I don't remember arriving at the hospital. All I remember is waking up in a room that wasn't mine, in a pair of pajamas I didn't own.
Moments later, I walk into the common room to see a man talking to himself, while putting up posters on the walls. I later find out that the posters are letters, addressed to God, the president of France, and the butterflies. He even sticks a poster on the TV screen, which doesn't seem to bother the patients who are watching. None of them are wearing shoes—they are all in socks or barefoot. A woman approaches me and asks if I can help her cut her hair like mine. "I've always wanted a fringe," she says.
Several people have their eyes fixed on the television, but no one is paying any attention to the program. I hear some people discussing new music videos—mainly the latest of French rapper Kaaris. It strikes me that some of my fellow patients seem completely normal. For example, there is Patrick*, 23, who was sectioned against his will two weeks earlier, after an altercation with the police. He's blond and generally calm. He spends most of his days reading newspapers and the rest of the time trying to escape from the ward.
Last October, I had a series of manic episodes brought on by my bipolar disorder. As a result, I was admitted to the Centre Hospitalier de Saint-Anne in Paris, one Tuesday around 3:30 AM. After spending the first two days of my time there asleep and high on Valium, I decided to venture outside my room to see what life is like in a French psychiatric hospital in 2016.
About 12 million people suffer from psychological problems in France—basically one in five. Of the 45 million French adults, 18.5 percent are considered to have some sort of pathological, psychiatric problem. In 2013, 31 percent of French people between ages 25 and 34 were affected with differing degrees of depression. In the US, one in five people will experience a mental health problem in any given year.
In a psychiatric hospital, everything is timed. Dinner is at 7:10 PM. If you arrive at 7:20 PM, you're too late. My first meal and every meal that follows are underwhelming. The "turkey curry" is actually just a sad piece of turkey floating in water. New arrivals, by the way, are not allowed in the restaurant. According to the hospital's rules, if you've just been admitted, you have to stay on your own floor, and the nurses will bring you a tray. On my first night, a woman comes into my room as I'm eating and says: "If you don't give me your biscuits, I'll start crying." I hand over my stash without blinking.
On the second day, I don't do much more than roam the corridors in my blue pajamas. It's also obligatory to wear pajamas—no doubt so it's harder for us to escape. To go down, I take the elevator because access to the stairs is blocked. But the elevator is terrifying—you can see red stains that look like blood on the floor. "I think that someone just dropped a strawberry tart," Patrick assures me.
Every day is punctuated by various tests—blood, blood pressure, urine. Sedatives are mostly administered in drops, because that way you can't hide them underneath your tongue. The staff members are caring and lovely, and they listen to us.
I make one more friend—Antoine*, who's 27 and bipolar like me. He sits next to me and tells me in a solemn tone, "This place is a little like prison, so I'm going to take you under my wing and tell you who you should and shouldn't hang out with." We get on well. We spent our time smoking, playing backgammon, or he reads me his poetry—he's convinced that he's the new Proust. That is when he isn't lost in thought, with a vacant look behind his tortoise shell glasses.
Antoine and I make a nice group with Patrick*, T*, and Sofiane*. Antoine and Patrick are true gentlemen—when we go outside, they always argue over who's going to lend me their coat. They make me laugh a lot. We are all survivors, and sometimes we think we're in a summer camp or on holiday with friends. What I like here is that even the most affected people are treated like humans and never like freaks.
The more I get to know Antoine, the more I notice his problems. He recently arrived here to find a treatment most suited to his condition, and it turns out he's right in the middle of a manic phase. One night after dinner, he tells me that he has "something very important" to tell me and that I should prepare myself for it mentally. Then, he reveals to me that he's a medium, capable of communicating with spirits and trees. He says that he is able to transform into an animal. He is also apparently a disciple of the son of God, who has returned to earth in the form of Abel*—another young patient in the ward.
At first, I think that he is taking the piss. Then I realize he really believes what he says. I try to make him understand that he's not the only one here who thinks that he's got a direct line to God, and that he should keep that theory to himself if he wants to be let out one day. Of course, he doesn't listen.
Abel, who Antoine believes to be the reincarnation of Christ, is a boy as sweet as he is strange. Convinced of being the personification of the second coming, he swears he can kill people by rolling dice. And a birth mark on the palm of his hand indicates, according to him, where he was nailed on the cross in his previous life.
One day, he hits his head really hard against a wall. When I ask him why, he replies: "anger." With the few words that his medication allows him to utter, he confides in me that he's also HIV positive. The treatment he's taking for his condition—mental and physical—is so intense that it slows him down and makes him hallucinate.
People here tell one another their most intimate stories—I guess there isn't much else to do. A woman of about 50 tells me that for the past 22 years, she's been madly in love with her wife. "I will love her to the very end," she says. As soon as she gets out, they'll "go around the world, in both directions." She shows me photos of when they were only 20. They both look so beautiful.
