I had never been in a wheelchair before.
My mom likes to talk about our trip to Seattle, when I was five, and how I complained about walking the entire time. As a child, I liked to be carried. I have fond memories of pretending to fall asleep on the couch so my dad would carry me to bed. I’m not sure how often he actually bought it.
Apparently, hospitals have some strange protocol where every patient admitted has to be wheeled in, regardless of the ailment that brings them there. I wondered if having the kind of depression where I was scared to be in a room alone meant that at any moment, my legs would give out and I’d lose the ability to walk. In a weird way I hoped so, because at least that way it would be easier to lie to the people at school when they asked me why I had missed so much class.
“I have a rare disease,” I’d say. “My legs don’t work anymore, and yes, that means I’m going to have to sit out of P.E. for eternity.”
Even that would probably make more sense to my classmates than, “Well, I just don’t really feel like waking up anymore.” Or, “I don’t sleep well because I’m always crying.” Or, “No, it’s not like hitting bottom, it’s like free-falling and hating everyone and feeling unworthy all at the same time.”
I couldn’t help but feel pretty ridiculous, being wheeled into an inpatient psych ward by a buff male nurse (if his name wasn’t Brad, it should have been), who probably thought I just wanted attention, that my parents were overinvolved and far too nervous, and if I just stopped reading so many damn books that are so damn depressing I’d be fine.
Suddenly “Brad” turned into the girls I called my friends, whose slumber parties I stopped attending because I couldn’t bear to realize, over and over, how beautiful they were and how beautiful I wasn’t. And then “Brad” became Richard, my ex-boyfriend, who when I told I didn’t want to exist anymore looked at me annoyed because I had interrupted his “like, fourth favorite Radiohead song of all time.”
“Brad” was on the fast track to becoming not a favorite of mine, to say the least.
Luckily, once I reached my room and he walked beyond a pair of double doors that only he and other employees had the key to, he disappeared from my life for the next week. Just like my friends, and Richard, and school, and all that. I was glad to see him go.
Looking at the common area, I instantly felt sick. Some teenagers appeared to be coloring at a table, and a TV was blasting America’s Funniest Home Videos. The tile was probably white at some point in time, maybe, and the couch wasn’t really a couch at all, if a couch is to be defined as comfortable whatsoever.
My parents’ faces had the same grim look I imagine mine reflected, and a nurse showed me to my bedroom.
The walls were striped, and I would spend a good amount of the next week wondering if they were light blue with dark blue stripes or dark blue with light blue stripes. When the nurse told me I wouldn’t be having a roommate I almost grabbed her by her paunch and kissed her.
There was a small bathroom attached to the bedroom, which I was pleased by until I turned on the light. Written in red on the mint green tile was the word “HELP,” and it almost felt too clichéd to be real. I looked at the mirror (or rather, piece of cardboard with some sort of reflective paper glued to it—we weren’t trusted near glass) and someone had written “Fear Pain And Death Not Cuz Da Devil Bless.”
It came time to say goodbye to my parents and once they too disappeared behind those double doors I instantly regretted everything in my life leading up to that moment. Maybe I’m not actually depressed. Maybe I just needed a wake up call, and boy, was this certainly it. Really, I can go now. Please take me home now.
But it was done. They took my vital signs, confiscated the ballpoint pens I brought, and, once they saw I had my belly button pierced, asked about my sexual history. I didn’t even have time to be offended, because they then told me it was time to join the others, the part of this whole thing I was dreading the most.
I looked at my peers. If this had been the beginning of a baseball movie, and I was the weathered coach brought in to lead the team to victory, I would turn to my colleague and say, “You expect me to win with these clowns?” Nevertheless, I took inventory.
There were a few girls close to my age, but I was pretty sure I didn’t have much in common with them. Haley had lips that always appeared bruised and she spent her time coloring (despite being sixteen). If she talked much, I didn’t know, because her voice was basically inaudible.
Brandy was the real charmer. She often talked about drowning kittens and watching the bubbles come up and all the sex she liked to have and all the people she liked to have sex with. How much of what she said that was made up to shock people, I could never tell. I do know that she told me she wanted to break my arm when I showed her how it hyperextended, so I didn’t really challenge her on much.
There was Jason, the funny guy who took a bottle of Ibuprofen in what he admitted to being a “half-assed suicide attempt,” and there was Larry, quiet and Hispanic and bi-polar, who had been here before. And there was Austin, the white supremacist, who had been here seven times before.
Joseph was instantly my favorite, probably because he seemed the most normal. He had been admitted a few hours prior to me, and he had stitches on the side of his eye. We exchanged glances, realizing that we were going to be stuck playing Uno with these lunatics for the foreseeable future. I sat next to him silently, hoping he needed an ally like I did.
I was looking forward to my first private session with my doctor, who by some stroke of luck turned out to look just like Wesley Snipes in Blade. Imagining Dr. Melbrook fighting off vampires in a black trench coat comforted me more than I think I’d like to admit.
