This essay originally appeared in Hoax Zine #9 – Vulnerabilities.
First there were the months when I could not keep myself warm. Then the months when I could not keep myself steady. Finally there were the months when I could not keep myself safe. I shivered and shuddered and found myself checked into the hospital – once and then again and again. Each time, it seemed I discovered new indignities to the process. I turned inward, made myself smaller, and offered my soft underside to each nurse and doctor and peer who probed for my story. It is not much of a story, but my scars flower pink with the telling.
November/Borderline Personality Disorder
A kind woman sweeps me into a room filled with the beeping of vitals equipment. Her name is L and she takes my temperature, records my blood pressure, my height and weight and dietary restrictions and hands them all to the unforgiving grasp of the chart. I am grateful for the machine measurements, no need to produce my own answers when my brain is so clouded I cannot recall my address. Outside that room, the ward is small and quiet. We lock up my possessions, empty my clothes into the wardrobe. My roommate is kind and maternal – on the ward for post-partum depression in fact. We retreat to our room together and sleep. It is exhausting to be as sad as we are.
On this ward, vitals are two or three times a day – I struggle to keep track because I often require additional measures. My blood pressure runs too low or my pulse too high from my ranging anxiety. Shift changes are the usual cue for vitals, with the burly night nurses taking down numbers and giving us our evening snack. He insists I lower my hospital bed from its raised position, common practice on a ward full of elderly patients. For the most part, though, I am left alone here, filling pages of a notebook with a nub of pencil. If this visit, gentle and quiet, has taught me to trust hospitals, then perhaps it has done me a disservice.
January/Major Depressive Disorder, Severe
When I am drawn from the back of the police cruiser, I am settled into a grimy, windowless room where I fidget and panic and sit on the floor. I sit there for several hours, awaiting the approval that will shuttle me upstairs to the general women’s ward. I am not entirely a voluntary admit, but I am very much well enough to skip the stabilization unit. Upstairs is vitals, the search of my belongings, the prying eyes of the other women on the ward, and kind words that I rebuff through tears. The staff take me to my room, strip me to my undergarments. My bra and underwear are tugged away from my body to ensure that nothing is hidden. And nothing is. Finally, they catalogue every cut, scar, and bruise on my body.
While they map my body, I peruse the room – a low bunk-type bed with a blue mat for mattress, a small open cabinet, a bathroom with a curtain rather than a door. We are only allowed a certain number of towels and blankets, and my stuffed animal is confiscated because, they claim, something could be hidden inside. Our every move here is calculated for safety, but in a way that only succeeds in making me feel exposed.
I have landed at a dedicated mental health facility, 250 beds of women, men, and children all under one roof. The women’s general unit is full, thirty-eight women crowded all day into the common room, rows of chairs in front of a television, four phones, and a large table that we spend hours around, coloring and talking. It seems to take forever to be seen by doctors and social workers, and the air is constantly punctuated by our requests for attention. We are instructed to stop putting “social worker” on the communal needs list, meant for requesting toothpaste, new towels, and the like.
I fall in with two other women and we can be found together, tucked into corners to avoid “expressive therapy,” or coloring mandalas around the central table. During checks – which happen every fifteen minutes, day and night – we can typically be found together. With thirty-eight women, checks is really an endless activity, two nurses looking around, walking down halls, marking us off for every quarter hour. We are on a locked ward. Even our bedrooms are locked – we have to request to have them opened to use our doorless bathrooms. You could, potentially, get as far as the men’s ward where the snack machines are, but you would still be locked in. The frequency of the checks seems superfluous, but we have been absolved of the responsibility to make those decisions.
March/Major Depression with Atypical Psychosis
I have come prepared.
When my mother takes me to the emergency room a few days after I run out of all my psychiatric medications, I come carrying a backpack with all of the essentials – a few changes of clothes, my stuffed animal, my notebook, a novel. While one part of me simply wants some prescriptions and a free pass to go home, another part of me is so tired, has already spent whole days in bed crying, and dearly wants a break. The kind psychiatrist pushes me towards a few days inpatient and I go.
The psychiatric ward at this hospital is full. But I am at a location with two branches, so they prepare to transfer me from the emergency room on the North side, to the psychiatric ward on the South side. Before they can transfer me, I am handed two hospital gowns and told to change. When I arrive at the South side, I am told that I must wear the gowns for the first twenty-four hours that I am on the ward. As is customary, my sneakers are taken away and I am given hospital socks. I spend my first few hours on the ward, hungry from missed meals, assigned to one-to-ones with a nurse who insists on holding my hand as we move from place to place.
By my first full day, I am regretting this trip. My new psychiatrist and I simply cannot communicate. He labels me with a whole passel of diagnoses, some of which are blatantly wrong, most of which are based on conjecture. Our bathrooms here have doors, but no locks, and our bedrooms are open during the day, though we know that one key to discharge is spending time in the dayroom. And so I do. I park myself in a heavy rubber chair – designed to be as awkward and blocky as possible so that they can’t be thrown by aggravated patients – and watch television or scribble notes in my journal. I read an entire 400 page novel during the three full days I am there. I do it all while sitting in the dayroom where I can be watched and noted on. I play perfect patient. Another young woman who has been on the ward for many weeks, and whose behavior is increasingly unacceptable and unlikely to have her discharged any time soon, makes note of my speedy release and calls me a princess. I have acted the part and I get to go home.
* * *
In the months when I could not keep myself safe, I kept time by my passage in and out of hospitals. I let others manage my everyday risks, take away razors and pills, strings and bars and even doors. But I am grateful to manage my own ways now, to decide which doors lock, which ones will close behind me. Turning over that right felt like bearing the soft undersides of my arms to the world – the flesh tender and scarred. But it was a gesture that bought me time, whether measured by fifteen minute checks, long hours in the dayroom, or the luxurious stretch of the first moments outside.