Having a mental illness means needing help sometimes. I spent this last week in an inpatient psychiatric facility otherwise known as the psych ward, looney bin, funny farm – the place for nut jobs, lunatics and the insane, right? I could dispute that stigma with my own story but what struck me was the stories of my fellow travelers: women who had been raped and abused, driven to attempt suicide. A woman desperate and confused after finding her husband dead after his own suicide. A young woman in so much pain she was unable to speak. A young man filled with anger and hopelessness, surrounded by women yet still there, still working his program. Everyone was there voluntarily seeking help. Each one doing the hard work that brings about psychic healing.
It wasn’t the place that brought magical healing. Don’t get me wrong; it was a good facility. The place was clean, the staff well-trained. Because it was a voluntary commitment facility, we had all agreed not to harm ourselves or act too crazy. There was no “rubber room”, only the threat of being moved to a not-so-nice, not-so-friendly, facility. At my facility the group leader brought everyone chamomile tea to soothe and calm us. I doubted a place for the involuntarily committed mentally ill would be quite so nurturing but I could be wrong. My assumptions were wrong in other ways.
I’m not, however, going to write about treatment facilities – either scary or nurturing. I want to write about what I learned in that facility from the people there:
1. Mental illness is scary not the people with mental illness
I was never afraid of my fellow travelers. The people I sat around with assembling puzzles, playing games, or coloring in adult coloring books were just like all my friends back home except for the pain in their eyes and the hesitation in their words. These were survivors. These were powerful men and women who had faced their nightmares and not only survived but were willing to do the hard, psychological work to get better. They were not scary people; they had just experienced very scary things.
2. Mental illness is pain
Acknowledging that mental illness is pain took place in strange ways sometimes. We were forbidden to touch by rules designed to protect us but laughter over the rule brought us together, and respect of the rule acknowledged the pain behind it. Some of us were rape survivors, some suffered from PTSD. The no-touching rule may have felt like isolation at times but it was a nod to the depth of pain each person was facing.
3. Mental illness does not equal weakness
The people I was surrounded by were conquerors. Their stories made mine tame in comparison and yet they hadn’t killed themselves or hurt other people. They may have tried. They may have wanted to but they hadn’t given in. They were fighters against the negativity in their worlds. They are overcomers.
4. Those with mental illness still know how to love
Whether socializing with other travelers or simply listening to each other’s stories they were there for each other, supporting each other, encouraging each other. As our group cycled through each day brought newcomers in and graduates out. There wasn’t a lot of time for deep connections on an individual level but I gained such a deep respect for each patient, fighter, overcomer. I spent a week with some amazing people. Strong, courageous, indefatigable people. We may not know each other well enough to be friends but to my fellow travelers, you have my eternal respect.