I recently spent four days in the company of some of the most enlightened, compassionate and spiritually aware human beings that I have ever had the honor to meet.
These individuals taught me lessons of humility, dignity, bravery and vulnerability. I spent four days being taught at the hands of those who had mastered the lesson of loving others despite being in their own pain. Who were these gurus? Mental patients. Just like me.
I have lived my life struggling with the concept of madness versus spirituality. I have throughout my lifetime made great leaps in my own spiritual truth, and yet at the same time I have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Always one to cast off labels, I take this diagnosis with a proverbial grain of salt, but what I do find to be true about my experience is that without some sort of medication, I begin to feel like one big open wound. A wound that needs healing.
This brings me to the mental hospital—a place where all your fears are laid bare; your subconscious on full display as all familiarity is ripped from under your feet. A place where psychic wounds are rendered raw and urgent. A place where the healing may not come in the ways you would typically expect.
My intake process was an invasive knife in an already open wound. I was stripped naked and all of my tattoos were systematically diagrammed on a piece of paper. As a former anorexic with severe body image issues and insecurity, I was literally in my nightmare of being reduced to an image. I was rendered one-dimensional; I was shamed.
The rest of the night was filled with subsequent horrors. In a state of confusion at having abruptly discontinued all medication, my mind was on high alert. I was sent to find my room on my own, which was a carbon copy of every other room on the floor—a tiny “cell” with two bare mattresses on the floor, a toilet separated from the nearest bed by a thin curtain and a window whose view was the brick wall of the next unit.
And at this moment of pure isolation and terror, I was brought face-to-face with my first healer…not the nurses who stripped me of my dignity and drew ugly pictures of me, not the medical technicians who couldn’t spare a moment to walk a frightened and disoriented patient to a sterile and alienating room. My first experience of healing was meeting my roommate, a woman who taught me that, when presented with a room with no blankets, cups or toothbrushes, one must demand some comfort. One must speak up for one’s soul.
My other healers presented themselves in their own time throughout that long weekend and in forms and expressions one might not find typical outside in the “real” world. My teachers were individuals with mental illness, people who had attempted suicide or violence to another being, people who were suffering incredible personal loss and pain. And each of these individuals offered me an opportunity to heal, in accepting them, and accepting the parts of myself that were also suffering.
In the days of my hospitalization, I was sung to by an 18 year old who had attempted suicide; I was given a book to read by someone in the throes of schizophrenia; I was invited to play cards by a young man who was enduring a 90 day stay in this frightening place. I was given love and comfort by those who were surrounded with so little of their own.
So what did I learn from this experience? It is something that I already intuitively knew, but that I now want to shout from the rooftops: We are all healers.
The person serving you your breakfast can help ease whatever burden you are carrying. The homeless man on the street can teach you a great life lesson. I did some of my own healing of others during my four day stint as someone who had lost her mind. I received the most amazing feedback from people. People just as broken and just as invincible as I am, who told me how my words and actions helped to ease the wounds of their own souls.
This feedback in turn helped me to heal my own wounds, and begin to see myself as my fellow patients did—an indomitable spirit, that, though a little lost, was fundamentally whole.
Author: Lauren Ellis
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Flickr/Rob Walker