Everything I Need to Know I Learned in a Mental Hospital–


You think I’m kidding.  Better yet, you assume I’m crazy. 

However, I’m neither, actually. 

Well, I may be a mad brick shy of a lucid load—but, during the 1990s I was admitted to psychiatric facilities no fewer than twenty-five times, so I consider my less-than-sane self somewhat of an expert on having learned these applicable-nowhere-else-other-than-prison, life lessons. 

If you plan on checking into a psychiatric facility near you any time soon or even if you don’t, by all means remember the following:

  1. Avoid sharp things and things made of string.

As part of the admission process to any mental hospital in America, a nurse or hospital orderly inventories your belongings and locks up all items known by insiders as “sharps,” which generally include anything you could use to hurt yourself or others—razors, scissors, pencils, pens, and without fail, the deadly dental floss.  I don’t know of anyone who has ever attempted hanging themselves with dental hygiene products of any kind, but clearly some creative suicide somewhere has done just that, because without fail, floss is taken away.  How I managed to spend a decade with so little access to the stuff and emerge ten years later with a full set of teeth, is a mystery to me.

Seriously, the real lesson here is that we can make do with a whole lot less than we might think or at the very least, that magic markers are deadly weapons.  Let’s just hope the TSA never catches on.

  1. Go to bed, for god’s sake.

Also during the admission process, someone is bound to give patients a schedule of unit activities, indicating that the day ends at 10pm on weeknights and 11pm on weekends.  Without fail, hospitals from Kentucky to Texas operate according to this bed-time regimen.  Medical staff is surely trying to teach that schedules are a good thing or that mental health depends on getting plenty of rest.  However, they adhere to this schedule as rigidly as Republicans in the US Congress believe in the evil of ObamaCare or the sanctity of a balanced budget, a rigidity that may make the obsessive-compulsive dedication to hand-washing and stove-checking look like a fact-finding mission.

  1. Don’t miss important meetings.

Sleeping through them is one thing, but skipping them altogether is paramount to treason.  In mental hospitals attending group therapy sessions is the patient’s civil responsibility—way, way more important than voting in the outside world.  Not casting ones ballot is one thing, but skipping group means something way worse than Rick Perry as president, and we all know it can’t get much worse than that, unless, perhaps Michele Bachmann makes it to the White House.  The consequences for skipping group are far harsher and include, first and foremost, having ones level lowered.

  1. Achieve a level three.

Psychiatric hospitals function according to a definite hierarchy—doctors on top, nurses not far behind.  Although patients are consistently on the bottom, there’s always a hierarchy even among the inmate population itself, one that’s determined by a system of levels.  Level one usually means you are on “fifteen minute checks”—that an orderly with a clipboard must note every quarter-hour where you are and what you are doing, whether, for example, you are asleep in bed or in the day room playing cards.  Level two usually means a promotion to thirty minute checks, while level three means no one gives a damn where you are or what you are doing except at the top of every hour—unless, of course, you are attempting to skip group or floss your teeth, in which case all bets are off.  It used to be that you also couldn’t be discharged until you’d achieved a level three, but in these days of managed care, having one’s insurance benefits run out usually means an immediate promotion through the ranks.  Suicidal or not, you can have all the magic markers your discharged heart desires. 

  1. Eat often.

Psychiatric medications are notorious for making patients gain weight, and lots of it.  Antipsychotics tend to stimulate the appetite, slow the metabolism, and “increase body mass”—as my own doctor likes to remind me.  However, one of the tenants of inpatient psychiatric care is to feed patients, not only three meals a day, but plenty of fatty snacks, as well.  They must teach this in medical and nursing schools, as the sanctity of Fruit Loops, even the holiness of Wonder bread and canned corn, seem to define a doctrine of carbs that would drive Dr. Atkins himself beyond the bacon-eating brink.  The likelihood of being discharged a little less mad and whole lot heavier seems inevitable.  So as soon as you get your level-three, fat-ass self discharged, join Jenny Craig before suicide again becomes an option.  Remember, over-sized, crazy ladies rarely win.

