Finding Jesus in a Psych Ward

The particulars of exactly how and why I was hospitalized for psychiatric complications are both too difficult to put into words and also are one of the best blessings God has given me in my 21 years of life. On December 1, my husband brought me to the local emergency room and the next morning I rode in the back of a police car to a larger facility. As I rode in the car the officer was kind and tried to get me to talk about my situation but all I could do was cry. I had been emotionally stunted for months and finally it was all flowing freely.

As my vitals were being taken a kind older woman approached me as my quiet sobs continued. At the time I didn’t know it, but she was also a patient and was going home that day. She took my hand and said, “I know you’re scared honey. But God will be with you here; these are good people. God is here. I just wanted to tell you that.” I think I murmured a thank you before finally being taken to my room to get some rest.

I spent the first day sleeping and observing. I was shocked at the kindness and vulnerability that was evident in every interaction that we had with one another: patients, techs, nurses, therapists, psychiatrists, and even the man with dementia who was in the next ward over and kept trying to enter our ward. My friend, who was my roommate during my stay, is a particularly special person. When I arrived the only things I had were the clothes on my back and my stuffed tiger, Limo. When I walked in our bedroom the first thing I saw was her penguin slippers and I knew she was a kindred spirit. She taught me the ropes the first day and we built a friendship that we’ve maintained beyond the hospital.

There was a deep irony in that almost every person on the ward was suffering with some level of depression and anxiety (some of it social). However, one of the ways that we showed we were ready to go home was interacting with each other. I was so scared that I would never get to go home because I was not willing to approach anyone. But I didn’t have to. During my first day, every single patient introduced themselves to me and gave me a piece of encouragement. “Don’t worry, the first day is always the hardest.” “Don’t skip snack time because they serve ice cream and Oreos.” “You have a great psychiatrist.” “I struggle with the same thing.” “Here’s how to work the phones.” On and on until I felt overwhelmed with how much love I was receiving.

Every single one of us there struggled with self-love. We were there because our self-hate had manifested itself in some way that required us to be under constant care. And yet- the words that we gave one another were words of love. “You are so much stronger than what happened to you.” “You are beautiful.” “You have overcome so much.” “You have a great smile.” “The world would be worse without your humor, your story, your smile, your life.” Words that we could not bring ourselves to say to our own bodies and minds and souls we poured into one another.

By the grace of God, I got to spend 6 days with these people. I learned more about community than anything else. For the first time, I was in community with people who as broken as I, and we all knew it. There were no masks, no pretention, no “I’m fine”. Nobody pretended they were fine; we were all openly broken. There was only love and support and encouragement and kindness. We were there to learn to love ourselves, but we learned that by loving one another.

I met Jesus there. I had met Him before and I knew Him, but I didn’t know that He was living inside of a psych ward. But His grace was evident everywhere. It was evident in that I had a support system that came to visit me (including my husband who never missed a minute of visitation). It was evident in the care that the nurses who worked with me showed toward me. It was evident in the dignity that each person was treated with. His grace was evident in the lives of the women I met there, many of whom had been victims of assault, trafficking, abuse, neglect, disease. And by His grace alone we all survived to live through our adversities and meet each other that weekend.

I will never forget the friends I made in the facility. One of my last interactions was with my roommate. We were lying in the dark the night before we got to go home and she opened up to me about her story for the first time. And as we both lay there in the dark crying, she said to me, “I knew that you were a special person the moment I saw you. I felt the Holy Spirit tell me that you had experienced deep pain and that we were both going to be okay.”

Friends, that was church. That was God’s people living together and sharing their deepest pains and their greatest joys with one another without any reserve. When I walk into a church I don’t want to have to hide my mental illness and what I have survived. I want my brothers and sisters in Christ to cry with me and listen to me and encourage me, and I want to do the same for them. The church should be a place of true community, of the kind of love and sacrifice that I experienced on the Adult Behavioral Ward.

“Those who are in need
and are not afraid to beg
give to those not in need
the occasion to do good
for goodness’s sake.”
Dorothy Day