Copyright 2018

Waking Up Psych Ward Style

Sondra Hall

Waking up in the psych ward is not the drifting back and forth from dreams to consciousness followed by a delicious stretch of the limbs. In here, my eyelids pop open and in a split-second I remember the horror show that is my life: squeaky cot, bare room, dry mouth, the gaping day ahead, the future I had in mind erased like chalk from a blackboard.

After a week on the inside, I have been resisting getting out of bed until the last possible minute when staff comes banging on the door yelling, “Breakfast!” Occasionally, I’ve made the effort to take a shower even though there’s no good reason to. It’s as unpleasant of an experience as everything else in this place. But it’s been three days, so this morning I decide I should take one.

Once inside the bathroom, I have to put my clothes on the floor because there are no hooks for hanging things. The shower head is mounted so close to the tiled wall that the stream of water covers only one shoulder and one-half of my body at a time and I have to contort myself into a weird backbend to get my hair wet. When I shampoo it, my once thick brown curly hair now feels like Brillo and it’s turning gray at an alarming rate. Disinterest in my appearance has kept me away from the beauty salon for months so my hair is now two-toned: the top half gray and the bottom half auburn.

Thankfully, all I can catch is a distorted, wavy glimpse of my face reflected in the plate of metal above the bathroom sink.

Fashion feels utterly irrelevant, so when I get dressed I pull out whatever’s on top of the pile in my drawer and put it on. My shirt hangs on my body like a bag with holes for my neck and arms and the waistband of my pants gapes.

By now it’s 8:30 a.m., time to line up for our morning ritual of blood pressure and temperature taking. Mark, a staff member, sticks a thermometer into my mouth, wraps the blood pressure cuff around my arm while distractedly jotting down some numbers on my chart.

“90 over 60,” Mark says, which means my body’s blood flow might be insufficient to bring enough oxygen and nutrients to my organs. “Eat up!” he intones, ripping apart the velcro closure from the cuff from around my arm.

Every morning all of us have to fill out a menu for the following day’s meals by circling our choices on a pre-printed sheet. After peering at other patients’ trays and determining the other choices unrecognizable or inedible, everyday this week I’ve chosen the same cold, doughy biscuit accompanied by cold, dry cereal.

After breakfast I’ve taken to sitting on the vinyl couch outside the day room, sifting through the pile of old magazines and newspapers on the end table. From them I learn “Timothy McVey Put to Death for Oklahoma City Bombing” and “Menendez Brothers Convicted of their Parents’ Murder.” Reading out-of-date stories about the sorry state of the world is about as appealing as breakfast, so I return to my room to sit and stare out the window or lie on the bed and stare at the ceiling. At 11:00 a.m., I have to go back into the Day Room for “Group”, a therapy gathering of all the patients on the ward. I dread Group. We are there to talk about our feelings, but I have none, except maybe disgust. We go around the circle and when it’s my turn I never have anything to say.

This morning, Greg, the overly cheery staff facilitator, dressed in a white polo shirt and jeans, says, “So, Sondra, you’re here because you wanted to kill yourself?”

“I guess.”

“Well, how are you feeling now? Are you feeling safer here?”

“Uh huh.”

“Anything else you want to share with the group?”


“You haven’t said anything much all week. Are you sure you have nothing else you want to add?” I shake my head and turn my eyes to the patient sitting next to me, praying for Greg to move on. My life is fraying at the edges like the bottom of his bluejeans. Soon, there will be nothing left but a loose pile of unraveled threads.

Sondra Hall loves words as much as she loves bread which is an awful lot. She wholeheartedly believes in the power of the written word to transform both writer and reader and enjoys galavanting around in her imagination with pencil and paper in hand. Because she felt that kids didn't spend enough time swimming in their imaginations and applying their creative spark to the page, she founded "Take My Word For It!" as a way to bring the adventure that is writing to elementary and middle school kids. For fourteen years, her organization served thousands of students in the San Francisco Bay area, Boston, and northern Virginia. She currently teaches creative writing classes to kids and adults in Sebastopol, a small town with lots of cows, horses, and goats, in northern California. Her memoir-in-progress, "Committed", is an attempt to reconcile a hellish period in her, and her young family's life, when she was swallowed whole by severe depression and ended up hospitalized in the psychiatric ward.