By Caitlin Basile
I was checked in by police officers, and guided into an elevator to the fourth floor. The doors slid open to the clattering of lunch trays and voices talking above each other; a man in the corner, dancing. I was too exhausted to be phased by any of it.
I tell myself I don’t belong here, but what do I really know?
“Just another step in your treatment,” they’d told me. No one said it was just another dead end.
I’m left in my room with three other beds, only two of them full. One is a snoring pile of blankets, the other is a woman yelling. I learn from the staff that her name is Suzanne, but she’s too busy talking to herself to answer my hello. The walls are Pepto-Bismol pink tiles that make me feeling nauseous. The bathroom is stalls that don’t lock and toilets stained with ashes; the lingering smell of smoke and dingy yellow floor.
I spent the last six months locked up at McLean Hospital, spring to autumn, just to be sent to this place. As though this place could save me when nothing else would.
At dinner, I sit at the table and pretend to eat. A man who calls himself Rhino tries to talk to me, and I glare. I turn to look at the table across from me, where a man looks back at me with sad eyes, and a gaping mouth the staff shovels food into, paying no attention to what drops on his chest. He moves his arms, but no words come out. The Staff call him Eddie Spaghetti.
I spend time either curled up on my bed or pacing the floor. I venture into the group room where the TV is constantly blaring. Eddie Spaghetti tries to get up but is shoved back down. Everyone else is trying to watch football while my roommate Suzanne is wailing, “I’m dying!”
“We’re trying to watch a game here!” They speak in broken English, “You ain’t dead yet.”
Suzanne cries, “I’m dying slowly!”
The Staff turn up the television, laugh, and repeat, “You ain’t dead yet.”
Suzanne long ago became just background noise. The Staff say, “She cries every day! In the backyard, in the basement!”
But what she says is true; being here is a slow death.
I escape back to my room, nearly tripping over the coffee cups Suzanne has lined up between our beds. I count twelve. They disappear some mornings, only to gradually multiply again throughout the day. I begin to use the coffee cups to keep track of time.
Unless you have privileges to go outside to the building, the only group on the unit is Morning Meeting. This is a group most people go to because there is coffee. And even though the rule is you can’t leave the room with the coffee, many people fill up their cups and walk away.
For those of us who stay, however, Morning Meeting tends to be drawn out with constant interruptions. Someone will randomly say, “I hate the mafia!” and the psychologist will make it seem normal and respond, “I think you’re in good company with that one.” Which is better than trying to make them be quiet.
But then Suzanne will jump in and say, “The mafia runs the pharmacy!” and we are off flying in different directions of delusions. All of these declarations are proclaimed throughout the meeting, and I usually go through multiple cups of coffee.
I think Joe, my social worker, is on speed. He never stops talking even when he asks me a question. He tells me I have an “impressive history.” I desperately explain all the reasons I don’t need to be here. I need to talk my way out of this. I use social worker speak, and coach Nate, my boyfriend, for the upcoming family meeting.
This is when Jason, my therapist outside the hospital, betrays me. He texts me that he doesn’t think me going home is such a good idea, while at the same time staying there won’t help. He makes no attempts to visit to even see what it’s like there, but continues to bring up almost dying and my “suicide attempt.”
Why is he choosing to do this now? Where before I could walk out of emergency rooms with rows of stitches, and leave the psych ward without any hesitation from anyone. Why didn’t he treat it lightly then?
After talking with my former doctor at McLean, as well as Jason, my team decides I can’t leave. They are suddenly concerned and say that I am too “high risk.”
I want to die. How will I do this? Day after day? The puke pink tiles and green group room walls swallowing me up beneath the screams of other patients? And who do I trust? Am I worse than I thought? Who is right? What is real?
I am panicked and furious that Jason has just left me here; that he gets to just walk away and not have to deal with me.
