Keeping Your Sobriety in the Psych Ward

By Amy Dresner 02/07/12

A suicide attempt in sobriety landed me in a psych ward, surrounded by people who talked about porn, corn and hearing voices. They just may have saved my life.

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One flew east, one flew west... Photo via

I had three-and-a-half years sober when I tried to kill myself by overdosing on Phenobarbital. It was the 4th of July and I’d joke later that I was still so torn up by the split of America from England that I couldn't take it anymore. But at the time there was nothing funny or patriotic about it.

I had tried to kill myself once before, when I was 34 and living in London, by slashing my wrists with a box cutter. It was terrifying: blood was pouring everywhere and I could see the muscles and tendons and flesh inside. In my experience, the British healthcare system—especially mental healthcare—leaves something to be desired: all they did was sew me shut, give me a tetanus shot and send me on my way.

But this time was different. I was in living in Los Angeles, and I'd been to a meeting that very day. I had called my sponsor. I had sponsees. I was performing regularly as a comic and getting good reviews. And yet I still felt that deep despair—I hated myself and worried that my husband hated me too. I had been insecure about the way I looked at 20; now that I was pushing 40, I could only imagine how my slow physical decline would impact my already fragile self-esteem. I was scared—really scared. I had my addiction under control (as under control as I could have it) but my borderline personality disorder, my body dysmorphic disorder and my depression were taking a toll. I was tired of fighting to feel “normal.” I wanted out, but I was scared to pick up drugs again. My drinking and using always landed me quickly in the ER or jail. I knew that wasn't the answer, but what was?

With four rehabs and two previous psych ward visits under my belt, I was convinced that Darla, the substance abuse counselor, wouldn’t have anything new or insightful to share with me.

I had read somewhere that there was no antidote for Phenobarbital and since I had been on it for years for a seizure disorder, I took a generous handful—45 to be precise. I also did it right in front of my husband—talk about taking the poison and expecting the other person to die. It was a cry for help. It was a fuck you. It was so many things. 

“Don’t do that,“ my husband said. “You’re not going to die. You’re just going to get really ill." 

I paused. A mouthful of chalky pills. Whatever, I thought and gulp—down the hatch. I was immediately greeted by a sense of relief mixed with horror.

He called 911 while I went into the kitchen and grabbed a steak knife, deciding I’d cut myself in front of him.  

“She’s brandishing a knife!” he said into the phone.

Brandishing? Who says "brandishing"? Was this a production of Hamlet?

Knowing the cops were on their way, I bolted out the door, not sure where I was going. I saw the EMT guys and the cops at the elevators and surrendered. An overdose of pheno gives you a drunk-like high and when I'm drunk, I'm angry so I was very, very angry. As they wheeled me into the elevator on a gurney, I gave my husband the finger and shouted a loud "go fuck yourself" just as the doors closed.

Next thing I remember I was in ER, choking down liquid charcoal. And I was loaded. Fortunately, I seriously underestimated the mark and didn't die but instead just got terribly ill—as my husband had predicted. Is it a relapse if you try to kill yourself but just end up accidentally loaded instead? Isn't that just a shoddy suicide attempt or a faulty chemistry experiment? Anyway, I started counting days again. Around the same time, a former sponsee sister relapsed by shooting a speedball of such great proportions that she had a heart attack and then a stroke—and survived.  

"I wasn't trying to die—I was just trying to get high," she told me.

"Well, I was trying to die and I just ended up high," I answered. "Maybe we ought to swap recipes."

After I was stabilized in the ER, I was sentenced to three to four days in the psychiatric ward. As I was escorted in, some people were pacing the hallways, gurning. Others were methodically doing puzzles. One old woman wept softly as she rolled slowly along in her wheelchair.

There was one man—let’s call him Dan—who paced the hallways furiously. His right arm was bandaged up. 

"Dan, we need to change your dressing," an orderly would say.

"Okay, how about Thousand Island?" he’d respond. It was the only time I heard Dan speak—Gallows humor at its best.   

They went through my bags: I wasn't allowed anything glass (bye, bye expensive face cream) or in a metal tube (adios Rx acne gel) as these items could, I was told, be used to hurt myself or others. I wasn't allowed my shoelaces or even hooded sweatshirts if they had strings. I had unknowingly given up all privileges of adulthood with my stupid dramatic overdose. They took my hairdryer (you can hang yourself with the cord) and my cell phone. It didn’t feel far off from prison.

If you need to lose weight or want to quit smoking, the psych ward is for you. The food is inedible. I lost seven pounds in four days, so take that Jenny Craig! And the days of psych patients chain-smoking and mumbling are over, at least at the facility where I was in Glendale. They'd slap a nicotine patch on if you ticked off the smoker's box on the intake form.

I was in there with a short Greek man with extraordinarily long nose hairs who was battling a depression so severe he was undergoing ECT. "I can't believe there's no Internet here," he would whine. "I'm really into porn."

A 400-pound biker chick with tattoos and missing teeth pushed her walker over to us and said, "Corn? They have corn here. It's very good." 

"I used to be in your room," she continued, addressing me.

"Yes, you broke the bed in nicely," I countered. My comment was lost on her.

"I've been here so many times, I know the pay phone number by heart,” she added. She recited the number and then added, “That's how many times I've been here. That I know the pay phone number. So if you ever want the number, I know it. By heart." Kind of her but I didn't need or want her help. The number was written in chalk on a board directly over the pay phone.

Once I was in the TV room with a new patient. "Why are you here?” I dared to ask.

"Cuz I’m seein' shit, hearing voices, you know,” he answered. “I don't want to be trippin' in the streets."

"Yeah, definitely. Good plan." I moved away slowly, counting the days, the hours, until I was released from my 72-hour hold. I had been 5150'd (code for people who are a threat to themselves or others). The time just seemed to drag on. 

I’ve never felt saner in my life. I would take a small white plastic dining knife and pretend to slash my wrists. The orderlies would try not to laugh—unsuccessfully.

I avoided grooming group and occupational therapy but went to the substance abuse meetings and the talk therapy ones. There I’d sit in a ripped-up .38 Special t-shirt and worn in black cords—sullen, shoeless. Next to me would be a young woman in a gown with a creepy smile on her face and a far-away look in her eyes. These people are crazy, I’d think. But I'm in here too. So I also must be crazy. But is it crazy to want to kill yourself, to want to free your soul from a body and life rife with despair?

With four rehabs and two previous psych ward visits under my belt, not to mention a husband in the treatment industry, I was convinced that Darla, the substance abuse counselor, wouldn’t have anything new or insightful to share with me but I went to the addiction groups anyway. With her long grey ponytail, brown cargo shorts and black trouser socks, she looked more like a patient from Portland than a therapist from LA. We were handed out the usual shit—papers that explained that "H.A.L.T." stands for hungry, angry, lonely, and tired and papers on neurotransmitters. I tried not to look bored.

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