By Will Thames
So you’ve found yourself in a mental hospital. Learn from my mistakes and pack your own reading material
My own encounter with a bonafide, legitimate, Girl-Interrupted psych ward happened in the deep winter of 2016. I hadn’t planned on spending the weekend interred. I had groceries to buy, laundry to catch up on, a life to live.
Not that I had been living well. In the months preceding my 72 hour hospital stay, the thin veil between my private and public thoughts had begun to tear. No- not just tear. Splinter and implode. Suffering from what I would later discover to be an untreated Borderline Personality Disorder, my moods controlled everything. Mania for 7 minutes while I brushed my teeth, depression for 10 minutes by the time coffee hit cup. Months spent on this veritable rollercoaster does a body (and mind) poorly. The notches I’d accrued on my arm were a testament to my unwillingness to face this reality. With a swift stroke of a pair of scissors, the pain was real enough to understand. A cut on the skin is easier to treat than the messy knot of confusion and fear that held my mind like a vice.
It wasn’t that I wanted to die, so much as cease existing. Even for an hour or two. But death is not an off-switch. Not how the movies make it look. Easy, like letting go.
I had toed the lines of suicide in my thoughts before, but in the days preceding my mental break, the frequency at which I’d wonder if the world needed me was increasing at a scary rate.
The day I entered the hospital started as routinely as any other. Routine for me, at least.
7 minutes of mania and anxiety upon waking, 12 minutes of depression, followed by a half hour of manic fidgeting through breakfast. My thoughts raced farther ahead than I could reach, only to plummet the second I’d get a firm grip. It wasn’t even noon before the anxiety became frustration, the frustration became despair, and the despair became... something beyond words. Something subterranean and inhuman.
Driving to school, I recall the distinct feeling that nothing around me was real. The barren trees I passed were no more material than if I were viewing them on a screen. Sounds came at me as though underwater, indistinct and fuzzy. The rising sun void of meaning and light.
Listening to music helped. The louder and faster the better. I challenge anyone to feel like dying during the final chorus of “Slave 4 U”.
Other last-resort anthems included “Green Light” “Cosmic Love” and anything by Missy Elliot. On a separate note- if I ever see Missy Elliot on the sidewalk, I’m gonna give her a massive hug. She probably won’t get it, but I’ll know.
That day, I held it together for a while. To my credit, I maintained eye contact and laughed on cue when friends cracked jokes. Not contributing, not participating, I moved from class to class, feeling my resolve weaken and splinter with every passing minute.
By two, I was alone, changing for ballet, and realizing I wasn’t going to make it. Something in my gut screamed for release. I wanted to run, to sprint for the trees and never come back. I’d experienced that visceral feeling only once before while watching the film version of Les Mis. Anyone curious about the subtle nuances of despair need only white-knuckle it through Russell Crowe’s “Stars.” Not the whole thing, two minutes tops will do the job.
Staring at my reflection in the dressing room mirrors, I knew gritting my teeth through 2 hours of ballet would only make it worse. The iron band around my temples tightened. If I was going to implode, I’d do it in private like a proper American.
As I shoved my clothes into my backpack and barreled out the door, I caught the eyes of friends. Regarding me with the vague concern one reserves for lost puppies, they asked where I was going. Why was I skipping class? Was I okay? I mumbled something affirmative as I pushed past them and went out the door.
Just get to the car, I told myself. You can give in when you’re alone. That was the deal.
My hands on the steering wheel again, I was at a loss of where to go. My house would do, but the thought of being alone with myself made my skin crawl. I could have gone to a restaurant, thrown myself from the nearest bridge, danced naked in the street, or sat in my car for a few more hours. It wasn’t until my phone was pressed to my ear and ringing, that I’d realized I’d done what had seemed impossible.
I called my mom.
At the sound of her voice, the stainless steel shell I’d fashioned for myself began to crack. The fissure was big enough to tell her what I’d been feeling - what I wanted to do.
I remember nothing of the drive to the hospital- only that my mother stayed on the line with me the whole commute. I hung up as I parked, promising to call as soon as I was able.
She said ‘I love you’ as I walked through the emergency room doors.
Getting into a psych ward proved both easy as waiting, and as difficult as counting sheep when you’re deathly afraid of counting AND sheep.
Still underwater, I approached the front desk and stated my case. Explained my thoughts just as I’d done for my mom. Procedural and matter-of-fact. I think I even forced a chuckle for the receptionist. What a fraud I was. Am?
The receptionist directed me to the first of many waiting rooms. The first being for families waiting to hear back on loved ones undergoing risky surgeries. There was a mother with two small children asking after her husband’s process. A tired looking nurse rattled off medical jargon as though she severely needed a drink.
