Mark Henick

So-Called Normal

My First Night in a Psych Ward

Excerpt from "So-Called Normal: A Memoir of Family, Depression and Resilience."

Posted Nov 26, 2020

Dr. Khouri asked me how often I’d been having thoughts of suicide.

“All the time,” I answered. “I have them every day.”

If this was what it was like to be a typical teenager, I didn’t want it. Gradually, I had lost the ability to ignore the thoughts. I couldn’t avoid them, un-think them, escape them by the stream in the forest. I’d been circling the drain for months.

That evening, after many hours in the emergency room—waiting to be seen, waiting to be assessed, waiting for a room assignment—I was transferred to a stretcher and wheeled down to the psych ward. I didn’t understand why that was necessary.

“There’s nothing wrong with your legs,” my mother would say when I asked her to do something for me that I could have easily done for myself. The staff at the hospital didn’t give me a choice.

“It’s procedure,” the nurse said.

Photograph by Darius Bashar
Mark Henick
Source: Photograph by Darius Bashar

Unit 1C was one of three psychiatric wards in the basement of the Cape Breton Regional Hospital. It was for the acute patients, less severe and persistent cases, though it was still a secure ward like the other two. We buzzed the intercom at the locked double door and waited for one of the night shift staff to let us in.

There was a fourth ward for mental health patients, but it was usually closed due to the staffing shortages that were common at the few remaining hospitals on the island. I noted that the cafeteria, and the exit should I need it, was a short distance down the dimly lit, cinder-block, pastel-painted hall—so it wasn’t all bad news. Across from the cafeteria was the morgue.

We arrived at Room 1034 at around 8 p.m.

My mother didn’t stay long but said she would come back to visit me the next day. The nurse who got me settled introduced herself as Jane. The deep, wise creases on Jane’s face were framed by a blond bob haircut. She looked a little like my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Peterson. I liked Mrs. Peterson, so by unconscious association I automatically liked Jane too. She was kind and welcoming.

When I first arrived, she had asked me all the same questions and took all the same notes as the psychiatrist before her, the crisis worker before that, the triage nurse before that and, informally, the guidance counsellor before that. It was my first time being admitted to a psychiatric ward, but I’d already repeated myself so many times that I almost had the questions, and the answers, memorized.

“I’m always thinking about killing myself,” I said to Jane.

Photograph by Darius Bashar
Mark Henick
Source: Photograph by Darius Bashar

I told her how I’d been more agitated and sensitive lately. She listened attentively, dutifully, then she searched me for contraband.

Things such as cigarettes and lighters weren’t allowed, which was fine since I didn’t smoke. Most pointy things, like pens, were banned too. Shoes with laces were a definite no-no. They had strict rules about what, and who, was allowed on the unit, and when.

She had me sign a number of papers, which she probably explained; it was all a bit of a blur that I didn’t really understand, including a disclaimer absolving the hospital of any responsibility in case anything was lost or stolen. She probably could have gotten me to sign just about anything—I was a desperate 14-year-old kid, alone on a psych ward in the middle of the night. I wasn’t exactly inundated by free will.

Nobody told me how long I’d be staying. When I asked, they were noncommittal about my commitment, ironically. “Well, that depends on how you’re doing,” the nurse said. “Don’t worry
about that now.”

“Easy for you to say,” I thought, “you know when you’re leaving.” My antidepressant dose was increased, and a hypnotic was added to help me sleep. It made my mouth taste like metal.

I’d never been drunk before, but this was what I imagined being drunk felt like. I passed out and still felt woozy for a while after I woke up.

None of the wards were designated for children or youth. I shared a room with a much older man. When I arrived at the room, he was lying on his side, cocooned by blankets in his bed by the door. He didn’t move much until sometime after midnight, when he woke me up by suddenly sitting bolt upright in his bed and screaming, “We will overcome! We will overcome! We will overcome! We will overcome!”

His screams grew louder and more panicked with each incantation.

I woke up with a start, confused and afraid, but my body felt too heavy to get away or even protect myself. I was panicked but locked in.

Then, as suddenly as he sat up, he lay down again and went back to sleep. The room was silent again. Even medicated, I had a hard time going back to sleep.

Nobody had told me it was going to be like this.

“I don’t belong here. I’m not like these people,” I thought.

“I’m not crazy.”

Mark Henick's highly anticipated first book, So-Called Normal: A Memoir of Family, Depression, and Resilience, will be published by HarperCollins on January 12 and is available now for presale at dozens of major chains and online booksellers worldwide.

Excerpt from So-Called Normal: A Memoir of Family, Depression, and Resilience by Mark Henick ©2020. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.