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Merry Christmas From the Psych Ward

Personal Perspective: A holiday spent as an inpatient coping with schizophrenia.

Key points

  • Psych wards can often feel infantilizing.
  • Psych wards can also foster a sense of camaraderie among patients with similar struggles.
  • There's something liberating about no one having any expectations of you on Christmas.

“Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays,” I croon, strumming a borrowed guitar. I’m attempting to be quiet enough to not overshadow others’ conversations while still setting a merry vibe during visiting hours.

“It’s not home, it’s a psych ward,” a fellow patient wearing a black beanie says gruffly.

“I know—that’s why it’s funny,” I reply with a shrug.

“Haha. Cute,” Beanie Guy says flatly. “Can you please play something other than Christmas music? How about Weezer?”

“BEVERLY HILLS!” I whisper-scream in my Blink-182 ‘Happy Holidays You Bastards’ sweater. “THAT’S WHERE I WANT–TO BE!”

That’s where I want to be—anywhere but here. But I have to be here, or I might die. And it kills me to admit it. Merry Christmas—don’t mind me, I’m just going to grab a PB&J and an Ativan and take an Ati-nap.

Christmas 2019 was my first psychiatric hospitalization since realizing a team of psychologists had not assumed control of my life as I’d believed for 10 months beginning in January. I’d snapped out of psychosis while smoking a cigarette outside a Panera Bread. After not receiving any transmissions from the psychologists for a while, I Googled “characteristics of schizophrenic delusions.”

Well, that settles that. I wasn’t about to be president—I had schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type.

I’d managed two months of lucidity when a manic and psychotic episode landed me in the hospital again. My mom drove me to the emergency room after I began saying things that weren’t grounded in reality, and a nurse stuck an IV in my arm because my heart was racing so rapidly that I needed fluids to slow it down.

As the fluids entered my bloodstream, a hospital staffer asked me to sign paperwork stating they were placing me on an involuntary hold. It’s official, I thought. I’m crazy again.

A few days later, I wake up on Christmas morning in a small room with two beds and two bookshelves. There is an attached bathroom with a push button to operate the shower. You have to push it every few minutes or the water will stop.

I’d been disappointed not to be assigned the room overlooking UC Berkeley’s campus. I’d stayed in that room for three weeks in August, the time the government designated me a ward of the state. I wasn’t allowed to go outside once for fear I might bolt. Instead, I passed the days gazing longingly at my undergraduate campus, and I passed the nights trying to ignore the fact that my roommate was masturbating.

Thankfully, my roommate this Christmas doesn’t do that. She’s still asleep when I wake up, and the day room—the room with the TV and coloring supplies where we have groups—isn’t open yet. So I pace around the common area kneading the pink, vaguely Japanese-looking rabbit toy I stole from a hospital group.

Everything here is white and rounded, because sharp corners and edges might enable patients to self-harm. The common area has dorm-style couches, two landline phones, and a computer. Nurses keep watch from their posts behind medication carts and report your behavior back to the doctors.

Days in the psych ward are spent in a variety of groups: check-in and check-out groups, support groups, music groups, art groups, and coping skills groups. I find psych ward groups to be boring, unhelpful, and often infantilizing.

In one art therapy session, we glued tissue paper to contact paper to make “stained glass,” and in another, we finger-painted. I was never clear on how this would cure my mania and psychosis. During one hospital stay, I showed my mom a heart-shaped watercolor blob I’d made. “Guess I don’t have schizoaffective disorder anymore,” I’d told her.

There are no groups on Christmas Day. An elderly woman on the ward who works for the hospital in some capacity is quite apologetic about this, but to me, it’s a tiny Christmas miracle.

Instead, we have extra visiting hours. I have one visitor this Christmas: my mother.

During visiting hours, I’m allowed to play a guitar and go on the computer. I don’t think I’m technically supposed to do both at the same time, but no one stops me when I use the computer to look up Christmas music. It’s a highlight of my holiday to sing with my mom, although she eventually starts crying and excuses herself before visiting hours end.

It’s OK, though, because I borrow another patient’s parents, and together we sing “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” Their daughter is a small teenager with chestnut brown hair here for an eating disorder. She gave every patient a card with a drawing of a reindeer she’d made with the construction paper we’re allowed to use during downtime. I smiled for the first time in a few days when she handed me mine.

When evening arrives, the same woman who apologized profusely for the lack of groups announces we’ll have a special Christmas dinner: meatloaf. The patients eat in the day room with sporks, since forks and knives are deemed too dangerous. When the movie—A Christmas Story—is over, the nurses pass around evening meds and open the locked snack closet one last time before lights-out.

This Christmas, the only gift I received was the card from my fellow patient. The only gift I gave was pages from my paint-by-sticker book to patients who find the psych ward just as boring as I do.

I feel bonded to my fellow patients. The majority of our lives are in ruins at a time when there’s so much pressure to be happy, merry, and jolly.

On Christmas Day, I’m a schizophrenic burnout. People once expected great things of me, but no one expects anything from me anymore. Part of me grieves, but another part feels liberated. I don’t have to give anyone any gifts, and I don’t have to pretend to appreciate any passive-aggressive gifts or those with strings attached. Happy holidays, you bastards, and to all a good night.

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