Sometimes Silence is Loud

Saying nothing sometimes says the most.

Emily Dickinson, 1874.

In 2014, I wound up in the hospital, first the emergency room, an overnight stay in the Purple Unit (their code for units where people who were a danger to themselves or others were held before being moved to a higher skilled facility for such people, then by ambulance to a behavioral health facility where I spent 48 hours in what looked like a large waiting room with reclining sofa like chairs, then finally to a locked unit at the same facility.

In the Purple Unit at the first hospital I went to, I remember several unique events. One was a man who was talking, constantly and unintelligibly. A nurse or maybe it was an aide was sitting with him, helping to calm him down. He alternated between crying and talking and sometimes yelling out. He wasn’t violent and barely moved from his chair. I remember her saying sympathetically that his mind was “running a mile a minute”.

Then, there was a woman who actually was in a separate room on the side where at one point they had her restrained. As the night got later she had calmed down and they permitted her to move around a bit. She kept coming out and using the phone on the wall. At first, I paid no attention to it but after a while, I realized, she was calling home. I thought she was calling her husband but he actually came in at one point and she was still on the phone. She kept calling and calling and I eventually realized she was calling home, leaving messages for herself. She spoke as if she was talking to herself and she was someone else. It was chilling and actually somewhat heartbreaking now that I look back because at the end of the first phone call I actually paid attention to, she said, “I love you, you’re going to be okay, take care, God.”

Wow, looking back, I get chills just thinking about that. She was obviously experiencing some kind of disassociation or psychosis. At the time, I found it scary, having never encountered anyone like that before. But with time and also with the amount of exposure I’ve had with mental and behavioral health deviations through my experience working in psych units, nursing homes and hospitals, I’ve grown less frightened and much more sympathetic and understanding. It makes me sad for these people because I know that often those who are not sufferers may look on them as crazy or dangerous. Some of them can be, without treatment or proper support but if we just relegate them to crazy, where do we go from there? Just lock them up and forget about them? Of course, today there is much more and better support for people struggling like this compared to years ago when people were subjected to such questionable corrective surgeries as lobotomies and basically imprisonment where they were locked away or chained up or restrained in inhumane matters.

But I digress, naturally. I’m not here to go into details about my hospitalization, that’s for another day.

I do want to share an experience I had that I still think about to this day and I don’t think I will forget as long as I live.

When I was in 48 hour observation, there was a woman sitting a few chairs behind me. She kept to herself and seemed very withdrawn. At some point, she just broke down crying and this went on for what seemed like an eternity. Everyone was looking at her wondering if she was okay. Well, not everyone. Some people were too out of it. We were all on a cocktail of drugs. Some of the ones I was taking I had a hard time waking up, whereas before I was always such a light sleeper. It was later determined the dose was too high because once I was asleep I was all but unconscious.

Anyway, one of the other patients actually asked the nurse if the crying woman was okay and if there was anything that could be done for her. The nurse said there wasn’t. I don’t remember the nurses in this observation unit with fondness. The room was large, the entrance at one corner, the nurses station in the opposing corner and between the nurses station and entrance was the med room and window where everyone had to come up when their name was called and get their meds and then the on site doctors office where we were called every few hours to assess our condition. My thought is that this unit was to determine stability and also placement because the facility had several different units, one for recovering alcoholics, one for recovering drug addicts and one for patients who were suicidal, at least those are the ones I’m aware of.

I remember just wishing the woman would stop crying. Despite the challenges associated with my own hospitalization, I hadn’t cried once. But I also remember immediately feeling bad for wishing that. I thought, maybe she’s scared, maybe she feels worthless or like a failure or that no one cares. So, finally, I walked over to her. I had no idea what to say so I actually didn’t say anything. I felt as if, I had no idea what she was going through and therefore I also felt, anything I did say might come across as trite or unhelpful. So, I just stood next to her and put my hand on her shoulder. I sort of patted her shoulder a little and moved my hand to her a back a little back and forth. After a while, she calmed down a bit and then told me she was okay. I still didn’t know what to say so I was silent. I don’t remember if I nodded or not but I returned to my chair.

I didn’t talk to her again after that. Shortly after, some very official looking hospital staff came and took her away. Slowly but surely, people would be collected as their observation came to an end. I was taken away to my assigned unit shortly after as well. The first time I went to eat a meal, was when I saw her again. She didn’t go to the same unit I went to. Meals were in a separate building. Those who had leave privileges could leave the unit, with other patients accompanied by hospital staff to eat meals or participate in activities. When I saw her again, I thought she looked better. I didn’t know what to say to her so I didn’t say anything but while I was getting my food, she came up to me and she just said, “thank you” and hugged me.

I’m feeling a bit emotional writing about that. That was all she said. I told her she was welcome. We never really spoke again after that except when we saw each other at meals, we would say hello. After a while, I didn’t see her anymore. I like to hope that she was able to leave, hopefully with the out patient support she needed to aid in her recovery. To this day, I don’t know what she was struggling with. I don’t know what unit she went to. I just know I will never forget it. It was probably the most powerful lesson to me that sometimes, words aren’t necessary, sometimes words don’t help. Sometimes, in the moment, the best thing you can do is say nothing but through your actions you can still demonstrate your sympathy, your sorrow at seeing another person suffer, your desire to comfort them.

As long as I live, I will never forget that. I look back on it and the memory is somewhat sad and painful but also beautiful. We are all human. We all bleed. We all cry. We all laugh. We all need each other.

Be well.

Featured Image: Photo by Katii Bishop from Pexels