“We all got here from different places: some came voluntarily (like me), others came involuntarily. Some came after suicide attempts, some after a ‘really bad day’. Most of my fellow patients’ stories are unknown to me, and that’s ok. Because, in the end, it doesn’t matter how we got here, just that we are here and that we all want to get well enough to leave.” Journal Entry, August 27, 2018, 10:00 P.M.
As much as I tried to focus my journal entries on me and my own problems, the writer in me couldn’t help making notes about the different people I met during my stay on 4 East. From the staff to the patients, I met some really interesting and fine people. I could write ten different books on their lives, alone.
Take Gia*, for example, a tiny, white, soft-spoken bundle of energy who struggled with depression and profound loneliness. Her loneliness got so bad she attempted suicide. Gia described her family as fractured and distant. She said she had no friends, beyond a neighbor who was willing to care for pet while she was in the hospital.
To me, Gia seemed smart, funny and engaging. I couldn’t imagine why she didn’t have lots of friends. But she didn’t even have anyone close enough who could bring her more clothes to wear (she only had the clothes she was wearing when she was admitted). She did have a good visit with her brother before I left, so I’m hopeful that her life will change for the better.
Then there was Nigel*, a quiet, 21 year-old Latino with a sweet smile. I felt very maternal towards him, probably because he’s the same age as my son. I have no idea what brought him to 4 East, but he’d already been there two months by the time I arrived. There were rumors about him threatening his brother, but Nigel steadfastly refused to answer any questions about why he was there. He did disclose to me that he’d been a patient on the Unit back when he was 18 years old, so he was very familiar with the place.
There was also sweet Elsie*, the songbird of the Unit. 21 years old and white, Elsie had a pretty, clear, soprano singing voice, and she often walked the hall singing. She usually sang pop songs, but could do any genre justice. She was the first person I met when I arrived on 4 East, and she kindly showed me the ropes. Elsie was a self-proclaimed drug addict and alcoholic. The rumor was that she’d overdosed before being admitted, but I never asked her about it. Elsie was one of my favorite people and I cried a little when she was discharged two days before me.
In a funny twist to the story, there was a romance brewing between Nigel and Elsie. I’m not sure the Behavioral Services Unit is the best place to start a relationship, but they were both so sweet, it could actually work.
One of my favorite patients was a married, Black man in his mid-40s named Mario*. He was insightful and funny, and a great listener. Mario was also a fellow writer, having written a book about his time in prison.
Mario watched a lot of television during our free time, but was always available to just sit around and talk. He disclosed to a few of us in Group that his wife had a fall and miscarried their first child together (she has children from a previous relationship) at seven months while he was on 4 East. He harbored a lot of guilt for not being with her when it happened.
Timmie* was a Black man with blue eyes who arrived on 4 East two days after me. He was in his mid-30s and a transplant from the South. He had that Southern charm going for him that immediately endeared him to everyone. Timmie told us that his attempt to jump off a freeway over pass brought him to our Unit, but he had a lot of medical issues as well. He’d previously been in a horrible car accident and ended up with chronic pain and a lot of metal in his body. His initial struggles on the unit were about the many medications he had to take, not only for his mental health, but for his pain, as well. Seems our doctors had switched his meds against Timmie’s will. Even with his pains and struggles, he was a delight to have around, always so sweet and fun.
One of my favorite nurses was Rachel*, a chocolate, salt & pepper, natural-haired sistah who won my heart the first time we met. She was doing the daily “check-in” with me, asking how I was feeling and if I was having suicidal thoughts, etc. During our all-too-brief chat, she told me that she was intentional in choosing to work on this particular Unit. “I could be doing anything as a nurse, but I chose this. It’s hard work, but worth it. I’m determined to help more people that look like you and me get the help they need. I want to raise awareness in our community so that we can get rid of the stigma of mental illness and treatment.” A woman after my own heart.
My absolute favorite nurse was Jeffrey*, though. Jeffery was a low-key, handsome brotha, with a bald head, goatee and a “panty droppin’” smile. Jeffrey was so smooth, you didn’t hear him coming. One night at snack time, I was trying to finagle an extra granola bar to go with my sugar-free cookie. Jeffrey sidled up to me and said, in that low-key voice of his, “You can’t have that. You’re diabetic.” He then proceeded to coach me through healthier snack choices.
On the day of my discharge, Jeffrey approached me as I was walking the hallway with restless energy. “We’re going to have to delay your release,” he said, looking solemn.
“Oh my God, why?” I asked, tearing up.
Then he smiled slyly and said “I’m just not ready for you to leave me, yet.” We had a hearty laugh and went our separate ways, with me thinking “Lord, if only I were 20 years younger”!
Jeffrey was the nurse who officially discharged me. He wasn’t supposed to be, but I was getting so impatient to find out exactly when I could call my son to come get me because I couldn’t get any answers from anyone else, he simply took over and made it happen. “Go eat lunch,” he said. “And by the time you’re done, I’ll have everything ready for you.” He was true to his word.
Leaving the Behavioral Health Unit was harder than I thought. In a mere seven days, I’d come to care deeply about both my fellow patients and the staff. I deeply respected everyone I encountered on 4 East, because regardless of their role (patient or nurse or tech or doctor), everyone had a place and a purpose.
Inpatient mental health treatment isn’t for everyone. But it was exactly what I needed. I proudly stand by my decision to ask for help because I’d allowed my illness to affect my life for far too long. Before my week on 4 East, I couldn’t even imagine a future for myself. I was waiting for the courage to die, yet I knew I really wanted to live.
Thanks to the doctors, nurses, techs, psychiatrists and therapists who treated me, and thanks to the effective medications I now take, I’m doing better than I have in years. The fog of depression is finally clearing, and I’m filled to the brim with hope.
One day I’ll be on the other side of this thing called mental illness. Until then, I’ll keep working to get better. I’ll also keep doing my part to raise awareness and erase the stigma surrounding mental illness and treatment, especially within the Black community.
If you’re wondering how you can help keep the conversation about mental health going, here are a few simple things you can do:
1. Make sure your church, group, or club includes mental health programming. For example, if your church’s Health Ministry does not include mental health programming, you can lead the charge by inviting mental health professionals to come speak.
2. Use your social media platforms to spread the word and raise awareness. The more we talk about it and post about it, the more we will normalize these discussions. Normalizing this topic will encourage more people to get the help they need.
3. Contact your local hospital to find out how to make donations. Then donate new or gently used board games, books, puzzles, puzzle books, and coloring books. Patients have lots of downtime, and if your hospital’s Unit is anything like 4 East, these items are in short supply.
4. Be gentle and kind to the people you know who struggle with mental illness. I know it’s hard to love someone who’s sick. I know it takes a lot to deal with the mood swings, erratic and even violent behavior, etc. But your kindness and understanding will go a long way, especially if you can convince your loved one to get help.
Thank you for allowing me to share my journey with you.
“The souls who pass through this Unit are brave warriors in the fight for mental health and stability. Some of us will make it. Some of us won’t. I pray my fellow travelers on this bleak and harrowing journey come to know peace in whatever form that takes for them. And I hope they find joy. God bless us all. Even the Bully. Especially the Bully. God Bless 4 East.” Journal Entry, August 27, 2018, 10:45 P.M.
*All names (patients and staff) have been changed to protect the privacy of the souls I encountered on 4 East, which is the floor where the Behavioral Health Unit is housed in my local hospital.