72 Hours in the Ward

 

Words by Jillian Lombardo

“Positivity is much harder to achieve than negativity,” said Ashley Lombardo, a previous inpatient.

The precipice of self-destruction is a teetering point of known and unknown emotions. The chilling certainty that this is the end, a yearning to escape the relentless cascade of pain and despair. Lost in a labyrinth of questions, wondering how or why you arrived at this crossroads. Was it the lingering torment of a father’s absence, the heartache of a lost love or the relentless pressure to be the perfect daughter? Or was the sudden upheaval of a global pandemic that shattered the world, turning everything you knew and cherished upside down? 

Depression envelops a person in a cloak of hopelessness, a suffocating weight that renders words inadequate to express the depths of the despair. Therapy, acupuncture, medication, even the pursuit of religion — seeking solace in every outlet — yet nothing seems to subdue the anguish. In this moment of desperation, the mind grows hazy, the familiar world receding into a distant blur. 

Looking back, I recall recounting my suicidal thoughts as a joke, and it never crossed anyone’s mind to take it seriously. Mentally ill individuals possess a knack for concealing their inner turmoil, presenting themselves as jokers, masking a troubled soul. Self-deflecting humor, often rooted in trauma, serves as one of our most effective coping mechanisms. I attempted to seek help. However, the global pandemic at the time obscured my efforts. I was at a crossroads. 

Seeking help at the Behavior Health Center in my hometown was a life-saving decision; however, not everyone’s experience is the same. Some are pushed aside or dehumanized. In my case, family and friends with a normal mental state deemed it a “waste of money.” The stigma surrounding mental illness suggests that in a moment of crisis, anything else would be better than spending thousands to focus on mental health. The inability to respect it the same way we do physical illness creates the illusion that one’s emotional and psychological struggles are merely a matter of personal weakness or lack of willpower. According to the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, 31% of Americans have worried about judgment and 21% have lied to avoid telling people they were seeking mental health services. That same survey found that 29% of Americans have wanted but did not seek mental health treatment, citing reasons such as not knowing where to go. These statistics underscore the need to address the stigma surrounding mental health and encourage people to seek help when they need it. 

Eighteen is the first year you feel like an adult until you are Baker acted at that same age and find yourself in the adult wing. I never felt smaller. It was here that I wished I was still a kid. I feel like a guppy in a sea full of sharks.

The stereotypical imagery of psychiatric wards — sterile white walls, eerie corridors and vacant rooms — is a trope that has permeated popular culture. These depictions invoke a sense of uneasiness and dread, yet an undeniable calmness pours throughout the space. While the hushed whispers of the past echo through these halls, the screams of those who still battle their inner demons add a haunting melody to the atmosphere. It is a discordant symphony of pain and hope, a reminder of the fragility of the human mind.  At the same time, the screams of those who came before reverberate off the walls like a discordant symphony. 

Three pale walls with a light pink hue stood in my room, while the fourth wall was an odd shade of mint green. The two beds resembled the mats I used in preschool with twin frames raised off the cold floor. I chose the bed with mint accents, seeking comfort amidst the unsettling surroundings. An old ropes course stood outside the window, stripped to its bare wooden frame. It hinted at a time when this place had been more vibrant. 

The bathroom “door” was painted with a beautiful monarch butterfly covering most of its surface. I use the term “door” loosely, as it was more like a cardboard panel attached to a hinge and fastened with Velcro when closed. To the left were two light switches, one red and the other the usual white. My anxiety that the red switch was a fire alarm or some sort of alarm prevented me from turning on the light for the first day and a half. The room was surprisingly warm, starkly contrasting with the icy chill that permeated the rest of the wing. It reminded me of a dorm room with two desks, a standalone sink and shelves for clothes. Safety precautions were evident throughout the room. There was no metal, all surfaces were rounded, and everything was firmly bolted to the ground. The fire sprinklers remained dormant in the ceiling, ready to activate in case of a fire.

