“You can wear your own clothes,” says the doctor, “and your roommate will share a closet with you.” I nod, still somewhat numb from hours before. Where is my mind? “You’ll also have to remove your shoelaces and any other strings or belts on your clothes.”
My unlaced Doc Martens flap under my leather pants. I drag my feet a little because it is hard to walk. The doctor swipes a card over a panel by the door—nobody without one can get in or out. Every door, every window, every room is locked.
The hospital walls are pale blue and yellow. There are many armchairs that look comfortable but are in fact rough and filled with air instead of fluff. It’s like sitting on a burlap balloon. I see other people my age and suddenly become very aware of my eyeliner smudged all over my face, my ridiculous unlaced boots, and my baggy leather pants that I put on this morning because I forgot I hate pants. I realize that I don’t care at all.
One girl looks familiar. She gives a little wave and I return it. The day is going by so fast and yet so slow, so I don’t remember whether I know her or not. Is she my friend? Does she go to my school? She looks bored.
I am shown my room, which contains two plain beds with a pale vomit-green quilt and a plastic pillow, and one small desk nailed to the wall. The closet is locked and the window has a layer of glass over the blinds. “So we don’t hang ourselves from it,” a boy tells me later. There are no books or pencils or stuffed animals or pictures. There is no way to tell if someone has lived or is living in this room. I do not like not knowing things.
The girl I know waves me over. “I wouldn’t expect you to be in this kind of hospital,” she says, sounding bored as ever.
“Me neither. About you, I mean.” I have no idea how I know this girl.
“That girl there? She’s pregnant but she tried to OD anyway. That boy stabbed his twin brother.”
“Oh,” I say, not really hearing her. I’m in such a daze that I can’t be fazed.
“That girl there? She’s been here for 27 days.” The day I leave, she’ll have hit 40.
Soon I will find out she has nowhere to go.
“That one with the red shirt just has anger issues or some shit.”
“Oh, OK. Are you guys friends?”
“As good of friends as anyone could be in a place like this,” she says with a bitter laugh. “So, no, but we don’t hate each other or anything.”
On the first day, I learn the rules. No touching anyone, ever, not to brush lint off them or high-five or ANYTHING, but ESPECIALLY no hugging. No stuffed animals in common areas. If you’re a smoker, you don’t get the patch, so watch out for the irritable kids on withdrawal. You get watched in the shower. No using a pen. No having a pen. Don’t disobey the staff. Don’t try to open any doors. No leaving. (Where would you go? There are only three rooms.) Eat your food. No shoelaces. No hanging yourself with the cord on the phone. No throwing things at people, especially tables and chairs. No eating things that aren’t food.
We do “check-in.” The staff describes it as when we all say how our day is going and introduce ourselves to new patients. A fellow patient describes it to me as “We all go around in a circle and say what’s wrong with us and what we did today.” I don’t remember most of the names. I just hear severe OCD, anger management problems, self-harm, homicidal tendencies, PTSD from being raped, drug problems, suicide attempt. The list goes in a circle. Most of them look bored and tired, like they’ve been here far too long. I realize that one girl has not felt the air outside of these three rooms for almost a month. No open windows, no open doors, no going outside.
First night. Roommates with night terrors = being woken up by screaming every five minutes, so that idea I had to get some sleep isn’t really panning out. Besides, there is a man sitting on a chair 10 feet from me, and all the lights are on. That’s how you have to sleep if they think you are a danger to yourself or others. I ask him to turn off one light. I ask to be moved. I asked for a female staff member. But here in the hospital they have better things to worry about, like making sure nobody gets stabbed or something, so my pleas are in vain. I protest by stripping my bed, throwing my mattress onto the floor, and standing on the wooden bed frame, staring the watchman in the eyes for hours on end until his shift is over. The next one arrives and I say nothing; I just stare.
This act of silent opposition is not worth losing sleep, I discover the next morning as I’m struggling to stay awake at breakfast. It’s my first morning at the hospital. I get a slice of burnt bread and a plastic spoon to spread a hunk of butter on it (no knives allowed). I am starving and I devour it, promising myself I’ll try to make the most of this experience. I almost tore my family apart. I owe it to them to get better.
A bulimic boy of about 12 is supervised in the bathroom after breakfast. He comes back and throws up right there in the lunchroom. Right before being hurried away by a team of nurses, the boy takes a moment to give one of the staff members a hard, menacing look that feels like a dare.
“What are you here for?” I ask a girl who earlier refused to tell me her name. Her eyes are very round and give her a permanently surprised expression.
“Homicidal thoughts, self-harm, killing small animals. You?”
