Beneath the question asking about my symptoms, I write the letter “S” and pause.
There are people standing behind me waiting to fill out similar questionnaires, but I don’t want any of them to see me write the word I intend to write. I freeze. I’m hunching over the tall desk, staring at the questions I still have to fill out. A man accidentally bumps into me as he reaches for his own paper of personal, pre-triage questions. The little, yellow pencil in my hand doesn’t have an eraser so there’s no turning back. Or is there?
After the “S,” I scribble down “-everely depressed” with my left hand cupping my fudged answer.
I place the paper right-side-down on the stack of others in the queue. As Ellen Degeneres dances on the small box television bracketed in the corner of the room, I lay my head on Steve’s shoulder.
They call my name, but I don’t want to get up. “Do you want me to go with you?” Steve asks.
I lift my head and open my eyes. “No, I’ll be okay,” I say and immediately regret.
A man asks me run-of-the-mill medical questions, but I can’t really hear anything he’s saying. Every noise coming out of his mouth sounds like muffled mumbling. I lean in and interrupted him. “I’m suicidal,” I whisper.
He doesn’t say anything and instead seizes the phone and dials a number. No one answers.
He hangs up the phone, picks it up again, and dials the same number. I can tell because his hand makes the same rhythm and motions as it had before.
Someone answers this time. “We’ve got a Code 9,” he says. He mumbles something, nods his head, then slams the receiver on its cradle. He doesn’t look at me and instead stares down at his clasped hands resting near his computer keyboard.
Before I have time to ask what’s going to happen, I’m being whisked away by a nurse. “You have to come with me,” she says. She walks so fast; I can’t keep up. I haven’t really slept in days, and I don’t feel like walking fast. “Honey, you’ve got to walk faster,” she says.
I turn my head over my shoulder, while still trying to maintain speed. I see Steve’s silhouette in the waiting room, his back lit by the overhead fluorescents and the sunlight coming in through the big windows. The hallway I’m walking down is dim, and I can’t really see his face. I reach out my hand for him, but he’s 20 feet away. I drop my arm and my hand hits my thigh in defeat.
They place me in a grey room — with nothing except a plastic chair and a hospital bed — and lock the door. I’m alone, cold, and afraid. I begin to cry.
After ten minutes of perching on the hard chair with my knees to my chest and my arms wrapped around, a nurse comes in. She tells me to strip down in front of her and put on a hospital gown. According to her, it’s protocol for them to see me naked so they can see whether I’ve lied to them about hurting myself.
So there I am: stripped of my clothes as well any sliver of self-worth I had left.
They take all of my belongings away. They say it’s because they have to go through my purse and write down every item inside. They take my wallet, my keys, my passport. They take my cell phone. They even take my bra, afraid I might hang myself with it.
A different nurse comes in to take my vitals — a man this time. I ask him if I can see Steve, and he says I can. Elated, I tell him where he is. The nurse says he’ll get him right away.
I have no concept of time in this room. The walls are bare, and there’s no clock. There is, however, a quarter dome safety mirror mounted in the corner and a small, but thick, glass window with wire mesh that nurses peer in every five or so minutes.
I sit on the twin-sized hospital bed and stare at my convex reflection.
I’m lonely sans the privacy.
It feels as if an hour has passed without actually talking to anyone. Thoughts are racing through my head. “I don’t actually want to hurt myself,” I tell myself. “I just wish I were dead.”
Finally, a third nurse comes in. I ask her if the male nurse from before found Steve. She says she doesn’t know because a shift change just occurred and any nurse I spoke to before is gone for the night.
“Did she just say night?” I ask myself internally before asking her if I can see Steve. She nods her head yes and leaves.
Again, I wait. I wonder if I’ll ever get out of here.
Finally, Steve is at the door. We’ve both been crying, but now we’re both smiling. Tears fall down my face as we embrace.
“I don’t think they’re going to let me out of here,” I whisper.
“No matter what happens, everything’s going to be okay,” he says.
