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Six months in the psych ward taught me how compassionate suffering people can be

KIM ROSEN/The Globe and Mail

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It's hard to talk about, even now. Almost two years ago, I tried to kill myself.

The how and why don't really matter; suffice it to say my reasons were a combination of the banal and the extreme. It is what happened after I woke up still breathing and very much alive that I want to tell you about.

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I was taken to a hospital, where weeping my way through a recounting of events to the doctor in emergency got me immediately put on a Form 1. That's the legal document that gives doctors the right to commit you involuntarily to hospital for 72 hours of evaluation.

Once you're "formed," they take away your shoes and clothes and make you put on a hospital gown and slippers to discourage you from trying to run away – and to make it easier to spot you walking down the street if you do. Then they summon security. The next thing I knew, there were four burly guards standing outside the door to my room.

The hospital I'd landed in did not have a psychiatric unit, so an ambulance was called to take me to another.

You are escorted in your glorious attire through the halls by your security detail, in plain view of all the other patients, to the waiting ambulance. It's at that point you start to realize how many times you've told your story, and how many more times you're going to have to tell it. You've told the triage nurse, then the head nurse, then a medical student, then the doctor, and now the ambulance attendants want to write it all down, too.

When you're on a Form 1, you bypass the ER physicians at the second hospital and are taken directly to the psychiatric crisis unit. This is not a place you want to be. It is a small group of rooms designed like prison cells, with bare, unpainted, concrete brick walls and containing nothing but a single chair and a bed with restraints.

When the security guard put me in the room, he told me he would be watching me on the cameras and wouldn't tie me down to the bed "unless he had to."

The room felt so stark, so bleak, so barren and cold I thought I was going to lose it in there. I begged security to put me somewhere else. "It's all we have to work with; get used to it," he replied.

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Now you tell your story a thousand more times: to more nurses, more medical students and more doctors. You relive the trauma over and over again.

After my assessment, I was admitted as an involuntary patient for an indeterminate period of treatment and moved up to the psychiatric ward, escorted by security and an orderly. They don't take any chances.

I was quite emotional upon my arrival and remained so for the first couple of days. The other patients gave me space. But as I calmed down, people began to reach out. The comradely nature of the psych ward was amazing.

We patients often gathered in small groups in the cafeteria and indulged in a little amateur therapy. People told their "stories" with remarkable candidness and vulnerability. I've got to tell you, some of these guys were really troubled. But no one ever judged. Not ever.

We would listen to each other quietly and with respect. No one interrupted, and there was never a know-it-all with the answers to everyone's problems. We often cried together. Sometimes we laughed, too. In fact, we would sometimes laugh so long and so loud that nurses watching from behind the glass might have thought we were all "crazy." We were the happiest depressed people on the planet.

There are so many stories I could tell you of the unimaginable suffering some people endure, and how desperate they can be to escape it. I remember one woman in particular. She arrived in a gown and slippers with a broken leg and using crutches. She was quick to join our amateur therapy group and she told us her story. Sick and tired of all her misery, she had tried to kill herself by jumping off a bridge into a ravine. But she didn't die; she just broke her leg and dislocated her shoulder. Not one to give up, she'd dragged herself on all fours back to the top of the bridge and jumped again. She still didn't die. I can't imagine what kind of pain a person must be in to do that. She said she was prepared to jump a third time, but a passerby saw her and dialled 911.

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What sticks out most in my mind from nearly six months in the psych ward was just how compassionate some people can be. Patients often formed deep bonds, even if they were only temporary.

Some of the staff were power-tripping losers who abused their authority at every opportunity, but that was not all of them, not even most of them. The vast majority of the care team were exactly that, a caring team.

On particularly rough nights, a nurse would sometimes come and sit by my bed and chat with me a while. Or another patient would come by and ask if I needed a shoulder. And I did. We all did. It was like the give-a-penny-take-a-penny box at the variety store. We all gave one, we all took one.

In the psych ward, I learned just how tough it is in this world for so many people. But I've come to accept the one simple conclusion a young lady told us all at the table one night: "Life is hard. You just have to face it."

Christine Woodrow lives in Toronto.

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