When I was 23 years old, I told my doctor I didn’t care whether I lived or died. I can’t really remember exactly how I said it, but I do recall it being something like this:
“So,” the doctor asked. “How are you felling?”
“I dunno,” I said. “Okay, except most days when I drive my car, I can’t stop thinking about how much I wouldn’t care if it went off the road and I didn’t make it out alive.”
Well, she certainly thought so.
My doctor then did what any sane medical professional would do in her position, I suppose. She called my mother.
Next thing I knew, I was being escorted to the Emergency Room. Once there, I would endure a quick and convenient four hour visit before I eventually found myself being pushed in a wheel chair towards the elevator where I would await my fate as an admitted patient to the psych ward of Rhode Island Hospital.
If only I had lied to my doctor and told her I felt great. If only I would’ve allowed the natural progression of a routine pap smear to take its course and just cringe and smile as she chuckled that her hands were always cold. If only I could have actually felt normal, rather than lost and over emotional and pathetic. If only I hadn’t made life choices that had left me without direction, a college diploma, or a focus.
If only I had shut my big mouth.
Now I was being wheeled down a white corridor to the last place on earth I ever wanted to be. The Looney Bin. The Nut House. The Funny Farm. The Cuckoo’s Nest.
What the shit was I going to do? I pictured myself walking in to see Jack Nicholson offering me a cigarette as he pulled the sink out of the floor so we could plan our escape, after we drugged the guards, of course.
Instead, I was wheeled in to see a very pissed off patient throwing anything and everything he could find in his room into the hallway. And it smelt like urine and mold.
I didn’t belong here. I was sure I was better than this place. The people in this ward were crazy psychos and there had been a huge misunderstanding.
The nurse showed me to a perfectly square room about halfway down the hallway. It had ugly white walls and two beds. I was told my bed was the one by the window, but that window couldn’t be opened. When I put my bag down on my bed, she showed me to the bathroom with a door, but that door couldn’t be locked. Finally, she introduced me to the woman sitting upright in my neighboring bed. Her name was Carol and she was my roommate, but that roommate wouldn’t speak.
Here I was, saying too much, getting myself into this mess, and there she was in the same place because she wasn’t saying enough. Where was Alanis Morrisette to sing about this being mildly ironic?
I stared at her, but she looked through me. The nurse introduced us, but she didn’t even flinch. Figures. I knew I was in a place I didn’t belong, and this crazy lady was just the type I would be stuck rooming with. When the nurse left I sat on my bed and stared at her again.
She really was beautiful. She had pretty blonde hair and perfectly aged skin, the kind where you could tell she was older, but also that she took care of herself all her life. It reminded me of my mother’s. I could tell Carol drank enough water, wore enough sunscreen, and didn’t smoke too many cigarettes. She seemed normal enough, all except her eyes. They were swollen. And bloodshot. And dead. And looking right freaking through me.
This lady was crazy, and I didn’t belong here.
At that instance, I hated her. I hated it when she started crying quietly as she sat in her bed, I hated that she wouldn’t speak to me, and I hated that I was forced to be in the same room as her because she was obviously insane and pathetic and I was here by some mistake. They had the wrong Tara Crawford. I wasn’t supposed to be here. And I would let everyone know.
When the nurse returned to take my blood, I told her to go to hell. When she came back a while later to bring me to dinner, I told her to go fuck herself. And when she came back one last time to tell me that I should go to the evening group therapy session, I told her I wouldn’t be caught dead talking to these lot of crazies and she could go fuck herself again, and to make sure it was even harder than the last time.
So, I lied there, seething with anger and remorse. Wondering “why me” and what I did to deserve such bad luck. I began counting the dots on the ceiling. The lights were off, but the glow of the outside world was enough for me to see my prison cell of a room pretty clearly. Carol was curled in the fetal position in her bed. She still hadn’t spoken to, or even looked, at me, but I hated her even more now. The nurse hadn’t asked her to dinner or taken her blood. She was just allowed to lay there.
I counted about 100 ceiling dots before I began to hear the group session beginning in the room across the hall. The person facilitating the meeting was asking everyone to introduce themselves and say what they were doing before they ended up here at the hospital.
This was it, I thought. I sat up and listened, expecting to hear introductions from a group of schizophrenics and murders and thieves and crackheads. After all, I was trapped in a psych ward, a place I didn’t belong, a place only bad people were trapped in, a place that I was better than.
Instead, I heard people. If I had closed my eyes that night and forgotten my surroundings, it would have sounded as if this group of people were introducing themselves to each other at a holiday party over some eggnog. They were normal people. Hard working people. Mothers. Fathers. Teachers. Wives. They were just having a hard time.
Carol started crying again. I looked over as the light from the outside world shone on the white scratchy blanket covering her heaving body. How could I have felt so much hatred for this woman? She was obviously sad about something.
