Is this the best we can do?

This article is part 3 of a 5 part series.

For part 1, click here.

For series summary, click here.

You’ve seen the commercials for those exclusive addiction centers that look more like a spa weekend at a resort than a treatment center.


Well, I can emphatically tell you that that is not what it is like in the psych ward.

Maybe it’s the trainer in me, but I felt like I missed an orientation and was kind of flying by the seat of my pants at first. It was because of the other patients looking out for me that I made it to where I needed to be that first night.

Initially, I thought that the staff was just too busy and running too hard to be able to keep up with it.

But by my third day I found myself doing the same thing that my fellow patients were doing, looking out for the new ones who had just come in, recognizing that look of terror at feeling they had landed in hell, and giving a smile that shared that it would indeed get better.

I’ve always felt it was medicinal to forget yourself and reach out and help someone else.

Is that part of the therapy?

I wondered.

Some of the group sessions I sat in I thought had some good information presented; others seemed kind of a waste of time. Some sessions everyone on the floor attended while at others there would be only two or three of us.

This made me wonder how closely they should control the direction of the conversation. I noticed that sometimes they pulled us back quickly to the subject at hand, while other times the scheduled topic was abandoned and we drilled deeper into what felt like a breakthrough for a single patient.

We all need to learn how to differentiate between the times when people are just off topic or when something pretty important is happening.

Was this a significant part of the therapy?

I watched more closely.

One day for the “arts and crafts” session we all played a game together. It was a clever game because you rolled the dice and had to answer a question on a card. The questions all had to do with what would happen when we were released. I was kind of being me (I’m not sure that was good or bad) but I made jokes about us being “nuts” and we started to laugh with each other (not at each other, but really with each other). I made a connection with the man next to me who hadn’t been there 24 hours yet and was still kind of freaked out. Soon he was laughing as well.


Later that night when they had us each report the highlight of our day, he said that it was playing the game.

I understood that it was pretty important in keeping things in perspective to be able to laugh. Often with mental illness it is either laugh or cry. Let’s choose to laugh as much as possible.

I instinctively knew that this was a critical part of the therapy.

Now I was able to switch over from seeing through a patient’s eyes to more of a manager’s.

I could clearly see the emotional strain of the professional staff. The pain that was being introduced each day, most of it unexpected as the admittances were emergent, would suffocate even the strongest caregiver. The staff had to deal with constant irregular behavior and emotional personalities. They literally never knew what may suddenly appear at any given moment. So they stayed a few steps back, so to speak. I understood that this was a survival tactic.

Distance was safety.

But it almost seemed counter intuitive that when people who are hitting bottom that need and crave closeness and connections the most, everyone is cautioned repeatedly about not touching, not getting too close, not sharing phone numbers or personal information.

I completely understood why, and I don’t know a way to do it any differently.

But still…

Part of my mental illness finds real security in consistency. When things seem to be careening out of control, my routine and familiar surroundings keep me grounded. Yet, no matter how hard they tried, things were constantly coming up that pushed the schedule off or even things were just missed. I learned to wait to hear the loud speaker calling us rather than following the printed schedule. This kind of drove me nuts and I thought about the need to become more consistent.

But for the life of me I can’t see a way that they could have done it any better. Logistically, it just couldn’t happen.

Again, the needs and the reality were at odds with each other.

I wondered about how closely the goals that the professional team had for me matched the goals that I had for me. We each have such different perceptions of what is really going on. What is the real truth? Who gets to decide what it is? Where do we draw the line between caution/safety and connecting in a way that real communication happens and both sides understand each other?

It made me think that I was unsure of what inappropriate behavior due to mental illness was and what was just me being my unique self? How do I find that balance that lets me know which things about me that are different, are okay?

How on earth could the staff know what I was like before, what my baseline was? How could I help them to know? It became clear to me that the responsibility really was mine.

Yet so many of the patients were light years away from that kind of accountability.

Everyone knows that the mental illness system is far from perfect. There are ways that we wish it were, things that we feel we should demand to ensure healing and protecting other’s safety.

But logistically…

Reality is what it is.

dollar sign

And at $3000 a day I’m not sure throwing more money at it will help solve the problem.

As I was having all my belongings checked back to me and I prepared to actually go out through the locked doors, I was face to face with a young man who somehow touched me more deeply than the others, his pain more tender for me to witness. I threw caution to the wind and reached out and put my hand on his shoulder. I told him that I understood the look on his face and his words last night when he said that his goal was to understand why he was here. His confusion and fear are something I will never forget.

But I squeezed his shoulder. I told him that it was just like that for me my first night. He stared back at me with tears starting to form in his eyes. I softly smiled back at him.

“It will get better, I promise. There is happiness ahead for us. I know it to be true. Keep laughing.”

I sincerely believe that he heard me, really heard me.

I’ve been out and have had time to think. I will always continue to laugh with my family about the mental illness. It makes me feel more normal. It makes it more manageable.

And perhaps the part of the puzzle in solving the problems that plague the mental illness system is not something that can be scheduled, or mandated, or evaluated, or measured.


It is as unique as each patient who is locked in, and as distinctive as each member of staff that can come and go at will. A quiet connection made with two human beings who are doing their best. Their best isn’t perfect, not by a long shot.

But when people are genuinely doing their best, it has the possibility of being good enough.



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