Counting My Blessings: My Experience in the Stanford Psych Ward

In the fall of 2008, I entered Stanford Hospital.  No, I did not have a rare kind of cancer or leukemia.  My sickness was also insidious, elusive and frightening.

I suffered from bipolar disorder.

I was haunted by moods that swung high into the unreal heavens and down into the depths of despondency.  Nights were sleepless and anxious.  Days were endless marathons of frozen numbness.

Several factors led up to this predicament.  My recent divorce was one trigger.  Gone was the stabilizing force of marriage, even though mine had become stormy and hurtful.  Then there was the further feeling of abandonment when my psychiatrist, upon learning I was getting divorced, said she could no longer see me.  She never gave me a reason, but I surmised it was because she didn’t want to be called to testify in any divorce proceedings.

My medications were no longer effective.  I was adrift in a sea of turbulent emotions.

My parents were too caught up in their own marital strife to offer support.  Friends seemed to melt away.

Fear became my constant companion.

After making sure my health insurance would cover the cost, my new psychiatrist suggested I be admitted to Stanford.

I left two small sons in the care of my ex-husband and drove up to Palo Alto.

So, what was life like in the loony bin?

The first morning, as I awoke in my hospital bed, my doctor arrived.  White coated and flanked by several student interns with clipboards, she stood just inside my door. She announced that she was putting me on Lithium to control my mood swings.  She said it would take several days before I noticed a difference.  She also prescribed some medications for my anxiety and some others to help me sleep.  Then she left.

She never asked if I had any questions, or if I was scared.  She didn’t ask if I had two small sons at home, wondering where their mother was.

Her medical knowledge blessed me.  But her distant, remote professionalism left a hole that only the other patients filled.

I can see them as if it were only yesterday.

There was the frail elderly man with gnarled hands who was too weak to have electroconvulsive treatments.  He so desperately wanted to get relief from his anxiety.  We walked arm-in-arm up and down the hospital halls every night after dinner.  He spoke to me of his wife, who was faithfully waiting for him to get better.  He said he hoped each day he would get stronger and be allowed to get treatment. I wondered how awful he must have felt to be longing for what I imagined was a violent procedure.

Our communion blessed me.

There was my roommate – the young anorexic mother.  She would stare at her breakfast muffin all morning, listlessly poking at it with a fork, unable to let herself take a bite.  The nurse would come in to ask if she’d had a bowel movement that day.


The nurse said if she didn’t eat enough to have a bowel movement, they were going to have to put in an IV, and she didn’t want that, now, did she?

She still didn’t eat.

Her worried sister came and brought her some beautiful silk pajamas and several books of inspirational thoughts. My roommate let me read the books. She didn’t put on the pajamas.

Her mother arrived with my roommate’s three-year-old daughter in tow.  The mother sat on a chair by my roommate’s bed, tapping the heels of her expensive shoes on the linoleum floor, while the little girl ran around the room.  My roommate reached out to hold her daughter, but the girl just giggled and ran away. My roommate’s mother looked at her watch.  No words passed between them.  After a half-hour, she grabbed up the grandchild and exited, huffily marching down the hall.

After that visit, my roommate confessed to me that she had her daughter out of wedlock.  It was a sin her mother could not forgive her for.  I guess her shame and helplessness made her rebel in the only way she knew how – to stop eating.  She could not control her mother’s domination and condemnation, but she could control what she put in her mouth.

She asked me if I had any children.  I told her about my young sons, how they were wondering if their mother was going to be OK, after seeing her sitting comatose in front of the TV for days, watching M*A*S*H* reruns, thinking about chewing a drinking glass and swallowing the glass to end it all.

My roommate listened.  A week after I returned home, I received a letter from her, written in the tiniest handwriting I had ever seen. I wondered if her tiny script expressed her small feeling of self-worth.  She wrote to me that she hoped I was doing better, and that she hoped my sons were well, too.  She thanked me for being a kind roommate.

I don’t know if she made it — if she was able to forgive herself and allow herself to live.

Her friendship blessed me.

My ex-husband called and said he and his lawyer didn’t think I should have joint custody of my boys anymore.  Angrily, I told him I had a chemical imbalance that was being corrected, and that my illness was just like a diabetic’s need for insulin.  I said Lithium would “cure” me.  God gave me the stamina and strength to stand up to his bullying, and I talked him down.

God’s gift of gumption blessed me.

During art therapy, the emotions from my conversation with my ex-husband overwhelmed me. I erupted in angry tears and ran to my room.  As I lay in my bed, sobbing, strains of a Chopin Polonaise wafted through the hospital halls. Who was playing such hauntingly exquisite music?  I learned later it was a talented pixie-faced anorexic girl with years of classical training. She wanted to cheer me up. Her piano playing lifted my sorrows into the air and soothed them with hope.

Her beautiful offering blessed me.

After seven days, my doctor said my Lithium level was high enough for me to go home.  I was allowed to wash my clothes in the communal laundry room.  I piled in my underwear, socks, and a denim dress into the industrial washing machine. Imagine my surprise when I saw another patient wearing my dress that evening.  She had found it in the dryer and decided to put it on.

“That’s my dress!” I cried. Ruefully, she gave it back.

Her audacity blessed me.

It’s been twelve years since I spent that week in the Stanford psych ward. I’ve been on a successful regimen of medications that keep me from swinging up and down – far away from the sinister bipolar waltz.  I am able to get eight hours of sleep each night. I no longer have frenzied buying sprees or bouts of depression.  Each day unfolds with hope.

I will never forget the other patients who were in that hospital with me, confronting their own demons, yet offering me compassion.  Medication brought me relief.  But they brought me healing. They truly blessed me.