or How I Came to Spend Five Nights in a Psych Ward

Posted 28-Nov: 2012
by Bill Scheffel

Mural titled, Monarch Dragon by Android Jones. Boulder Colorado.


In early October 2012, I spent five nights in a psych ward, the forth floor of St. Francis Memorial Hospital near San Francisco's Tenderloin district. Beginning three days before I was 5150'd (California legal code slang for a 72-hour involuntary psychiatric hold) I experienced increasingly altered or "non-ordinary" states of mind, a psychosis or "spiritual emergency." When I arrived in my hotel - the second of the three days - I began to break down or become dramatically pulled into a loss of ordinary perspective. My inner reality, so to speak, became intense, confusing and compelling. Moments of great clarity would shift into hallucinations and then blend back into ordinary reality. Initially I could meet or even invite the process but eventually I lost control of it. Two days into my stay, I was out in the middle of the street - like someone intensely tripping on LSD (which, essentially, I was, but without the drug). I was restrained by officers, handcuffed, and put in an ambulance where I became comatose and had a near-death experience.

I regained consciousness in the emergency room. After examining the monitors, blood tests and CAT-scans, the ER doctor had no explanation for why I had arrived in a virtual coma. He was about to release me when I told him I'd been with a friend just before the incident in the street. The doctor phoned my friend, who told him my behavior had suddenly become erratic and disturbing. From that, the doctor decided I'd be kept for a period of psychiatric observation, the three days of involuntary confinement (that became five because they fell on a weekend).

. . .

My awareness of the time I've described has been vividly part of my daily life since then, just as my awareness during that time was vivid. I remember nearly every moment of the three days before being out in the street; I was observing it even as I was swallowed by it. I was compelled by its beauty though it took everything I had to pass through its intensity-confusion periods. It was a "spiritual" experience throughout, and a "test." It was not a question of failure so much as failing to reach its full potential. Every test became more farfetched and delusional, but how I needed to respond was quite sane: let go.

Once in the ambulance, although to the "outer world" I'd lost consciousness, my inner-awareness was acute. Throughout my ride in the ambulance and eventual re-surfacing in the ER I was on a journey as real as any I've ever taken. I was not in my body or aware of the "outer" world around me but I was clearly in something equally "real," a dimension of consciousness like that described, at least by Buddhism and other traditions, as what we experience upon death, being in the bardo or some other form of leaving the body. Throughout my ordeal I felt guided, protected and held. The presence of my teacher/the dralas was constant and/or available. I kept finding the light after periods of intense energetic confusion, hallucinations that were like being in an atom-smasher. I experienced self-love, profound and spontaneous reconciliations with myself in the midst of coming unglued and then living for nearly a week in the psych ward.

. . .

Although my life has long occurred under the nexus of "when things fall apart" this experience was an adamant epitome of a loss of ground and reference point! Everyone's question was "What happened?" - a question that calls for an explanation and therefore a narrative. When I was sent from the emergency room to the psych ward I realized I'd lost my narrative. Now it was in the hands of others: the circle of friends and my son who, along with the psychiatrists and hospital staff, were "in charge" of me (for at least five days) and were talking about me to decide my fate; just as I talked about my father and planned his future for him after he developed Alzheimer's disease. How curious to meet my father again in this way, a shared set of circumstances. This is what happened: I met my father in the psyche ward.

What I'm trying to say is this is not something I can adequately explain. It took place liminally and at the margins of my ability to explain or to capture in a linear fashion. The meaning of any moment is potentially multidimensional and could therefore call for several "explanations" at once. Most sentences of explanation that I've tried to write (much an entire paragraph!) have felt false. This experience is something I do understand but can barely express. The center is my own, and it will speak to me for a long time. The center has new things to reveal as time goes on, stories or insights that accumulate around it.

The paragraphs below are "around it."

. . .