The concept of time began to slip away during my stay. A single clock adorned the wall above the nurse’s station, but I opted to gauge the passage of time by the sun’s position outside my window. I sought answers to the question reverberating through my mind: were the days dragging along like a reluctant snail or hurling forward like a relentless river? For my sake, I prayed for the latter.

As the day continued, I watched shadows dance beneath my door, their rhythmic sway a constant in this unsettling environment. Outside my room, a lady cried on and off. I have since learned her name is Mary. In some moments, she would replace her cries with songs. It was a beautiful melody in the otherwise silent corridors; I wanted so badly to join her. Mary’s fragile state took a swift turn, and her song was replaced by fear and paranoia. She was convinced the building was destined for destruction to which the nurse responded, “That’s not appropriate.” 

As the evening progressed, an older gentleman emerged from his room, his face crimson in anger. He launched into a tirade, complaining about his lost pencil before directing a string of insults at Mary. His voice echoed through the hallway, the word “nut house” stinging like a physical blow before his war ended with a swift slam of his door. Mary’s cries resumed the following afternoon, her voice shaking in a desperate plea to be reunited with her home. I felt a surge of empathy for her, recognizing my fears in the reflection of her anguish. The overwhelming dread of my fellow residents and my anxieties conspired to keep me confined in my room, sleep eluding me for most of that first night. 

I met Randall in those sleepless moments, a colorful character who became a constant presence during my stay. Brought in by the police on my first night, Randall exuded an air of confidence that seemed unsuitable to the somber atmosphere of the ward. Our first encounter occurred that very night. As I ventured out, I found Randall engaged in animated conversation with a few nurses. He invited me into the discussion without hesitation and even attempted to teach me a two-second self-defense move. 

Randall’s sleep patterns were as erratic as his personality. He abruptly woke up at 2 a.m. and 5:20 a.m., disrupting the tranquility of the night with his constant request for the time. The nurses, seemingly used to his nocturnal habits, would remind him, “It’s too early. Please go back to your room. Everyone is asleep, and we need to be quiet.” 

Randall’s tales were exuberant; every interaction was a new, outlandish story about his life. He amused me with stories of his two millionaire girlfriends and his side piece, boasting about his lavish lifestyle, which included piling crack on top of his weed and embarking on hours-long trips. His anecdotes were a welcomed distraction from the grim reality of our surroundings.

The following day, we headed to the cafeteria for breakfast. The food was typical hospital fare — bland and uninspired. Apple juice became my saving grace. It was served in little pudding-like cups, sealed with foil. On my first day, the nurse thoughtfully provided me with three cups, which I discreetly tucked away in my room. I spent the rest of the morning in the common room, waiting for my meeting with the psychiatrist and social worker. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, visitors were prohibited, but payphone-like phones were available in the common areas for contacting loved ones. 

Looking back, I encountered a cast of intriguing characters in the common room. One patient recounted his unconventional wedding ceremony, involving the exchange of Cheetos rings instead of traditional vows. Another, convinced that I was a drug user, engaged in an odd flirtation by boasting about his extensive drug history and inviting me to visit him in his car when we got out. Yet another, while munching on pretzels, regaled us with tales of his adventurous wedding crashing escapades, which invariably involved impressive splits. And then there was the man who arrived later that evening. He inexplicably began comparing me to his Indian wife, subjecting me to uncomfortable stares and persistent shadowing for the rest of the day. I also faced a barrage of sexually suggestive comments from several male patients, who dismissed their inappropriate remarks as mere jokes. The common room, while offering a temporary escape from the confines of my room, proved to be a microcosm of the ward’s diverse and sometimes troubling population. The interactions I had with these individuals, though often unsettling, provided a glimpse into the complex and frequently challenging realities of mental health. The nurses in the wing became my guardian angels. When one of the patients took it too far, one would interject and change their focus to something else. 

