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  • Writer's pictureOwen Saarinen

To Forgive a Psych Ward Doctor

It was 2018. I had already ridden a terrible wave of bipolar up and down many times. Between strained friendships, familial frustrations, excitement, awe, devastation, deliriousness, and holy success, I still decided to go back to college for another year.

I was living in a religious fervor, you see, and I consulted a book of daily Christian wisdom as I rose and made for bed. Powerful statements such as “Align with the Christ that is within and think not of those who will bear hindrance on you,” filled my head. I falsely, though nobly, thought that I had to be perfect—in God’s image, in the eyes of everyone else. Of course, I did not see that this wasn’t possible, but I willed it to be true by sharing my spiritual revelations with anyone who would listen.

Thus, I couldn’t possibly relax; my friends might recall me pacing around my apartment. I could not hide from the obvious fact that I wasn’t good enough, that I somehow wasn’t engaging with my faith correctly. I had the love of Christ in my heart, but the darkness—manifesting in my mind as a bottomless barrel of dark eels—would not cease to pervade my waking hours. The tension was great.

The inherent stress of school and my spiritual world of terror turned out to be a terrible mix. After a week or two of classes, I willingly decided to check myself into a psychiatric hospital unit. I knew this, however: I was a figment of God; there was God energy within me—I would be okay. This hospital experience shut the battle within me down and reset my landscape for something new.

After an ambulance ride I found myself in the psych ward, a chilly place with a hard, polished concrete floor.

The ward is a spiritual place, despite what it seems. Behind the meds, the locked doors, the shoelace-stripped shoes, and glum looks, there will always be something nurturing. Whether it springs from a kind nurse or something silly happening during a game of Sequence, love is there. People are learning to heal from the trauma of life.

"When you are down on your luck and are fighting for your existence, this is what you do: you make deep and sudden friendships."

When you are down on your luck and are fighting for your existence, this is what you do: you make deep and sudden friendships. One older man wanted to open a meditation center when he got out. He was kind and round and cheery, considering all that was around us. Another patient was more tense and pale, but nonetheless sweet and warm. She described a dream of many doors and the voice of Christ calling her through to the right one. The man and I marveled at this.

These people gave me strength. We ate together and broke bread. In doing so, something like the Spirit came over us. It felt providential to be cooped up in this way; we were given second life and the chance to steer ourselves as best we could. But for the most part, we spent our days sliding hundred pound chairs to get a good view of the television, eating bean veggie burgers, doing yoga, and avoiding those who carried terrible auras about them.

Now there was a psychiatrist on the floor, like any you might encounter. He was in charge of patient intake, seeing what we needed therapeutically and then administering the correct medications. At some point I was called into his office. It was a little, cramped cubby hole in the wall with barely enough space to fit two chairs and a desk.

He invited me to sit down and asked about the medications—if any—that I was on. I gave him a list—two mood stabilizers and an anti-psychotic, Quetiapine, which curbs mania and psychosis. This med resoundingly clamps down on one’s hard-edged thoughts, dulls the senses, and slows down the blitz of one’s inner processing. Quetiapine was the most effective of my triad in calming me down, but strangely, it was the one he would focus on getting rid of.

“Is this one working for you?” he asked.

“It does work.” I said. He loomed big in front of me. There was something conniving in his eye. “But when it’s too high of a dose, I feel flat and unhappy.”

Something strange happened—a perceptible shift. The air in the room felt hot and muggy. A smirk crawled across the doctor’s face. I wasn't quite sure what changed, but it didn’t feel good.

“So, if it doesn’t work,” he said, “then let’s get you on something else.”

I stared at him, confused. “Quetiapine does work,” I said, defending myself. “But when I’m on too high of a dose it’s too much for me, and I feel. . .”

My voice trailed off as his commanding stare took me over. He cocked a sinister eyebrow.

“You just said it doesn’t work.”

“Um. . . but that’s when…”

I fell silent. The room had shrunk down to the size of a penny.

I looked into his face. In my imagination I could all but see horns rising from the top of his head. He now emerged before me with the scheming presence of a demon, enjoying my squirms. It was written in the lines of his pleased face. It was written in the casual nature of his posture, a cat playing with a mouse who could do nothing. My body roiled with the creepy crawlies.

