The Psych Ward: A Retreat for Impoverished Women


There is a resort for the poor, a place where mothers can finally get some rest from the constants of work and caring for children, infants and husbands: the psychiatric ward. Yes, there were men in the ward, too, but I did not speak to them. This story is about the women I met while committed over the December holiday season of 2014. I have changed names to protect anonymity.

While committed, I kept a diary in a composition book given to me by hospital staff. This is an excerpt.

I think it is December 20th or so. I’m at the Psych Ward, where I was admitted yesterday due to a “psychiatric breakdown”. Laura drove me up here, because a prior phone call to a social worker indicated it would be a good place to go. It’s sort of odd that I’m here. It feels as if I can be myself and not worry very much. A woman is sitting next to me who is older. She has short grey hair, like a bob. She is coloring in a coloring book. She told us she went to LeMoyne College and studied French. Big Daddy, who wears a Do-Rag, is talking about famous women’s butts and if they are fake or not. I cannot use my phone, it is locked away. My legs are weak from my back hurting and who knows what. I’ve been resting a lot and reading the Christian Patriarchy book I brought. I submitted my paper to Beth, which I am proud of, I am glad that I was able to get it done, with all the pain and going completely insane, or whatever you’d call it.

I was just in the day room getting coffee and I became very startled because it sounded like someone was saying, “Kate…Kate…” The doctors keep asking me if I hear things, and I know what that means: schizophrenia, a diagnosis I’d rather not get pegged with. It could very well just be confusion related to my hearing loss. Someone has just been admitted; a scraggly looking tallish man who was brought in on a gurney, looks like by EMT. He is young and seems fine, like everyone here, just about. Most people who are here, as is often the case, are just stressed out and overwhelmed right now because of health reasons and no way to access health care, and money, etc. Many are visibly physically disabled, with walkers and canes, even young people. I will likely soon join that crowd once my back is assessed by a physical therapist on Monday. They did give me a wheelchair but it is large and bulky and things are always blocked by chairs or carts around here. Most people in the Psych Ward have insomnia, as I do. I am given pills for it at night. I’m not allowed a hair dryer or anything with strings or cords. There are two men here who sound exactly like Jim Wilson, Brook’s father and it is a bit disconcerting. [Brook was an ex]

The woman next to me is named Donna. Lydia, my room mate, came by and introduced us. Donna becomes incredibly angry quite easily, and takes great offense to people talking to her or asking her questions. She shouts, “Leave me alone!!” She asked where I had gotten a job when I was talking about moving here from Brooklyn with some of the other women at the long day room table. When I answered, she told me that she was going to die. “I’m going to die,” Donna said while coloring a page with two mermaids on it. She had colored one a mint green and was working on coloring the other carnation pink. “Tomorrow,” she said, not looking up, “I’m going to die tomorrow.” Then a pause. “IF YOU DON’T STOP TALKING TO ME!!” And with that final statement she looked up at Lydia and I with a look of wide, teary eyed, utter and total indignation and offense. Donna wears bracelets all over her wrists, most of them pastel plastic beads, with one metal bracelet studded with blue glass jewels. Earlier, Lydia complemented Donna on her many bracelets, which was met with the same total outrage and offense because Lydia had interrupted Donna’s coloring. Donna had gestured emphatically to the mermaids. “I’m just trying to DO THIS THING!!” Her eyes glistening.

After a few outbursts like that, Lydia told Donna that she and I would go talk in our room. “Donna’s being a real bitch,” Lydia told me as we got back to our room. Then she proceeded to ask me again, as she did last night, about my plans for marriage and children. Lydia has been married for twenty-four years and has four boys. Two are grown up and two are adolescents. Her husband came today to visit and bring her dinner from McDonald’s. He arrived wearing a Santa hat, which Lydia said he wears all season. He seems, from what I could tell, pretty non-plussed about the whole situation, and very cheerful. When I told Lydia that I had no plans for marriage and never have wanted children, she found it very interesting. I expressed to her that I have no desire to be pregnant or have babies and I never have. “Huh,” she kept saying.

8:45pm  Snack time. Turkey sandwiches and juice or popsicles. I opted for turkey. The man who was admitted on a gurney earlier is now casually talking on the phone, which is an old pay phone style thing attached to the wall. He is dressed in his hospital gown and his hair is a bit wild looking.

Sunday  Started on anti-psychotic drugs this morning and feel really out of it. Just slept all day. It is 6pm now and I have slept the majority of the day. Thankfully, it was without dreams, or with few–I just got interrupted because it was arts and crafts time, which Lydia encouraged me to do and I’m glad. I thought I was too anxious to leave the room, but Lydia said, “Maybe it’ll make you feel better,” and I knew she was probably correct. I joined her, Kathy (also a mother of four), and Katherine, who studied Women’s Studies and had the same professor as I did in undergrad. Katherine is a mother of three. The arts and crafts room had relaxing lighting, vintage 1960s chairs, a chalkboard, and posters about “coping”. The table we sat at was in the middle of the room and the whole set up felt cozy. We had beads and yarn and colorful elastic thread and I figured out that Donna, with her many beaded bracelets, had made them in this group. Judging by the quantity on her wrists, she has been here for a while. Katherine, whose adult children live in San Francisco, impressed everyone with her macrame skills, weaving pink and purple thread together. “I leaned this a long time ago,” she said. (I am writing this in the Day Room and the scraggly, bearded young man is once again chatting on the phone in a casual tone, but I cannot decipher much other than ‘you know what I’m saying?’).

