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.

(Or are they, in fact,  more universal?   You decide.)

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.

2.       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 week nights 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.

3.       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 Mitt Romney as president, unless, perhaps, Sara Palin makes it to the White House one of these days. The consequences for skipping group are far harsher and include, first and foremost, having ones level lowered.

4.       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.

5.       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.

6.       Ask for a do-over.

One of the things I learned from my ten-year, revolving-door, psychiatric admission is that life is all about second chances. Life now is every bit as good as the 90s were bad. During the past decade I’ve had an amazing career teaching college writing; I’ve met the love of my life and traveled the world—literally.

And since I’m such a firm believer in the do-over, let me confess—this piece almost entirely a repost of one I did last summer.

Truth be told, I’m up to my eyebrows in an art project Habitat for Humanity has asked me to undertake and blog about for their website— so forgive my taking the easy way out today.

But it’s true. I did learn lots about the do-over during my 10-year, grand tour of America’s finest psychiatric facilities.

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?

What second chances have you been given?  At what unexpected places have you learned the greatest lessons?

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

  1. Funny as this was…. My favorite line:
    “So as soon as you get your level-three, fat-ass self discharged, join Jenny Craig ”

    I busted a chuckle on that one.

    And by the way, I’ve met you, you’re not fat. But I was wondering where that ‘mad brick’ you were shy of went off to! Hahahahahahaha! So very much just kidding. I love your humor Kathy. Absolutely love it. And from Sara’s picture the table is looking AMAZING!


  2. “applicable-nowhere-else-other-than-prison, life lessons”… brilliant. I think your lessons are far bigger than that, though, dear. Kind of makes me want to check out Nashville’s mental health facilities sometime soon!


    • Oh, I love you, Tori. I’m sure the Nashville facilities don’t differ much from those here in Lexington–which is to say–you DON’t want to go. Hugs to you and that sweet boy of yours. Tell him “Cappy” sends him hugs!


  3. After watching one of the moms in the building for a week or so seriously over reacting to an incident at school, OS#1 said, “Mom your`re weird, but you`re not crazy.” Well, thanks for that, I guess.


  4. I have never had the honored of such a grand tour even though I have many times thought I needed it. I have been around rehab centers and visited my partner at them time in two separate state operated mental units.

    Kathy, I so love how you find the humor in all of this, in spite of the reality of it. It is truly a lesson when we can learn to live with less.

    My recovery from addictions has been my second chance, have I learned anything? One would hope.


    • Good for you and your recovery, Jeff! Sorry you had to visit your partner in a place like that, but everyone should have a look for themselves, I suppose. Congrats on your second chance, my friend! Hugs to you————


  5. Kathy, your spirit is remarkable and very, very funny. Another memoir entirely, and I hope you will one day write it.

    I did not really start living life until my mid-thirties, meaning I was given a second chance to live, perhaps.


  6. Happily, I am only just finding your blog, so you can enjoy the certainty that you have gotten my attention with all of this the first time. My sister did mental institution stints. But I was never suicidal, and my danger-to-others level usually never really elevated above, “What the fuck is Jessie doing over there and why is she so goddamned angry about it?” I can think of at least twice in grad school when I should have been institutionalized but wasn’t about to commit myself and wasn’t surrounded by people dying to impound me. (Mostly, I was surrounded by worried friends who didn’t know that when, for instance, I thought it was a good idea to climb up on my apartment building roof and throw books at my own windshield, it really did mean I’d gone around a bend. Scott came upon me before I made it past the balcony and distracted me out of the stupidity.) But my sister did several stints inpatient, and she never caught on to doing what she was told and always got broken out by my stupid father.


    • Interesting to read about your experience. How much have you written about this, if at all? Throwing books off of the roof makes for a great story, at least. Makes me want to know more. Sorry to hear about your sister. I never attempted suicide either. I was just nuts in an era when the criteria for admission were less rigid. Thanks for sharing this, Jessie!