A social worker walks in and asks Steve to leave. We both look at each other, and another tear rolls down my cheek. After he closes the door behind him, she asks if he’s ever abused me, physically or emotionally. I gasp and tell her, “Of course not.” She leans in and raises an eyebrow. I’m appalled. “No,” I say. “He’s never hurt me.” After a few more questions, she tells me I’m to be admitted to the hospital, hands me a pamphlet, then leaves.
With Steve back in the room, we read the pamphlet together. It says the average stay in the psychiatric ward is five to seven days, but some patients stay up to a month.
Another male nurse enters the room with a wheelchair. He says it’s time to go.
Steve hugs me tighter than ever before.
The nurse wheels me through a myriad of halls, up walkways, to an elevator. We ride the elevator up a few floors in silence. We travel through more halls, and finally, through a set of two, thick grey doors. As we pass through the second, he puts the brakes on my wheelchair and leaves.
A man wearing a plain blue t-shirt and elastic-waist hospital pants walks toward me down the hallway. He’s holding his arms as he says, “You’re gonna wish you never came here.”
A woman peers out of a hospital room, her fingers wrapped around the door frame. She looks straight at me. This starts a domino effect and soon, four more pairs of eyes are peering at me from their respective doorways.
A nurse appears from behind me and she asks me to follow her. I get up from the wheelchair and we walk past a young woman, maybe in her early 20s. She’s wearing the same blue t-shirt and hospital pants. Her hair is a tangled, frizzy mess and her eyes are some of the saddest I’ve seen. She walks with a slouch while staring at the floor; she’s hunched over so much, her knuckles almost touch the floor.
The nurse and I walk into an interview room. She asks me the same questions every nurse before her has asked me.
“Who the fuck is Elizabeth?” a voice from the hallway yells.
“Oh no,” I whisper to the nurse. She’s typing my information into a laptop and disregards my quiet distress.
A muffled, female voice responds to the first voice, but I can’t understand what she says.
“I can’t really have a roommate right now,” the first voice says. “This isn’t fair.”
The nurse continues typing away, ignoring the happenings just a few feet away on the other side of the door. I ask her what time it is. “It’s almost midnight,” she says as reaches under the desk. She hands me two blue shirts and a toothbrush.
She walks me down a hallway and motions to a room. Beneath the room number, 221, is a nicely written “Ophelia,” and beneath that, a scribbled “Elizabeth.”
Ophelia introduces herself and tells me she’s been here for three days, and that it’s not her first time. She tells me she’s from New Jersey — her accent confirms that. She says she has bipolar disorder, but she stopped taking medication because she “got knocked up” by her boyfriend.
“I guess we’ll get married,” she says while smiling. “But I don’t really love him.”
There are two plain-looking armoires in the room. Ophelia’s claimed the one on the right. I decide not to change into a blue t-shirt quite yet, so I throw them in the one on the left.
The bed I’m sitting on is more like a thin mattress atop a pine box. The white hospital blankets are scratchy. Ophelia won’t stop talking.
I close my eyes and turn my body away from her. There’s no way I can sleep, but I force myself into trying.
I’m still awake, staring at the ceiling. There’s a thin strip of light shining through one of the broken blinds. It’s not direct, so I figure my room isn’t facing east. I wonder which direction it is facing. I close my eyes and finally drift off.
BZZZT. “Attention, patients. It’s 7 o’clock,” says a crackly voice through a loudspeaker on the wall that I hadn’t noticed before. “Breakfast will be served momentarily.”
Turning over to look to my left, I see that Ophelia’s bed is made. There’s a light leaking in from the in-room bathroom because the door doesn’t close all the way. She’s singing in there. Her voice bounces off the ceramic tiles.
I get up and go to the left armoire to grab my t-shirts. I hadn’t noticed it last night, but there’s a message scrawled on the back. In jagged, black letters, it says, “LET ME OUT.” I touch the words with my hands to see if it’s written with eyeliner. It’s smooth though; it must have been written with some kind of marker.
BZZZT. “Attention, patients. Breakfast has arrived on the unit,” the crackly voice says; I jump. “Breakfast … has arrived … on the unit.”
