Visiting the Past
What I learned volunteering on the psych ward
Posted August 9, 2013
One of my best friends and I met in a medical facility, where we both had been admitted due to complications of anorexia nervosa. We became close despite our six-year age gap, and though we fell out of touch for a number of years, we rekindled our relationship right after I graduated college in 2006. This friend and I had long discussed the possibility of volunteering with adolescent psychiatric patients before we found a place that would give us the freedom to do what we wanted. We came in with a vision: we’d run a writing workshop, but instead of subject the kids to another of many questionnaires about their problems, we’d open their eyes to the power of unfettered self-expression. In our classes, we wouldn’t ask them to tell us about their ER visits, parental interventions or wounds, physical or otherwise. Instead, we’d push them to think about Life, capital-L, and how they wanted theirs to look. I still had a sour taste in my mouth from when I was an adolescent inpatient and wrote my psychiatrist, a dull man with bushy eyebrows and a bedside manner comparable to astro-turf, a letter explaining how obese I felt, how much I wanted to remove my skin and climb right out of it. Seemingly impressed, he asked me to write him one on what I wanted to be when I was an adult. When I wrote that I wanted to travel and own lots of books and have babies, he looked straight at me and said, “I don’t believe you.” I would never tell these children they couldn’t do what they envisioned themselves doing. I would never discourage them from seeking a life broader and richer than the one illness could offer them.
There were signs early on that this wouldn’t go exactly as we had planned. The volunteer coordinator, when listening to our agenda, reflected that oftentimes, the young patients didn’t react very well to writing, as it reminded them too much of school. She gently suggested that we make things simpler––perhaps start with a game? On the first visit to the hospital, it was clear that her advice was sage. The inpatients––ten girls, at that time––were friendly and humorous, but they didn’t want to talk about literature or the nature of existence. They wanted to talk about Nicki Minaj, their boyfriends back home, Twitter, and hair dye. They responded to the more provocative prompts with jokes, or, worse, directing their attention to something else. At first, I was disappointed. There went my fantasy of rescuing the next Sylvia Plath from her sad end, of steering David Foster Wallace away from drugs and alcohol and toward an early, sustainable (perhaps) sobriety. There, I suppose, also went the impossible scenario I was envisioning deep down: that I would find my younger self on that unit, and she would see in me the flesh and blood proof that she actually wanted to live, and decide there and then that she would skip all the misery and start fighting the good fight.
I quickly realized, though, that I had fallen into a trap all too familiar to me: I had assumed that madness makes genius, and while history suggests there is a tie between insanity and creativity, to equate the two is a dangerous game, and a falsity, on top of it. When I was a teenager, I believed that to suffer psychically was to move closer toward artistic transcendence. As psychologist and writer Lauren Slater puts it in her book Welcome to my Country, “I knew, with the conviction of adolescence, that pain confers a crown.” Imagine my outrage when I found the hospital wards filled not with precocious philosophers and aspiring poets, but average people just like the ones I knew outside, people who cared about movies and friends and their pets and other banal, meaningful stuff, but whose struggles were just more pronounced and visible than their peers. And imagine my complete despondency when I grasped, years after I should have, that I was not a bodhisattva in the making, but an average girl whose great battles, to borrow from Plato’s, were really not so different from anyone else’s. It was then that I had to accept that my anorexia would not in and of itself make me eligible for a Nobel; no, the only way I was going to accomplish anything was by buckling down, and doing the gritty, unsexy job of being a human and working diligently.
Now, when we go to the hospital, we make few demands on the kids. We sit around and chat with them casually. Occasionally we recount our stories, or we play games (Bananagrams is a new favorite.) Usually we tell jokes or try to be funny, as we know from experience that laughter is a scarce commodity in the hospital. Some of the kids are chipper and respond well to us, others are reserved. One is writing a book using an online platform. Another is starting at an arts high school next year and planning to focus on sculpture. A few make their own clothing––they crochet, knit, and re-purpose t-shirts into skirts, or vice versa. The TV is always going, but the kids say they like to read, everything from Dostoyevsky to Twilight to Brave New World. They are all unique, just like everybody else.