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God in the Psych Ward

November 28th, 2023 | 10 min read

By Elizabeth Esther

The doctor in the psychiatric ward is yelling at me. I cower in a plastic chair, terrified. I want to cover my ears.

I had simply asked to go home. My 5150 hold had expired and I desperately wanted to get out of this locked psychiatric ward. But Dr. Moustache (I never knew his real name, only recognized him by his super thick, neatly trimmed moustache) refused to let me go.

“Legally, I’m allowed to keep you here for fourteen days!” Dr. Moustache shouts. “You’re not ready to go home! I saw you crying in the hallway. You’re not stable. If you think you’re stable, then I’ll send you before a judge and you can try to convince him to let you out of here.”

He dismissed me from the room and after that, he ordered so many medications for me that I literally started seeing double.

As my therapist would later tell me: “The psych ward’s job is to keep you alive. Not necessarily keep you comfortable.”

I stayed alive. That’s the important thing.

By the time I reached the psychiatric ward, I was in bad shape. Months of symptoms, accentuated by the stress of grad school had left me so depressed I could barely function. A year previous, I had been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. We were still in the process of finding medications that worked for me, but the combination of grad school and a bout of pneumonia had completely destabilized me.

“I feel like I want to die,” I told my psychiatrist when I went in to see him the day he sent me to the psych ward. It was the first time I was honest with myself and with him about how I was feeling.

My psychiatrist talked with me for a long time and finally decided it would be best for me to spend a few days in his psychiatric hospital so that I could rest while he worked on stabilizing my medications. He wanted to make sure I was safe while a new treatment plan was created for me. I agreed and he placed a 5150 hold on me, telling me it was only to help expedite the process. I wasn’t happy about the 5150, but at the same time I was feeling too horrible to really care. I was exhausted and depressed and couldn’t function anymore without help. As my psychiatrist made arrangements with the nearby Emergency Room, I lay down on his little plastic couch and closed my eyes. The plan was for me to stay a few days in the psychiatric hospital that my own doctor worked in so he could oversee my care. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

My health insurance didn’t cover my psychiatrist’s hospital. But since I’d already been placed on a 5150 hold, I couldn’t just be sent home. I ended up being sent to a psych ward two hours away where drug addicts were detoxing off overdoses, alcoholics were drying out after a relapse and suicidal patients were recovering from suicide attempts. It wasn’t a place you went for healing. It was a place you went to keep from dying.

I’m alone in a holding cell in the Emergency Room. They have taken away all my clothes, my purse, my phone and given me mesh underwear, paper pajama pants and a paper pajama top.

“I can’t even keep my shoes?” I asked the nurse while she watched me undress.

“I’m sorry, honey,” she said. “But we’ve seen people do some pretty clever things to hurt themselves. I have to take everything.”

I curled up on the hospital gurney and closed my eyes. I was trembling. I didn’t know what awaited me and I was scared.

“Lord Jesus,” I prayed. “If you heal me, I will preach your Gospel for the rest of my life.”

I’m not proud of this prayer. It was a desperate and ragged prayer. I was bargaining with God. I was terrified and wanted out of that situation. I wanted God to swoop down and heal my brain and make everything ok again. As a friend later reminded me, Jesus commands us to preach the Gospel anyway—whether or not we are healed from our illnesses. But there I was, bargaining with God and promising to do things He had already told me to do. At the time, it felt like I was making a huge, profound promise to God.

Despite this not being a perfect prayer, God still answered it. But not in the way I expected. For one thing, He didn’t heal me. I still have bipolar and, unless He decides to heal me at some future point, I will have bipolar for the rest of my life. And I didn’t get out of going to the psychiatric ward. I still had to go through that experience. I still had to experience the indignities of being locked in and dealing with Dr. Moustache. God didn’t save me from these experiences but what did happen was that I began to experience the warm, comforting presence of His love. As I lay on that hospital gurney there was a deep and quiet awareness that God was with me. I was not alone.

A few minutes later, God made sure I got the message by sending a little sign. A nurse entered my holding cell and sat on the side of the hospital gurney. She took my hand in hers.

“It’s going to be ok,” she said. “You’re going to get the help you need and you’re going to feel better.”

Through teary eyes I stared up at her. Her face was gentle and compassionate. And then I noticed something. Clipped to her identification badge was a “Tiny Saint.” A “Tiny Saint” is a miniature plastic replica of a Catholic saint. I recognized the saint she was wearing because I had the same one.

“St. Dymphna,” I said, pointing at her “Tiny Saint.” St. Dymphna is the patron saint of the mentally ill.

The nurse smiled. “Yes! You see? Everything is going to be OK.”

For the first time that day I felt like I could rest. Seeing St. Dymphna on that nurse’s ID badge felt like a smile from God; His way of telling me that I was not alone and that even in the midst of this painful experience there would be helpers along the way. Helpers of faith. Helpers who believed in the same God of Love and believed in His healing power. I lay back on the hospital gurney and rested.

A few hours later, paramedics arrived to drive me in an ambulance to the psychiatric ward. It was near midnight, and I was worn thin. As they wheeled me out of the Emergency Room and into the darkness of the night, I heard rain falling. I’ve always loved the rain. I find it comforting. I tipped my face to the sky.

“Lord Jesus, please let me feel the rain on my face. It will show me that I’m not alone, that you are with me.”

A moment later, the lightest raindrops landed on my upturned face. They were soft and gentle, like angel’s tears. I felt my own tears well up. Jesus was with me.

My memories of the psych ward are blurry because I was given so much medication. I remember flashes of things. I remember the first night they gave me Trazodone because I was unable to sleep. They put me in an observation room with the lights on and cameras fixed on me. I huddled under the scratchy blankets and woke up to rain pounding on the sky light.

I remember there was a phone in the hall which we could use to call our family. But since they took away my cell phone I couldn’t remember anyone’s phone number except my husband and my dad. So, I called them over and over. There was very little they could do for me except come visit me a couple of times in the evening. For six days I was under the strict jurisdiction of Dr. Moustache.

There was a very young woman, probably just barely eighteen years old, wandering the hall listlessly. She didn’t speak. Her hair was dirty. She just walked back and forth, back and forth. My roommate was another young woman—perhaps nineteen—with a tattoo of Chinese symbols under one of her eyes. She was detoxing off a Percocet addiction. There was another teenager who claimed she was famous on some social media platform I’d never heard of. The ward I was in was co-ed and filled with mental health patients and people detoxing off drugs or alcohol. It was simultaneously terrifying and banal. One of the meth addicts told me he’d done meth for fifteen years. It didn’t seem possible until I looked in his eyes. I’d never seen such dead eyes. I couldn’t believe he was still alive.

Our days were a series of group therapy classes, vital checks, lining up for meds and meals taken in the same room as our group therapy classes. In the day room there was a stack of weathered Uno cards, a few battered boxes of puzzles and a TV perched high on the wall whose remote control was sometimes given to a “responsible” patient. The TV was always loud and the patients voted on what to watch: usually Cops or a game show. Nobody wanted to watch the news or a movie. The news reminded us that there was a world happening outside our locked ward and movies made us sad. About once an hour, a member of the staff would come into the day room and tell us to turn down the TV or to quiet down ourselves. We got two ten minute “outdoor breaks” a day. Usually everyone just smoked and sat around on the plastic picnic tables. The hospital gave away free cigarettes. One older guy did standing pushups on the edge of the picnic table. He said he was trying to get healthy so his wife and children would take him back. He was recovering from another alcohol relapse.

For the most part I felt horribly alone and frightened. The psych ward made me feel worse, not better. Being around other mentally ill people made me feel more mentally ill myself. At least when I was at home I could take a long hot bath or shower, use my lotions and face wash, sleep in my soft sheets and not worry about some guy screaming in the hallway about his ulcers. In the psych ward I had one tiny bottle of soap and one tiny bottle of shampoo, a janky toothbrush and no lotion. The shower ran cold and I had to punch the button over and over and over until it got warm and then it only ran for five seconds before automatically shutting off. I had to wash myself while re-pushing the button every five seconds.

I tried to distract myself from the misery of the psych ward by talking to people. There was a friendly, deferential old guy who had worked in a grocery store for decades before waking up one day and trying to kill himself with a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of his son’s seizure medication. He brought his Bible into the psych ward and he was so kind and apologetic and totally drugged out of his mind. He wasn’t sure if his wife would take him back after what he’d done. But he regretted trying to kill himself and broke down in tears every time he talked about it in group therapy.

There was another teenage kid with a broken ankle who talked fast and interrupted everyone but was so charming that everyone forgave him for it. He tried to be everyone’s friend, always pulling out chairs for people, offering to fetch things for others. There was a friendly and helpful alcohol counselor with missing teeth and an art therapy teacher who came in and taught us how to make paintings in the style of Jackson Pollack. She played music while we painted. It was the closest to normal I felt the entire time I was there.

The lowest point was my birthday. I was hospitalized several days before my 42nd birthday. I thought for sure I’d be home within a couple of days but when those days passed and Dr. Moustache didn’t release me, I realized I would spend my birthday in the locked, psychiatric ward. When Dr. Moustache told me I wouldn’t be going home before my birthday, I cried. But I only let myself cry in the bathroom. Dr. Moustache had seen me crying once and said that it was evidence I wasn’t stable. So anytime I needed to cry, I went to the bathroom I shared with my roommate and punched the shower button over and over so it would cover the sound of my sobs.

In those moments I also prayed.

My prayers were jagged and desperate. They weren’t pretty or proper. They were sort of ripped from my throat. I was the loneliest and most frightened I’d ever been in my life.

But it was there, in my darkest and most frightened moments in the psych ward that I found strength in God. I was at rock bottom. I knew I was probably going to have to quit grad school. I knew this mental breakdown was severe enough that it would take me a year to recover. But I also began to know the presence of God. When you have nothing left, it becomes strikingly clear what holds fast, what remains, what is True. And what was True was God. He was there. I felt His presence. I reached out and Jesus was there. All my dreams and hopes were dashed. I would never get my Master’s Degree, I would, perhaps, never write again. I let go of everything and Jesus caught me.

On the sixth day I was finally released from the psych ward. I’m not sure why they let me go except that I had forced myself to be on exceptionally good behavior. I smiled, I followed directions, I took their meds, I kept quiet, I didn’t cry, I didn’t make a scene like the other patients did. My guess is that they needed the bed so they released me. Or, perhaps, my insurance stopped paying. It’s still a mystery to me. Whatever the case, I’ve never been happier to leave a place.

It’s been nearly five years since my experience in the psych ward. The journey to stability has taken some time. My psychiatrist was sorry when he heard about my experience in the psych ward. He hadn’t expected that to happen to me. Our plan had been for me to be under his care in his hospital. He didn’t give up on me, though. We finally found a combination of medications that properly managed my bipolar. I learned to keep a disciplined sleep schedule. I stayed off the Internet for a long time. I made rules for myself about social media. I began reading my Bible every day and praying. Slowly, I began writing again. I got a small, part time job. I still have bipolar. God hasn’t healed me. But I know how to live with it now. As for preaching the Gospel, I don’t know if I’m doing a good job of that. I’m trying. This is me telling you there is hope. This is me telling you that even in the stark loneliness of a psych ward, God is still there. You are not alone. You are infinitely loved.        

Elizabeth Esther

Elizabeth Esther is the author of "Girl at the End of the World" and "Spiritual Sobriety." You can find her on Substack where she writes a weekly essay on mental health, motherhood, and spirituality.