I didn’t want another med change. No. It’s no small potatoes to rapidly change meds. If you drop one cold turkey and introduce a new one, it’s like ripping out the contents of your mind and pouring boiling water into your head. These kinds of changes had been nothing short of hellish for me. Frankly, you just want to die, as what ensues is the terror of a thousand spiders crawling up and down your soul.

He let me go this time, but his eyes and smirk trailed after me.

Over the next few days this psychiatrist continually sent one of the nurses at me with a clipboard to sign the papers allowing him to put me on another medication. Try as I might, they refused to give me my Quetiapine at the little boxed-in, pummel-proof counter where they dispensed all patient meds. Sorry, I can’t do that. Evidently this man was going to starve my brain out. The nurse came around; I refused her. I was so scared. I was so vulnerable.

Finally, after going half mad from withdrawal, I took the new medication, desperate that it would somehow stabilize me. My tangled thinking went something like this: So God is making an indication that I must put my trust in Them by taking this new med. I do not understand why I am being all but forced to do so, but I will be alright whatever the outcome is. Amen.

Having signed the psychiatrist’s papers and taken the new meds, I was greeted at the hospital doors by my anxious parents. I had been there for about a week. While their faces and actions were tense, leading me out of the building, I felt grateful to be alive and outside.

Instead of going straight to the car, I suggested we explore a park that was across the street. Walking across the big grassy flat, I don’t remember having much to say. I was just more focused on leaving my past life behind. Eventually, we came beneath the canopy of a towering tree, one thick trunk shooting magnificently into the air. I was immediately captured by its grace. It was alive. I was alive. We both were sturdy, strong—made of light and spirit. I sucked from its nurturing force and it pulled me in close.

At an Indian restaurant I ate curry with care and relish, sitting across from my mother, telling her I was going in the right direction. Then we were in the car—I was so optimistic about getting better.

Of course, the new meds did exactly what I was afraid of them doing to me. The suicidal thinking came back, full force, and my body erupted in feelings of unbearably hot flame. For a week or so I endured this pain, trying to honor the psychiatrist’s false decree. Words fail to name the anguish.

With my original psychiatrist—who had been kept out of the process during my stay in the hospital—I made the transition back to my original medication, Quetiapine. My mother had called and called about linking him in, but the hospital would not hear her. Slowly, my original meds did their work, the bizarre and scary symptoms abated, and I found peace.

However, the scarring on my consciousness, the violation of my human rights, and the disrespect I’d been shown left me searing with rage. I wanted revenge in the form of this psychiatrist’s sacking. I wanted the world to know my pain. In part as a response to this, I wrote a lot of poems and short stories about mental health and bipolar. Most of it was quite angry stuff. Although my ravings were cathartic, they ultimately didn’t get me anywhere closer to the closure I sought for myself. So I’ve found I must turn inward for my freedom.

I try to return to the energy of that tree when I can. It is the energy of universal compassion and forgiveness. Plenty of times I have had the privilege of falling into this pool of ineffable grace through meditation. Silently, on a purple pad and cushion, I have let go of many of the most terrible hurts I have experienced. I spend days, weeks, months even, processing these wrongs, including the ones I have unfortunately committed myself; at some point I can see bare souls in my mind’s eye, perfect, and infinitely wise. Then there is nothing to hate, nothing to attack or to defend myself from.

I have seen the soul of the psych ward psychiatrist inside the bubble of my meditation. The soul is perfect, whole, and beautiful, though his mind and body is wracked with confusion, fear, and aggression. It’s funny; are we not all this way – a humanity, as some say, fallen from grace? But what happens if we stay angry? Do we not continue to propagate the harm done to us? What happens if we choose to forgive, to see the world of pure, good souls instead of the worst in ourselves and others?

Don’t get me wrong, I do want justice for the abuse that I experienced. I would like this man to experience consequences, professionally, for what he has done. But I do not feel this out of vengeance. I simply do not want others to go through unnecessary suffering as well. I want people with bipolar, schizophrenia, depression, and the like, to be treated well—always—at their darkest of hours. Because we, too, are people with pure souls. We, too, are worthy members of this earth, and are worthy of God and Their forgiveness when we go astray.

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