He asked why I was here. I said I’ve been depressed. He asked why. I said I no longer felt a desire to live anymore. He asked why again.
And that was a good question, wasn’t it?
Sure, school was stressful and I had stopped writing, seemingly inexplicably. Sure, I had recently been broken up with for the very first time, and sure it made me feel worse about myself than I had ever anticipated. And sure, no one really seemed to listen to me, and I hated my body, and I was genetically pre-disposed to mental illness, and I identified with Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton to an embarrassing degree, and sure, I wasn’t sleeping.
None of these things seemed, to me, like good enough reasons to give to a doctor. But at the same time, no one had been able to give me a good enough reason to keep waking up each day.
Dr. Melbrook ended the session with an assignment that involved making a list of everything that I liked about myself, something several doctors had asked me to do before, and an assignment I had never actually completed. He started me on a pretty high dose of Effexor XR and trazadone. When I reentered the common room, I brought a book with me.
God bless The Great Gatsby, my shield against these demons.
At the end of each night, we would all gather around and say what we accomplished that day and what our goals were for tomorrow. Everyone said the same thing, “My goal is to open up to my doctor.”
It all felt very rehearsed and Ruthie, the night nurse, wrote down our goals with the air of somebody who knows they’re going to write the exact same thing the next night. And the next.
Ten o’clock was bedtime, and I was relieved. It was a little disconcerting when I realized the security camera in the corner of the wall followed me when I walked, but I couldn’t afford to be too bothered by it. My sheets were paper-thin and with the help of my new medication, I fell asleep quickly.
Waking up to a nurse taking blood from my arm without notifying me first is not one of my favorite memories. Waking up, period, in what felt like a blue cage and realizing where I was is one of the worst sensations I’ve ever experienced.
I thought back to when the idea to admit me to the hospital was first brought up. It hadn’t sounded absolutely terrible. I recalled movies and books where women with the sort of sadness that makes you pretty would be admitted to these places where they could “rest”. I imagined myself in some sort of wrap or robe, walking across the facility’s “grounds,” learning to appreciate the way birds sing and how green everything is. I imagined myself talking to a doctor who looked like Freud in a grand office with wooden paneling, and on the final day we’d have an amazing breakthrough, and I wouldn’t want to die anymore.
Of course there was a part of me, even mid-fantasy, that knew this was ridiculous. But I was not anticipating anything near what I got, either.
A pretty big percentage of adolescents who are hospitalized are court mandated to be. Most of the guys are there for anger management, and several of them arrive in a cop car. As a result, it didn’t really feel like a psych ward at all most of the time, but a disciplinary center where we were all expected to “shape up”, or something.
Beds had to be made by nine o’clock on weekdays, ten o’clock on the weekends. If you requested to lie down or take a nap, you could, but you were essentially quarantined in your bedroom for the entire day in case you were sick. The hospital staff was not interested in humoring anyone’s delicate artistic temperament, and using curse words got you in major trouble. We walked in single file lines and if you broke any rules you were sent to bed early an hour at a time.
But the scariest part of the whole thing was the Shot.
Sometimes, patients don’t want to be admitted. During my third day there, a little blond boy named Russell arrived. My room was across the hall from the “Calm Room,” a concrete cell with a single mat inside. The Calm Room existed for kids like Russell, who kicked and screamed and by any means were not going to cooperate. When kids like Russell don’t cooperate, they get the Shot, which is exactly what it sounds like, sedation forced into the body through a syringe.
I heard him screaming from my room, and then it faded out. I knew they had tranquilized him, and I couldn’t help but feel bad for the kid. A certain strain of sympathy, or even camaraderie, eventually grows between everyone once you resign yourself to it. Even me, who everyone thought was a stuck up suck up, mostly because I had never been suspended from school.
I learned that Larry smoked a lot of weed.
“Yo, Abby, you ever smoke?” he asked me.
“Yeah, my friends and I smoke a little.”
Overconfident over the fact that we finally had some common ground I added, “It was actually really funny this one time. We all smoked and my friend Kelly, you know the type, always baking, made us all a cake. And like hours passed and we finally asked her what happened and she realized she had never turned the oven on.”
I looked at him expectantly, but instead of the roar of laughter I was hoping for, he just said: “Man, white people are weird.”
Which is honestly how most of my interactions with Larry went.
Haley was in a “relationship” with Jason, a phenomenon that happens more than you’d think in psych wards. It’s actually sort of impressive, because we weren’t allowed to write notes to each other, exchange any information like last names or addresses, and we weren’t even allowed to touch each other (we started high-fiving each other, stopping a millimeter before contact, because we were sixteen and smartasses).
I only started to feel comfortable when Joseph opened up.
Joseph turned out to be one of the funniest people I had ever met, and he made even chicken finger day at the cafeteria feel like an occasion. He told us how he got his stitches, and managed to be lighthearted while telling the story. It turns out he was mugged in a bad part of Columbia.
