Today's post is number four of a five-part series running every Thursday until Jan 6. First installment here.
I pace around the unit. Sixteen patients at a time it holds, rooms arranged in a crooked semicircle along a hallway. The common room in the center sports a sitting area on the far side of the entrance, then a pool table (cues and a complete set of balls available at the nurses’ station), a span of tables and chairs (where meals are eaten), and an open kitchen area with a fridge (stocked with rows of single-serving juices and the occasional lunch leftover someone is saving), a coffee dispenser (decaf only), and to snack on, single-serving boxes of high-fiber cereals and a metal basin of whole fruit (bananas and apples, no knives needed). Sometimes I evaluate these things in light of Sara’s casual estimate, that it costs about a thousand dollars a day to stay here. Assorted bookcases, high and low, line the walls, piled with old reading matter and some board games; these last have the look of donated things. Otherwise the aesthetic is steadily institutional: white and light turquoise, formica and vinyl; brown-red cloth upholstered armchairs and sectionals with no corners. The walls are an off-white, the ceiling low and square, and to the left of the sitting area is a large, clear (probably not glass) double door opening onto the patio; it lets in natural light and a view of the wooden picnic bench with umbrella, steps beyond that the tall grass and wildflowers of the hill.
On the other side of the wall behind the sitting area the hallway widens into a TV space, with a few more shapeless armchairs and intermittent viewers. No one seems to care very much what is on, selections made without heat since it seems more of a way of sitting in silence. People break into momentary commentary or conversation, look around and look back at the screen, but whether it’s Judge Judy or X-Files, following the plotline does not seem to be the point. By the afternoon I will realize I miss music, and ask the OT nurse the next morning why there is music only during OT. (Sarah McLachlan today; tomorrow will be Van Morrison.) She will tell me that people fight over the music selection, insistence turning sometimes into violence. Music, it seems, is more than a way of sitting in silence.
Lunch comes and goes and is consummately forgettable. I remember the steel food truck they wheel in, the trays and covered dishes, the plastic utensils, but the food I can’t recall. And this though, as I had heard people doing prison time do, I quickly join the other patients in fixating on meals to punctuate and give form to the day. Joanne complains that she is gaining weight here out of boredom. We have lunch together and then scatter, but are searched out and gathered from our various corners for Group Therapy.
Although baffled and frustrated by what I consider the scarcity of therapeutic activity -- how are people supposed to get better in 72 hours if we spend most of it not dealing with anything?? -- I did not want to attend Group Therapy, strongly averse to the idea of sharing personal information (even if strategically fictionalized) with the shufflers and hunchers, the lounging men of sudden hellos. But out of my own curiosity, as well as fear of perceived non-cooperation, I answer a second social worker’s call to the group he leads, and to which I have been assigned. To my relief there are only five other patients in this private sitting room, including Joanne, Chris, and a quiet woman lumpish in the corner armchair, muted brown hair feathered and cropped. This hour will change how I walk around the ward. It is not that I ‘identify’; these are stories with which I have nothing in common. Nevertheless. Jerry is the cheerful bearded guy who left an ill-advised death threat on a policeman’s voicemail. No harm meant to the cop; he was threatening to go vigilante on a religious cult that he believed had been harassing him by moving objects around in his home in his absence. Chris hears voices. They tell him that he has got to leave his wife, that the baby isn’t his. At a Greyhound station he approached one bus after another and sat back down on the bench. Asked about the baby he tugs on the brim of his baseball cap, and wonders aloud that watching his son can still him for hours. Joanne, I learn, has trouble reading and writing. She has been in
institutions -- homes, rehabs or prisons -- for much of her life and is
afraid that she will get too used to them to live outside anymore. She
has an unassuming way of showing new people the ropes, mentioning things
too small for the nurses to remember, and her presence has made being
here more bearable.
The social worker, Peter, a short man whose baldness seems entirely in character, moderates as we talk, prompting us for feedback, nodding with nearly uncontained approval when we offer another speaker words of encouragement. I tell my tale, a little pricked by my own bad faith, but this performance is for Peter, and I need the audience with me.
Come her turn, Greta leans her elbows on her knees and clasps her hands. She’s an RN, she says, and she had a job doing medical research, which she liked. But then they decide to pull her off her project and put her in oncology research, which is one of the hardest research fields out there, she thinks. And she doesn’t know how to do it, she’s not trained for it, it would take learning millions -- she corrects herself -- well, a lot, of new protocols. Two weeks she spent planning her suicide. On Friday, when she was supposed to go, she brought herself here instead. Someone asks her if she has anything positive in her life (one of Peter’s favorite questions), and she says Yeah. But in the last two weeks, it didn’t matter. She said goodbye, in her head, to each of the people she loved. Here by her own free will, she can go whenever she wants; she’ll stay until she feels like she’s not going to hurt herself anymore. But I’m scanning, she says, shaking her head. And it drives me crazy how safe it is here. Nothing to hang a sheet on.
