October 16, 2019

By Sydney Jensen

Being hospitalized for a week due to mental illness isn’t exactly anybody’s idea of a good way to spend spring break, but my junior year of high school, that’s exactly what I did. After weeks of angry outbursts, panic attacks, attempts to self-harm and suicidal ideation, my counselor, parents and I decided it would be best for me to be admitted.
I spent most of my childhood in a small town full of religious people, my family included. The school was tiny. My class had 12 kids. The community was extremely sheltered. There were only a few cases of known severe mental illness and suicides over a span of many years. In school and church, mental health was maybe touched on briefly, but there was no real discussion. 
Despite being diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I didn’t really know of anyone else that struggled like I did. I felt alone and felt like I needed to hide my struggles. Only a select few close friends and family members knew. As my condition worsened, I began to act out, to a point that others noticed and were alarmed. That’s when I was admitted.
Going to the hospital was terrifying. I was 16, emotionally unstable, and I was subjected to spend a week with people that I didn’t know. Those people, the ones they warn you about, the so-called “crazies.” That’s how they had been described to me when I was younger. I was worried it would be like the representation in many books, movies and TV shows; with people talking to themselves in corners and others confined in a padded room. I was wrong. 
As I was introduced to the other kids in the adolescent unit, one boy cheerfully came and talked to me. He was friendly enough, a few years younger, and he told me that he saw shadows and heard voices. That threw me off because I’d only ever heard of that happening, but had never met someone that struggled with it. Other than his symptoms, he seemed normal. Another boy was quiet and withdrawn and kept to himself in the corners with books. As a reader myself, I could relate to that. Another boy didn’t say much to me, but later gave me a picture of a fox he drew.
Over the following days, I did as I was told and went to all the therapy sessions, met with doctors and therapists and took my medication. I got to know my roommate and the other patients. I was secretly in awe throughout the group counseling sessions and other activities. These kids — they were like me. 
They had hopes and dreams, family and friends. Another girl I met around my age had bipolar disorder and had been admitted twice. We had a lot in common. We loved animals and belonged to the same religion. I felt a strong sense of understanding and empathy when she told me her story. When she began to cry, I could relate. For what seemed like the first time, I felt like I was with people that truly understood. 
Coming off my old medicine, I had bad withdrawals. At one point, I had spiraled into a major panic attack, and one the boys found me. There was nothing but kindness and concern as he asked if I was okay. There was no judgement. After it passed, we didn’t speak of it again. 
There were other patients who, if I didn’t know better, would have scared me. One admitted he was in the hospital for drugs and other dangerous activities. But he was kind and spent a few hours teaching us card games that he learned in juvie. He was not what he appeared to be. None of them were. And neither was I. 
That was one of the most important lessons, along with the new coping skills and medication. That lesson helped me to deal with the staring and awkward silences once I was back in school, and the awkward avoidance when I began attending church again. If those kids I met weren’t “crazy,” then neither was I. It helped when, as my story spread, a few other classmates approached me and whispered their own struggles and cried because they were afraid to tell their parents. I wasn’t used to people coming to me. But it didn’t bother me to open up and try to help because I saw myself in them. I saw their pain and fear. 
It felt like a veil had been lifted from my eyes, and I saw everything differently. I also saw the lack of knowledge in my community. The illusion that just because you’re religious, and do what you’re supposed to, this won’t happen to you. And if it does, it’s because you’re a sinner. I saw how wrong that thinking was, and that it needed to change. And it’s starting to. More people are voicing their struggles and sharing their knowledge. 
It gives me hope that maybe one day, the world can finally see what I saw: these people, people like me — they are not what people think they are.

Sydney Jensen lives in a small farm town in southeast Idaho. She is currently a student at the College of Southern Idaho and working towards applying for the veterinary technician program. She is also starting a career as a freelance writer.


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