The Strange Comfort of the Psych Ward

By Sadie Long 08/19/15

I was like the caged animals I used to work with: miserable, but uncomfortable with the prospect of freedom.


When I worked at a well-known animal rights organization, I was troubled by images I saw of animals in cages, peering out through the bars with a look of hopelessness, helplessness.

Monkeys in isolated cages in a laboratory, reaching out through the bars to try to touch a monkey in the cage across the corridor.

Candy, a chimpanzee in a barren cage with a concrete floor at a seedy amusement park in Louisiana. The only thing in her cage with her was garbage thrown into it by asshole visitors who taunted her.

And King, a gorilla held in a shitty cage at Jungle World in Florida. He was made to come out every few hours and bang on a drum for the stupid visitors who found it amusing. 

I know how it feels to be locked up, totally powerless, relying on others to meet my basic needs, with no way out. And so the images of the animal prisoners chilled me to the bone.

When that metal “clang” happens and the door to the psych ward locks behind me, there is a feeling of loneliness unlike any isolation I have even known elsewhere. And yet, at least in the psych ward, there are other “prisoners” to talk to, to pass the time with. The animals have it much worse.

I would tell myself that to keep my spirits up while I was incarcerated in the hospital.

Buck up. The animals have it worse. You will get out eventually. They won't.

And yet, when I was released, reintegrating back into “the world” was easier said than done.

In the movie, Instinct, a gorilla who has spent years in a barren cage is suddenly freed—the cage door is open and he is free to leave his prison. 

But he doesn't. He is so used to living in captivity, that he can't even imagine leaving. He stays in the cage.

Then there is Ringo, a goat at the zoo where I volunteered. Until they renovated the railing around his pen at the zoo barn, he would periodically leap over the side and run around the barnyard. 

At first, he seemed elated to be free, to run. But soon, he seemed to panic, unsure of where he was, afraid of the visitors. I watched him slam into a wooden post in his anxiety. When the keepers succeeded in getting him back into his pen, despite the excitement of escaping, he seemed relieved to be back “where he belonged.” 

I understand the gorilla's reluctance to leave the cage. And Ringo's panic at being free.

After twelve hospitalizations, being inside the psych ward begins to feel more normal than living out in “the world.” Days revolve around meals, smoke breaks, meds, and groups to keep the patients busy. Nothing is expected of me, other than taking my meds and staying out of trouble.

Getting out is always exciting in theory, but when that metal door is unlocked and I am actually free to walk away from the ward, panic sets in. 

The streets are filled with people who have no idea I was just released from a psych ward. Their faces are a blur, and everything seems to be moving in fast motion, while I am almost glued to the sidewalk, afraid to take a step further into “reality.” 

A part of me wants to run back into the safety of the hospital. I suddenly miss my fellow inmates. 

For weeks after being released, if anything goes wrong—a broken shoelace, a stopped watch, problems with my cable TV—I feel overwhelmed, like I just can't handle the problem. I want to go back to the world of graham crackers, juice boxes and paper slippers. 

In my 20 plus years in and out of recovery, I have spoken at many detoxes, rehabs and psych wards. So many of the patients I have met in these places are in and out like through a revolving door. Like me, many of these patients keep showing up in institutions because they have lost the ability to function on the “outside.” 

I have heard the phrase: “relapse breeds relapse.” And “stability breeds stability.” I'd like to add another phrase: “hospitalizations breed hospitalizations.” The more one is institutionalized, the more likely he or she is to wind up back in the hospital when the chips are down. No wonder detoxes and rehabs are jam-packed in the winter time. 

But I am living proof that an institutionalized alcoholic and psych patient can break the cycle. I have been sober for the past nine years, and I have received the outside help necessary to treat my bipolar disorder. On the right medication, abstinent from drugs and alcohol, I have succeeded in reintegrating into the “real world” and function fairly well outside the hospital. 

While I always know the hospital is there should I become manic or depressed and really need it, I no longer see institutions as an escape from my problems. I am learning to face things on my own, with the help of fellowship from the rooms and a good MD. 

Yet my history as a psych patient still haunts me sometimes.

Recently I was preparing to go to the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY for a writing retreat. As I packed my bag, I wondered, will they let me bring a razor? Facial cleanser? Should I bring shoes without shoelaces? 

When I asked my husband, he laughed. “You're not going in a psych ward,” he said. “They're not going to check your bag.” 

What a revelation! I had never been to a communal living situation other than psych wards and rehabs, where nurses at check-in look through patients' bags and confiscate razors, facial cleanser, and shoelaces.

I have to keep reminding myself: “Sadie, you're not on a psych ward anymore.”

Sadie Long is a pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix