Listening: My Time in a Psych Ward
by Laura Farrell
I lost my hearing in a psych ward.
Let me explain. It was not so much that I lost my hearing; it was that I could not hear well. I suffered from a terrible earache. I used to get earaches all the time as a small child. This one was the worst, or perhaps my capacity for dealing with such pain had simply decreased over time. I had not experienced an earache in over ten years when this particular earache occurred. When I was in the psych ward.
This earache affected the way I could hear, meaning I couldn’t really hear much at all. I was in the psych ward for a number of reasons, some of which I still don’t understand. The doctors explained the reasons for me being in the psych ward with precise, medical terms. I recognize that that wasn’t all of it, though. Those medical, clinical words could not explain the sum total of why I was there. I did eventually recognize, however, that that is how you get out of a place like that: voicing an understanding of why they say you are there, in their terms, and complying with the way in which the doctors believe you can safely live outside of the hospital. They did not want to hear my side of the story. This was not about justice; it was about compliance, as are so many other things in life
The doctors thought that my mental illness was clear. They did not want to know what could lead a person to this mental state. They just wanted to diagnose it, and give me pills. The earache, on the other hand, confused the doctors. They could not figure out how to help me hear well again. They could not figure out the best way for my ears to heal. They could not determine exactly what the issue was, although they recognized that an issue existed. The insides of my ears were red and irritated.
I was red and irritated. I wanted the doctors to see that. I wanted the doctors to stop looking in my ears because they were not helping my hearing and because there were much more pressing matters at hand. I knocked on their doors to say, to scream, “I don’t belong here!” I only screamed because I couldn’t hear properly. I did not realize I was screaming. Believe me; I wanted my ears to be fixed as well. I’d have been happy to take medicine for my ears but I didn’t want the medicine they were telling me I had to take for my brain. I wanted to address that medicine, the pills that they wanted me to take, before addressing the issue of my ears. So, I said, “Listen doc, I’ll take a flu shot, I’ll take all the vitamins you have, please give me any antibiotics I need for my ears, but that is all!”
And the doctor asked, “Why are you screaming? Your mood seems elevated. There are pills for that you must take.”
And I said some mean words; I said some paranoid words, but only because I was mad and it felt like he was out to get me, not to help me. The conversation was irritating on several levels, one being that I could not hear very well. I had to listen so closely and I had to keep saying, “Please speak up.” I also had to keep repeating myself with phrases like, “no,” and “that is not true.” There was a lot of explaining. There was a lot of repeating.
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Perhaps it is important to talk about how I ended up in a psych ward. Perhaps it is important to talk about how I ended up having an earache. I can explain pieces of the first thing. I still do not know why and how I suffered from the earache. I will never understand that earache. I will never understand why I could not hear. I like to think my ears were protecting me from all the medical language, the words from the doctors and nurses about what they thought was wrong with me; I did not want to hear. I like to think they knew, my ears, that is. My ears knew that I did not want to hear those words. Sometimes, I wonder what it would have been like if I had not lost my hearing, if I had sense of everything going on around me. I think my experience would have been altered completely. But my ears seemed to know that I did not want to be there. I wish my throat had known too. I wish I had lost my voice, so I would not have to comply, again.
There were many senses I wish had been altered while I was in the hospital. The starchiness of the bed sheets against my skin. Clothes worn days in a row, beginning to smell. The hospital food; the heavy feeling that it left in my stomach. The pill I’d let dissolve in my mouth, the pill I did not want to take, day after day—sliding roughly against my dry throat when I finally swallowed, as instructed. The constant over-stimulation of the television, forever on in the community room. People coming and going. The dampness of tears on my cheeks and the cries from others in rooms and hallways and bathrooms. It was too much at times. But I continued to be a part of it, in a way that felt against what I wanted, needed.
I feel like I am always complying. It makes me so sad; compliance is a complicated thing. That complication may be one reason I ended up in a psych ward. There are a lot of reasons I was there, but compliance is a recurring theme in my life, or maybe just in life, not only mine. Maybe I’m just bad at dealing with it. Maybe I’m bad at not being heard. Maybe I’m bad at those times when “no” is not an accepted answer. I had been in such situations, several times. I’m angry about them and so sick about them, mentally ill, some may say. I am not only mad (could be read as “angry” or as “crazy/insane”) about those moments but mad (the same thing goes for this “mad”) about the way in which they are dealt.
I wanted justice, not compliance. I wanted justice; I did not want to prove myself. I did not want to always fight for my case. I did not want to always explain the ways in which I was not crazy, the ways in which I was just in fucked situations, the ways in which I was fucked, literally fucked. I did not want to explain. I did not want to need medical proof. But they wanted it, the justice folk; the folk who served the justice. They wanted all of the proof and paperwork. They talked about it in a dramatic, legal way. Again, I didn’t want to comply. I was done dealing with all of it, with all of them. I was going to deal on my own, I decided. So I ended up in a psych ward with an earache. It was painful in so many ways.
When I found the way out of the psych ward, (that way, of course, being compliance), I put some ear drops in my ears. I could hear again, but it sounded too loud. So I cried. I cried for all the loudness. I cried for the lack of understanding. I cried for having to interact with the noise constantly. I was confused and the volume was suddenly so loud. I adjusted though. We adapt; we comply. Sometimes we can hear the things and sometimes we choose not to hear. I’m trying to figure out how to do this and remain thoughtful and aware. I consciously check out a lot these days; I make a decision to choose not to hear. I think it’s what I have to do, for now. I hope it is not what I have to do forever.