Finding Home: The Magic of Feeling Seen and Heard

“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place to go where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” ~Maya Angelou

In 2019, I found myself in a psychiatric institution sitting across from a psychologist who was grilling me about why I was there. She seemed angry.

I told her how heartbroken I was that no one “believed” the physical symptoms I was dealing with, caused by chronic illness and benzodiazepine withdrawal. I told her how my nervous system had been hijacked, and I could not control the terror I felt daily. I told her how everyone just assumed I was crazy and making it all up, and that even with a doctor’s diagnosis, I found myself in this terror alone each day.

She wore glasses and a blue suit, and I rambled, overexplaining to her the debilitating effects of withdrawal, derealization, extreme sensitivities, and depersonalization.

I talked about the emotional issues I had from trauma, and how I knew that what had occurred in the last ten years was more than that. I was getting sicker and sicker, and doctors could not explain it until very recently when they found that I had chronic inflammatory reactions from an overreactive immune system and was also in withdrawal from benzodiazepines.

I only took one pill a day and began having symptoms each day at around the same time. I told her how completely invalidated I felt and alone in my search for what was hurting my brain and body. She looked down and said, “That is really hard to believe.”

Clearly, the “danger” that brought me there did not cease while sitting across from her; it intensified. I knew gaslighting well, and the shame that went with it.

“I want to call my doctor, and I want you to speak with him,” I said, and then decided to stop talking. It became clear that this was not a place to be helped or heard, just a place to try to tolerate for a bit.

That night I lay in my bed, envisioning somewhere warm, where people sat by the beach strumming guitars, drinking fruit juices, talking, listening, and connecting with each other. The sun shone, the blue ocean waves crashed on the shore, and the birds sang. I wore a beach dress and flowers in my hair, and everyone around me in this community loved me.

The emotions I felt with this visualization were love, joy, and a feeling of being home with people who acknowledged me, wanted me around, and believed me. It helped to calm my highly activated body.  The home found in these visuals was what I sobbed for each day and used to soothe my nervous system.

I remember sobbing on my mother’s floor, begging her to take me “to the beach” when in a wave of withdrawal. Helpless, she grabbed me, helping me up, and said she didn’t understand nor know how to help.

It was true that I was already dysregulated before withdrawal. Disconnected since childhood from a stable home inside, I searched on the outside for this anchor. I suffered anxiety and bouts of depression along with other trauma-related dysregulation.

The ache for home began long before taking my first benzodiazepine, and safety was a feeling I could not always access alone.

It is also true that benzodiazepines exacerbated this tenfold and, together with the dysregulation, caused a whole host of chronic issues as well as perpetuated them. Unfortunately, my new doctor wearing blue did not believe me, nor did she believe the doctor I was working with on the outside who had called her.

The next morning in my cold, sterile, blue and white room, I woke up to find a girl sleeping in the bed next to me. There was a guard sitting in our room. I showered and went to breakfast.

There was a table of “regulars” who had been there for some time. They joked and talked loudly. I knew I was not welcome at this table. So I found a spot at a table where heads were down, and the energy was of middle schoolers on their first day of class, thinking of the right words to say, and the right “kids” to say it to.

I turned to a girl next to me and introduced myself. She was short and thin with delicate features and black tight curls. Just like that, her story came gushing out. She didn’t feel heard by her ultra-religious parents as they got ready to move to a town she didn’t want to go, sending her to a school she didn’t want to attend.

She sat next to another young woman, who often got up and danced around the room, fluttering about and sharing memories and a picture of her beautiful mother, who had passed when she was young. She was highly successful working in tech. She told me how much she “liked me already” and that when we got out, we should go dancing together.

Across from me was a social worker, mid-thirties, who laughed about the irony of his job. He said he “freaked out” after being robbed during a one-night stand and was taken in. And he worried about his employer finding out.

Another older man told us about how he was in and out of these hospitals intentionally. He came from a wealthy family and was not in contact with them any longer, and it was here that he felt safe. He didn’t know how to function on the outside, and each time he was released he found a way to return. He told us which hospitals had the best food, and which were the kindest.

After some time, my roommate showed up. Her guard sat her at a desk alone and hovered over her.

At my table, we talked, laughed, shared extra juices, and rested in the knowledge that we all understood each other—immediately. In my hospital gown, I felt the warmth of the sun, heard the ocean waves crash, and sipped my fruit juice as we shared stories, talking, listening, and  connecting.

For the first time in a very long time, I felt connected and acknowledged.

In the next couple of days, we consulted with each other before signing up for groups to be together, ate each meal at the same table, graduated to being able to wear tights under our gowns, shared socks, had an “intervention” for our older friend who couldn’t stay on the outside more than a few weeks, finally got to talk to my roommate who told us the reason she was monitored, and watched her expression evolve from pain and anger to peace and lightness.

After dinner, there was free time. We spent it all together in the lounge, and an older woman talked of the days when she danced salsa and showed us some steps. We took turns making phone calls and seeing our doctors. We all had negative feelings toward the therapist in blue (as well as much of the staff, who were unnecessarily harsh), and I requested someone else. It was denied.

We learned how to act in front of the nurses, who were all too happy to write down anything they perceived as “problem behavior” and held these “behaviors” as reason to keep us longer. At night, Katie (my roommate) and I whispered about how we expected a much gentler place, and how fortunate we were to have each other to go through our time here.

Each day we spent our free time together, acted on our best behavior in groups so that we would all get out, and planned a reunion. We laughed and relished in how quickly we had bonded, how much we had in common and to share with each other, and how this could not be a coincidence.

We all agreed that, somehow, we were placed here together for a reason, as it was exactly what each one of us needed—to be heard and to be seen.

One by one, we were released, exchanged numbers, and promised to reunite. Of course I looked forward to going home, but I knew that I had spent the last week with the home I had been searching for, one of unconditional acceptance.

I left resting in the knowledge that a group of people had acknowledged me, accepted me, and believed me.

This was the beginning of my healing. It was in these moments that my body and brain could rest, and clarity began.

I found in this unlikely place the home I had been searching for, amongst strangers who quickly became family. I also found a feeling of safety I could not find within myself, and soon after it began to grow inside of me.

I think that’s the goal for all of us. Sometimes it just takes a while to find people who will see, hear, and accept us, but they’re out there. And they’re probably waiting to feel seen and heard too—by people just like us.

*Image generated by AI

About Maria Stefanie

Maria spent years looking for relief from the suffering she experienced due to the toxic "stories" she received as a child. These stories, and the medications prescribed to ease them, led to dis-ease physically and mentally. Eventually she reconnected with her authentic self and broke through to a lighter side of life. She works each day to be a better version of herself and learn different modalities to help others. You can find more of her story here.

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