Later  Insomnia, as usual. I am on Trazadone, Ativan, 40 mg of Lexapro, Hydroxyzine, and hydrocodone. I feel pretty calm, but trying to sleep is horrid. I am just inundated with anxious thoughts which I feel powerless over at this point. I’m not hearing things anymore and voices have gone back to normal. No one sounds like Brook’s father anymore. We had “group” tonight in the same cozy little room as the arts and crafts activity. Mary Ellen, a little white-haired nurse who is stylish, moderated. Most people said nothing, but Lydia and I and two other women and a man, who occasionally chimed in, did. They talked about family stress. Children and extended family taking advantage of people. The woman to my left, who wore a bandana over her hair and pajama pants (we are all perpetually in pajamas) said she had a daughter who had seven kids and another daughter who had three or five, I can’t recall. And siblings in NYC whom she raised like children because her parents were off “doing their thing”. All of these family members, she said, constantly need her, and live in different cities; Binghamton, New York and I’m not sure where else, and she takes the Greyhound back and forth to each place all the time. Lydia talked about her twenty-four year old son who has left her to raise his now five year old child, whom Lydia has been taking care of since the child was four months old. She and her husband are generous and let various family stay at the house, although clearly Lydia needs some peace. Her adult son now has a new girlfriend who had a baby and now he cannot be bothered to care for his five year old. The five year old’s mother has five other kids, but only has custody of two of them, as she “can’t deal with boys,” Lydia said. Lydia husband and sixteen year old son help her quite a bit, but since she has lupus and fibromyalgia, it is too much stress for her to care for her grandson. All of the women agreed, as women have done for centuries, that it would be better for them in Heaven, once God finally rewards them for their years of self-sacrifice. Because clearly, there is no earthly reward or recognition.

The entry ends here.

As a historic researcher who has focused on women in early America, it is striking to me how little has changed in many respects from that era. Letters I transcribed from early 19th C. Massachusetts, in which a family of sisters and cousins wrote privately to each other away from men, mentioned the same type of things as were in group therapy at the ward: the constant, unrelenting tasks women undertook for their families and the physical, emotional and psychological turmoil that resulted. In every letter, Heaven was mentioned. These early American women thought of Heaven as a place where they could finally have a nice life, and it certainly seemed to me that they looked forward to dying. Of course, in that era, they were much more likely to die young, and most of them did.

While therapy at the ward focused on self-care and saying no to demanding people, I think Mary Ellen knew that the women patients there could never fully do so, due to the number of infants and children who depended on their care. Also, the patients had low wage jobs with bosses that did not accommodate their health and disability needs which stressed their bodies tremendously, and that was not likely to change.19th C. women in early America worked at home, but it was no less of a job than anything a man did, and required grueling physical labor from morning till night, along with the demands of pregnancy, nursing and childcare. The women I talked to at the ward wanted children, like many people do. They wanted to get married and to have children, but the expectation from their families was that they would take care of almost everything. Their lives did not slow down once their children were grown, as they were often expected to care for the grandchildren, too. Approaching middle age meant that bodies were starting to break down from the stress and lack of medical care. Women in the early 1800s often died by age 50, worn out from hard work and killed by disease.

The psychiatric ward was the only place to get relief, to be cared for, to not have to cook or clean or nurse children. Family members, I learned, were strictly kept away from patients by the hospital staff. It was understood that family was a huge detriment to their patients’ recovery. There was no access to the internet, no cellphones, and if anyone called for you, the staff would take a message and let you know. This was the only way for anyone to heal. As the woman in group who was always taking the Greyhound bus mentioned, her grown daughter would have the grandchildren call her and tell her they needed to see her and were hungry. She could not say no, even though she knew it was manipulative. Another woman in group said that she planned to stay in the ward for a year so she could get away from her family. Christmas, I learned, was a busy time at the hospital; when stress reached a head and led to breakdowns of mental health for many. The patients were not there solely to get away, however, they truly were having very difficult mental health issues. So it wasn’t a resort of course, but the closest thing to it, and required a psychiatric breakdown to enter. Those types of breakdowns are detrimental to brain function and mine took months to recover from, although I left the ward after a week because the medication they gave me worked so well. I received around the clock care from nurses and doctors, and was given a wrapped Christmas gift by Mary Ellen, as was everyone. There was a Christmas tree and decorations on the ward and patients spoke excitedly about what the gifts might be this year, as some knew from previous visits to expect one. When i left, Mary Ellen told me, “Come back anytime.”  I took her words to heart, and know I have a place to go again, should I need to. And I probably will.


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