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Yesterday marked my very first visit to ward 45b at IMH, the one exclusively for long-term stay patients. Amongst the 3 wards (mood disorder unit & early psychosis intervention programme being the other two); 45b has been espoused to be the most challenging yet. I can understand the sentiment, given that it is an all-male ward housing ~50 patients, most of whom suffer from severe psychosis – primarily schizophrenia.

I honestly had no idea what to expect and it wasn’t until I was departing with 2 other girls & a guy did I start to get a bit nervous 😩 No doubt I felt a bit embarrassed afterwards because the other girls looked pretty unfrazzled and the guy was more worried about what activities we would do with them!

But when we reached the doors, it was like a horrible scary zoo, with patients peeking from behind the door! It was really ignorant of me at first, but my senses were screaming at me to run run run. I don’t even know how I brought myself to walk through the door, and not flinch when the patients immediately crowded us. I think it goes the same for every hospital setting, but the smell of bitter medicine and sickness always permeates the air. I was trying not to let their proximity get to me, because I know that they were just curious. And I forced myself time and again to reassure myself, to coax myself into acting as normal as I could.

And it was really uncanny, but while all this internal turmoil was going on; I only stopped reeling when some patients started waving hello haha. It was kinda anti-climatic because there I was, having a crisis and there they were getting friendly. A nurse helped to open a cubicle for us to keep our bags and the games room as well. Some of the patients were trying to follow us in since they never really got a good look into the rooms but we needed the space to gather our thoughts and plan the activities which involved colouring, pasting and using colourful ice cream sticks to make Avengers stickmen.

All that planning fell through, though. Personally, being a simpleton, I found the idea really cute but it can be a handful for people who had no patience or stamina for details. In the next 2 minutes, we tried to gather wandering lost souls around to play with us and it turned out they preferred games such as Scrabble and Mahjong better.

I panicked again when patients started crowding us, and coupled with their tendency to stare at you and blink really really slowly..it can be a bit disconcerting. But I think it was partly the fact that I was in the company of people who were taking it well, and also that I had come to accept they had no concept of personal space; did I manage to wedge myself between two patients.

Patient 1 sat on my right, and he was the silent brooding sort who talked little and mumbled to himself a lot! Ironically, he & I had a profound love for Scrabble and we played so many rounds of this game! The pleasant surprise that I was not expecting at all was that I could relate to him via words, because he had really impressive vocabulary and liked making word chains. He’s a total Scrabble champ, really. Some of the words like “Panaroma” and “vexing” which stupended me to the max. Though he didn’t stick to the rules, we complemented each other well and he displayed a genuine interest in Scrabble, even scrambling for empty tiles to make words! This comes to show that mentally distressed people can be really gifted and intelligent too; which debunks a myth.

The OCD patient sat to my left, and played with two crayon boxes for two hours – removing and replacing, moving crayons around. He seemed very irked when he had them mixed up but other than that he was great company! Sadly, he wasn’t as mobile as some patients and struggled to bend down when he accidentally upturned a box so we had to help him. I almost laughed when another OCD patient started getting down on his knees to pick them up too – I think he really hates things lying around.

A few other patients that I had the pleasure of talking to briefly, or observing; were really quirky and fascinating. This other patient was harassing the guy in our group for his phone, and he looked so happy to have convinced him. In no time, he was belting out tunes – “Beat It” by the late MJ (fine choice) and was very protective of his phone. While he was bobbing his head to the beat, a patient we call ‘B’ quickly joined in and I saw him shaking his hips and twerking soon after.  It was really impressive, and he held quite a candle to Miley Cyrus. But he did run out of steam in a minute and it was a rather bad day for him, having periods of schizophrenia hit him episodically.

The MJ fan wasn’t deterred though, and he was so happy he actually peed in a corner of the room. I didn’t really understand why, but the male nurse explained that he always does that when he’s happy. But I sort of understand because I don’t even wanna admit the things I do when I’m hyped about a BTS comeback. Verily enough, before the nurse could chide him, MJ fan ran away and hid in another room whilst the OCD patient started having a meltdown and proceed to wipe up his pee with toilet paper.

Ironically, I feel that the patients complement each other and some of them are close friends. Mr B is very affectionate to others, giving them back rubs and checking their scalps for white hairs or head lice; I’m not too sure.

But back to crayon guy.

He was actually clingy for the first hour, and kept trying to communicate with me – it’s a pity he lost his ability to talk. He stared at me curiously as a child would, and offered me a pink crayon ten times in a row whilst mumbling something incoherent. I didn’t know what to say, so I just smiled and said ‘pink!’ many times and he smiled, flashing 5 lovely teeth. He also loved to fart loudly and would make a good admin assistant because his organisational skills are on point.