Jason tells me, “I don’t disagree that the state hospital is a painful place without a lot of help. I think it’s a rock bottom place, and a last chance for life. I think at the end of the day you’re going to have to find a way to get better. You have to find something in yourself because otherwise you’re stuck in the repetition compulsion No one is going to be able to make you want to live, want to eat, want to not cut yourself, and want to have a life worth living. In the end no one can give you those things and no one can take them away. You give those to yourself or you take them away yourself.”
I tell him, “Well I can’t do it alone, and here I am alone.”
He says, “You were a child and your life was controlled, and you had no choices, and you were alone when you needed someone.”
“Sounds a whole lot like here.”
“Yup,” he says. “The ugly part of the repetition compulsion is we end up in the same place over and over, hoping that it will be different.”
“So great,” I snap. “I’ll just sit here alone in the same situation.”
“Or,” Jason responds, “You could do the most difficult thing of all. You could eat. You could fight to be your own person. You could stop waiting for the person who could care enough to heal the wounds that cannot be healed.”
I feel sick.
“My caring was not enough to keep you from trying to kill yourself when you took the bus back home. Your nurse Christina’s caring was not enough to get you to eat when you were close to being in a coma and organ failure. The hospital’s caring was not enough to make you feel whole.”
It’s like he’s ripping me apart, every word evidence of my failures, of the ways that I am a black hole that cannot be filled.
Jason goes on. “It’s terrible and painful to say this: You have to do this yourself. You have to want to be alive if you want to get out of this hell.”
“Then I guess I’m never getting out,” I say back.
“Maybe not for a very long time. It is possible, but for it to work, meaning you get out and you don’t kill yourself, you have to want it for yourself.”
“You’re lucky,” I say, crying now. “This doesn’t affect you at all.”
He doesn’t argue.
Instead of doing the impossible and getting better, I dedicate myself to faking it the best I can. Stuffing food into napkins and throwing it away in case they check my tray after meals. Stowing things away to hurt myself with just in case. And it’s easy; no one looks closely. Most patients are on 1:1 and there aren’t enough staff to talk. No one weighs me, and when I gain privileges I’m even allowed to use the small gym. My limbs are not checked for cuts. Instead, days are spent with fights breaking out, and Suzanne yelling, and the staff busy making fun of patients, while I try to stay perfectly Fine and Calm, pleading my case.
Meanwhile I am haunted by white space left on my arm that is waiting for scars.
Sometimes one of the staff, Lessche, who’s always kind to me, has me walk the halls with him, doing checks, and just talk. Mostly he speaks about God, but I am glad just to have company, human contact. One day he says that a spirit told him to tell me to remove the lock and chain from around my neck. He said once I do this I will free myself. I promise him I will when I get out of here. When I go outside, my eyes fill with tears, because the leaves are all turned and are falling. I missed everything.
My nurse from the last hospital, Christina, comes to visit me for a couple hours, bringing with her a book she made of messages written by staff. I wrap myself in the My Little Pony blanket she made me before I left, and all I want is for her to get me out. Here she is powerless too. And like Jason, she questions what has changed enough for me to go home.
“Cut the crap,” staff respond to Suzanne’s yelling. She’s been here so many years that no one even hears what she’s trying to say anymore. I am so scared of getting lost. I tell Jason I feel like he’s just left me, and he says useless things like, “It isn’t a pleasant place. There isn’t a lot of help to be had there. It is, however, where you are.”
I need him to be on my side, fighting for me. Instead he tells me, “I fear the only way out is for you to get better.” Does he really think I’m going to be cured in this prison ?
My second roommate leaves reluctantly, but Suzanne might as well fill the empty two beds with all her ranting and raving. The room echoes with it. I continue to meet with my treatment team and get privileges to go outside. They never questions anything I say. They tell me I’m on track for getting out in three more weeks.
I can’t describe what it is like to step outside on my own for the first time in six months. I can’t stop smiling as I cross the ugly hospital grounds, taking in everything that’s different when you’re alone. I sit on a wooden bench swing and watch starlings sweep overhead and drop. I pick up leaves and hold them in my hands, marveling. I love the grey sky, breathing free.
