A man who I’ll call Mark sat like he had melted into the recliner in the corner of the room. Hardly a muscle tensed, with his belly nudging out from under his t-shirt. The few wisps of hair that remained on top of his head were twisted awkwardly as if he had gone to sleep after having just styled them into a comb-over, and as I watched him he gave his first sign of life in scratching at his week-long beard. He looked up but didn’t reply.
Undeterred, Derek made as if he had not been heard and tried to squeeze a few more notes of friendliness into his tone. “What’s this show about?”
Mark flicked his eyes towards the sound of his voice but quickly drew them back. “Aliens,” he said flatly after a beat.
“Aliens?” Derek said, his voice betraying no judgment other than a warm skepticism “Oh okay. Who’s that talking now?”
“Michael Jackson. He’s an alien.”
“No, he’s @#$!ing not,” Sam another patient sitting in a recliner across the room piped in.
“Language, Sam,” said Grace, a third patient who had just entered the common room wearing a pair of bright pink pajamas, and was scanning the table for a place to sit.
Derek and I smiled warmly and greeted her. We were both medical students in the psychiatry interest group here for what we had been calling “Sunday Social Rounds.” I had always been interested in psychiatry, and one of my more cynical friends told me that I was putting my money where my mouth was by attending these rounds. But I preferred to think of it as reminding myself that all this effort in school would one day be worth it.
This was my second time in the psych ward, but Derek was a regular so I let him lead. I think a part of me believed that he had some special soothing power in his voice, or that he was already an expert in his professed field of interest because he was in his third year and I was only in my first.
“We’ve got some snacks and some coloring books if anyone wants to join us at the table,” Derek said. Mark stayed put, but after a beat, Sam and Grace pulled up chairs and agreed to the coloring books. Everyone and everything seemed to move slowly in the psych ward and I found myself matching the atmosphere. It reminded me of a retirement home in that respect, except the patients here were reluctant to share their stories. Even so, I found myself passing crude diagnoses in my head as we all colored and talked. I was preoccupied with why they were there but avoided broaching the subject.
Focused on our coloring books, conversation ebbed, but then after a few minutes as if adhering to some mental clock, we all began to chat at once. We all spoke about what we did outside the locked doors of the ward; we talked about sports, books, concerts, and before long I found it hard to reconcile my silent diagnoses with the people I saw before me. Sure, some patients were more uninhibited or more odd than my medical school colleagues, but they were whole, and to my untrained diagnostic mind it seemed like only the flat criteria of the DSM-5 should be represented at this table. There was a subtle beauty in the way we all smiled together. It reminded me of the nights spent around a campfire in my youth. All eyes were on the work in front of us, and as the time wore on a bare innocence shone through in laughter.
I listened to their stories and told some of my own, and before long I was struck by how little separated me from them. Here I wasn’t a medical student and they weren’t patients. We were a group. I had struggled with depression but had been fortunate to be treated as an outpatient. I was lucky, and maybe in a different way, they were too. Under the hems of sleeves I noticed the scars of desperate minds, and behind affectless faces, I saw eyes ringed with psychosis. But here in the psych ward, there was meaning—an objective. In this room, we were coloring within prescribed lines, but elsewhere on the ward nurses and doctors labored to give them a brush to paint a much more substantial picture of their own.
I returned to the ward several more times in the ensuing months, and each time I felt the same warmth. It was exciting, and with each visit, I got the rush that only comes when you see raw humanity on display. There were men and women brought low by invisible pathologies, but during these short sessions, I never failed to see the glimmers of brave compassion and hope. Someone once told me that as a doctor you see people on the worst days of their lives, and this used to scare me. It seemed like so much responsibility to see someone through such a trying time and I wasn’t sure if I could handle it. But with each weekend visit on our Sunday Social Rounds, I gained a new appreciation of what that phrase truly meant. You see, with each visit to chat with these patients on ostensibly the worst days of their lives, we found something to laugh and talk about, and with each return visit, I found that they had checked out of the ward. I never saw the same patient twice, and after hearing all these stories I like to think that at least some of them took the tools that they had been given during their stay, and managed to craft some better days.