Hospitals are scary places. Most of the time.
My first experience in the world of Mental Health Institutions was Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. I lived in the in-patient youth ward for roughly a month at the age of seventeen.
There was a girl in the ward with me who never spoke. I remember her being beautiful, despite the hospital scrubs. I don’t know what her diagnosis was; she was introverted, she didn’t eat much, she was sad and unresponsive to almost all attempts to engage with her. One day the whole group of us were sitting around a large table in the classroom. I was compulsively shuffling cards while one of the nurses tried to interest us in a medical trivia game. The response to her attempts had been half hearted at best until she came upon a question that went something like, “How many times a day does the average person pass gas?” There were some feeble chuckles. I continued to shuffle my cards. “Anywhere between thirteen and sixteen times.”
Suddenly, the beautiful girl who never spoke began to laugh. It wasn’t a small giggle, not a polite titter; she laughed from her belly. A big booming noise. The longer she laughed, the more people joined in and suddenly the whole room was filled with sad young people and overworked nurses laughing to the point of tears. It was the most miraculous fart joke I have ever heard.
A few years later I was in the ER because some medication I was on was giving me side effects similar to food poisoning. I was depressed, in pain, and feeling completely pathetic. A nurse came in to get me started on IV fluids. As I lay in the bed with my face turned away from the needle I locked eyes with my mother. She looked pale and tired – almost as bad as I felt. A few minutes went by and the nurse had still not pulled away.
“This hurts,” I whined.
“Don’t be such a baby,” my mother half-heartedly joked.
Another minute or two went by. I had felt a number of pricks by this point, and I could feel the nurse getting tense. Finally she straightened and took a deep breath. When I looked over at my right arm there was an alarming amount of blood. I was so dehydrated that it was hard to find a vein, I guess. Bruises were forming and the sheets and my skin were smeared with red.
“Oh, a baby am I?”
My mother and I had to laugh.
Earlier this year I was back in the ER. I was dealing with medication side effects again, an alarming incident for my new boyfriend. As we sat in the waiting room of St. Michael’s Hospital he held my hand and assured me that everything was going to be okay.
We had been there a few minutes when two teenage girls came in, clearly scared and upset. The younger of the two had fainted; she had hit her head on the tub and split her lip. Her friend was calling parents, stopping doctors as they walked by and generally adding to the melee that is a downtown ER.
A triage nurse approached. “I need to see you,” she said, pointing to me. When my boyfriend rose as well she cut him off. “Not you.” I walked away alone.
When I came back to our seats, my boyfriend looked puzzled. He told me that the girls had asked, “Are husbands not allowed?”
I was worried that all this was too much pressure for a boyfriend of just a few months, and that comment didn’t help. But all he said was, “Do I look that old?”
And we laughed.
Hospitals are scary, but as weeks and years pass the pain fades. What begins to stand out are the funny moments, the pin pricks of light in the darkness. Keep your eyes open and even the worst days can make you laugh, and if you can laugh, things are already looking up.
About Sarah Lindsay
Sarah Lindsay is in her mid-twenties and lives in Toronto with her boyfriend and their dog (who also has some anxiety issues). Sarah was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in 2005 at the age of 16 and is still trying to figure it out. Follow Sarah’s story on HMC’s Supportive Minds Blog, or additionally you can follow her on Twitter, Facebook or check out her new website: SarahsMoods.com