Sometimes, I dream I am still in my old bedroom at the hospital. I wake up anxious and look around, and the sight of my beautiful bedroom curtains calms me. I never imagined I would get to have my own place.
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — For over 20 years, I lived in a neuropsychiatric hospital ward, with 30 other women. Every day felt like the one before, and the view outside my window never changed. Now, I wake up in my own bed, in my own home, with my roommate Norma. We sit for breakfast every morning, gazing outside our window, straight into our lively neighborhood. It still feels strange to think how different my life used to be.
I grew up in São Paulo, but moved to Buenos Aires at 20 years old. After suffering an epileptic seizure, I was admitted to the Alejandro Korn hospital, in Melchor Romero, where I remained for 20 years.
Most of my days felt really long, especially on days where no activities were scheduled. Sometimes, fights between my roommates erupted, and left me sulking in my room until the evening. I forgave a lot of it, but I know it will be hard to forget. Not every staff member treated me badly in the hospital. Some people protected me and offered kindness. However, they will never realize the damage done to patients with all the drugs they administered to us constantly. It felt as though they tried dominating us with medication.
My mornings in the ward consisted of making my bed, helping others make theirs, and going to see the doctors after breakfast. Sometimes, I helped my roommates with some chores, but mostly, I spent my time waiting for the day to end. One time, we attended an outing organized by the Alborada Club, a social group. We left at dawn and arrived in the afternoon at Mar del Plata, a coastal city in Buenos Aires.
Everything looked so beautiful. It felt surreal, because I had not been outside the hospital grounds in so long. I kept admiring everything around me. We stayed in a hotel for a week, where I shared a room with Norma. I loved to sit in the sun, with my feet buried in the sand. When the water hit my skin, I felt a rush coursing through my body. That week was the best memory I have of my time in the ward.
Since October of 2022, I remain one of 105 people who made it out of that hospital in the last two years. We currently live in assisted living homes. Those homes offer us independence whilst still receiving support from nurses, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Nobody can live in an institution forever, even if that institution is big and beautiful. You still feel limited in the things you can do or experience, and it never truly feels like a home. Living with other patients feels normal as long as we are not treated like patients. Being locked up for that long, leaves you weaker than when you first came in.
The best part of my week was always the workshops we had. I loved partaking in crafts and working with my hands. While living in the ward, I discovered a passion for cooking. Even now, I insist on cooking every meal we have at home. I don’t miss anything from the hospital. I hated the food, the nurses yelled at us constantly, and the surroundings looked gray and depressing. We lived according to strict rules and schedules. In addition, they always put several people in the same rooms, which made it hard to coexist.
Ever since they moved us to these little houses, I feel so much happier. We have beautiful bathrooms to bathe in, and so much natural light. A nurse comes to help me prepare my weekly medication, but we mostly get left to our own devices, which feels freeing. Slowly, I have regained my independence and I discovered the person I used to be all over again. Deciding how to spend my own money for a change feels nice, too.
My next challenge is to reunite with my family in Santa Cruz. I have not seen them in 20 years, and I think of them every day. With the help of a social worker, we located my mother. I spoke to her on the phone recently. It felt so emotional, and I cried the entire time. Now that I have my own home, she can come visit me. For years, I feared they had forgotten me. I formed unbreakable bonds with some of the patients, but it never filled the hole of not having my mother around. Since having her back in my life, I feel more confident in my recovery.
Sometimes, I dream I am still in my old bedroom at the hospital. I wake up anxious and look around, and the sight of my beautiful bedroom curtains calms me. I never imagined I would get to decorate my own place. There is so much joy in the little things. While I regained my autonomy and got my life back, I still carry so much weight from my time in the ward. Spending 20 years of my life hospitalized is an experience that will never go away, but I try to focus on the positive. On March 26, 2023, I turn 45 years old. It will be the first time I celebrate a birthday in my own home. That makes me so happy.
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