The general women’s ward held nearly 50 of us, ranging in age from 18 to mid-seventies. We sat in the “dayroom” in rows of stiff armchairs below the ceiling-mounted television most of the day, apart from short trips to meeting rooms and the dining hall, or the afternoon rest period when we were permitted back into our sparse bedrooms.
Keeping us in the dayroom with its pale walls and sliding glass door — the locked portal to the magical smoking porch — made things easier for the three nurses who were tasked with performing safety checks every 15 minutes. With so many patients, by the time they finished one round, it was time to start the next.
What do 50 madwomen do all day, from 7:30 a.m. vitals to evening meds? We colored. We talked. Many smoked. We traded advice. And we watched out for one another's looming crises, knowing no one else would.
I knew that my fellow patients would be my strongest allies as soon as I arrived on the ward at Peachford, an Atlanta branch of Universal Health Services, the country’s largest psychiatric chain. I was 22, coming straight from campus at Emory University, where I was working on a PhD in women’s studies, after six months of escalating anxiety, depression, and self-harm that left me increasingly reclusive. I arrived clutching a green-striped sock monkey. It was my comfort object. I took it to classes and meetings at school, and to bed. But the nurses insisted I couldn’t have it on the ward.
I gripped it tighter and sobbed as the nurses plied at my will. Then a few women came over.
“Why can’t she have it?”
“Can’t you see how important it is?”
“She needs it! What’s the big deal!”
These women didn’t know me, but they understood the shock of learning the arbitrary rules of a psych ward. Unlike my stay at Emory’s unit a month earlier, where I could have my monkey but no hardcover books, here I could have books but no monkey. As patients we couldn’t win, but we could fight the irrationality of it all.
I forfeited my monkey as the nurses muttered something about how contraband could be hidden inside it. Fine. Take it. I sat in the corner and cried while woman after woman came by to offer comfort.
On the sheet of paper where we could request toiletries like toothpaste or deodorant, many had scribbled “Social Worker.”
I didn’t understand why I had been brought here, in a cop car from the general health offices at Emory. I was self-harming, yes, but the cuts weren’t deep and my head felt clear. Still, my doctor wanted to head off the likelihood of another severe breakdown, one where I felt less certain of my own safety. Finding a bed available at Peachford, she sent me on my way. By the time I signed all the paperwork, hours later, I could no longer tell if my stay was voluntary or involuntary.
By the second day I was settled but still angry about being admitted. I hadn’t seen a doctor or my social worker. As it turned out, this was normal. On the sheet of paper where we could request toiletries like toothpaste or deodorant, many had scribbled “Social Worker.”
I pulled up at the coloring table, covered in sheets of mandalas. It was the hot spot on the ward, with 10 of us often crowded around it, chattering for hours. We were one another’s therapists.
A longtime patient on the ward, an unusually tall woman we all called Mountain Mary, led the table. She’d been there for weeks and no one had given any indication she would be getting out. Mary had settled into the patterns of the place, a ward mother presiding over many of the younger women. She didn’t stand in line for meds, just waited it out. She had pride of place. But she also stayed close at hand, on the lookout for staff behaving badly.
As a newcomer on the ward, I looked to Mary for crucial information about my new day-to-day. She knew how long you’d have to wait to see a doctor or social worker, and what time we were allowed in our rooms. Mary knew all about the arrangements for getting a ride home — how you might not be picked up until 10 p.m. — and which nurse to ask for a smoke break. Most important, though, she was a grounding force. Her voice carried across the ward and reminded you that this was real, that you were real.
While on the ward I felt as though I was constantly separate from my body, watching myself from a distance due to my extreme anxiety and depression. Mary’s voice was like a hand heavy on my shoulder, more useful than medication or mindfulness exercises. Her confidence in this unfamiliar space was a reminder that we weren’t powerless. She had carved out a space from which to lobby, and taught the rest of us to do the same. Watching Mary, we learned how to request the hospital’s patient advocate number, for example, and how to post complaints about Peachford.
The staff's determination to ignore us meant that most of the direct patient care, the literal hand-holding and tissue-fetching that psychiatric patients demand so much of, was left to the community of residents.
Other patients helped me remember to laugh. Some days, the hospital would offer us “leisure activities,” like putting on music and asking us to move our bodies based on a feeling or an imagined scene. Technically known as recreation therapy, the therapists would ask us to stretch, dance in our seats, or play games meant to build our confidence and expressive skills.
