Let me tell you a little bit about my day today (it’s a Sunday) if you’ll indulge me: I woke up around 10:00 and remained in bed, hiding beneath the covers for about half an hour. Then I went downstairs and was confronted with two of my roommates and each had a guest, all wishing me a sunny good morning as they cleared their breakfast plates. After a cursory hello, I dashed off to Target, bought some hooks on which to hang pictures, and got on the Q train to go to Manhattan, where I was going to meet some people for brunch. On the train I forced myself to finish William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, which was not as life changing a read as I had anticipated it would be. At brunch, I only knew two of the people at the table, and while the other three people were certainly interesting, I got the vague sense that they disliked me, and so while they chattered away about video-editing and play-writing and the various creative endeavors they were involved in, I tried to stay quiet enough so as to not seem like I was over-compensating by blabbing on about myself but not so quiet that I seemed awkward. I bid a clumsy goodbye to the group as they all headed for Washington Square Park and I back to my apartment to work. When I got back, I took a pregnancy test as I haven’t gotten my period in a while (negative), counseled my roommate on her love life for about fifteen minutes, then retreated into my room, hung pictures, and tried really hard, but failed, to think of something that might make me cry, because there is a vague Sunday sadness in me that I’d like to expurgate. Though I want to just get back into my bed and revisit some old classic tearjerkers (articles about Phoebe Prince or Leiby Kletzky, or maybe this clip of Elle Fanning crying), I have to try to keep myself productive until at least 7:30, when a group of writers with whom I am working on a girl stoner movie script are coming to my house to brainstorm. (I heard that Natalie Portman is working on a similar project, to which I can only respond: Vegan bitch, please.)
Nothing is wrong with my life, per se. It’s very full and complex and that’s really great, but it’s also fucking exhausting, especially because I’m naturally on the introverted side and more than 20 minutes of small talk (particularly small talk within a group of people) makes me feel like I’ve just jogged a few miles. And even though it makes zero sense, it’s on days like this –– ones scheduled with back-to-back activities, all productive and happy ones –– on which I most miss the mental hospital.
I was 15 when I went to my first mental hospital, a sprawling Connecticut estate with a long list of rich and famous alumnae. Three years later, I was in a medical hospital in Long Island, but I don’t miss that place at all –– it was dingy and claustrophobia-inducing and they left us alone a lot, which is generally pretty agonizing for an anorectic, which I was, because she (pronoun used loosely) believes that she ought to bend the rules when she has the opportunity, even if she doesn’t want to, so I spent a lot of time doing leg lifts in my bed and trying to force out shits in the bathroom. The third and fourth times I was hospitalized was in an institution that I think was used for much of the stock photo imagery for “psychiatric hospital”; it is an enormous brick behemoth of a building on large, well-manicured grounds in Westchester County, New York. This psychiatric hospital was the strictest I’d ever been admitted to, the most archaic in its treatment methodologies, the one that most closely resembles Susannah Kaysen’s McLean in Girl, Interrupted. It is also the one I miss the most.
The unit at this hospital, called 7 South, housed 15-20 people diagnosed with eating disorders. Naturally, there were parts of being an inpatient that I found horribly unpleasant, most notably having supervised showers and needing to measure your urine and report your output to the nurse’s (as someone who grew up in a decidedly NOT naked household, the admission of having bodily functions at all was humiliating.) But there is such enormous comfort, as any Boy Scout or former member of the Nazi party will tell you, in being told exactly what to do and when to do it. For me, during those hospitalizations, the comfort was exacerbated by the fact that it stood in such stark contrast to my life right before I had been admitted. Before the hospital, I was always alone with the most wretched, cruel person who ever lived, and she (that would be me) was not very open to the idea of resting or of telling the truth or, you’ve already intimated, of nourishing her body. The most difficult thing about that life, though, was the indecision. I would make a plan to start eating more tomorrow, and then the next day would come and I would spend three hours staring at a Power Bar, and then pacing around my room debating the pros and cons of eating said Power Bar, and then becoming so exhausted by the whole thing I would just say, “Fuck it” and get stoned and watch TV instead.
In the psychiatric hospital, I made very, very few decisions, and none about what I ate. In fact, when I first arrived, I ate no actual food at all, but survived on a doctor-prescribed diet of liquid nutrition (different hospitals prefer different brands, and this one used Ensure.) This removed even the act of deciding which part of the meal –– starch? vegetable? juice? –– to attack first, and how to eat that part of the meal. For someone whose whole existence had been about whittling down the act of eating to its simplest and least pleasurable form, solely drinking calories was almost directly in line with my anorexic ethos. (At that point in my illness, I was atypically anorectic in that I didn’t obsess over food, and I considered thinking about or handling food a shameful, base activity and ultimately a huge waste of time. I had some highbrow shit to back this up, but of course I was full of it.) The thick Ensure wasn’t even that bad, to be honest; while I probably wouldn’t have admitted to liking it then, there is a certain chalky sweetness to it that becomes reminiscent of melted cake batter over time.
