What’s your perception of psychiatric ward? You’re probably picturing patients in pressed white gowns, walking the hallways of an old brick building with a glazed look upon their face. Patients who are strapped to the bed wailing over deformed thoughts in their minds. Hell, you might even picture Leonardo DiCaprio trying to solve the case on Shutter Island. Everyone can picture Leo running around that island in his fancy detective suit, puffing on his cancer filled cigarettes, with his furrow brow raised trying to solve the mystery of the 67th patient. When in reality those cigarettes were loaded psychotropic medications so the doctors could perform mind control on his character. The type of experimental practice we expect in a psych ward. Those imagines paint a false portrait of what a psych ward is (even though those may still exist in our world). Psych wards and the people who vacation there shouldn’t be stuck with the stigma of being the Looney Tunes, the crazies, the outcasts, or the black sheep’s of our society. In all honesty, the reality is vastly different from the imagines TV shows and movies have infiltrated our minds with. As shocking as it may seem, I met some incredible people during my stay in a psych ward. People living a life some people fantasize about, but they are no different than you or I. Some were just regular people that got punched in the face by life.
The elevator door slid open and the four wheels of the wheelchair clanked over the threshold as we exited, we had arrived at our destination. Most elevators have the Christmas tree display of floors you can chose from, however this one was much different. Three buttons: Lobby, second floor, and a blank button. “Where the fuck are we going,” ran through my head – turns out the blank button stood for the locked psych ward. We were keyed in through one set of doors, placed in the holding area, and then keyed through a final set of doors into the main lobby. The week long vacation in a locked ward was officially underway.
I was one of 14 people. That meant there were 13 other people in there with their own stories and personalities. Thirteen reasons why they were in the same ward I was in. At first my mind flashed all those stereotypes. I assumed these 13 individuals were crazy motherfuckers that must have some serious mental illness – in time I’d find out I was completely wrong. I wasn’t scared, but thought there was no way I belonged in this place with these people. I wasn’t crazy or have a history of mental illness; turns out some of them didn’t either. By the end of my week vacation in the locked ward four of those 13 people would impact my life.
Amy was the first person who talked to me. She simply asked, “What’s your name handsome?” After I replied, Amy informed me she was happy she now had “eye candy” for the remainder of her stay.
Amy was in her mid-40s and had a weather beaten look on her face. She didn’t have bumps and bruises, but it looked like she just went 12 rounds with Tyson. I quickly learned that she’d been there for over a month, which explained why she looked that way. Amy had a story for everything; she claimed to have been a well-traveled person living in Los Angeles, Miami, and Boston throughout her years. She was born and raised in Boston and had a wicked Boston accent – she could’ve played the mother on Ray Donovan, it was that strong.
Amy knew my story and was the first person that told me everything would work out. Here I am looking up at an obstacle as high as a mountain and this stranger is telling me everything will work out. Amy told me stories throughout the week about her life. How she had traveled all over the country, living life after life, but never finding the life she wanted. Now here she was in a locked psych ward, she couldn’t believe it. One thing she told me has stuck with me, “You’re a young man, only 24, and you have your whole life ahead of you. This is just one week and you can do anything you want in the future.” She was right.
Tommy was the second person I encountered. He should’ve had the nickname “Tiny,” because he was the exact opposite of tiny. Tommy was about six-foot-five and well over 400 pounds. He was so big he could be a starting tackle in the NFL. Tommy was in the ward because he had been battling a severe drug addiction since he was a young man. Now in his mid-30s, he was still fighting this war and sadly he was losing. He didn’t really have a deep inspirational impact on my stay, but after spending six days with him he redefined funny. He is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met; he deserves his own TV show. Picture this gargantuan man, wearing a tutu, doing his best slow motion Ace Ventura impression – ironically in a psych ward.
“I’m gonna execute a button-hook pattern, super slo-mo. Now let’s see that in an instant replay,” he’d say. Tommy made my stay easy because he made everyone laugh. Laughter took away the feeling of captivity and it was a way to de-stress. This man probably could have a legitimate career in comedy, but instead he was fighting a losing battle, the same battle he’s been losing for the majority of his life.
Then there was Rick. Rick was an older gentleman who looked like an alcoholic version of George Clooney. The older gray bearded version of Clooney, not 1995 ER Clooney. Rick also had this McConaughey-esk raspy voice that you could listen to for hours – the man was something out of fictional story. Rick didn’t say very much, but when he did you listened as if it were E.F. Hutton. The reason Rick looked like this is because he’s actually an alcoholic. He’s been a functioning alcoholic since he was a teenager, but lives a successful life as a writer (with two published books) and as a taxi driver. Rick landed in the ward because he fell of the wagon to the point of death – literally he almost died from alcohol poisoning. Even though this binge almost killed him, Rick knew once he got home he’d open the wooden liquor cabinet, crack open the Whiskey, and pour himself a double. That was all he knew. This man is the reason I started writing. He started writing over 30 years ago because it was one thing no one could take away from him. It was something he did because he loved it and it was therapeutic for him. We discussed my untapped passion for writing, something I have since thoroughly enjoyed – Thank you Rick.
Finally along came Mike. Picture George Costanza, but with a full head of hair, that was Mike. Mike is a man that has a lot to live for, but was in the ward because he tried to commit suicide, which obviously failed him. Mike works for a big firm in Boston, owns a beautiful home right outside the city, and most importantly he has a little girl. I was baffled that a man that seemed to have it all wanted to end his life. Could life really be that hard for him? I’m certainly not in the position to judge, but I was blown away by his choice. Take away the job and the house; those two things don’t matter in the big picture, but the man has a little girl — only six years old – it upsets me (not in a negative light towards him) just writing about it. I personally could never imagine leaving a six-year-old little girl fatherless for the rest of her life. This was something Mike talked to me about throughout our stay.
I’m not a father, but I tried to reinforce to Mike not matter how hard his life had gotten he had her to live for. Countless years of memories were coming down the road for him and his daughter. He talked about having the six-figure salary that brought him fancy Armani Suits, a Range Rover, and luxurious trips around the world, but none of that brought the one thing money can’t buy, happiness. When I first met Mike I got the impression this man felt like his life was hopeless. Once Mike left the ward I have no doubt that he knew he had to be there for his daughters life. He knew that no matter where his life went he had his daughter, his happiness.
Rick and Mike are grown men that have lived past the middle point of their lives. These two men taught me that life is a long battle, a battle no one can win at my age. They taught me that as we move through our lives there will always be new challenges. Even when those challenges knock you on your ass time after time, the only thing that matters is that you keep getting back up. We shouldn’t give up on our lives if they aren’t what we want or planned because each year life is forever changing. They made me look back at the previous years of my life. When I looked back on the past few years so much has changed year after year. People and opportunities entered my life; some have stayed permanently, while others stayed for a brief period before finding the exit door. Most of us seem to forget that time has its own way of working magic. Time can be our best friend or our worst enemy, but ultimately time heals all. Fast-forward to years down the road and it’ll be same. Life will bring new people and opportunities into the future chapters; it’s how we handle them that matters.
When the final day arrived I was ready to go home. My week long vacation in the locked ward was finally over. I never plan to be back there, but my perception of those places has forever changed. Crazy people or sickos – at least not all of them, don’t occupy these wards. My stay there brought some of these people into my life, but only for that short period before they found the exit door. Whether or not those select few realize it, they impacted my life. It allowed me to step out of my own shoes and look at my life from a different prospective. There are ample opportunities in this world waiting for someone to grab by the horns. When life decides to punch you square in the face it may knock you flat on you ass, but you will stand back up.