I would sit in the back corner with two other young women, Andrea and Carly, and giggle like misbehaving schoolgirls. In the depths of our respective psychiatric crises, we had no desire to play theater games. It was ludicrous and we knew it. Staff members intermittently cropped up to scold us as we whispered our way through the activities. It was the most normal any of us had felt in ages. We were almost happy.
To the staff, our breakdowns were distractions, inconveniences that interfered with keeping 50 women in line. As I witnessed on my first day, they’d typically ignore crying. Shouting might merit shouting back or eventually offering a sedative. It was clear that, understaffed as Peachford was, our nurses couldn’t take even a few minutes away from their administrative tasks if they wanted to keep up with checks and get everyone to meals.
The staff's determination to ignore us meant that most of the direct patient care, the literal hand-holding and tissue-fetching that psychiatric patients demand so much of, was left to the community of residents. Seeing one another smile and laugh on that locked ward meant more than it would have anywhere else. We wanted that laughter to carry the weight of the bad times and help us to get free. So we kept a close eye on one another. We checked on the storms and offered to steady the ship.
I was feeling particularly anxious one morning after a rowdy night, when a patient had chased a doctor around while the rest of us huddled on the smoking porch. I got in line for my meds, then sat in the dayroom. Instead of letting me bide my time until breakfast, my body launched into a full-fledged panic attack. Breathing shallow and rapid, hands numb, I approached the meds window again.
“Can I have my Ativan? It’s in my chart.”
“Not until I’m done with morning meds.”
I was already panicking. Waiting out the remainder of the morning meds session wasn’t going to help. But I am quiet by nature and I’d watched other patients cause a ruckus at the meds window, without success. I sat down in a corner chair, curled into myself, and prepared to let the panic run its course.
It was in that moment of resignation that my new friends rallied around me, and confronted the staffer behind the meds window.
“She’s having a panic attack! She needs her meds!”
Andrea and Carly sat down and held my hands while I let the anxiety flood through me. I’d been having panic attacks regularly for a decade — the experience wasn’t that scary anymore, just terribly unpleasant. But at least I wasn’t alone.
Our shared madness, regardless of diagnosis, meant that none of us had to be alone. And so as much as other women helped me, I loved feeling like I had something to offer them: my many years in and out of therapy, taking a slew of medications, learning my way through the system.
Making friends and swapping stories was good for the soul, but could only do so much in the absence of meaningful treatment.
This was especially true of my relationship with Carly. Not quite 18 — I wasn’t sure why the hospital had even put her on the adult ward — Carly reminded me of myself: intelligent and mature, but with a disorganized mind that kept her from keeping on the academic path.
At the time we met, my life was also a mess. My arms were covered in cuts. My self-harm had escalated to a point where I would scratch at my arms with paper clips while sitting in seminars, unable to restrain my frustration. In my Atlanta apartment, I lived on dry cereal and M&Ms because I couldn’t manage to cook.
Still, I had some insight to offer her. Before this hospitalization, I had been in recovery from self-harm for almost five years. I had gone away to college and four of the happiest years of my life — making friends, winning fellowships, and starting in a top PhD program. I had fallen in love.
I told Carly what I knew to be true: that life really could get better, and that college would be an incredible experience for her. I talked to her about her passion for music, the older brother she adored, and how to build the relationships she needed to thrive. I wanted her to have all of it.
My stay lasted only six days, the maximum time my insurance would pay for, even though little had changed for me psychologically. Making friends and swapping stories was good for the soul, but could only do so much in the absence of meaningful treatment.
I took a leave of absence from school and moved back home to Staten Island to recuperate. It took several months away from work and school to get back on my feet, eventually easing back into a remote job as a ghostwriter. The following August, I returned to school for a shorter course of study, completing months of dialectical behavioral therapy, a skills-based therapy focused on managing distress, while also earning a master’s degree in women’s studies. Today, I’m happily married to the woman who stood by me during my time at Peachford, taking my calls when I was inpatient, grabbing my meds from the cabinet at home, advocating for me when anxiety shuts me down.
I send Carly the occasional Facebook message, and noticed recently how her face has changed; suddenly she looks like an adult. When I commented on this transformation, I could hear the laughter in her response: “That's what I've been hearing this year! I never thought that would happen!”
She’s been working, spending time with her parents and her cat, and continues to cultivate obscure musical interests, the activity that seems to make her happiest. In our new worlds outside of coloring sheets and demeaning theater games, of hours of dayroom TV and nurse checks, we’re still taking comfort in each other. And we’re doing OK. ●
Allison Bird Treacy is a New York–based freelance writer, poet, and cat lady. She spends a lot of time baking and runs a food-focused side project at kitchenfemme.com.