Let’s start with the “No”s:
- No hoodies or drawstrings (because both are handy self-hanging equipment).
- No multiple tampons (one at a time, please; theoretically, one could string them together for the most embarrassing self-hanging material ever).
- No personal toiletries (we’ll give you all you need although we are out of lotion and the shampoo will make your scalp itch uncontrollably).
- No backless shoes (we wouldn’t want you to fall over from all the calming conforming meds we plan to give you; no shoestrings either, best stick with the thin cheap puce slipper socks we provide).
- No pencils longer than 3” (yes, we’re talking discarded golf scoring graphite).
- No electronic devices (this includes your Kindle, home of hundreds of books and puzzles and a battery life of several weeks).
- No toilet seats, no fresh fruit, no great outdoors (with the exception of the smoking patio).
- No, no, no.
I was there because of my own stupidity, two days in ICU and a mandated 72 hours in the psych ward. I’m out now. I’d like to say I regret what I did, and I do, but my experience crammed a few years of learning in a few short days and, for that, I am thankful.
It takes about 90 minutes to check into the psych ward: vitals checked, meds inspected, clothing gone through for the aforementioned forbidden items, toiletries and Kindle stored in the Contraband Room.
I’ve never knowingly carried contraband before. I feel empowered.
Orientation takes another half hour though could be pared down to ten minutes tops. “Here’s our common area, here’s the kitchen, here’s your room. This bed is yours as is this lower cabinet space. Bring your bag to the Contraband Room once you unpack.” (Straps and handles.) Pointing to lump on the occupied bed in the room, “This is your roommate, Liz.”
Liz sleeps a lot (meds). She also, as I was soon to discover, snores a very high-pitched snore that is so unlike the just-realized melodious sound that emanates from my husband. Not that I would have slept well there, strange place downtown, sirens and trains wailing throughout the night, and Nurse Ratchett checking our room with a flashlight every hour on the hour, but still.
I’m afraid. I look around for something or someone of interest but find neither. Fronted by 20 vinyl armchairs, the television is the starring attraction in the room. A secret pact demands that nothing but stressful, manufactured drama will ever be shown on the screen. The bookshelves hold two paperbacks, one western pulp suspense/romance and “To Kill a Mockingbird” which I grab. Year-old gossip rags litter the table tops and the work table contains stacks of picture coloring sheets and long colored pencils.
After the inspection and orientation I just received, I realize the inherent danger these pencils foreshadow. In a rage I could stab at least a few inmates with them. Or, more likely, the inmates could hurt me.
The inmates are the real story here. A4, where I am placed, houses a maximum 24 people, all in the same age bracket, some of whom have lived here for months. They’ve all lived here long enough to get the med and lifestyle-induced shuffle. Clonopin, Ambien, Xanax, et al have been dosed with so much frequency that the twice daily med times are the highlight of the day and can’t come soon enough for many.
The oldest by appearance inmate (he could be younger than I, hard lives make old faces) shuffles in a wheel chair I doubt he needs. Just by looking at him, I can tell he can’t find it within himself to stand, much less walk. After all, he only has so many square feet he needs to traverse each day, bed to kitchen to med line to tv to kitchen to med line to bed. He’s eating and breathing and sleeping but he is not alive. If this was a horror movie, and I’m not sure it isn’t, he’d have a hankering for brains.
Second to med time is smoke break. On the psych ward, killing ourselves slowly is allowed.
“Smoke time? Is it smoke time? How much longer to smoke time?”
The announcement made, an attendant grabs a crate of cigarettes from the Contraband Room, places them on a chair, and everyone but I grab one smoke and walk the five feet to the smoking patio. The smoking patio is only a patio because little lines of sunlight and air sneak through the steel plates that surround it. I decide they might as well all smoke in the ward for the gagging secondhand smoke that travels right back indoors. I get a headache that stays with me until hours after I leave.
I’d like to say that the third favorite time is mealtime. After all, at my home, it is an anticipated happy event but not at the psych ward. My first introduction to the “food” here is evening snack time. I see a few inmates shuffle into the kitchen and back out again.
“What’s snack?” “Snowballs, milk, I dunno.”
Curious, I take a look and indeed the table is covered with generic shrink-wrapped pink coconut fake food stuffs. If there was milk, it’s gone now. Even though I haven’t eaten since late morning, I go hungry. I decide I’m on the Psych Ward Food Sucks Diet. Breakfast isn’t much better. The menu says eggs and bacon with Cream of Wheat but I’m having a hard time identifying what is what on my plate. I drink the orange juice and discard the rest.
This diet is awesome!
By now, my headache is much worse due to low blood sugar and my surroundings. Hard-life wheelchair man has been sharpening the colored pencils for 90 minutes. Super Sad lady has been shuffling and sobbing since dawn without interruption and off-his-meds new arrival has been doing push ups and arguing with the wall since last night. I cannot escape to my room as Liz is sleeping (I’ve seen her awake for maybe 45 minutes) and I can’t think over her soprano fog horn. Just when I’m about to cry uncle and ask for my own calming conforming meds, a nurse tells me that Dr Zahar will see me now.
This jerks the sobbing girl from her despair, “Oh, you’ll like him. He’s cute. I always tell him so.”
Dr Zahar was indeed attractive but I spared him that observation. For the nth time since Wednesday morning, I regurgitate what I did, why I did it, how stupid I was to do it, why I am not going to do it again, etc, etc, etc. He seems surprised by my clarity. I half expect him to declare that I’m a real girl and a sane one at that. He looks over the medication prescribed to me and stutters as he exclaims that he would never EVER pair the two meds that the same doctor gave me.
“This could have contributed to your condition, you know.”
At this point, we’re old pals. I share my psych ward observations with him; he volleys with what he has seen at the state hospital. I tell him that I feel as if I don’t belong here and add the bon mot that the following day is my birthday. He then asks me if I’d like to go home. And I do.
If most psych wards are like this, our mentally ill have no hope of recovery and will, like hard-life wheelchair guy, resign themselves to a life of shuffling and meds and no more accomplishment than the pretty cardinal he colored that morning. He never went outside the lines.