The enormous man in the room at the end of the hall has been walking around naked. Each time this happens, one of the aides drapes a sheet over his expansive nudity and then guides him back into the room for some clothing.
This is the only sign of craziness I have seen on this floor. Of course, the truly insane, possibly dangerous people are upstairs. Everyone lives in fear of being moved up there. There are 20 rooms in this ward. They are all single occupancy and none are empty. Twenty semi-crazy people. Nervous breakdowns, paralyzing anxiety, botched suicide attempts, eating disorders. A smattering of substance abuse issues. One guy–at least I’m convinced of this–is a sex addict. He’s always trying to lure me to his room for board games. There is a woman with multi-personality disorder. It’s not as exciting as made-for-tv movies would have you believe. Mostly she just tells the same stories over and over again, because she can’t remember telling them. She’s been here for months…so long, that she actually has her own pictures, throw pillows, and quilts in her room. Someone brought her a rocking chair.
I’ve only been here for a week, so my room remains beige and non-descript. All of my toiletries and shoes with laces are under lock and key. I am permitted ball point pens (my least favorite writing implement), my school books, tablets (nothing wire bound), and my childhood stuffed Grover (brought to me by my nervous boyfriend in a futile attempt to lessen the anxiety of being in a psychiatric hospital).
In one week, I have had a chest xray (some sort of institutional requirement to prevent the spread of tuberculosis), an EKG (to see if my heart can handle the massive amount of psychotropic drugs and–god forbid–electroshock therapy), and copious amounts of blood work.
I am so drugged, I find that I cannot read or complete simple arithmetic problems. This scares the shit out of me. Are my only options–for the rest of my life–a quick mind wallowing in craziness or an illiterate calmness? My psychiatrist–he bears a striking resemblance to Stephen Hawking, which I find very comforting–tells me to be patient. I’m skeptical. Each morning, I line up after breakfast for my paper cup of pills: two orange Depakote, a tiny Ativan, one Synthroid–my lingering depressive episode might be influenced by thyroid underactivity, an ever-changing migraine medication–because the other meds are exacerbating this, and one of my confiscated birth control pills. There’s talk of adding an anti-depressant to this concoction.
I refuse to go to group therapy. I cannot listen to others talk about their need to pick their skin until it bleeds or their intention to just lose 5 MORE POUNDS off their 85 pound body. I refuse to hear another story about an uncle’s unforgivable actions or the timeless tale of an unloving mother. I hide in my bedroom, feigning sleep.
I cannot lie. I am terrified to be here. I would never describe myself as crazy. Moody. Unpredictable. Impulsive. These adjectives are more appropriate.
For months I planned to kill myself. Each day, as I walked to catch the subway to work or school, I planned my demise. Eventually, I found myself getting off the train at school, immediately crossing the platform to take the return train, and then spending the day in the park feeding squirrels. My boyfriend thought I was in school. My mother was under the impression that I couldn’t be happier. My friends thought I was the life of the party.
But then one day, impulsiveness got the best of me. I woke up feeling better than I had in months. I baked pies for all of my friends. I walked to the drug store and bought a few packs of sleeping pills. I emptied the contents of the blister packs into my a plastic Halloween pumpkin (the type used for trick-or-treating). I swallowed them all while reading an issue of Details with Pamela Anderson on the cover.
And then I found myself here. There was a frenzied emergency room. Charcoal and IVs and questions like, “Do you ever think the news anchor on television is sending special messages meant only for you?” I am convinced that I must sign myself into the hospital or the court will order my commitment. This is frightening to my 19-year old self.
(Note: The whole “sign yourself in or get committed” thing is a waste of time. Soon after I am transported to the psychiatric hospital, the nurse handling my intake informs me that even though I signed myself in, if I try to check myself out, the court will issue an order forbidding my release. So essentially, I am committed to the hospital. My only choice is to play along, show some level of improvement, and hope to be released in a minimum of a few weeks after I start responding to medication.)
I meet my psychiatrist for an hour everyday. He tries to pull trauma out of my mind like a dentist searching for an abscessed tooth. I spend the rest of the day sleeping and playing Scrabble with my only friend on the ward. She tried to kill herself while working on her Master’s at Harvard. Some sort of dramatic situation involving pills and an intentional car accident/bridge. She gets electroshock on Monday and Thursday. Her hands shake uncontrollably on Tuesday and Friday. And sometimes she can’t remember my name or even the difference between vowels and consonants. We play so many games of Scrabble, that I find myself beating everyone I play for the next five years.
My mother visits me once. Less than two minutes into her visit, she asks, “Did you do this because you want to drop out of school?” My jaw drops. I exit the room, while the social worker attempts to explain the real situation. I tell my doctor that I will accept no further visits from anyone in my family.
I begin to wear my bathrobe over my clothes, much like a security blanket. My doctor does not approve. “This sort of behavior will not lead to ground privileges.” “Ground privileges” refer to the opportunity to smoke on the lawn under the watchful eye of two aides.
My friends from the coffee shop where I work visit. They bring me a bag of miniature candy bars. I am so excited to see them, but my enthusiasm is dampened by their obviousness anxiousness. At least they feel relaxed enough to tease me about my bathrobe. I cannot eat the candy because I feel as though I don’t have the strength to chew.
My boyfriend visits every day. “Your psychiatrist says that I should not ask you why you felt compelled to kill yourself in our bathroom while I was at a movie, but I just have to know. Is it something I did?”
If only I could explain it all. The suffocating veil of nothingness that is depression. The manic episodes that make me seem happy, even though I actually couldn’t feel more miserable. The realization that the real me has nothing to do with any of these actions. For the past few months, I have been observing myself from a distance, the version of me that everyone else knows is just a character in a movie I am watching. I cannot control the lines, much less the plot points. I am powerless.
Episode 2 took place in the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital, a swanky psychiatric facility in West Philadelphia. It closed shortly after my stay, a casualty of the HMO era. It was the first psychiatric hospital in the U.S.