Another woman of about the same age often comes to talk to me, but she makes me so uncomfortable that I try to avoid her in the corridors. I don't know how to respond to her pain. She's said to be a nymphomaniac, sent here because she was stalking someone. She tells me that she is "pathologically in love" with a man she hardly knows—a man she visited at his place of work once, to harass him. She writes him dozens of letters every day and plans on seeing him as soon as she is allowed to leave. She tells me that she can't get better if she doesn't sleep with this man, that she needs to know what he's doing, where and with whom he is at all times .
According to author and professor Jean-Louis Senon, less than 1 percent of crimes in France are actually committed by people with serious mental health problems. But they are more exposed to violence because of their fragile state.
The days go by, and I am slowly taken off my medication. The first night without sedatives is hard. I'm sharply aware of everything around me—the wind gently shaking the blinds, the clunking of the pipes, people laughing or crying in rooms nearby.
One afternoon, I get permission to go out for four hours, accompanied by a carer. My friends have asked me to buy things for them—cigarettes, nail files, tangerines, ingredients to make a cake for Abel. His birthday is coming up.
We celebrate Abel's 24th birthday the following Friday. We gather all the patients on our floor who aren't sleeping, and we eat the cake Patrick and I made. Antoine's mother has made a jam that we can dip biscuits in, and Antoine has spent the day writing a poem for the birthday boy. Abel cries.
A few days later, Sofiane gathers the people he likes best to announce that he's finally going home. He's prepared a little speech. We can't help but make jokes to hide our true feelings. They've all been in the hospital for longer than me, and they can't wait to get out, even though its good that they're here. Sofiane gives me a bracelet he made as a memento.
I notice someone new coming in. She's a young Swedish woman—a journalist living in Paris. She is blond and has a beautiful smile that reveals a gold tooth. The men on staff aren't oblivious to her. Two of them try to learn Swedish to impress her. Maja* tells me that she jumped into the Seine two days ago. She says that she's 29 "but 19 at night," and that we'll go on a tour of Parisian clubs when we get out. I find out from a nurse that she's been in here for longer than she lets on. In truth, she just escaped from her sector; the nurses had to go and look for her.
The woman affected by nymphomania has been released in the meantime, but she returns. She couldn't help but go see the man she's so obsessed with. She went to his office, but wasn't let in. He has now asked for a restraining order against her. She imagines him making fun of her and that makes her happy. "If I can't make love to him, I can at least make him laugh," she says.
I have dinner with Agathe* and Antoine. Agathe has been here for five months—she keeps getting released and re-admitted. We suggest that getting a job might help her stay out for good because it will give her a purpose. She's always loved doing people's hair, she says, and wants to practice by cutting Antoine's hair. However good it might do her, her chances of getting a job after she's released are slim. Sixty-one percent of working-age adults with mental health disabilities are outside of the labor force, compared with only 20 percent of working-age adults in the general population.
Then, I meet Fatima*. Fatima is a young woman of about 20, who comes to talk to me in the common room; she says she suffers from postpartum depression. She keeps talking about how she wants to die, and then she says that she can't breathe. Suddenly, she takes my hands, closes them around her throat, and commands: "Kill me, kill me with your bare hands." I panic. I tell her not to move. I run to get the night nurses who seem to find the situation amusing. "We'll help her, but we're not going to be able to kill her," they say. From my room, I hear Fatima crying and hitting her head against the wall.
I go back to the common room to calm down. I've been particularly on edge lately. The nurses notice it, so they give me Loxapac and take away my computer. It's for the best.
On a Monday, I do a lithium test. I am told that I need to stay a little longer to know whether the level of lithium in my blood influences my behavior, without necessarily putting my health at risk. I am so drugged up at this point, that I don't even feel the needle going in.
The days go by, all more or less the same, and suddenly it's time to leave the hospital. My room is being cleaned, and a man moves in. He insults the nurses and refuses to wear the pajamas. "I don't want your fucking pajamas," he shouts. "I'll be cold when I go out to smoke my heroin!"
There are no speeches or tears at my departure. I hug Patrice and Antoine, who gives me a poem that he wrote for me.
As I'm waiting on the sidewalk for my taxi, Maja walks up to me. She's trying to get away from the hospital. "Do you want to smoke some weed?" she asks. "I want to smoke some weed with you, because you are the prettiest girl here." As soon as she finishes her sentence, a couple of members of staff grab her by the arms. Her voice carries on as she is being dragged back into the hospital grounds: "If you don't look at them, they can't see us! Don't look at them, Louise! Don't look at them!"
I would like to thank the doctors and the nurses who work with kindness in this difficult environment as well as the rest of the hospital staff. A special thanks to the lady who always brought me my breakfast in the morning and to the young nurse who always had a smile and a kind word for all the patients.
*All names have been changed.
If you are concerned about the mental health of you or someone you know, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness for help.