While I waited, I called my roommates and my boyfriend. They promised to come see me when class ended. The same class I had literally run from.
After an hour in waiting room number one, I was escorted past a locked door into a private room. IV and human skeleton included. The skeleton was wheeled away upon my arrival and I wished they’d left it there. It would have made for a more amusing sight. My friends would come to visit to find me and my new best friend slumped against me like a fever-dream Weekend at Bernie’s.
“Oh hello!” I’d squeal, pretending I hadn’t see them. “You both look lovely this fine afternoon. This is Clarence... or Shirley- I can’t be sure. He/she/they is my new best friend and have I mentioned I’ve gone crazy??” Maybe I’d feign a demonic possession after that.
Ultimately, the sight my roommates walked in on was just me. Sleeping on the examination table underneath the pink and yellow woven blanket provided by one of the nurses. Laying down straight, it wasn’t long enough to cover my feet, so I’d elected for a tight fetal position. That part felt oddly appropriate. 19 and In Utero.
They greeted me with a nonchalant demeanor that I will always be thankful for. All hugs and smiles, as though picking me up from the airport. The only part that felt off was the biohazardous waste bin in the corner.
We talked about classes, the weather, how much I’d been sleeping. It was delightfully normal talk and I held onto every word of it I could, sensing the door behind them open. A nurse announced the end of our time together and escorted them out. They waved goodbye as though seeing me off on the Titanic.
Still confident I’d be home within the hour, I accepted their parting gift of a stuffed piglet like a cute joke. This was a temporary setback. I’d be in and out like Seal Team 6.
When the nurse returned from seeing them out, she was wearing surgical gloves.
“Gonna have take some blood, sweetie,” she said.
“What do you need that for?” I asked as she slid the lengthy needle into my forearm. “I-I really just need to speak to a psychiatrist.”
I can’t recall her response. Only that, after procuring her vile of blood, she departed with a warm smile, offering to turn off the lights.
“Wanna sleep a little longer?” She asked.
“Sure,” I said.
She flicked off the lights and turned to leave, turning over her shoulder to smile at me.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she said as she closed the door.
Red flag number one.
In hindsight, a sweet gesture from a sweet lady. In the moment- creepiest thing ever.
Regarding my sanity, all the suspicions I’d ever had were validated. I’d guessed right all along. Something was wrong and I was sick. I was sick in a place for getting better. Maybe I could turn this around yet.
I was awakened by the nurse that had taken my blood sample. Behind her stood another woman. She wasn’t wearing medical garb. She stood tall in a button-up silk shirt underneath slightly overlarge blazer. My eyes flicked to the clipboard in her hands.
Red flag number two.
The nurse turned on the lights and recited the results of my blood test. No abnormalities, no imbalances, no impurities. She used more Grey’s Anatomy words to say it but that was the gist. When she finished the nurse cleared her throat and shot the woman with the clipboard a look. That was her cue.
“Hey Will,” said the woman, her voice jarringly cheery. “Would you come with me please? I have a few questions for you.”
I blinked the sleep from my eyes. “Um...” I blinked again. “Yes, sure.”
I shuffled along behind my heel-clad shepherd through the ward and through another locked door. Not speaking, she clipped down a long passage speared with fluorescent light. She outpaced me with ease and waited by nondescript door on the right side of the hallway while I caught up.
The third waiting room of the day was the smallest and most starkly lit of the three. This room consisted of another examination table but with none of the assorted pamphlets or butterfly stickers on the wall to go with it. A table and a chair. Which seat I was meant to take was little mystery to me. Ascending my throne, piglet in hand, the woman sat opposite me in the metal chair.
Okay- for this next part, imagine I’m dressed as Cinderella after her stepsisters rip into her Hobby Lobby dress and leave her sobbing in the family pumpkin patch. The part where she’s all alone and super sad and there’s like-sad violin music in the background. The part where there’s that soft white light glowing down on her and then the music shifts to major and... enter Fairy Godmother.
“Hi,” said the lady with the clipboard. “My name’s Dawn and I’m your case manager. I’ve reviewed what you told the nurses. The self-harm and the suicidal ideations.” She said all this consulting her paperwork. Her eyes rose to meet mine. “It sounds like you’ve been under a tremendous amount of stress.”
I nodded. “Stress” was the least of it, but close enough.
“So Will...” she continued, crossing her legs and leaning forward in her seat. “...I’d like to recommend an in-patient treatment plan. Your blood work came back a-ok, so we’d like you to see our resident psychiatrist and figure out a treatment plan that works.”
“A prescription?” I asked.
“Correct,” said Dawn.
