Last night I watched a woman from a local theater group perform an essay I wrote about my experiences on a psych ward. It was a pretty intense and great experience, mostly because she did an amazing job. When it was over, a random guy walked over and struck up a conversation with me. He told me that he used to work in a mental hospital.
“We were always really nice to patients like you,” he said. “People who didn’t belong there, who had parents they trusted when they shouldn’t have.”
I saw the story he was painting: a young woman, more of a kid, whose parents committed her against her will when there was really nothing even wrong with her. That does happen, but none of it is my story. I couldn’t bring myself to tell the guy that, however. I’d done enough sharing for the night; I wasn’t willing to get into my entire true backstory.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened, anyway. Months ago, I submitted a rough draft of the same essay to an online writers’ workshop. The results were both disappointing and fascinating – disappointing because they focused on my experience, rather than giving me the writing tips I was looking for, and fascinating because they revealed so many of the assumptions people make about psych wards.
“I’m sure you were too drugged up to remember much,” or “I’m sure the patients had their own private terms for…” More people than I’d previously realized have seen a few movies about mental hospitals and assume they fully understand the reality of them.
It makes sense, really. Mental hospitals and psych wards are classic settings for drama, horror, sometimes comedy. And when you see something portrayed a certain way countless times, you will generally start assuming that portrayal is reality. I know people like to criticize pop culture analysis by saying, “Everyone knows movies are fake!” I’m not sure we all do know that, though.
And my evidence is the number of pre-made fictional narratives that have been forced on top of my own, real one. My evidence is the number of people who think they know exactly what I have experienced before I’ve even opened my mouth. And who continue to think the same thing even after I’ve spoken.