What Six Days in a Psychiatric Ward Taught me about Goodness and Dignity


I recently spent six days at Saint Vincent psychiatric hospital in Westchester, NY. Toxic levels of Lithium and debilitating walking pneumonia had taken a heavy toll on my mind.

My initial feelings in the ward were devastating loneliness. Dressed in a revealing hospital gown,  shivering, and disoriented, I took refuge in the farthest corner of the cold bathroom floor.

I paid a heavy price for that self-confinement. In silence and isolation, dark thoughts haunted my mind.

Leaving my isolation to eat,  I met four people who would help me endure the next six days:  Mark, the exterminator; Linda, the gentle retired teacher; Martha, the Yoga master; and Lenn, the mailman. Each one of them became my world away from the world. Through their pain, uncertainty, courage, hope, and quiet presence, I retained my humanity.

Yes, I admit that our mutual support may have been the product of necessity. But in that forced surrendering,  hostage to our scary fragility, the virtue of dependency sustained us. By showing one another love and care, we discovered the best in ourselves.

The Crushing Jaws of Boredom

The boredom tormented us. When the weekend arrived, it became much worse. All activities, including art, creative writing, and the check-in group, vanished. In that vacuum, we felt abandoned to the crushing jaws of our unstable minds. Television became our life vest. But the screen was so tiny that we could barely see the ball in the basketball game.

We argued over what to watch: CNN or less anxiety-provoking animal shows. While I was the one who wanted CNN and lost the vote, I gained something more precious, a community.

We all become culinary experts, endlessly criticizing the food. I never solved the mystery of why Martha, my vegetarian partner, got fresh fruit for dessert while I remained a prisoner to neon green jello.

We complained endlessly about everything, from the shared showers to the annoying vital checkups. Still, our defiant protests were futile. The situation remained unchanged. But something more fundamental was at stake. The right to feel discomfort and complain remained our last fortress of individuality and dignity.

We offered each other the precious gift of a listening ear. Our eyes focused on the face of those in need of empathy, guided us as a North Star toward sanity.

I dreaded the night. Once my head hit the pillow, dark thoughts took over my mind.

I went to sleep praying, “please, be morning again.” I woke up, longing for others to line up for the shower. Their presence stabilized me. The Talmud, the leading Jewish book of wisdom, teaches that the Divine presence increases with each person. Behind the locked doors of the ward, I found my Divine image reflected in those deemed “abnormal.”

Above all, in the psychiatric ward, I learned that humility is the path to redemption. By accepting my vulnerability, I found others. And in others, I found myself.  

It may be wise for us to consider living our lives as if in a psychiatric ward. Sanity, I learned, is present in the most unlikely places.

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