According to the American Psychiatric Association, “U.S. psychiatric facilities have largely focused on minimizing restraints and preventing suicide … occurring at a rate of three per 100,000 inpatient psychiatric admissions. Far less attention has been paid to sexual violence in this setting, which happens much more frequently.” In one study, only 39% of inpatients who experienced sexual misconduct informed staff. The fear of shame, being dismissed and dismissal due to the perpetrator’s mental state have been identified as reasons for the lack of reporting. 

Joseph was my first real friend in the ward. Our paths crossed during our initial group therapy sessions, and from the outset, he exuded a calming presence and a genuine willingness to connect. He encouraged me to inscribe the word “everything” on my mirror, a simple act that served as a poignant reminder of the vast possibilities ahead. With unwavering conviction, he asserted that change, though often daunting, represented a pivotal step toward personal growth and healing. Joseph’s words resonated deeply with me. He eloquently captured the suffocating grip of anxiety, likening it to a constricting belt around one’s chest, rendering it difficult to draw breath. His life story, a tapestry woven with hardship and resilience, unfolded gradually over our shared time in the ward. His every utterance bore the weight of lived experience; his voice was infused with a depth of understanding that transcended his years.

Despite his struggles, Joseph generously offered me invaluable advice on how to navigate the complex relationship with my estranged biological father. His guidance proved instrumental, leading to the initiation of family therapy sessions involving my father, his wife and me. He also urged me to prioritize my self-esteem, a journey that continues to unfold. Joseph imparted wisdom that he wished he had possessed in his younger years. A series of devastating blows had marred his life: his father’s abandonment at the tender age of 11, the untimely passing of his younger sister and a subsequent nine-year incarceration. Despite the scars etched upon his soul, he carried himself with an unwavering spirit, determined to reclaim his life. The last thing he said to me before he left the facility was, “Someone cares.” They were simple yet profound, a beacon of hope amidst the darkness that had engulfed me. His belief in my inherent worth was a powerful affirmation, propelling me on my journey of healing and self-discovery.

After 38 long hours, the day had arrived when I was to commence my Lexapro journey. Beginning with a modest 5 mg dose, I was immediately besieged with the fatigue and disorientation that often accompany new medication regimens. The stigma surrounding mental health treatment usually paints a picture of institutions hastily prescribing drugs that further exacerbate the patient’s condition. Fear gripped me as I contemplated the potential consequences of this medication, envisioning myself perpetually drained and my mental state deteriorating. The first day unfolded in a haze of naps and periods of mental fog as my body adjusted to the influx of new chemicals. The fatigue, while uncomfortable, was a testament to the drug’s active engagement with my system, signaling a shift toward healing. I was thankful that the nurses, with their characteristic empathy, understood my apprehensions and granted me ample space to process the effects of the medication. 

The National Institute of Mental Health concluded that anxiety disorder, mood disorders, substance use disorders, eating disorders and personality disorders are common conditions in which an individual would seek treatment in a facility. Anxiety, affecting over 300 million people, often begins in young adulthood, and mood disorders like depression which impact 21 million adults in the US alone. Substance use disorders, with over 275 million cases globally, often begin in adolescence, as do eating disorders, which affect 30 million people in their lifetime. Personality disorders, affecting around 10% of the adult population worldwide, can also impact anyone regardless of age, gender or background. These numbers highlight the importance of mental health awareness and access to resources for all.

The following day, I found myself drawn to the common room, seeking solace in the company of fellow patients. The flickering screen of a television playing “Supernatural” provided a comforting distraction while conversations flowed effortlessly around me. Donna, a fellow patient, opened up about her fears surrounding an impending heart surgery, sharing how her repeated postponements had led to her admission to the ward. Her longing for her beloved dog was palpable, a testament to the unbreakable bond between humans and their furry companions.

Kerry Anne, another patient, captivated me with her resilience despite her struggles with lupus, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Her pain, both mental and physical, was evident, yet her spirit remained unbroken. We spent the day engaged in deep conversations, forging an unexpected connection amidst the challenges we faced. When I shared my previous dream of owning a hotel, Kerry Anne offered encouragement, suggesting I start with an Airbnb as a stepping stone toward my ultimate goal. Her belief in my potential fueled my determination to pursue my aspirations.