I pause to soak that in, then mumble an answer.
“Oh, so just the usual,” she says. “Tons of kids here are just like you. There are only a handful of me here in the nonaggressive unit. I’m a sociopath.”
“Are you really?” I say.
“Yeah. I’ve always wanted to kill, even when I was a kid, so I must be.”
“Do you care about things? About people?” I ask her.
She looks thoughtful for a minute, counting off something on her fingers. “…No, not really. I don’t.”
A few days pass. The girl I know, the bulimic boy, and the self-proclaimed sociopath have all been discharged by now, and there’s “a new batch of psychos,” I hear another patient say under their breath. When one of the new kids arrives it’s clear he’s just been crying. He’s wearing hospital clothes, which is what they give the kids who come directly from a regular medical hospital. Isn’t bloody or obviously drugged up or anything, so people whisper about what on earth he was doing in a regular hospital.
“I tried to jump off a bridge.”
I am silent and look down. The boy is about my age and when he says this I can hear the shame in his voice—not for trying, but for failing.
“I tried,” he continues. “It didn’t work. The police found me standing up there and grabbed me when my back was turned.”
“Why do you hate life so much?” asks a staff member. For some reason, this question fills me with rage. She obviously doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
“I don’t hate life,” the boy says through his teeth. “I hate mine. The purpose of life is to be happy. I am not, so I have no purpose.”
“Actually, the purpose of life is to reproduce,” says another kid, probably thinking she’s clever.
“Well, I can’t do that either,” he says. “I’m trans.”
There’s a silence, and then a pregnant girl who can’t be older than 14 says, “What is trans?”
I talk to my therapist and my psychiatrist and my doctor and my social worker. I tell them how I’m doing, and since I’ve been here (and therefore not school) for a week, I can honestly report that I’m doing well. I haven’t tried anything they’d worry about and I’ve been sleeping well. I’ve eaten at every meal and talked in group therapy. I’ve called my friends.
I talk to Mancala about Zach the Boyfriend all the time. He talks to me about his ex who he’s still in love with. Mancala is the boy who tried to jump off a bridge. I call him that because that’s the game we play together—we like it because it is mindless so we can talk without being written up for suspicious behavior. He has on pink pajama pants, the only clothes his family would give him. “They think that if I wear pink I’ll be a girl somehow. It’ll give me an epiphany or something.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“It’s OK. My name’s legally changed and I’ve started testosterone, so maybe when I look more the part they’ll understand.” I hope he’s right. Mancala is a good person and it’s horrible to see good people in bad situations.
“Hi, Zach,” I say brightly on the phone every day. Zach the Boyfriend is my most frequent call. I take up the one patient phone for about an hour once or twice an afternoon to talk to him, and it’s a relief to speak to someone without worrying what notes they’re taking on you, or whether they think you’re crazy. He already knows that I am and he seems pretty OK with it.
Some people make it all about them, treating my hospitalization like an act of betrayal against them personally, asking why I don’t call more, they need me to call more. Making me feel guilty for focusing on myself during my treatment. Getting angry with me when I can’t emotionally handle a conversation with them. But others pass the phone around the room and say hello and act normal and say they miss me and they are glad I’m OK. We will see each other soon; it was really good to talk to you, I miss you, I don’t know how you are surviving in there without music; we wish we could visit you. Oh, and by the way, so-and-so broke up with him!
I know I have a strong support system back home. I change my medication to something that will hopefully work for me (and I try one that goes very wrong). My dad visits me every day and once he brings my siblings.
I look out the window and long for fresh air. I hope I can check out the radio for my room later tonight because I heard it’s ’90s week on 95.5. I haven’t listened to music in a week and a half. The numbness in my head seems to have cleared and is replaced by homesickness, which I think is a good sign.
I care about things.
I wear sweatpants and Sketchers. I feel slovenly. I can’t wait to go back to eyeliner and hair conditioner and skirts.
It’s finally my last day. It’s been postponed but now it’s day 13 and I can finally leave this place. I can go back to fresh air and my friends and food that wasn’t frozen several times. I can drink something that isn’t milk. I can take my meds in the morning without waiting in a humiliating line and having to open my mouth for the nurse to check that I’m not hiding anything.
I say goodbye to Mancala.
“Don’t hug him,” a staff member who says “fustrated” instead of “frustrated” warns.
I give a final goodbye to the group and walk out the doors with my dad and the escort who has the power to open doors. I feel new air that I haven’t felt in two weeks. The world is so bright. I am going to the partial program from 8 to 2 tomorrow, and I’m going to be getting more help. I don’t mind. I can’t wait to go home. ♦