What Being in Psychiatric Wards Has Taught Me About People

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I was hospitalized twice within the span of a month. The first time was due to suicidal ideation, self-harm, and misdiagnosed major depressive disorder. The second time was due to being in a manic episode with undiagnosed rapid cycling Type I.

I was terrified the first time I was hospitalized. I was literally thrown in the thick of things, and because I hadn’t been grouped yet, I was stuck with the acute group for half a day, people who are not self-aware enough to know when they are hallucinating or people who simply cannot care for themselves because their illnesses affect them that much. Or people who simply cannot participate in group therapies at the moment because they haven’t been stabilized on meds enough to care.

I never thought of psych wards as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. No, psych wards nowadays are more like Ned Vizzini’s “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” I was still terrified of the type of people I’d meet though. I got there on my first day, was exposed to people having active auditory and visual hallucinations and thought, ‘I don’t belong here. I’m just depressed, but I’m not gone. My brain is all here. I’m self-aware enough to know I’m in trouble, so just give me a pill and put me out.’ These hallucinating people had no idea they were hallucinating. People with my condition can get so manic or depressed they hallucinate, but most are often aware they are hallucinating and try to take active measures to suppress the hallucinations.

In any case, I was eventually put with the Intermediate Group, basically functioning people with mood disorders. I always assumed people who ended up in psych wards had been exposed to some severe trauma in their lives (rape, abuse, ect…), but learned that mental illness does not discriminate. At the end of the day, the reason for your mood disorder being triggered doesn’t matter because now you are left having to deal with a possible life-long illness that can be traumatizing in itself. Suicidal feelings are traumatic. Self-harm is traumatic. Depression is traumatic. Pain is traumatic, physical and mental. Fibromyalgia and lack of sleep triggered my bipolar.

It was through the intermediate group though that I learned more about those in the acute ward. Those people in the acute ward weren’t crazy or insane or gone. They just needed help. They were just in a rough patch. Their lives are just as valuable as anyone else’s–they just need more help, a more restrictive environment to keep them safe. You can talk to these people and they will respond. No one with a mood disorder, regardless of the severity is crazy or insane or psycho or lost or unable to be helped.

I met all types of people, through all walks of life. I met someone who was on probation for burglary, and I didn’t judge him for that because he had a good heart. He learned from what he did, paid the price, and was now struggling to get his life back together. But even he found purpose to live. I also met another who was so desperate to die his arm was covered in a cast because he sliced it open so much. But he was thankful to be alive, and I was thankful he was as well because it showed that no matter who you are, your life is worth living and you just have to find a reason–and that reason can sometimes be hidden.

In my second hospitalization, I met more people. I met a bipolar alcoholic, who, despite her rage tendencies, loved her son so dearly that she wanted help. She was also a very sweet person, and I loved speaking with her. I also met a young man who had violent tendencies, but he was a good kid who just needs to learn how to manage anger when someone provokes him. There was also a survivor with serious brain trauma who sometimes mistook me for his mom, but I’d listen to him anyway because that’s all he ever wanted was just for someone to listen to him.

So what is my point by writing this post? As writers, we create characters who are oftentimes different from us, sometime with values and morals that conflict with our own. If we truly want to create stunning characters, we need to get out there and meet all different types of people and get to know them, with no judgment. We’re often so stuck with one type of people, “our clique” I suppose, that we forget others exist out there. It happens in college, happens in the workplace, as we want to feel a sense of belonging by being in a group. But we can belong everywhere if we give every human being a chance. I know before I never would have associated myself with a person with violent tendencies because I harshly judged those people as cruel human beings who had serious problems. Now I’ve learned there is no point in judging others because we do not know their stories. Oh certainly I still judge, but it is those who have caused irreparable harm to others, not those who find themselves in a bad place with a blatant mistrust and/or dislike for people for whatever reason.

So get out there and meet people you normally wouldn’t associate with. You’d be surprise as a writer what this can do for your character development. It helps you create antagonists you can be sensitive toward, antagonists you as the author aren’t judging but are leaving that judgment up to your protagonist. Knowing different types of people helps you create more complex plots as well, with decisions that are not so black and white.

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Author:

Also known as The Dancing Writer, she is currently working on The Stars Trilogy, among other works.

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