It was at that point that I realised even though these were grown men, many of them were very child-like. They were impatient, impulsive and difficult to handle. Even though I felt less jittery than I did initially, it didn’t stop me from being subconsciously aware of everything in my surroundings and taking up a defensive stance when some patients got too close. In the end, the advise given to us was true – no matter how friendly or normal these patients may seem, it’s hard to gauge their state of mind. I didn’t intend to agitate the crayon patient but I think I raised my voice a tad too much in my excitement and he made a really loud growl and became rather incensed. So I know now to keep my volume low and gentle. Notwithstanding, the guy in our group was trying not to entertain the MJ fan who kept bugging him for his phone, but I could see he was on edge as well.

I really respect the tenacity and care that is exhibited by nurses, social workers and even friends who try to understand and approach mentally distressed loved ones. It can be exhausting, disturbing and definitely erratic. But life is unpredictable, and we can always find ourselves on the short end of the stick someday. And we’d be hoping for someone to empathise, to go down to our level and ignore our deficiencies.

On a lighter note, there was a self declared palm-reader who told me and another volunteer to change our date of birth to steer away bad luck. He told my friend that being born in January was a terrible idea, and that I needed to change my birth year from 1996 to 2018 😂 By then, we were so used to their antics that we just nodded dutifully.

Things became calm and slightly boring afterwards, until another patient stood up wielding a marker and a mutilated drawing block. He was so excited to share what he knew about the water cycle and insisted that I was 10 years old, so I didn’t know better. He even asked me if I knew what condensation was, and said that he was an NUS undergrad who used to give science tuition (our backgrounds are uncanny!) He knew a lot about countries, and when we were packing up, he helped to stack the  chairs which was really kind. A few patients were sad to see us go, and in the short time I spent with them…so was I. Ironically. It was heartwarming to see them trying so hard, despite their challenges. Crayon patient was still trying to arrange things, and intercepted us at every turn all the way to the games storeroom. Nonetheless, I was pretty tired after the adrenaline wore out. When our group reconvened to sterilise our hands, a few patients were waving at us from behind the door again but it was a different feeling altogether.

To be honest I don’t know how I transited from being on edge to being silently amused, but this experience was timely. I’d been having terrible days recently, and I’m not sure if it’s burnout; but meeting these patients really brought a lot of much needed perspective. Looking at them makes you appreciate the little things in your life – even those that drive you up the wall. Because these men are locked behind 3 doors, and are deprived of any semblance of a job and family, which is unbearable. It was a great wake-up call; sometimes, you have to look at those below you to appreciate what you have. And it derails all your theories about what defines happiness and success. Often times, I imagine that these patients must have once had a semblance of a normal life. They are someone’s child, and once upon a time, they must have brought joy and hope to their parents. I don’t think anyone would have thought this would be how it turned out in the end.

Too often, you hear about people – professionals, especially; snapping due to stress or even throwing aside everything they’ve worked so hard for, just to extricate themselves from the hustle and bustle. The world can be a big gigantic mess, and I get myself roped into it too. I’m scared that one day I might be unable to untangle myself and that I’d lose my rational thoughts. In the end, we need to get our perspective right. We need to know our pressure points, and not under-or-overestimate ourselves. We carve our life, and we dictate what defines happiness and success are. I’m trying not to let people and qualifications define my worth – which can be a hard thing to do; but it’s a struggle worth overcoming for my own sake.

It reminds me of a few incidences last year. I suddenly had bouts of fainting spells and would vomit for no obvious reason. I didn’t even think it was because of stress and I was imagining all sorts of scenarios. My parents sent me to the doctor to figure out what was wrong with me, especially since I had never experienced such a thing before. In the end, the first doctor said I was really stressed and even gave me a head, neck and shoulder massage lol. It still persisted, however so I went to a second doctor and he said the same thing; then started lamenting about how A levels were the worse days of his life.

Eventually all these went away, I don’t even know how. But I do remember being less stressed and redirecting my attention to things I love like baking, Muay Thai and rock climbing. I also started reconnecting with all my close friends, which was amazing. I think all these acted up because I harboured my feelings, and cast them aside. I always find it hard to scold or fight with people, and often isolate myself. It taught me that we need to know when we’ve had too much – to pull the plug, and do things that make you happy. Because there’s no point continuing on when you’re already unhappy and messed up; it’s just a trainwreck impending.

Life is full of trials and tribulations; it’s unavoidable and we’ll always be tested. So friends, let’s be nice to one another – forgive and forget, and let go of that baggage. Wishing everyone nothing but the best 🙂

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