A pretty successful stay in a haunted, former-forensic ward of a psychiatric institution

Tonight I’m feeling strong.  It feels like a noticeable shift from just yesterday and dramatically so from the weekend.  This is what I keep finding—if I just feel my feelings and let them be what they need to be, then I bounce back.  I keep thinking of this quote from Wild by Cheryl Strayed:

“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe.  I was strong. I was brave.”

She is describing a decision she made while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail as a solo female.  I came across this quote a couple of days ago.  In that moment it seemed a stretch to just tell myself a different story as Cheryl suggests.  But it’s awesome how that reminder can be the ticket to doing just that, even when it feels unrealistic.  I had an experience with this several years back.

One of my favorite jobs, to date, was at the state mental hospital in Blackfoot, Idaho.  The hospital sits on the edge of a small town in eastern Idaho.  It’s agricultural roots are still evident in the buildings.  An old chicken coop now houses maintenance equipment.  There is a cemetery on the grounds dating back to 1886.  This creepy old building, 

Photo credit: asylumprojects.org

pictured on Wikipedia, has been torn down.  It is a place with a rich history, vibrant staff and an even more colorful patient population.  It’s where I got my first experience prescribing psychiatric medication. I started out on the long term unit, caring for some of the most mentally ill people in the state.  It was immediately challenging and fascinating. 

It is the only place I’ve worked where I had several colleagues, actual psychiatric PAs, working by my side.  (Still searching for another psychiatric PA in San Diego. Message me if you know one!)  I worked with four different psychiatrists during the year and half I was there.  Psychiatrists, incidentally, are an interesting group.  Most are quite opinionated and quirky and deeply caring in their own unique way.  It’s a commonly held belief that psychiatry is more of an art than some of the other medical disciplines and I think that is true in that each psychiatrist really adopts her own style over the years of practice and has fervently held beliefs about practicing in that manner.  As a PA, I have tried to absorb what good I can from decades of experience each psychiatrist holds.

Anyway, this story isn’t about psychiatrists! It’s about a former insane asylum and ghosts, just in time for Halloween—so let me get it!  First, a question: Have you ever quit a job, then called them a month later and asked if you could come back for 6-12 weeks while your license comes through in another state? I did this at the state hospital. I had relocated to Nebraska but my license was taking a while and I needed health insurance.  Thankfully they had not filled my position and were, not only happy to take me back as long as I would stay, but they also offered me a place to stay. 

Photo credit: Fred Schaad

The place was in the top floor of a building that was built in the 1920s.  The basement and first two floors, at the time I was working there, housed a psychiatric nursing home.  The top floor was vacant except for some storage and large patient room that had been converted into an apartment of sorts.  It was an elongated room that would have held four single beds when patients were living there.  It extended off of a wide hallway with two heavy metal doors that locked providing security to the person sleeping within.  The bathroom was located out of the heavy doors.  It had it’s own key and it was expansive.  It had a stand up shower the width of a regular bathtub with a curtain draped across the entrance.  It also had a massive built-in tile tub, toilet and sink.  It was a big enough room that even with the hot water, sometimes the shower didn’t feel all that hot because the air in the room did not warm from the steam. 

Occasionally staff would come up to the third floor.  There was a regular loud laundry cart noise that startled me while I was in the shower on a couple of occasions.  Sometimes people would come up to access the storage.  On one occasion the shower was in use on the other end of the floor.  It was late at night.  I didn’t linger to find out who or how many people might be in there.

When staff at the hospital learned I was staying in this apartment, many were horrified.  This building and floor were supposedly haunted.  Several of the staff had experiences on the third floor that they could not explain.  One staff, responsible for cleaning up there, had reported an incident where she heard several of the doors slam when no one else was around.  Others reported a creepy feeling when they had to go up there (seems understandable in a supposedly haunted place).  The third floor was previously called “Hoover” because it was the forensic unit, housing the criminally insane.  According to hospital staff lore, which I could not be spared from once I was living there, a couple of murders had taken place there.  I can’t confirm any of this, nor do I really care to.

And I slept there, alone, for a little over six weeks.  I even read that creepy, youth-fiction book, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, while I was staying there.  Here’s how I did it without being scared out of my mind all of the time.  First, I decided that a place like the state hospital, which had existed since the 1800s, housed thousands of souls over the course of its existence and even a cemetery, most certainly could be haunted.  I’m not someone who worries a lot about ghosts and the occult but I believe those things exist. 

So I decided that if I was going to sleep there, I had better be putting out lots of good vibes.  And this is what I did.  I watched reruns of Friends.  I listened to upbeat music.  I went for walks on the grounds and enjoyed the crisp fall air.  I tried to make sure all of the energy I was putting out was good, my theory being that if I did that, I would only attract the good spirits. 

I also repeated some version of Cheryl’s mantra: “I was safe.  I was strong. I was brave.”

And you know, the only unexplainable experience I had there was in that creepy, giant bathroom.  I made an intentional choice to keep the shower curtain half open so it would be spread out enough to dry but not fully closed making it so I couldn’t see into the shower—because CREEPY!  I was supposedly the only staff with a key to this bathroom but on two occasions when I walked into the bathroom the curtain was pulled completely closed.  Admittedly, it’s not that dramatic, but I remember hearing that splicing string ensemble chord of horror movies in my head when I saw it.  Overall I count that as a pretty successful stay in a haunted, former-forensic ward of a psychiatric institution.  And it was made possible by the story I chose to tell myself.