[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of an ongoing series of personal essays on what it’s like to live with a mental health diagnosis. Each piece describes a singular and unique experience. These essays are not meant to be representative of every diagnosis, but to give us a peek into one person’s mind so we may be more empathetic to all.]
On October 25, 2016, I sat on the hardwood floor of my bedroom drinking a can of Japanese beer and smoking a cigarette. Ten minutes later, a large man with dreadlocks appeared in my doorway.
“We are here to take you to the hospital.”
“And what if I refuse?”
“’Then you will be injected, restrained and taken by force,” he replied.
“Fine. I voluntarily admit myself,” I said, after quickly weighing my options.
And so began my six-week stay in a mental hospital, resulting in a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Every day in the hospital was different. I was placed in a mixed disorder unit. Here is an example of a day in my life there.
I wake up and it is still dark. It takes a while to realize that a siren woke me. It sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie about nuclear disaster. There is another wail, low and desperate. I jump out of bed to investigate. One of the patients, Jade, is shouting at the nurses. She’s saying that she’s the mistress of our Prime Minister’s son and that it is a national conspiracy to cover their relationship up. She is restrained, injected with a sedative, and weakly pleads to be released. I go back to sleep.
When I wake again, the dormitory’s lights are on. The nurses are calling our names through the ward, and a line for the shower is forming. The cubicles’ walls are so low I can see heads walking past as I shower. I turn my back to the door and try to preserve as much dignity as I can.
Fresh out of the shower, I feel bored and decide to talk to the other patients. One old lady with Cushing’s disease is grumpily shouting at other patients. She is calling them “cunts”. Innocently, I ask her what that word means, and she retorts that it describes the patients who stay at this hospital. I reason with her that she is also a patient, which according to her definition, means she is a cunt. She shouts at me until the nurses remove me from her bedside.
Breakfast is served: two pieces of green-colored bread and a cup of coffee. I ask for my coffee without sugar and am given a dirty stare by the nurse. Leaving the breakfast line, I am beckoned over by a table full of familiar faces. When you’re staying in a mental hospital, a week can feel like a month. Cliques form, people are outcasted, others become popular. I imagine going home to dinner with my parents that night and announcing happily that I made many friends in school. Then I remember that I could be here indefinitely.
Medicine time! All of us line up for free candy. I notice some patients going to the bathroom immediately after and wonder if they’re spitting out their medication. We all respectfully do not look at what others are prescribed and do not ask. It is one rule of hospital club.
We are ushered back to the Day Space, the same place where we have our meals. In the Day Space, there are two long lines of chairs facing a tiny television that is mounted on the wall. Everyone takes their places dutifully. I notice that most aren’t even watching the TV, just staring into blank space. I wonder what they’re thinking—they seem so immersed in private misery that it seems rude to ask. My best friend in the hospital, Jamie, is already standing at the nurses’ counter waiting.
Jamie is in tears. I go over to find out what’s wrong. It’s her birthday and she wants to call her mother. “She said she would come see me at 5. I’m afraid she will break her promise.” The nurses refuse to give her a phone call. We are only allowed to make phone calls twice a day, within one-hour windows. Jamie cries and cries, and I find myself crying too. I hide in a bathroom stall because I do not like anyone to see me cry. When I’ve calmed down, I find Jamie waiting for me outside. She was worried.
I’ve barely settled into a chair when Edward thrusts a newspaper in my hand. Edward is a 22-year-old schizophrenic who was also in a motorbike accident, leaving him without his two front teeth and a golf ball-sized lump on his left shin. A few days ago, he informed me that he was psychic and that I was going to be the next prime minister. “Read the headlines I circled,” he instructs. I read the first one: “Donald Trump wins Presidency”. “What about it?” I ask. He explains to me that Trump is one of the good guys, and he’s just pretending to be a bad guy to get in power. He explains to me that there is a global plan to form an alliance between America and China and there are plans for Singapore to be the middle-person of this alliance. For days now, he’s been telling me he is getting messages from the television (any channel, any program) and the newspaper. He is convinced he is going to be deputy prime minister and that at the age of 3, because of his enormous IQ, he was tasked to pick the next prime minister. He is also convinced that my IQ is second highest in the world, after Magnus Carlsen, the current world chess champion. I tell him that I do not think that my IQ is second highest in the world, to which he replies, “I picked you because you are so humble.”
