Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ward stories

I don’t usually write about a particular time in my life for a reason. Open as I am, some memories are too much like shards of glass. Broken glass describes how I felt about my life at that time, a metaphor that invokes fragility, or an easy way to cut oneself. Unlike some I knew, the cuts made to my body were psychological, not physical. I did not feel any sense of control, nor any modicum of power should I choose to damage myself. Instead, I felt helpless in those trying times. They are, gratefully, part of my past, not my present.

I’ve chosen to write on this topic to discuss the interaction between men and women as I observed it. Feminism, as I’ve understood it, often exists where both sexes meet, or to be more exact, in the interplay of the gender spectrum. In a more-or-less controlled environment like a psychiatric ward in a hospital, new and different combinations are produced. I observed a little of everything over time. I would be lying if I said I didn’t observe sexist attitudes and callous misogyny among some, but I also witnessed gender equality in surprising places.

We were patients. We were all generally miserable, hoping that this hospitalization was the last one. We felt an allegiance in pain, a comradeship where most other separating qualifiers were not as important. Race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender—none of these mattered much in the fellowship of emotional distress. Group therapy encouraged vulnerability, and the stories shared were humanizing. They were also frequently horrifying, but sometimes horror is the first step towards health. Regardless of how we defined ourselves, it was easy to view the parallels from person to person.

It wasn't all good feeling and group growth. From time to time there were always men who made frequent, sexist comments to female patients. They usually just wanted attention, even negative attention. I always found that these sorts of men comprised only a small fraction of patients. They were the sort that usually had few real friends. Loners in life and in the ward, their over-the-top antics usually isolated them from others. Their childishness made them easy to control and also easy to ignore. I have long wondered if I could have learned anything else especially helpful from the behavior of these men, who I saw as pathetic more than threatening.

The fellowship of emotional distress produced not-entirely-unwelcome distractions, too. I always fell hard for the sullen girls, the sardonic, sarcastic ones. They were the types most likely to wear black alternative band t-shirts, their hair dyed some shade of macabre. They were also usually the cutters, bearing scars across all parts of their body, especially their wrists. These women were part of a whole typology of ward patients, a whole sub-genre, bearing its own similarities. I knew the authors of the books they read, the song lyrics they quoted as gospel, their consistent views on life and love. Though they would not open up enough for me to truly understand them, I knew well the front they presented to the world.

Everyone, male or female, had ward crushes. Though romantic and sexual relationships between patients were explicitly forbidden in every hospital where I was a patient, attraction still developed. It was an effect a little like being a counselor at a camp. Apparently, or so I’ve been told, everyone on staff in camp sleeps together. The constant, close proximity was like kindling for fire. If feelings were mutual, it was torturous preserving the façade of platonic interest. The temptation to push the envelope revealed just how powerful sexual desire really is.

Only once did I deliberately and blatantly break the rules. I was sixteen, lonely, and feeling impulsive. The woman in whom I was interested had a boyfriend already, or this is what other patients had said. But it must not have been that serious, because the attention I received was constant. Waiting for the attention of the nurses and staff to be distracted by something else, I entered her room. She welcomed me, but urged me to be quick about it. Suffice it to say that I knew I only had a minute or two before I’d be caught. I achieved what I was after and then fled down the hallway back to my room. It was a heavy risk to take, but I felt like it merited the potential discipline.

Manic Pixie Dream Girl she was not. She was no one's fantasy, least of all mine. The reality was too raw to be smoothed out. We were both equally brooding, equally conflicted, unshowered, heavily sleep deprived. If you've ever seriously contemplated your own mortality, it's easy to grab for a momentary thrill. A verboten kiss on an uncomfortable hospital bed puts a spin into a worried mind. For that moment, the future may well not exist. Prior entanglements simply did not apply.

I could add many more anecdotes to those I’ve told already. The ward could feel like a parallel universe. It’s easy to form kinship around a chronic illness. What patients do not have in common is much less important than what they do. Some may claim that what is felt is a false kind of intimacy, one held by people who are pushed together for the ease of treatment, each in the middle of a crisis situation. If this unity is little more than a basic biological response, then perhaps it is, but it is also an egalitarian expression of common sympathy. Sometimes the best in people, not the worst, shows itself in times of trial.

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