What to Do If a Friend is in the Psyche Ward

Here’s a riddle for you:  My nephew is in the psyche ward and it doesn’t upset me one bit.  The key to unlocking the mindset behind this cold-hearted, shameless declaration is simple:  At this point in my life, I’m an old hand at psyche wards.  I kind of know them inside out.

Don’t get me wrong:  I am not now, nor have I ever been, a patient of a psyche ward.  But this blog actually started as a result of a good friend’s confinement to a psyche ward in Southern California.  He was experiencing suicidal ideation and walked into the ocean with a box cutter and called 911 before he bled out.  The fact that he had a weapon of his own destruction in his cargo pants meant that he was put away for observation.

I visited him in the psyche ward where he was held for mandatory observation.  And it turned out that I was kind of a psyche ward ninja:  The staff loved me.  I said all the right things.  I felt totally kind of at home.  I knew just what to do.  And I brought an air of joy to everything.  It was like I was a prodigy who found his musical instrument and started banging out some crazy glissandos on a shiny lacquered baby grand.

My mystery novel was just a fun exercise I would do to while away the time with my friend as he went through recovery, and it would eventually become a project about my friend—the spider at the center of a glistening, dewy web–the Ivy-league drop-out alcoholic deliveryman, who finds himself in the seamy underbelly of LA’s fashion scene.  And my Ivy-league friend would become something of a writer himself—he’s written two mysteries at this point, one of which is in talks to be bought by a major Hollywood player.  He’s happy and healthy and not dead.  So, this is a long way of saying that the psyche ward is not a bad beginning at all.  It is actually the best place to begin your life narrative—in medias res—that place that the great Greek philosophers say is the traditional starting point of the pinnacle of all artistic achievements:  the epic.

In the interim, I’ve helped a lot of other people out in their suicides.  So, I kind of know the ropes.  And funny thing: I never really seek out the suicides nor do I relish the psyche wards…not like the way those Gothic people seek out black skinny pants and lip liner at the mall.  But like the prodigy, the instrument of my exceptionalism always seems to find itself in my hands.

So here is a list of some things to do when visiting a friend in the psyche ward:

  • Take the Serenity Prayer: You know that Alcoholic’s Anonymous Prayer about God granting you the ability to change what you can and the knowledge to know what you can’t…Take it seriously.  Recognize that you probably can’t change much.  And that the burden for your friend’s transformation falls upon your friend.
  • Don’t be a Bummer: Most people show up at psyche wards looking like they saw a ghost.  They have RESTING FUNERAL FACE.  And they act sad and this is totally self-defeating.  Flip the script.  Act joyous…joyous the way that New Orleans funerals move from dirge to dance.  This is the best possible place for your friend to find herself—a place designed to give her help.
  • Bring Food: I brought my friend his favorite, an In N Out Combo meal.  I had just gotten off the plane from Mexico and brought back a sampler of Mexican sugar candies.  The sugar candy made him an instant hit, both among the mostly Latino staff and the patients who all craved sugar.  One woman took the tiny little sombrero that came with the basket and wore it on her head.
  • Bring some kind of Care Package: Nice coffee or teas are the bomb.  People also like socks or underwear or house slippers.  They also like some kind of beauty product.  Don’t try to overwhelm them with crap.  Just ask yourself what you know they like.  If they are a coffee-head, find their brand.  Remember that a gift is a signature of care, so it must be edited like a designer’s Fall Collection.  Pick an idea and go for it.  As long as it shows some care, they will appreciate the hell out of it.
  • Bring Reading Material: They’re going to have a lot of time under observation.  I like to give graphic novels—they’re trendy and they’re great for people who may have low attention spans.  Once I bought a set of vintage comic books from the reject pile of a comic book store—probably no more than 5 bucks for 20 issues of The Avengers.  It got passed around by everybody in the ward and my friend assumed a position of power and significance—the lord librarian, the keeper of the book.  This is my signature gift.  If you find yourself in the psyche ward and you are a friend of mine, expect a graphic novel.  And go ahead:  I give you permission to steal this idea and make it yours.
  • Bring Stuff to While Away the Time: Crossword puzzles, Sudoko, Coloring books—these are all great.  Just remember that Coloring books can be tricky, because of restrictions about the pencils.  Card games are great:  Uno is ever popular and will allow people to sublimate aggressions and come together as a group of friends, not crazies.
  • Stop with the Blame Game: Don’t blame yourself.  Don’t blame your friend’s friends.  Don’t blame her parents.  Blame is debilitating.  It’s just another way to avoid dealing with the reality of the situation:  the psyche ward is where your friend has found herself and only herself and her therapist will benefit from figuring out whom to blame.
  • Figure out what you CAN do: You may succumb to savior complex.  Don’t go there.  Re-read my first and most important note—the one about the Serenity Prayer.  Get your ass SERENE-AS-FUCK.  But figure out what small measure you can take.  It can be something so simple as making casserole meals for a caregiver, offering a ride, coordinating a joint visit, stopping by an apartment to pick up clothes, checking to see what bills need to get paid.  Think churchy.
  • Silence = Death: Don’t let people suck you into their shame.  This may be your friend’s narrative.  But it’s also YOUR NARRATIVE.  So tell everybody.  It’s actually healthy for you.  It’s also productive…because there may be one person out there who knows how to do some shit that’s really un-churchy and technical…like getting on disability.  Somebody might be dating a bankruptcy lawyer and might be able to help with credit issues.  Somebody might have a cabin in the woods that might be perfect for a brief vacation in life.  If you keep your pie hole shut, you will never be able to tap these people.
  • Write a Card: They’ve got a shit load of time to spend doing nothing.  So, they will reread that card and reread it and reread it.  So your visit is nice but it will have greater impact if you actually write them a card.  And don’t just buy some Hallmark card and sign your name.  Write some actual stuff down.  Most people really don’t do this.  And a card not only is good for reinforcing your message.  It is still one of the primary metaphors of sentiment, of feeling, of care.


2 thoughts on “What to Do If a Friend is in the Psyche Ward

  1. This is incredibly honest and helpful, Khanh. So many times, I think, we want to be helpful to friends or loved ones who are sorting themselves out in those wards. But we don’t know what to say. Or, we don’t know what to do/bring/etc. And it’s not trivial that we’re also confronting our own feelings about mental health at the same time. We have to get past all that if we’re going to help. I think one of the wisest things you’ve mentioned here is the importance of not being silent. There’s still too much of a stigma associated with suicide attempts and other signs of mental issues. The fact is, if I break my leg, I go to the hospital and get a cast and the help of a doctor. If it’s my mind and soul that need work, well, it’s the same matter-of-fact process. You get help from a professional. No shame, no blame, and no endless angst.

    • Margot, I’ve heard someone say that the brain is an organ just like any other. You don’t feel ashamed if your liver or pancreas or heart is in trouble. You get help and you try to resolve things. Unfortunately, for a lot of people–especially Asian Americans–mental illness is a source of much hiding and shame and denial. Recently, there have been strides to change this. A few of my friends are putting together a tarot pack that creatively addresses the issue of mental health under the auspices of the Asian American Literary Review. Their kickstarter got fully funded at 20K, so I think now this issue is coming out of the closet in intellectual and activist circles. I’m totally going to buy the tarot pack when it launches. Here is the link to the kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1750978990/asian-american-tarot-a-mental-health-project

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