Mental Health

What I Learned In The Psych Hospital

When I was 14, I spent five days in a psychiatric hospital. It was where I really learned to value human touch.

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They don’t let you touch in the psych hospital. At least, not the psychiatric hospital I spent five days in when I was fourteen. Not a side-hug, not a hand shake, not an accidental brush of the hand in the dining hall. By my third day, I would have traded ten years off my life just to know my skin sill worked.

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There is nothing more depressing than being in a psych hospital, which is ironic, because I was there for depression. It’s also anxiety-inducing: again, ironic, since many of the people there are dealing with anxiety disorders. In fact, irony was everywhere: We were across the street from The Westchester, a mall mostly for rich people who liked to think their families could never be touched by mental illness, and that people like me existed in a totally separate world, as opposed to living right across the street.

The funny thing was, I didn’t like to touch people before being admitted to the psych hospital. In fact, outside of my mother, Sandi, I don’t know that I had touched another person in months. The exception was summer camp, where my friends and I would lie on each others’ laps in the grass and build human pyramids just to see how high we could make them.

I have a love-hate relationship with touch. As a teenager dealing with suicidal urges, touch was a physical reminder that we have bodies, a prison I was desperate to escape. Touch was a manifestation of the personal connection I didn’t feel with other people.

As a teenager dealing with suicidal urges, touch was a physical reminder that we have bodies, a prison I was desperate to escape. Touch was a manifestation of the personal connection I didn’t feel with other people.

In the psych hospital, though, you’re not just deprived of touch. Most patients are deprived of love. I was luckier than most, though. Sandi would visit every day after work. She asked me once where the other parents were. I shrugged. “They’ve given up on their kids,” I said.

She put her hands on mine, her skin warm on my hands, which were out of practice. “I will never give up on you,” she said.

In the psych hospital, we resorted to strange things for fun. My two roommates and I would tell each other about our lives outside as though they were George R.R. Martin fantasy stories. For us, so far away from the people we knew, they might as well have been. The oldest of us was 16, and she was uncomfortable with any semblance of sexuality. I don’t know that she had ever even so much as flirted with another person. She was so uncomfortable with nudity, my roommate and I had teased her by walking around only in our bras for an afternoon, driving her shrieking and running from the room. We found this hilarious.

A photo of a young woman with dark hair in a dark jacket, smiiling.
Nicole Zelniker today.

Everything about the hospital was bittersweet: even going outside, which you could do with enough “good” points (a dehumanizing currency the hospital doled out to keep kids in line). I signed up to go outside as soon as I had amassed the points. I had always hated the cold, but I was so starved for the sensation of being touched, I craved the feel of the brisk air, brushing like little needles across my face. When the others stayed outside, I begged for a second turn. As long as you don’t tell anyone, the nurses said. Fine, fine. Anything for a semblance of sensation.

I made friends in the psych hospital, whom I knew I would never see again. I said goodbye to them in the middle of a lesson, a joke of a high-school class where most of us read unrelated books and talked to each other under the watchful eye of a ‘teacher’ only barely paying attention. One of the nurses pulled me out of class to tell me Sandi was coming, and I was going home.

I ran around the classroom elated, saying goodbye to these people I had gotten to know better than some of my old, outside-the-hospital-friends. One kid, Will, had been on the psych unit longer than any of us: three months. “Congratulations,” he said. He smiled. I truly believe he was happy for me. I realized at that moment how lucky I was. I’d only been there five days. Five days can feel like forever, but it’s a much shorter forever than three months.

I realized at that moment how lucky I was. I’d only been there five days. Five days can feel like forever, but it’s a much shorter forever than three months.

Less than 24 hours before I learned I would be leaving, the nurses vanished. Four days of constant surveillance and then, like some Harry Potter spell, everyone disappeared. We wasted no time. Will was on his feet before we knew it. Will, who never had a parent visit, and hadn’t had real human contact in three months. As soon as the nurses turned their back, it was high-fives for everyone in the TV-room, where I want to say we were playing cards, or maybe just talking. Really, I can’t remember. But I remember Will and the high-fives.

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He came to me with his hand up, and I felt his palm hit mine. Cool, dry skin. A split second of explosive human force: our atoms mixing, dancing on my skin. And then Will was sitting again, as the nurse suddenly reappeared from around the corner.

We tried to pretend nothing happened, but we were all aglow with our secret. We were connected. We touched. We lived.

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