Ophelia’s still in the bathroom, so I decide to quickly change my top. I still don’t have a bra, so I put on both t-shirts.
Not feeling up for food, I lay back down. I must have drifted off again because a few minutes later I awake to Ophelia setting my tray of food on my desk. “Rise and shine, sleepyhead,” she says. “Do you want to go to group?”
I don’t know what that means, and I don’t really care to ask. I shake my head and say, “No, thank you.”
BZZZT. The crackly voice starts up again. “Attention, patients. Groups are starting now,” it says. “If you opt out of group, you must stay in your room until it’s over.” The voice says something about art therapy and yoga. And, I swear, it repeats the options and their respective room locations three times.
“I’m going to art,” Ophelia says. “See you later.” She leaves but she doesn’t close the door behind her, so I shut it.
A few minutes later, a male nurse comes by, opens the door, and props it open.
I fall back asleep.
It’s night time now. I’m happy. Steve is coming to visit. I was able to speak to him briefly using one of three phones mounted on a wall in one of the hallways after lunch. I had just enough time to relay the visiting hours, request he bring me a sports bra (to be approved by a nurse), and tell him I love him.
I can see his face through the thick, glass window on one of the grey doors. They’re checking his ID while he leaves his phone and keys in a locker.
Tears fall as we walk toward each other and hug. I notice he doesn’t have a bag with him, and I start to cry even harder. “Where’s my bra?” I ask through tears. He tells me he was in such a rush to get up to the psychiatric ward, that he forgot the plastic bag of my bra and some other allowed clothing items in the car. “I’m so sorry,” he says. “I asked them when I was back there if I could bring it up to you after visiting hours, and they said yes.” I breathe a sigh of relief.
I show him to the room. Ophelia has a visitor, too — her boyfriend. They laugh and tell jokes while they sit on her bed. Steve and I stare at each other in silence for awhile. We hear someone yell and cry in another room.
“I don’t want to be here,” I tell him quietly.
“You’re stronger than you think,” he says.
Ophelia looks over. “That’s so sweet. Did you hear that?” she asks her boyfriend. “He told her she’s stronger than she thinks.”
BZZZT. “Attention, patients,” the crackly voice says over the intercom. “Visiting hours are now over.”
It’s time for Steve to go, but he assures me he’ll bring my bag of belongings up to the ward as soon as possible.
About thirty minutes later, a nurse brings me a paper bag. She tells me they had to transfer all of the clothes out of the plastic bag because plastic bags aren’t allowed. I seize the paper bag from her. Inside is a bra, a few pairs of underwear and socks, two pairs of sweatpants, and two t-shirts. One of the shirts is Steve’s. I put it on. I’ve never been so grateful for street clothes.
I fall asleep with ease.
After breakfast, I sit back on the bed. A woman comes in and says she’s a doctor. She asks me questions I’d been asked a million times in the past 48 hours. I tell her the same answers I’ve given everyone else. She asks about my childhood, my solo move to New York, and my current financial problems. I lay everything out on the table for her.
After awhile, she tells me I have depression and generalized anxiety disorder, and that the two go hand in hand. She explains that my anxiety makes me feel a loss of control of my life, which in turn makes me depressed, and that the cycle had spiraled. After she writes down all of my information, she tells me she’s going to prescribe me some medication. She gets up to leave. Before she exits, she turns her head over her shoulder and says, “You should really socialize and go to group.”
At this point, I’ve definitely had enough of this place and I want to get out as soon as possible. Maybe if I do what the nurses and doctors want me to do, they’ll let me out of here.
BZZZT. “Attention, patients. Groups are starting now,” the crackly voice says. “If you opt out of group, you must stay in your room until it’s over.” The groups today are art therapy and tai chi.
I like art.
It only takes me five minutes to see that the “art instructor” is nothing but a babysitter who sees to it that we don’t stab ourselves with a pair of safety scissors. We have two options: fashion a tree out of a paper bag, or decoupage tissue paper onto a balloon. I sit in silence.