When I talk to Jason, my “outside” therapist, he’s suddenly insistent that we have to work on my eating disorder when I get out. He’s so focused on that, while before we never spoke of it; it was allowed to be off limits.
I go to groups to pass the time, and escape my racing mind for a little while. In music group a woman plays guitar and we can sing if we want to. Then in Music Appreciation we each pick a song to listen to. I choose “Chandelier” by Sia. A tall man with a long grey beard picks “Self-Esteem” by the Offspring and pounds hard on a set of bongos. I find myself smiling.
The next day I hear from my team that I am set to go home in a week. I am ecstatic. But when I talk to Jason, he doesn’t think I should be leaving, that not enough has changed. He doesn’t think any changes I’ve made are enough.
I keep asking if he’ll still see me when I get out, and he responds with, “It’s not black and white, it’s not a yes or no question.”
I don’t understand. Once he told me he would only stop working with me if I were dead. That he would walk all the way to the edge with me. Where is he now, in the moment I needed him most? The hospital is a dead end and he knows it.
Christina visits again, signing in as my cousin, and carrying coffee. She tells me that out friend, Marianne, knows my psychiatrist and thinks he’s a moron, that, “he can’t do a risk assessment to save his life.”
Everyone is worried about me leaving so quickly, after all the months I spent waiting for a bed. Christina tells me I probably won’t be allowed back at the trauma unit at McLean Hospital for a while, and if I did go, I would be back at the state hospital for much longer. It scares me, but it’s time and I understand why. It’s time for me to just do this. I need to use what I’ve been given.
Jason gets a call from Joe, my social worker, “They usually do a safety review where people who aren’t on your team, review your record to make sure the discharge is well thought through.”
Jason tells me I almost died in his office bathroom because he underestimated my risk, and says, “Your level of suicidality scares the shit out of me.”
Sitting alone on the swing beneath the trees, I listen to my iPod. It hits me that I haven’t felt a real emotion in weeks, maybe since the day I left the other hospital with everyone crowded around me. I’ve been in survival mode. Sia’s “Eye of the Needle” begins to play and I see myself small and hunched in the hallway, wrapped in my ever-present Hello Kitty blanket, waiting for a sighting of my handsome doctor. I imagine being saved somehow.
I hear Jason tell me that maybe McLean Hospital was right, that I should have been referred to the state hospital back in January. It dawns on me, sitting outside of a state hospital, that they must be talking about someone else. How could this be me, my life?
That when everything hits, it’s going to hit hard. Once I let my guard will be down, I won’t need to pretend everything. The façade will shatter.
On my last night there, a staff member checks in on me. He says, “I hear you’re leaving tomorrow.” I beam. With a wave of his hand he says, “It’s better out there anyway.” For the first time I whole-heartedly agree. At the trauma unit I was always torn. But there is no loss in leaving this place, just gratitude and relief to be escaping what will hopefully never again be in my future.
Tomorrow I will shave my head and unlock the chain from around my neck.
In the final meeting, Joe remarks that his colleagues are amazed I am being discharged so quickly. But apparently that doesn’t worry him. As he leads me to the door, I hear Suzanne wailing, “Why does she get to leave! She came after me!”
I feel heavy with guilt at my escape. I wasn’t meant to be in that place, but should I really be home either? Who is meant for that place anyway?
Going home in a getaway car, I am shocked to see the state of things. I really see, for the first time, how depressed Nate, my boyfriend, has been. The apartment is a mess of unwashed dishes, with Nate sleeping on the couch, instead of the bed without me. I feel deeply sad. I don’t want to do that to him ever again.
In the same breath, I still crave the razor.
Copyright 2016 by Caitlin Bastile
Caitlin Basile is a 30 year-old former mental health worker, and 20-time mental patient. She hopes to reach others through her writing, and find a voice through words, instead of her skin.
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