Rebirth in the Psych Ward


A_Kelli-750Not many places on earth lend themselves to the acute aspiration and suffocating defeat of a psych ward.

Especially when you’re an adolescent.

My husband works in such a place. His name is Jason. He stands at a modest 5’9”, average build, but with eyes that could call the confession or compassion out of a stone. Armed with a little education and a wealth of life experience, the miracles he works and witnesses on a daily basis border on the heroic.

He leads groups of students to talk about their lives, not just react to them. He opens doors (and sometimes windows, too) for the possibility of kindness exchanged from unlikely sources. He challenges and affirms, strengthens and upholds, shapes and molds, comforts and guides.

This is love on the front lines, people. No contest.

It was a balmy day in the Fall when he brought me news of Tyrone*. This young man stood at an intimidating 6’2” as a sixteen-year-old, as broad shouldered as he was rippling with muscle. His young life had been battered by a series of tragedies, culminating with his admittance to the mental hospital.

When they were first introduced, Tyrone hardly looked up from his rhythmic bouncing of a basketball against the concrete wall. His deep voice uttered a singularly syllabic greeting. There was both skill and energy in those hands as they grasped, released, grasped, released.

But it was enough. Behind his rough exterior lay a softness. No, better yet, a tenderness.

Jason recognized it immediately.

Alana was there that day, too. She was as timid and introspective as she was slight of stature. A cutter, admitted to the ward against her will, she spent downcast days huddled in the corner chair, fiddling with the fringe on the knee of her jeans. Now and then, certain patients would poke fun at her, asking to see the scars on her arms or berating her lack of interest in their antics. Yet, even in this, fear kept her eyes from them. From all others – but especially from loud, confident others – like Tyrone.

Around lunchtime, the banter in the room grew to raucous levels. Jason was used to this. It was the daily grind of listening to complaints about the lack of proper utensils (for safety reasons, of course) and the whine for tastier entree selections. There was chocolate milk on the floor and someone streaked a piece of steamed broccoli along the wall, leaving behind only green.

Tyrone, social butterfly that he was, had made friends with some of the younger boys who (quite literally) looked up to him. They threw the basketball around with renewed gusto, now catching, now dodging it. And the room seemed to pulsate with their energy.

Alana’s beeline for the door was the least expected movement in the room. Against the rules, she pulled the handle–opening and closing it in one liquid motion–then flattened her back against the glass. From inside the room, she appeared to tremble. Comments flew left and right. Questions toward Jason and his coworkers, accusations toward Alana’s back. Rage had become such an easy alibi for these young people, such a convenient emotion to dull pain, and it seemed to reverberate from the walls.

Leaving the noise to his fellow mental health technicians, Jason went quietly to the door. He knocked softly and pushed. She nearly crumpled. Her face was ashen when he met her eyes.

What was wrong? Why had she left? He began to implore quietly, earnestness around the brow. Her legs completed their buckling and sliding down the wall, she inhaled slow.

She began to describe a very complicated and intricate relationship between herself and clamorous atmospheres. How surviving abuse and mental illness had ambushed her ability to cope. How the words tossed her direction from the others made her want to shrivel up and hide, but even that was nothing compared to the panic she felt in a room full of noise.

Jason listened. Those eyes of his had done their magic. Confessions were pooling around them, like blood from a stone.

As he settled Alana into a safe space, he knew what he had to do. It was Tyrone. The ring-leader, the respected trendsetter. The one to whom all eyes looked for approval.

He must talk to Tyrone.

The chair screeched across the floor as Tyrone’s firm grip settled it under him. His eyes were ablaze. As they began to talk, Jason saw the tension in his young friend’s jaw, felt the angst of passionate self-defense in his animated words. Training as a counselor is always good for such moments, and this was no exception. Through the use of skillful conversation, Tyrone slowly started to lose steam. He became silent more and more. He was listening.

“Alana doesn’t hate you, and she doesn’t blame you. She isn’t here to make trouble for you, Tyrone. She just wants you to understand that when you speak at that volume and throw the ball at that speed, she loses it on the inside. She knows you don’t know this. And she wanted to tell you herself, but you’ve seen the way the others treat her–oh, I know you don’t join in, I’ve watched you–but she doesn’t know for sure that you won’t injure her further if she tries to talk to you … Do you see?”

Tyrone’s jaw eased up a little. He unclenched his hands, but kept his eyes on the floor.

“And I know that you have a gentleness about you. I know that you will consider her pain and her needs. I told her that. I told her you would be safe …”

Jason’s words trailed off when he saw Tyrone’s wide-eyed stare. Amazement crept into those dark eyes, followed by a new tenacity. Something very close to a rebirth. Not a word was spoken about the inner workings of such transformation, but confessions pooled again, all the same. This time, they were the silent type.

After a moment, Tyrone spoke in a softer voice, “Yeah … I will look out for her.”

He got up slowly, screeched his chair back across the linoleum, and re-entered the room.

The boy who went back in was as different as the dawn from the boy who came out. For just those few minutes, he had beheld himself through eyes that see what is most real, what is strikingly authentic about his truest self.

Someone had believed in him. And subsequently, he had been renamed: Gentle.


*With the exception of my husband, Jason, all names have been changed for privacy.