I came upon an article in the Chronicles of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche a few weeks before my event in San Francisco. It was a tribute to Polly Wellengbach, a long-time student of Chögyam Trungpa who died in August, written by her husband Scott:

Polly's connection to the Vidyadhara (an honorific name for Chögyam Trungpa) was strong... She had an uncommon ability to read the world, which came out not only in her teaching, but in visions, in dreams, in reading tarot, or just looking up at the clouds in the sky. To do that she had to let herself go into a certain state of mind, what she in time came to call her hypomanic mind: the strictures and usual ways that we clamp ourselves down are loosened and yet there was still a grounding. From there, she could see. This seeing, tempered by kindness, was what drew me to her, drew us all. Hypomania is a fine line to walk. Err on the side of hypo and there isn't enough loosening of the bindings; err on the side of mania and the grounding has been lost.

Polly was apparently (I knew who she was but never made her acquaintance) one of those people who "met the dralas" - as Chögyam Trungpa hoped his students would. There are many ways to meet the dralas, but I could relate to what Scott wrote and felt, perhaps for the first time, that I'd read something on an "official" website germaine to my own most intimate experience, that spoke to it and thereby allowed for it. I felt comforted by what Scott wrote and by the word hypomania, since I experience a similarly sensitivity or "thinness" to the intangible (little did I know the term would come to mean much more to me very soon!).

This quote gives me a chance to express what has come to be a central aspiration and affirmation emerging from my experience, something I am expressing here to the universe, those who know me: that I wish be treasured for who I am, seen for what I am now and not what I once was, encouraged to bring forth my gifts and supported to let go of the past and heal wounds where possible; I wish the same for others, to treasure them for who they are, to see them for who they are now, to nurture and benefit them, to heal wounds where they exist and when I can, and to let go where it is appropriate or necessary.

. . .

If I was going to put my "spiritual emergence(y)" into an image it would be the photograph at the top of the page, a wall mural I came upon during a walk in Boulder, Colorado. Finding the paragraph below was also a serendipity, a statement that I could feel whole in, since it honors the kind of journey I had but also references the wounding, fragmentation and pain that was of course a part of it.

Placing woundedness in its mythic context, it's worth bearing in mind, for instance, that Osiris and Dionysus were dismembered, that Psyche had to journey to the Underworld, that Prometheus had his liver repeatedly torn out by Zeus's eagle, and that Medusa was beheaded. As well, in terms of the psyche's ultimate goal of attaining wholeness, centerdness and integration, fragmentation is a blow to the hubris of the stable ego, which must relinquish its sense of a fixed identity and must eventually step aside in order to allow the paradoxical Self to displace it as the centre of consciousness. - Maureen B. Roberts PhD, from Jung Circle.

. . .


On my first night in the ward, I "induced" another brief hallucinatory episode and was given a powerful anti-psychotic drug - perhaps the most "awful" experience of a seven-day period of my life that did indeed contain moments of terrific intensity, confusion and utter groundlessness. Yet I have to be grateful to the drug (though perhaps not to the psychiatrist who the next day wanted to put me on many more doses of it. I refused). The conk-out from the medication accelerated finding my ground again.

Over the next four days I was seen by two psychiatrists. The first, the one I was assigned to, barely paid me a passing glance; emotionally armored it seemed he had only meds to offer me (and handouts of their long list of side-effects). The second took the time to look me in the eye, and find my heart. During a single conversation he came to agreement with my own assessment: that the "psychotic" incident had passed, that I had not been out in the street intentionally trying to hurt myself, and that I could follow up on my own with whatever care and further reflection I might need. The psychiatrist uttered a sentence I was very relieved to hear, "I have no pill for you." I was released on Monday, October 15th, seven days after I first arrived in San Francisco.

. . .

If since learned that my event, timing-wise, has ushered in my second Saturn return (I'm fifty-eight). If so, then this in only the beginning of transformation! The psychoses and near death have felt like a bomb was exploded inside me; every molecule was effected and every part of my skandas, psyche, and personality have passed before my eyes. Everything was turned inside-out, at least for a moment, at least once. My reputation was one of first to go - and the first to return. I've liked living in the new one, more or less. In the ER room I had a passage of wondering if I'd failed myself, if everything I'd done for the past, say, eight years was a path of delusional choices. That moment has returned a number of times (though in a less all-embracing question), especially during the night, and often clothed in acute past memories. Each time I've come through it and realized no, I'm going in the right direction. Not only that, I have no choice. There are aspects of the Shambhala teachings I can put in a line: Possessing faith; free from doubt. I feel closer to that line or know more of what it means.


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