I settle down to read a Murakami book: “The Windup Bird Chronicle.” There doesn’t seem to be much plot in it but it is still enjoyable to read. I’m seated at one of the meal tables. Sammi, a 40-year-old lady with graying hair, sits across from me and asks if I enjoy poetry. I do. She tells me she has a website full of her poetry and would like me to read some of it when I’m discharged. She’s been there for years, she tells me she has schizophrenia and undergoes electroconvulsive therapy. She leans forward and whispers, “Don’t go to the library.” I ask why not. “It’s terrible,” she says, “they’ve blurred out entire lines of books. The government is censoring all our books. I can’t read them. It’s terrible.”
It is lunchtime and a meal of rice, lamb stew, and vegetables is served. I sit with Jamie, Anne, and Tom. Anne tells me that she’s in love with me. I think she is joking and laugh. She is hurt and moves to another table. “What the fuck,” I say. “Fuck fuck,” says Tom, “fuck fuck.”
Edward is back. “Come watch the TV,” he says. I oblige because I have nothing else to do. It is a soap opera. The guy is threatening suicide by walking into the sea and the girl is pleading with him not to. Edward looks at me. “What?” I say. “Don’t you see?” he says, “They’re upset you don’t want to be prime minister.”
I’ve been observing this patient Poe for days now. She’s a 60-year-old schizophrenic who does not speak at all. She sings and does gestures, in a kind of dance. Because she’s had a history of violence, she is restrained 24/7. She is currently tied around the waist to a chair, which does not stop her from doing her mime. Today, something is different. She is holding a folded piece of paper in her left hand. I have a burning curiosity about this woman, and now that curiosity has all been projected onto this tiny piece of paper. I could snatch it out of her hand, but I have too much respect for her to do that. Instead, I settle down across from her with a piece of paper of my own. “Nurse!” I shout, “Restrain me!”
The nurses refuse, laughing at me. So I go to the meal counter and take a cup, throwing it against a pillar again and again. When they finally appear with restraints, I quickly sit down in the chair across from Poe, where I am restrained. I spent the next two hours copying her every movement, singing, dancing, crying, laughing, even at times making aggressive eye contact with other patients and nurses.
Finally, Poe snatches the paper from my hand. I snatch her piece of paper. I open it eagerly. It is blank. “Jamie! Your mother’s here!” cries the nurse.
I missed dinner because my parents are bringing food. They visit every day. My mother gives me an anxious hug, examining my face. My father sits down calmly on one of the visitor benches. I tell them a little about the events of the day and they tell me what the doctors are saying about me. “The doctors aren’t sure what the diagnosis is, so they’re keeping you here longer to observe you. It could be bipolar, or it could be drug-induced psychotic disorder.” My mom has tears in her eyes. Edward appears and walks straight to my dad. “Want to play chess?” he asks.
We are back in the dormitory for medication and sleep. This is also when we can make phone calls. A long line forms. It is surprising how normal most phone calls are, people calling their spouses or parents or children, reassuring them that they’re doing fine, telling them they miss them, complaining about the food. We are given a cup of hot chocolate with some biscuits, which is a treat for everyone. Everyone is calm and some of the older patients have already gone to sleep.
I tell Jamie a bedtime story. This is a continuation of a prolonged tale of Pinocchio going to university. As I tell the story, I remember that Jamie has been in the hospital since she was a child. She is 26 and she grew up in the children’s ward. For the millionth time, I wonder what is wrong with her. She seems perfectly fine to me, except she is covered in scars from scratching herself. I wonder if she’ll ever get to live outside the hospital, to have a normal life, to go to school and make friends in school the way Pinocchio does.
Lights out. We are all chased back to our beds. Time to rest up for another mad day tomorrow.
The “A Day With Mental Health” series is brought to you by Headspace and Bring Change to Mind (BC2M). BC2M is a nonprofit organization built to start the conversation about mental health, and to raise awareness, understanding, and empathy. They develop influential public service announcements (PSAs) and pilot evidence-based, peer-to-peer programs at the undergraduate and high school levels, engaging students to eradicate stigma. Because science is essential to achieving this mission, BC2M’s work is grounded in the latest research, evaluated for effectiveness, and shared with confidence. Headspace is proud to partner with them as we shine a light on the day-to-day experiences of living with a mental health diagnosis.
This series will publish weekly on Headspace’s the Orange Dot. Read the rest of the series here.