A laugh of relief escaped me. Pills! Something to take the edge off perhaps. I’d be fixed in no time. I was ready to take anything they’d give me. I’d even smile as they checked under my tongue if that was what it took.
“I have some in-patient forms here,” said Dawn, slipping some papers free of her clipboard. She presented her pen in the other hand.
Red flag number 3.
In-patient meant a prolonged stay. It meant internment.
I opened my mouth to protest when there came a knock at the door. It cracked open and a nurse to stuck her head inside.
“Excuse me,” she said, adding an apologetic nod. “He has another visitor.”
Dawn withdrew her paperwork and pen.
“Just a minute,” she said to me as she rose. She followed the nurse outside and closed the door behind her.
My mind began to whir at the speed of a runaway train. “In-patient” she’d said. As in, I wasn’t going home tonight.
No. No, that wouldn’t be happening, I assured myself. I wasn’t an imminent danger to myself or others. Surely they couldn’t force me to stay if I didn’t want to. What I needed was a good sleep in my own bed. 8 solid hours of rest and I’d come back tomorrow for a proper evaluation. They’d remark at how well-rested I looked. I could protest this. I had that right.
The door opened again. A boy stood in its frame, smiling balefully at me. Then and there, he was the most welcome sight I’d ever seen.
I rushed to my feet and held my boyfriend as tight as I could. He hugged me back fiercely, my stuffed piglet sandwiched between us. He kissed me and rubbed the back of my head.
“Hey,” he said once we’d pulled apart.
“Hey,” I answered, feeling the tears come. This was the man who’d seen me through more ruin than any of my friends combined. He’d saved me from self-destruction more times than he was even aware. It was... complicated. A part of me wanted to sing for joy that he was here. Another part of me wanted to coil away. I would not take his presence as permission to dissolve into the linoleum. He didn’t need to see that.
“They want to keep me here all night,” I whispered Dawn re-appeared.
My boyfriend said nothing, just held my hand as I re-seated myself.
“So Will-” Dawn began.
Still holding my boyfriend’s hand, I squared my shoulders to her and waited for my sentencing.
“We’d like to keep you here overnight,” she said. “Just to monitor the situation and make sure you remain safe.”
I squeezed my boyfriend’s hand tighter. “But- but I’m... can’t I come back tomorrow? I can sleep this off and come back for my... my-”
Dawn was balefully shaking her head before I’d even finished. I wanted to shake her by her shoulders. Scream, and spit, and rant until I got my way.
“We can keep better track of you here,” she said. “We’ll get you on a round of medication that helps-”
“And if I refuse?”
A terrible pause hung between us.
“We would be forced to involuntarily commit you,” she said.
This wasn’t happening. I wasn’t here.
“We’d prefer not to do that...” she offered, taking out the in-patient forms again and presenting them like a consolation prize.
When I didn’t take the papers, she drew back. “Do you need a moment to think it over?”
“No...” I muttered. “No it’s fine.”
My boyfriend’s face betrayed nothing. He began to rub his thumb across my hand in small circles. What was there to do? I’d been given two equally vile options. Sign myself over, or be carted off in a straight-jacket. The choice was detestable, but the lesser of two evils was clear.
“I’ll stay,” I conceded. “I’ll sign whatever you need me to sign just... just...”
I was out of things to say.
As I filled out the necessary papers, Dawn left the room. I was afforded five last minutes to say goodbye.
We kissed, we cried, and, when Dawn returned with a new stack of liability waivers, said our farewells.
“24 hours. Tops,” I said as he turned to leave. “And- and thank you. For coming.”
We may have exchanged I-love-you’s then, or we may have left it there. My memory goes fuzzy at this part.
When it was just Dawn and I again, a male orderly appeared with a paper bag for my things. I was prompted to change into a hospital gown and turn over my clothes and phone to the orderly’s bag. My clothes, I was informed, would be returned to me once I’d settled in. My phone would remain under lock and key.
I finished the ties on my hospital garb and bent to deposit my clothes. As I knelt, my gown snagged underfoot and, as I stood, ripped across my crotch. Stifling a giggle, I clutched my stuffed pig to my exposed nethers and followed the orderly outside.
Should you ever find yourself checking into a mental hospital for the night, bring proper crotch coverage. Dressing like Winnie the Pooh is not how to make a good first impression on a new community.
And so, with a pig doll clamped over my genitals and a dazed smile on my face, I followed Dawn and the orderly down the passage. Any urge to run or fight had long passed. The cumulative fatigue of the day swept over me then. My vision went dull and my feet barely left the ground while I walked. As we were buzzed in through a final pair of doors, I recall thinking there was still hope for a good night’s sleep yet.