The once-vacant bed in my room was now occupied by a mother, her youthful appearance suggesting an age no older than 35. Her ebony curls cascaded gracefully down her shoulders, framing a face adorned with delicate glasses that rested perfectly upon her nose. She had chosen to be there, driven by a profound desire to improve herself for the sake of her family. Despite her inner turmoil, her beauty shone through, captivating me with its quiet strength.

The tremble in her hands and the redness that stained her eyes betrayed the fear that gnawed at her heart. I could empathize with her apprehension, as my anxieties concerning the unfamiliar environment of the mental hospital still lingered. We were two kindred spirits, bound by the shared experience of seeking solace and healing within these walls.

The morning of my last day brought an encounter with Courtney, a young woman whose journey to recovery had taken an unexpected detour. Initially destined for a rehabilitation facility, she found herself in the unfamiliar confines of the psychiatric ward due to unforeseen circumstances. Her frustration was profound, and rightfully so. She vehemently expressed her concerns about the ward’s lack of resources to support her detoxification process adequately. The fact that she was far from home, having traveled to this city based on positive reviews of the rehabilitation facility, only amplified her sense of displacement and fear.

Though raw and unfiltered, Courtney’s anger was merely a facade masking the deep-seated pain she carried. The scars etched upon her skin spoke volumes, silently narrating a story of struggle and resilience. Her presence served as a poignant reminder of the complexities of addiction and the multifaceted challenges faced by those seeking to break free from its clutches.

The echo of that hospital stay still lingers. It wasn’t easy, but it was a turning point. The diagnoses of Persistent Depression Disorder, Panic Disorder and Generalized Anxiety felt heavy, but they also provided a path forward. My last session there was a beacon of hope — my doctor set me up with a therapist and psychiatrist at a local non-profit. Under their guidance, I embraced therapy, each session chipping away at the shadows of fear and doubt. Moving to Jacksonville for college was another milestone, though therapy remained a vital anchor for nearly a year.

Today, the medication I still take is a constant reminder of the journey. My once 5 mg dose has slowly grown to 20 mg, a testament to the ever-shifting landscape of my mental health. It’s a tool I use with gratitude, even as I dream of a future without its constant presence. The growth I’ve experienced since that hospital stay is immense. I’ve developed coping mechanisms that shield me from panic attacks, built stronger relationships that support me through tough times, and discovered a newfound confidence in myself.

Admittedly, the roadblocks in the mental health field are real, especially the struggle with insurance coverage. Five-minute psychiatrist appointments can cost upwards of $200, a burden that weighs heavy. But I refuse to let these obstacles dim my hope. I’m actively exploring alternative treatments and monitoring my dosage closely, inching closer to a future where medication feels more like a gentle nudge than a constant necessity. I know the road ahead won’t be easy, but with every step, I move closer to the person I’m meant to be.

Everyone thought I was writing a book and was utterly fascinated by the idea. I learned quickly that everyone there lies in one way or another. I still believe they all just wanted to be seen in one form or another. Donna even suggested I self-publish a memoir of my time here. Well, Donna, here it is, my love. 

 

Resources for mental health: 

 

Behavioral Health: duval.floridahealth.gov

 

Here Tomorrow: heretomorrow.org

 

Mental Health Resource Center: mhrcflorida.com

 

NAMI Jacksonville: namijax.org

 

Veterans Affairs: va.gov/jacksonville-fl-vet-center

 

About Jillian Lombardo

Jillian Lombardo is a senior at the University of North Florida majoring in multimedia journalism and minoring in psychology. She hopes her career will lead her to investigative reporting or war correspondence. Jillian’s ambition is to help people lead her to a career she sees as a fourth branch of government, a voice for the people and the inside scoop on current events they have a right to understand.