None of the doors have locks except the one to the outside. But for now, we are in, inside the walls of a hospital, inside the antiseptic air conditioning, inside the down-to-the-minute routines. Three meals a day, plus one snack at night. I want to warn the newly medicated scarfing down every scrap of food they see that their new pills will come with a healthy dose of weight gain — my extra 20 pounds already settled on my frame — but I let them eat; we need what small pleasures we can get. After all, we are truly locked in here: a place the patients keep calling “hell,” though some have given up fighting and begun to call it “home.”
The first night I arrive absolutely terrified. They tell me I can smoke a cigarette in the outdoor cage. I see faces cloaked in darkness, intermittently lit by fireworks. It’s the Fourth of July. A girl introduces herself as V, and tells me it’s going to be okay, that I’m shaking, but I don’t have to be afraid. I’m introduced to some others and I realize quickly that this place is different; we are all desperate here. We are all afraid. I will not be left alone.
My boyfriend comes to bring me coffee every day at visiting hour — real coffee — in here they only give us decaf and I haven’t sh-t for days. I hold his hands in my hands and try to forget where I am, crying when it’s time for goodbyes. With my parents, I cry as soon as they arrive. I am silent to their questions, barely sputter out that I needed to come, I needed to be safe, I wasn’t safe, and here they make you safe… even though old men in sh-t-stained gowns hit on me, even though paranoid schizos accuse me of poisoning them, even though at night all you hear is screaming, even though I take speed showers terrified the real crazy people will waltz right in. But I accept this as fact: I am more dangerous to myself than a psychiatric ward of crazy people.
Because here, we are all crazy, crazy enough, but there are the real crazies and the normal crazies. The normal crazies become my friends. We sit together during smoke breaks and shoot the breeze like we’re not confined in a giant fenced-in cage. We casually stand in line together to get our meds. We comfort each other when one of us has a panic attack or a flashback. Sam, a 22-year-old Iraq vet with PTSD becomes my favorite. He receives elegiac phone calls and writes the names of his army friends on a chalkboard as they die, and he cries at night in the smoking cage telling me about the little girl he had to kill because she was strapped with bombs. There’s Lisa, the lesbian with rainbow stars tattooed on her neck who tells me straight up, “I smoke crack.” There’s John, who intentionally put himself into a diabetic coma. There’s Susie Jean, an old lady who paints a cross on her forehead with eye shadow and tells us all to piss off and go to hell while simultaneously begging for cigarettes. Liz is my other favorite. She is very quiet and sweet and paints her eyes with a severe amount of black eyeliner. Her arms have been ravaged by razorblades, not a spot uncut. She takes off her sweatshirt in the sun of the cage but no one says anything. She’s a psych ward jumper who’s been here before and she knows the drill, seems almost comfortable. Since I’ve arrived she’s done about a thousand word searches. After doing only one, I realize that word searches might be the quickest way to turn your brain into mush.
We’re all starting to mold into comfortable, bored mush. I get used to walking the halls, sitting in self-esteem meetings, sneaking naps when no one will notice and yell at me. The doctors ignore me after the first day and until I leave. Everything feels arbitrary. One night they give me the wrong meds. One night they refuse me my Klonopin. I cry and scream at the nurse until she gives it to me. But that’s nothing. The real crazies take off their clothes and smear mayonnaise all over themselves. The real crazies sneak into other people’s rooms at night and try to screw them. The real crazies have to be held down by four huge men for an injection. The real crazies get attention. I’m not getting any and I start to realize sitting in chairs playing Scrabble with drugged up mental patients isn’t doing jack for me.
So I start asking questions. When can I leave, don’t you think I’m ready? Of course no one knows, because no one knows anything about me, and I’m thinking maybe this hospital is really just “don’t die!” housing. I haven’t killed myself and I don’t feel like doing it anymore and I want to go home. Finally they tell me, okay, it’s time. And I’m ready. I think I’m ready. I’m tired of force-feeding myself the salmon they keep serving and I miss my therapist. My mother comes. The proper paperwork is filled out and I sign my name. They unlock the doors to the outside. My head spins with fear of the freedom. It has been so long. The sun on my skin feels foreign; I sweat, overdressed in my jeans and sweater.
Lightheaded, my limbs barely understand how to propel me toward the car. I have to remember again how to do what my body seems to have forgotten.