After a minute or so of rifling through her desk drawers, the art instructor finds two postcards that are made for coloring. A young guy claims the one with sharks on it. I request the other one. The desert scene reminds me of New Mexico, even though it features an armadillo and two saguaro cacti — things that aren’t actually found there. I smile anyway because it’s better than paper trees, decoupaged balloons, and sharks.
As I reach for a green colored pencil, a teenage girl sitting next to me points to my two nose rings. “It’s so unfair that they let you keep yours in,” she says. “They made me take mine out and now I’m afraid it’s going to close up.”
I keep coloring.
As group time comes to a close, I’m still not finished coloring my armadillo. I ask if I can take some colored pencils back to my room. After the art instructor says no, I bargain and ask about markers. I get shot down again.
After group, it’s time for lunch. I’m not allowed to be a vegan while I’m here. And even then, the vegetarian options are limited. I take the lid off my plate and see it’s a salad with shredded cheddar cheese sprinkled on top.
That evening, I go to another group. This one is called “Dealing with Anxiety.” When the group leader introduces himself as Steve, a sharp pain jolts through my chest. I look at his name tag to see that his name is spelled with a ‘ph’ and not a ‘v.’ I take a deep breath.
Stephen explains to the group that he’s suffered from anxiety before. In the middle of his story, an older woman with wide eyes and unkempt hair starts yelling. “This is bullshit! I don’t want to be here,” she says. “I fucking hate all of you. You’re all crazy!” She’s waving her arms around and it looks like she may hit someone.
Stephen pushes a red button on the wall and two male nurses arrive in the span of a few seconds. They escort her out of the room as she screams.
I open my eyes to see my breakfast tray sitting on my desk. I walk out into the hall to look at the clock. I’ve slept in until 10 o’clock. I must have slept through the BZZZZTs and the crackly voice.
I eat a banana and go back to sleep.
An hour or so later, I awake to the doctor in my room. She’s wrapping up with Ophelia. “Oh, Elizabeth, you’re awake. Good,” she says to me. “Let’s go in the lounge and talk.”
Sitting on the couch, she tells me that she’s glad I’ve been participating in group activities and socializing. She asks me if I want to go home.
“That would be great,” I say, trying not to sound too excited.
“Okay,” she says. “I’ll get all of your paperwork together. You can probably go home around 3 this afternoon, but first, you have to do an exit interview with a nurse and whoever is going to pick you up from the hospital.”
I’m so excited, I may cry. I call Steve from one of the three hall phones. He’s excited as I am.
For the next couple of hours, I walk aimlessly in the halls and pace in the bedroom. I’m badgering nurses, asking them if my paperwork is all set and ready to go and when my exit interview will be. One of them hands me an anonymous survey to fill out on my time here in the psych ward.
Back in the room, I mark the answer to every question as unsatisfactory. Bed? Unsatisfactory. Lounge area? Unsatisfactory. Food? Unsatisfactory. Group activities? Unsatisfactory.
Unsatisfactory. Unsatisfactory. Unsatisfactory.
Finally, I’m told it’s time for my exit interview. I can see Steve’s face through the thick, glass window again. I smile.
We walk into an interview room with a nurse who I’ve never seen before. She has a stack of papers in her hand.
She asks Steve questions; she asks me questions. Then she asks Steve how he thinks I’m doing after being in the ward. “Perfect,” he says bluntly.
“Perfect?” she repeats.
“I think she’s doing perfect,” he says.
After being interrogated for a while longer, I’m free to go. Steve gathers his wallet and phone from the locker, and we go through the double grey doors.
We run down the hallways and to the elevator. We run down more hallways. We run out the door. It’s brisk outside and I’m not wearing a jacket. We run to the parking garage. We run so fast and so hard, I start to giggle.
We get in the car. Even though I’m smiling, I cry on Steve’s shoulder for a long time.
He hands me my cell phone. This is probably the longest I’ve been without it. I have dozens of text messages, missed calls, and notifications.
Most of my texts are from Steve.
“I knew you couldn’t see these, but I just had to keep messaging you,” he says. “I missed you so much.”
I smile through the tears.
After more hugging, Steve starts the car and we drive home.