The Power of Words: A Letter From the Psych Ward

06/09/2015 10:40 am ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016

Note: The contents of this post may be sensitive for some readers.


An autumn day, 19 years ago, I sat by the window watching a grove of majestic old poplars move in the wind. I had just turned 18. The poplars grew outside the hospital building, outside the psychiatric ward where I was locked up, against my will, because I was considered a danger to myself.

A suicide attempt brought me here. A carefully-planned attempt that averted from the script at the last moment. A mere coincidence "wrecked" the plan, although I no longer consider it a coincidence, no more than I consider the attempt failed.

I sat by the window for hours, in silence, my gaze locked on the trees and their movements in the wind. The rustle of the leaves, the sturdy branches heaving. It was a windy day.

The string used for hoisting the blinds was replaced with a crank. The wall sockets were secured. No mirror above the sink. Every tenth minute, 24 hours a day, someone opened the door and peeked in, to make sure I wasn't about to make a noose out of my bed sheets.

They were overdoing it, the surveillance thing.

It was over. I had tried, and now it was over.

I wasn't dramatically inclined and had no plans for trying again. I had no plans at all. I had renounced everything, life and my place in it, when I made that decision, and now I was a woman without a future. It would take me many years to see the blessing in that.

There and then it was no blessing. It was a vacuum. It was the end of a struggle that had lasted for so long I could no longer remember any other life. It was the emptiness that remained after all that I had been, believed in, and held on to had turned to dust. It was the wounds that had healed badly or not at all. The phantom pains after parts of me that had not survived, after a childhood in some ways lost, that I -- finally -- could no longer escape from.

I was lonely the way I think a person is only in the face of her own death.

In the cupboard next to my bed were a pile of clothes that someone -- Mom? I forget -- had brought. Next to them were two greasy paper bags, one with vanilla buns and one with arrack truffles. Someone who knew they were my favorites had sent them. I survived on those buns. If I wanted lunch and dinner I had to step outside my room and walk to the dining room, along with the others. I avoided that.

There's a reason this ward was locked. Many of those in here were... well, crazy. Simply. Like the woman who walked the corridors carrying a bucket, into which she regularly threw up. The one who howled through out the night. He who packed his suitcase every afternoon and sat by the exit waiting to be picked up, by God knows whom.

A few were there for other reasons. Like me. We never spoke but sometimes our eyes met in the corridors and a silent question was exchanged: You too?

On my night table I had a framed photo of my little brothers, only children back then, dressed in cowboy suits and serious faces. Beside them two books. A Farewell to Arms, by Hemingway, and Anna Karenina, by Tolstoy. After a few days I managed to turn my attention away from the trees and pick one of them up. I ploughed through Hemingway as efficiently as he writes. It left no impression.

Then I opened Anna Karenina.

It's a long read, and I was grateful for that. I rested in Tolstoy's words, the way I rested in the movement of the trees outside the window. It was not an escape from. On the contrary, it was close, so close. Naked.

It was connection at a time when all connection had become impossible.

Anna Karenina's downward tumble was in every way different from mine. Her circumstances as well. The only thing we had in common, really, was the name, and maybe a certain inability to follow the rules. (Maybe our humanity as well. And our vulnerability. And our desperate longing.)

She did not make it. Anna Karenina's path ended in a confused suicide. And however much I understood her feeling that there was no other way, I saw that she was wrong.

(That I was wrong.)

It didn't make anything easier. It didn't heal my wounds. But it was true, and true I could trust. Even lean against, ever so little.


The power of the written word was not new to me. Without books I'm not sure I would have survived those first 18 years of my life. Literature was my medicine, my escape, and my rest, all through growing up. But never did it matter more than during those days with Anna Karenina.

My love of literature and of words has changed. I don't read like before. Don't read the same books. I love what I love more intensely and at the same time care less about the whole thing. About the business of books. About the books themselves, actually.

Love the process. Love when writing becomes pure meditation. Love when the words come out just right. Those rare occasions when they help us connect. When your words become mine and mine become yours, and we are not alone anymore.

I don't know what could ever be more important than that.


If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.