The bottom line is this—

Follow my example.  Learn from my mistakes.  Apply these lessons in your own life, so that you too can learn to live sanely in a world of pens, pencils, and dental floss.  

Ten-years sans-psyche ward, I am still fat, forgetful and more likely than not to lose things, my mind being foremost among them.

vintage postcard

Do you think that’s what my mother meant when she said I’d lose my head if it weren’t attached?

32 thoughts on “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in a Mental Hospital–

  1. The headless blonde is crazy good.

    Now that I’m aware of the dangers, especially of dental floss, I will do my best to keep my head and my magic markers. 😉

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  2. Hilarious and oh-so true! I loved the part about it being ok to sleep through group as long as you showed up. It was tantamount to torture, sitting in those hard plastic chairs with the florescent lights buzzing and jittering overhead, waiting for someone – anyone – to talk.

    I could never figure out how some inmates got to sleep during the day, but I got routed every time I tried. So tired. Would rather sleep horizontal than in the plastic chair. I must have been at a different “level” than the nappers. I should have stolen their dental floss and gotten kicked down the hierarchy.

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    • I’m so glad you got a good laugh, Sandy! Thank God you agree this is indeed how things go. I’m not sure one can fully appreciate the humor if you have never been in one of these plalces. The setting itself is pretty insane, isn’t it? LOL!

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  3. That was witty cross-bred with disturbing. If you ever feel the need to check into a mental hospital again, I suggest you reside in NYC a while. Everyone is a loon out here — and it’s acceptable.

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    • I think the disturbing part is that the people who run these places really, actually seem to believe these things matter. Sometimes I think I got well despite the treatment I received. Admittedly, it wasn’t all bad–some was quite good. But much of what happened in hospitals was a joke.

      But, yes, I imagine I would fit in quite well in NYC–a crazy place, for sure. I guess there is often a disturbing edge to satire, however. Thanks for reading! Glad you enjoyed the post!

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  4. This post reminded me of ‘One flew over the Cuckoo’s nest’. I’m afraid I just don’t ‘get’ mental institutions, but I suppose there’s gotta be some method to the madness!
    Thanks for the humorous glimpse into a potentially frustrating world. I’d definitely go nuts in a place that took away my markers!

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    • I know. How can one ever trust folks who are anti-magic marker? It’s ironic that the methods employed by the keepers of the asylum would seem like such madness. I look back on it after all of these years and am amused. It was a strange world, for sure!

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    • I”m so glad you laughed, Lisa! I’m trying to find a way to make writing about this mental illness thing seem less serious and heavy. You probably know what I mean. Some of the stuff can be pretty damn intense!

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  5. Pingback: Read this . . . | Notes from Africa

  6. Great post, Kathy! Once again, you have brought us into the world of the psych ward in a way that is accessible, informative, and humorous. You are a great writer– keep it up! 🙂

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      • Haha– I kept all the new post notifications in my inbox, and I am slowly (but surely!) plugging through everything. So far, I’ve managed to whittle my unread messages down from 575 to 275… but that’s only the wordpress blogs and none of the blogger/typepad/etc. blogs I follow. Sheesh! Have patience, my friend– I’m definitely reading all of your back posts, even if I don’t have enough time to comment on them.
        (PS: I seem to have worked my way into a bit of a corner with your posts in particular– judging from the titles, they seem to be memoir-related posts that build on each other. I can’t even open the most recent posts now without feeling like I’m missing out on a huge backstory. I’ll have to read all of your older posts in one big chunk and then catch up that way!)

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      • Frankly, that’s amazing, Dana! Good for you. It may take several months (or a life-time, whichever comes first), but you are a trooper and an amazingly dedicated reader. Having you as a subscriber is real treat. Hope you have a great week, my friend.

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