“He reached into his pocket, and I thought, oh shit, he about to pull out a gun or a knife or somethin’. But nah, you know what this fool pulled out?”
I didn’t. How could I ever know what any fool pulls out during a mugging?
“Man, this fool pulled out rocks! He starting throwin’ rocks at me, y’all.”
And we all laughed. Which made Joseph smile, pleased at the sound of our good humor as his stitches healed. I think, for him, our laughter was part of the process.
We attended “school” which mostly consisted of us reading articles in yellowed issues of the National Geographic and writing corresponding summaries. Haley had taken to writing 3’s in place of E’s, and the part-time teacher seemed to be weighing the pros and cons of quitting her job. I was on my third book that week, JD Salinger’s Nine Stories, when I looked over at Joseph, who was still on the second chapter of Holes, which he had started days ago. Later that night, we played a game of Go Fish, and he looked at me and said “You know, I’m gonna be real sad if I don’t get to hug you before you leave.”
I’m not going to lie; the treatment I underwent (other than medication) was pretty ineffective. I had no breakthroughs, no major realizations about myself. By the time Dr. Melbrook got to me each day, he was tired, and I was simply not his biggest problem. I don’t blame him, either. I had never drowned kittens. I had never been mugged. In other words, I was the least nefarious vampire Blade had to battle that day.
My parents called me at every opportunity, and even made it to the bizarre “family therapy” night, where we all gathered in a circle, patients and parents, and talk about our concerns. I remember exchanging horrified looks with my parents all night, as we were forced to take a glimpse into my peers’ lives at home. It turned out that one girl I had barely spoken to was in here simply because she came out to her parents. Brandy had been in here for a month (an ungodly length of time—to stay for longer than a week was almost unheard of, due to insurance policies). Haley didn’t talk, it was revealed, because her mom never stopped.
Larry’s parents were ten minutes late to the session, and they weren’t allowed in for whatever weird hospital policy reason. We came back to the common room to find the usually half-asleep Larry screaming at one of the nurses, his six-foot frame standing tall, all the tension in his shoulders. For the first time I understood why the cops had escorted him in. He looked like a burning building.
“Let me see my peoples, like seriously, this is fu—!”
“Don’t cuss in front of the kids—“
“To hell with those little kids, man, you know this ain’t fair!”
At this point we were all forced into our rooms while it blew over, and Larry got the Shot. Later that night, when he rejoined us at our table, he started shuffling a deck of cards and just said with a shrug, “They wouldn’t let me see my peoples.”
I wrote letters to my friends, because at the end of the day I was a sixteen year-old girl, and drama sometimes got the best of me.
I found it pretty hard to describe life in the hospital to people who would spend their whole lives without ever stepping foot into a psych ward, and would never have a reason to. When I started trying to explain how excited I was that they started serving curly fries, I gave up.
At that point, I realized I would be getting out. Soon, probably. In the next couple of days, I could watch the TV shows I wanted and listen to music and eat Barberito’s and this whole nightmare would be behind me.
And that was the scary part.
I knew as soon as I crossed the threshold of those double doors, “Brad” would be there waiting for me with a wheelchair. My dad would drive me home, his concerned brown eyes pressing affection into mine, saying without speaking, I knew you’d make it. There’s nothing wrong with you. I love you. There’s nothing wrong with you.
The days before my release, I told Dr. Melbrook that I finally made the list of things I liked about myself. It was a short list, of about three things (my freckles, my ability to listen, my sense of humor), but it was the longest one I had ever made in my life. He looked at it tiredly but still managed to smile, which I imagined took a lot out of him, after a particularly stressful week of vampires who needed slaying, or at very least, sedating.
He told me to take it easy. He told me to maybe quit reading so much Sylvia Plath. And he told me to try to love myself.
Of course, my parents had been telling me to love myself since I was born. Every doctor harped on about it too. I wasn’t going to suddenly not hate my face, or forget how big my thighs had looked, splayed out in the passenger seat, when Richard had broken up with me.
But there was something about tired Dr. Melbrook, who would get to my file at the end of his rounds with a sigh of relief, like he was sitting down for the first time in years, and he was grateful. Somewhat to my surprise I found that for the first time, for him, I wanted to try.
And for that, for him, I am grateful.
A woman was haranguing us about drug use when the nurse came and got me for discharge. Which was almost a shame, because Larry was in the middle of telling the woman that “weed never hurt anybody, man, come on.”
But it was my time, and I stood up to leave. I had seen several people be discharged, and no one ever made a big deal out of it. There would be no great goodbye, where I look at everyone and say what I’ll miss the most about each of them. Instead I just waved once to the room, and turned to leave.
But because drama gets the best of me, I turned around at the last minute and gave Joseph a hug. It was the first real human contact either of us had had in a week, and I told him to stay away from rocks. He gave me a goofy smile, his stitches almost completely healed, and then I left.
I expected “Brad” to be waiting for me, but he wasn’t.
Apparently, they want you to walk out on your own.