What the Psych Ward Taught Me About Fighting the Coronavirus

Anne Lovering
Illustration of woman with blond hair on a blue background

On the bulletin board in my office, the one where I’m no longer working, hangs a lined piece of paper torn from a composition notebook. A single color, scribbled in marker, fills each line in a repeating pattern: blue, purple, green, orange; blue, purple, green, orange. I have a toddler, but she didn’t create this drawing. I drew it last April, when I spent three days in the locked psychiatric ward at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

It wasn’t supposed to happen. Preparing for my daughter to be born, I was hypervigilant about my pre-existing depression, a mental health condition which causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest, and I took precautions. I stayed on medication during pregnancy, saw a therapist postpartum, submitted to regular screenings. Professionals thought I was fine. I thought I was fine. I had been in major depressions before. This wasn’t one of them.

And yet the circumstances shifted. Our baby had been born with a health complication; in her first year, as we took her to appointments and decided on a treatment plan for her, I agonized about her future. I imagined her suffering, needing surgery, becoming paralyzed, being bullied in school. “Have you thought about…?” the social worker at the hospital asked, the one who was supposed to be providing support. I’m a literature professor, a poet with an eye for detail, a depressive with an imagination, an expert ruminator. However she phrased the question, whatever disturbing, violent possibility she raised: of course I had thought about it.

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And so I found myself being escorted by security to the psychiatric emergency department.

The first few hours didn’t seem so bad. But as it became clear that doctors didn’t hear my narrative the way I understood it, I started to panic. How did this happen? What do you mean, at least overnight? What do you mean, send me upstairs? What do you mean, children can’t visit? What do you mean, it’s for my own good? Can’t you hear me? Don’t you trust me? And the most terrifying question of all: what if I never get out of here?

Acute psychiatric care has some glaring inconsistencies and cruelties. It didn’t seem possible to practice the strategies the hospital’s staff recommended — like having a support system of family and friends to call on — while locked up, with limited use of a poorly connected landline phone. One nurse seemed to enjoy saying no to daytime snacks. Another said, “You have to think about why you’re here.” I spent the first day crying.

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Such pain and confusion translate uncannily well to life under the coronavirus threat, the  new viral strain that causes respiratory infection and can lead to serious or fatal health complications. “We all should have seen this coming,” a colleague wrote in a work email — as someone had said to me, “This is what we were all afraid was going to happen,” as if describing their previous concerns, their all-along-rightness, would alleviate the current crisis. What do you mean, it’s for my own good? What if I never get out of here?

On day two, I stopped crying and started reading. I watched reruns and did crosswords. I colored, using the safety markers that couldn’t be used as weapons. And I got out after the mandatory 72-hour hold.

Fighting coronavirus will take longer than 72 hours. All of us are now elopement risks. But if the psych ward taught me anything, it’s that we do get out. We have to believe that the team cares. As one of the kind, weary, wise-beyond-his-years residents said, after I begged him to tell me when I could leave: “Nobody wants you to have to be here.”

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