Chulho calls then, and a nurse opens the door to point me to the payphone where patients sometimes receive incoming calls. I tell him where I am and, amateur stuntman that he is, he assumes I was sitting on the bridge for the same reason he would sit on a bridge: to sit on a bridge. He laughs at the absurdity of my landing in a psych ward, and the levity is almost nice. At the same time, though, he is a man who knows trouble, and that is comforting to me. Without hesitation he asks me if he can visit and what I need. I ask him for a small bottle of Renu, and a copy of Animal Farm. I’d been amused by the idea of reading One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Girl, Interrupted, but figured that would be overkill, antagonistically smart-ass.
By the time I get back to the group, the session is dispersing. Left once again to our own devices, many of the patients congregate aimlessly in the main sitting area. Others go back to bed. I sit but, before the cushion is even warm, am up wandering again. At the fridge, I peer at the juices, close the door, and stop. To the door is taped a tired sheet of paper, and I have to fold back its creases to read.
Sun Never Says
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,
With a love like that,
It lights the
In a heartbeat I am at my nightstand, grabbing the yellow Journal. On the last page, under the heading ‘After I Leave the Hospital,’ I copy the poem in purple, with a stray colored pencil. It is the first and only thing I write here -- the booklet still malevolent in its disingenuous childishness, and no thoughts, I think, being safe.
Back on the sofa, I sit with Joanne and Chris, until surprised out of my silence by Greta’s question. “So can you tell me honestly that you didn’t mean to jump?” She is lying across a loveseat, and looking steady at me. I babble because, for once, it is not clear that I should lie. Something about Hypothetically, I say. She looks away, not interested in insisting, and I feel some occasion has arisen, and I have not met it.
Later I will find her again, and tell her as honestly as I can, that what I found on the bridge was how hard it is. And how, since then, I have had to grapple with the most frightening thing I know. I’d always taken comfort in the idea that I didn’t have to stay. That if things got very bad, I didn’t have to take it. But if dying is harder than living, then there is no out. Whatever happens to me, I will have to live through it.
We have been sitting side by side, and when I am done we look up, she nods understandingly. Three days after I am released from the hospital, I will dial the number to the payphone and ask for Greta. The man who picks up, a patient by the sound of his uncertainty, shambles off, leaving me in suspense until she says hello. I tell her my name, ask her if she remembers me, I was there a few days ago. She says, “Of course, sweetheart. How are you doing?” I tell her that it has meant a lot to me to meet her, that I hope she will be well and happy. But I don’t know how to say that because we met, I am beginning to understand that lives have value to other people, that loss need not be personal to be loss. We will hang up without pretense of keeping in touch. But I do not want her to die.
It is now past 2 pm and still, no sign of the good doctor. Harder and harder to wait, because as the day creeps on my odds of being home by nightfall grow fainter. I scan the nurses’ station for new faces now and again, but none of the strangers looks for me. I get permission from Peter to try my sister again at her Hawaii number, but still no luck. Passing time, I strike up conversation with one of the student nurses. Soon we are talking about trips to Europe and destinations in Southeast Asia, and I watch the boundaries waver. I let this pretty, red-headed undergraduate assume I am about her age, and make observations about the staff and patients much as I imagine she and her peers might, in their role as observers and students. I share with her also my anxiety about the confidentiality of these records, but am surprised when, later, she beckons me over to the nurse’s station, having made inquiries on my behalf.
The administrative manager of the hospital’s psychiatric unit assures me that my records here are locked unless I release them, and moreover, that in her experience as an employer hiring personnel even in one of the more sensitive fields, background checks cover criminal and financial histories, not medical. I quote back to her what the first doctor told me, but she is unwavering in her conviction that this information, protected, cannot harm me. All this proves for certain, I think, is uncertainty -- but that in and of itself is meaningful. The kind student nurse would like for me to be relieved by these assurances, and so I act as if I have taken them at face value.
Sometime later, I ask Joanne and Chris to play pool. My pool game hovers just above the point where one swears off the cue, so I figure I could use the practice. Having found a productive use for my time delights me. Chris is respectable, but Joanne manages even with a cast on one hand, which means she probably cleans up, without the handicap. For all this, though, I am no less aware of the passing day, and stop Wayne when he walks by, to ask him if any word of Bien has come. My social worker tells me my doctor was here earlier, but left -- left without speaking to me! He’ll be back later, Wayne says, but I am suddenly beside myself. I have done everything I am supposed to, complied with every request and smiled at every staff member but it’s nearly five o’clock and I am still here, the one person who can help me apparently indifferent to my desperation, and no staff member kind enough to tell him. Wayne himself will be gone in twenty minutes, and I ask him if we can try my sister one more time, so that at least he can speak to her before he leaves for the day. He snaps that he has something to take care of, and that I should just expect to spend the night at this point. I remember then what they say about social workers, that I am just a case, and back away from him. I have lost any desire to play pool.
I am unable anymore to ward off the awfulness of this place: how profoundly it reminds me of my childhood home. The walls that are prison, the caring of jailers. The searing isolation without privacy, and the effort of finding sanctuary for my mind. The utter humiliation of being at the mercy of authority, helpless to judgment. I am in danger here, of losing whatever distance I have won from that place. More completely than anything else, this psychic return can destroy me: undo my defenses one by one.
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