  7. I love reading your blog because I never know where the journey is taking me, but I always enjoy the ride. The best second chance in my life was marrying the love of my life after 25 years of life with my personal Nurse Ratched. The best lessons were never learned in a classroom, but in living life.


    • I’m so, so happy you’ve had that second chance with the woman you love. I’ve found the same second chance with my own dream girl! Aren’t women wonderful? Thanks so much for reading, David. I LOVE having you as a member of my audience, and Sara and I love calling you and C. our friends, as well! Hugs to both of you!


  8. I’ve enjoyed your upcycled post just as much as the first time around. Fitting considering your HFH project right now. So glad you came out the other end of a decade happier, healthier and able to find humor in what I know to be your darkest hours. Love to you dear Sista!


    • Ah, I love you, too, sweetie. So happy you enjoyed this post. I hadn’t even thought of this as upcycled and the relation of that to my Habitat project. Great insight, Sista! Happy Monday and hugs to you and Jim!


  9. I’m sort of an oral hygiene fanatic. As I read this, in the back of my mind I was thinking of every flossing alternative that could possibly be available to you while in there. So far, my list includes strands of hair, the edge of an envelope or piece of paper, and a strong thread from clothing. I’m convinced that my begging for floss would make me a “check on her every 15 minutes” kind of girl!
    I got my second chance when I met my husband in June of 2000, and I still feel like every single day is a wonderful new possibility with him!
    PS- Seriously, how did you handle the no-floss situation? 🙂


    • I didn’t handle it well, that’s for sure, as I am an oral hygiene fanatic myself. I often resorted to begging and promising to floss with someone watching me. I was also known to save pieces of floss, hide, and then reuse them. I know that sounds gross, but I did it. Love your alternatives–and that you found your husband and second chance!


  10. Love this Kathy! Semi-recycled or not it gave me a chuckle… and a strange urge to go floss my teeth! Seriously though, I love the reference to the “do-over”. I totally agree about life offering second chances. Sometimes we just have to open our eyes to the opportunity take advantage of it… over and over again if that’s what it takes.
    As always, thanks for the laughs and inspiration. Good luck with your project 🙂


    • Oh, thanks so much, Wendy! The project is going well, really well. I can’t wait to share photos. And I’m delighted you enjoyed this recycled post–and the added notion of the do-over. Enjoy your beach, my friend. Wish I could go shellling with you. It’s one of my favorite activities!


  11. So the 90’s were all a learning tool, right??? And to read your blog today I know that you learned a lot!!! And came out on top! So glad that you do not let mental illness define you–you are Kathy and you are fabulous. I feel like breaking into song here but then I might wind up in one of those institutions that you so vividly wrote about! Glad you reposted this as I was not one of your followers the first time around! 🙂


  12. You seem SO entirely sane and balanced to me, Kathryn, it’s astonishing to hear your life story, as well as your mental health history. I am so happy that you’ve had your do-over and done so much with it!! Just the happy ending I needed to hear about today!! xooxox b


    • I am pretty damn sane these days, eccentric, yes, but insane, no. It’s amazing what a decade of advances in psychopharmacology can do. Happy to hear you appreciated this post, Betty. Hugs to you, my dear!


    • So, so happy this made you laugh. That is a huge endorsement. I couldn’t agree with you more. Were would we be if we couldn’t laugh at ourselves. Great to hear from you today. Thanks so much for your comment!


  13. I’m glad you reposted this, Kathy. Second chances are so important. We try again and we get better each time.

    I hope you’ll be able to share the project your working on for Habitat. That sounds very exciting!


    • It would be a great title for the second memoir wouldn’t it? Hadn’t even thought of that. Though, “Everything I need to know I learned in a Mental Hospital” might work, as well. That book is rich in title options. But that one, I hadn’t even considered–great idea!


