didn’t always get along with my fellow patients, but I found something beautiful within myself and them. No matter how sick I was, I still had the capacity to care about others. If you are alone in this crisis while struggling with mental health issues, find an outlet, an activity, or a mission that you can dedicate some of your free time to. Find something bigger than yourself to hold on to for the days when holding on to yourself isn’t enough.