It was in that moment, watching Carol and hearing the introductions from across the hall that I realized that maybe I was sad too. Maybe I was one of them. Maybe I did belong here.
I got out of bed and walked across the hall, making sure to leave the door open so my roommate could hear our session. When I walked into the room, four people I’d never met, but felt as if I already knew, were sitting at a round table having a conversation. They stopped when they saw me. They all stared. I was scared.
The nurse who I had told to go fuck herself so many times apparently didn’t take my advice, and was sitting in the corner. She smiled when she saw me and offered her chair. I apologized to her in my head. She wasn’t that bad and I didn’t really want her to go to hell, or to fuck herself, unless she was into that stuff I guess.
I sat down and they continued to stare at me. The man supervising the group asked me to introduce myself. I did. Then he asked us to take turns thinking of positive words to describe ourselves using each letter of the alphabet. I got “B.” I said Bootylicious. Everyone laughed, including the nurse. Even I smiled.
It was good to see people with crying induced swollen eyes laugh. I think it took down the swelling.
There were four of us in the group. There was Mary, a school teacher whose husband had just left her. Gary, who recently lost his food truck business but promised me that as soon as he got it back I could have free gyros for life.
And then there was Rose.
Rose had cerebral palsy and was having a hard time coping with its restrictions. She was about my age, and wanted us to know that just because she had this disability, it did not mean she was a bad person.
Rose cried during our group session that night, and we all cried with her.
Later, I went to bed feeling conflicted, and alive, and weird. I was here for a reason, and even if that reason was somewhat selfish and was to meet others who were also having a hard time, and to in turn become grateful for my own life, it was a good enough reason for me. When the nurse came in around midnight to take my blood, I let her. I even said thank you.
I spent the next day with Rose and Mary. Rose told me how she wished she was as beautiful as I was. Mary reminded me that I was so young and the world was my oyster. Rose said she wished she could have hair like mine, so I gave her my shampoo. Mary spoke of her children and cried, Rose and I sat there and listened. Rose was worried we wouldn’t want to be near her because we would catch her disability, so Mary and I hugged her.
That night at group session, we had a few more laughs. I made sure to leave the door to my room open again for Carol. She still hadn’t said anything, but I knew she could hear us, and I hoped that might make her stop crying at least. I learned she had just lost a child. I didn’t hate her anymore. She was hurting, not insane. Everyone around me was just a little tiny bit lost, and needed to be here to be just a little tiny bit found.
And I was one of them.
I was discharged on a Sunday. The doctor said he had never discharged anyone on a weekend before, but he thought I didn’t really need to stay. He told me he laughed when the nurse told him I had requested a mirror so I could put on my mascara and actually thought I was allowed a razor in a psych ward to shave my legs. He said he hoped this experience had been at least a little worth my while, and I told him he had no idea.
That weekend taught me more than you can imagine. I learned true humility for the first time in my short life. I wasn’t allowed a mirror. I wasn’t allowed the privacy of showering without a nurse present. All I could do was think and reflect and learn.
Most of all, it reminded me of how precious and delicate life really is. Even now, as I type, I am reminded of Rose having a hard time using her fingers to turn the pages of a book.
I think of this time often, especially when I start to get down on myself, and the self loathing is setting in. And even though I have grown so much over the past seven years and learned to cope with tragedy and heartache, I know it is very easy to go back to that place of hopelessness.
Never more so than now, as I am struggling once again. I was sent to that place that weekend because I felt lost and was searching for something. And as I sit here now and write these words, I find myself wandering once more.
Unemployment had taken a toll on my psyche, and if you have ever been there, you can relate. I can’t really compare the two times in my life, because they are very different, and I, as a person, am very different now than I was at age 23. But, the underlying theme remains. Sometimes it takes a weekend without a mirror to remind you of all the things you DO have and can see, rather than the ones you don’t.
At the same time, however, I have slowly started to notice the tiny bits of judgement rolling in due to my prolonged unemployed state. Hell, I judge myself, so I don’t blame anyone, because I damn sure know what it feels like to judge something blindly. And I do it, I’ve done it, and I will do it again.
But, just as I was stripped of my freedom one weekend in 2007 and forced to re-evaluate and move forward, here I am now, stripped of a job (and arguably some dignity) and forced to find a new path. But that’s okay, too. I will never know what something feels like until I am there. As a human, it’s easy to be condescending, and I would be prone to judge and look down on people without jobs, calling them “bums” or “lazy shits,” just as I looked to Rose and Mary and Gary and Carol as psychos, until that moment around a table when we were equals.
I’m grateful for that time in my life. Just as I know I will be grateful for this time in my life. I’ll get through it, because that’s just what I do. I understand any judgement, that’s the natural human condition to do so. But for me, I’ll try to be more careful now. You never know, one day I may again find myself in a room full of crazies—and I might be one of them.