Two Weeks in the Psych Ward

First Person

Two Weeks in the Psych Ward

Illustration: Shruti Yatam / Arré

I

was in no particular need of admission into a mental hospital, but at that time it didn’t seem to matter to anyone. A series of disruptive debacles had unfolded around me, almost casually, like the onset of autumn slowly disarms a tree of its withered leaves. I cried profusely in short bursts, quietened suddenly, and then did the same thing all over again. This general state of melancholia culminated in my quitting college. I didn’t understand what was wrong with me and didn’t want to admit I was in need of help, for the sake of vanity more than sanity.

Depression has more in common with desperation than just shared vowels and consonants. It’s an infinite loop of destructive thoughts, with a million iterations of fear and self-loathing and none of the Las Vegas. I couldn’t exit out of that loop, and if I did, I’d be sucked right back into the vortex. One such morning, I thrashed my laptop on the floor and broke it to pieces. This was the last straw for my poor parents and I was escorted to the only mental hospital in the city by my mother.

In the common ward of the psychiatric facility, I was certain my condition was worsening because of the atmosphere. The windowless room closed in on me; the luminescence of multiple tube-lights made me giddy. Male nurses dressed in grey overalls sauntered the corridors like dementors, staring forbiddingly at every in-patient. I was angry, sad, and confused all at once. Angry, because I knew  didn’t deserve to be here; sad, because it’s downright tragic to be loony enough for a loony house. And confused because, sometimes, in my desperation, it did seem like the right place to be in.

I sometimes wonder if my time there might have been better if I’d had a better doctor. I loathed Dr D, my consulting psychologist, a woman in her early thirties who had a tendency to over-enunciate every word in a tired monotone, as if I had a learning disability instead of depression. She was everything a psychologist shouldn’t be. She faked empathy in a moth-eaten, worn-out sort of way. All my queries about my diagnosis were met with an evasive “doctors aren’t at a liberty to tell their patients that” before storming out with calculated angst like an Ekta Kapoor heroine. And then, she’d up my medication to keep me lulled and sedated.

There was a ray of hope however, that whittled through the darkness. In that motley crew of recovering addicts and schizos and people whose minds had unspooled — all bundled together — I found the will to go on. I knew I wasn’t any of these folks, and once I could prove that, I knew I’d be out of there. But more than that, I found friendship: All of us inept sailors on the same sinking boat.

I met Mr Smack on my fourth morning there and heard of his shenanigans first-hand. He wore a full-sleeved shirt at all times, despite the cheap drug he had a penchant for, and would readily roll up his cuffs to reveal scars from IV injections. The heroin had taken a toll both on his waistline and his mind, and the latter seemed fractured beyond repair. All he could talk about were the fleeting highs and violent delights he’d once experienced in raspy, broken Hindi. He faltered repeatedly, sudden pauses punctuating his speech, collect his thoughts and resume in a low whisper. He struggled to articulate words and give sentences structure, but at least he was happy. Happy to be pumped  with a low dosage of amphetamines.

My favourite inmate at the penitentiary was the paranoid schizophrenic Bijli. He would huddle up close to me every night to tell me how he was scared to death about his next shock-therapy session.

My afternoons passed in the company of Gabru, who plotted his next “udaan” as if he were a character in the dark, syringe-ridden alleyways of Udta Punjab. He’d sneaked in a chillum through the hospital gates, and would deftly, single-handedly light it up in the toilet at an ungodly hour of the night. Sadly, after Gabru was caught in the act, he disappeared. I hope he escaped. I like to think he’s the kingpin of a drug cartel in a Gotham-like setting somewhere in the country, issuing directives to his henchmen.

My favourite inmate at the penitentiary was the paranoid schizophrenic Bijli. He would huddle up close to me every night to tell me how he was scared to death about his next shock-therapy session. I was initially creeped out by him, but over time, we built a kinship based on sympathy: 460 volts of electricity coursing through your brain can’t be a pleasant experience, even on anaesthesia. The medical community might be divided on the benefits of electroconvulsive therapy, but its recipients are unanimous in loathing it with every fibre of their being. Bijli cried in a low moan all through the night, homesick and missing his family. His mornings were jittery and dishevelled. But shock therapy would not end.

But the one person I owe the debt of serious hope to, was a man who’d been in there for three months. A man who I can only call Mr Alright, who said to me on my first day there, “You don’t belong here.” I’m not sure what Mr Alright was diagnosed with, but he seemed perfectly fine to me.

Mr Alright sat in a cross-legged séance every morning, his eyes shut in deep meditation, counting beads with his fingers. He’d venture out of his ward for breakfast and lunch, keeping interaction with other in-patients at a bare minimum. He was revered as a man of infinite wisdom by the staff that worked there, and spoke cheerfully like nothing was wrong, like nothing could ever go wrong. His presence in the sombre setting of Dettol-scented floors and white-washed walls reassured me every day.

My fortnight in the facility ended soon, but the passage of time had slowed down to a sludge. I left the ward exactly how I’d been when I was admitted: Still depressed, still angry, now with the added stain of once having been in a “mental hospital”. Yet, my story still has a happy ending. I found another doctor, infinitely compassionate and patient. And I found him in the same psychiatric hospital I wish I could erase from my mind.

But I’ll never forget Gabru, Bijli, and Mr Smack, and the fleeting friendships I forged with them. I wonder what became of these veterans of ongoing psychological wars. I know that there is almost never a fairy-tale ending with such cases. But I continue to hope. After all, I found friends in a hopeless place.

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