  14. This is a perverse observation but it seems to me that having once been Hatter Mad your mental illness has served you well since it has left you with such a highly developed sense of enlightenment most of us allegedly sane types lack. I’ve been a pretty steady rock of stupidity through all my years, so I cannot proclaim I’ve been the recipient of any notable second chances. Thirty years ago this month, I relocated from San Francisco, where I was born and raised, to New York City, a place now so ingrained in my DNA no one believes that I originated from somewhere so mellow and rich in granola. I suppose we all travel different paths to discover who we are. I took a single six hour flight and you spent a decade in and out of psychiatric facilities. I’m very content with where I’ve landed and I’m under the impression that at this stage in the play, you are, too. You certainly have a witty outlook on what you’ve endured which sounds very healthy to me.


    • Why does it not surprise me that your observation might be perverse? I would expect no less of you, my friend. At any rate, I suppose you’re right. However, I have to say, your description of the Bay Area as a place “mellow and rich in granola” is priceless. I swear, it’s hilarious! YOu need to coin that one! Thanks for my morning chuckle. Thank God I have you to count on for that!


  15. I love your life lessons. Your terrific sense of humor and underlying sarcasm shines through. But I’ve always wondered and perhaps you can answer this: How realistic is “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?” Also, I clicked on the link to the Habitat website and it just went to the homepage. Where exactly can I find your blog about the art project? Can’t wait to read it!


    • Okay, I have not seen the film in decades, so I can’t make anything approaching a rea;istic comparison. Plus, that movie takes place a good 2 decades before my experience, and the places had changed a good bit my then. It may be realistic to things back then, but I wouldn’t know.

      Habitat has not yet launched the blog. It won’t happen till this fall. They are focusing heavily on beefing up their use of social media–even have created a new senior VP position to oversee it. I will be writing about their Restore, about how I took an unlikely piece of furniture found there and transformed it–the whole trash to treasure thing. I will also be writing about the supplies they sell that can be ussed for crafting.

      I had done a furniture transformation project for Habitat in Haiti. That’s how they knew i did this sort of thing.


  16. Very humorous, Kathy. I never would have thought it of dental floss. I use those little Scope individual ones that are a cross between a toothpick and floss. I can see how they might be dangerous. I accidentally poked myself in the gum with the point of one.

    Glad you’re having a good time over at Habitat. It’s a good use of your time and talent.


    • Thanks so much, Christine. Glad you think I can do well by Habitat. Let’s pray I prove you right.

      The only thing I can say about those toothpick-floss combinations is that I don’t think they existed 15 years ago when I was frequenting America’s finest psychiatric facilities. LOL


  17. lol! I thought this sounded familiar. It’s still witty and made me laugh. I hope the art project is going well, and that it’s something you’re also having fun with. 🙂


  18. Very amusing, Kathryn, and brilliantly written as usual. We need to write privately sometime, as I’m an unmedicated and struggling bipolar. I can’t imagine the experiences you’ve described and hope I never visit them up close and personal. They took your pens, pencils, crayons….all sharp objects….except your humor, which is delightfully cutting! Take care, my friend, and love to you and your incredible Miss Sara. xoxo


  19. I thought of you today when I wrote my blog. You are one of the bloggers whom I so admire. You share your vulnerabilities so easily. Thank you for being you.


  20. I laughed so much at this I had to send it around FB.

    I spewed my tea at the dental floss.

    I did my student placement at a detox and when we were told to take away the dental floss I asked, “Why dental floss?” and I was told “Because they can strangle you with it.”

    I asked, “Why would anyone *want* to?”

    Reply: “People who aren’t feeling well sometimes make bad choices.”

    They weren’t impressed when I quipped, “When was the last time a coroner claimed a homicide victim was garroted with DENTAL FLOSS?”

    I aced the placement wiseassery or not, perhaps because I didn’t say stupid things to clients that made them *want* to strangle me with dental floss.

    Being crazy has its advantages.


    • So happy to hear you enjoyed this post. You asked the PERFECT question! When was the last time someone actually managed strangulation with dental floss? WHat do you want to bet it has never happened? I don’t think it could even be possible. I loved your comment. Thanks so much!


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