After my neurons started to fire again, everything about me started to feel freaking wonderful. I slept better than I had in ages, my mind felt sharp as a butterfly needle, and, emerging from my cocoon of sorts, I felt genuinely emotionally and intellectually turned on by simple things that, to the me of today, would probably seem pretty infantilizing: coloring, card games, PG-13 movies, making cutesy index cards with inspirational aphorisms on them, the most low-impact yoga classes you can imagine and endless games of Scattergories. I dove into therapeutic exercises with a renewed zeal, writing out lists of reasons to get better in my micrographic handwriting, making endless sample meal plans for my return home. I was not a therapy neophyte, of course, but before the hospital, I had been unable to see the point of any introspection at all: why the endless talking about myself if it had done nothing for the previous seven years? When I started to feel energetic again, I almost couldn’t help but feel, also, psychologically buoyed alongside it. My life ahead seemed full of myriad possibilities, and not in the burdensome way it once had.
One of the most calming things about being in a locked ward, and one of the most difficult to verbalize, is the fact that it is just that: locked. Even if you wanted to go out and embrace all the aforementioned possibilities of your future, you couldn’t –– not yet, at least –– and that forced idleness, which I pretended to hate, was really fucking relaxing. Even if you had to wake up at 6 a.m. and deal with a pair of beady eyes staring at you as you showered, half-asleep, and even if you still wrestled in your brain with the more insidious aspects of your illness, you knew that you couldn’t really get away with doing anything bad, or really anything significant at all. It was probably the safest you were ever going to be in your whole life. That locked-ness of the place also made you feel the reverberations of your Selfhood that much more. After every meal, there was a meeting during which we discussed our individual feelings about the meal. If you didn’t want to see anyone, you could instruct the staff to tell the visitor you weren’t in the mood. When you didn’t finish your Ensure, the doctors had meetings all about you. So in a sense, a girl can find herself feeling much more powerful in such a tiny, trigger-happy universe than in the real world, where oftentimes it feels like nobody is listening and nobody cares.
The day I was released from that hospitalization, I cried. I held it in while signing my papers, collecting my wallet and cell phone from the office, and during the drive back to school, but once I got into my room, alone, I burst into tears. My dorm neighbor interrupted my crying and hugged me, but I don’t think she really understood that I wasn’t crying because I was happy, but I was crying because I was sad. Even in that moment, there was a part of me that was conscious of the fact that I was terrified to be loose in the world. Back in reality, I’d be alone again, not surrounded by people who, while oftentimes annoying and/or intrusive, would listen to me if I were upset about something REALLY stupid, like a snack. I’d once again be asked to do the thankless job of being a citizen –– going about my business, doing my homework, answering my phone when it rang –– without the boost of the occasional bouquet of flowers or sappy greeting card from a friend.
It’s been seven years since my last hospitalization –– actually, come to think of it, eight, and saying that number scares me a little, because it means that my anorexia, that old, familiar life, is far away and getting farther –– and I still miss it more often than I’d like to admit. Bills come and I owe more than I can afford; my boss harps on the one minute thing I’ve done wrong and yet won’t listen to me when I ask him to please stop smoking in the office; a pitch is met with a “no, thanks” or, worse, silence; I fall into utter despair and cannot articulate why, and don’t want to face another human feeling that way: in these moments I think to myself, “Sick, and I wouldn’t have to deal with any of this idiocy.” Of course, if I were sick, I’d have to deal with a totally different kind of idiocy, and there are fewer benefits, so for this reason, I just choose to keep the healthy status quo.
But I’ll tell you the most embarrassing fantasy I have: once, after I was discharged from the hospital (this was during another stay –– it’s confusing, I know, but not really relevant here, so just go with me) I went to see my then-therapist. She worked at the hospital two floors above where 7 South was. In order to get to her office, I had to pass the door of 8 South, which is where the unit used to be held. It was moved for some reason I never was told/don’t remember, and the 8 South space had subsequently remained vacant for years. On this one particular day, I noticed that the door to 8 South was just slightly ajar, so I quietly nudged it open and walked in. It looked exactly like 7 South without the furniture –– same crucifix-shape floor plan, same size bedrooms, same bathroom locations, same everything. It was eerie and silent and the light was a warm autumn butterscotch, and I watched the dust in the air for a while and thought about all the people who had been there and where they were now. It was so compellingly peaceful that I thought I should just shut the door and see how long it took before someone found me. Three hours? Two days? A week?
So here’s the embarrassing part: everyone has an escape fantasy, right? In my escape fantasy, 8 South is where I go. When I’m having a terrible day, I mentally write a packing list –– some books, one or two sack dresses or pairs of pajamas, and slippers –– and plan my departure. I think about how quiet it was, and how small, in comparison to the whole wide world, and it just makes me feel a little better.
That’s not so crazy, right?