The day after I see Dr. Rosenberg and complete the MMPI is Saturday. Saturdays are a little different on the ward; you don’t have to get up as early and the staff will let you go to breakfast in your pyjamas and robe if you want. Otherwise, you have to wear street clothes all the time. You have to make your own bed every morning and change the sheets once a week; you’re not allowed to shirk tasks and hang about in your underwear. These rules are supposed to foster a sense of normality on the ward, as if the only reason we are here is that we don’t know how the rest of the world gets on.
I wake up early anyway, by seven thirty. Though the first days passed in a fog, the routine of the ward already is a habit that seems to have gone on forever.
In the oversize T-Shirt I sleep in I leave the room and go the nurses’ station for my sharps. Most mornings there is a regular traffic jam of patients doing the same thing and the counselors and nurses rush back and forth between the counter and the back room with harried expressions on their faces as they try to meet the patients’ demands and carry out their other beginning of shift duties. Today it is relatively quiet; only one or two others are up so far. They hang about the counter chatting with the staff while they wait. The barrier that usually exists between the patients and the staff is relaxed and there is a sense of friendliness in its place.
Chuck is on duty this morning. As I approach the counter he looks up from the chart he is studying, greets me and disappears into the back room. Pretty soon he returns with a white plastic box labeled with my name and doctor’s name, just like my hospital bracelet. He hands the box across the counter to me, then comes out himself and follows me back to my room.
When you come onto the ward a staff member goes through your things and removes everything that you could potentially use to hurt yourself. These things are collectively known as sharps, and they include shaving equipment, nail files, cuticle scissors, fountain pens with fine metal nibs, sewing kits with needles and pins, compacts with mirrors or hard plastic cases, anything in glass bottles, anything chemical, like nail polish remover. Sometimes they include shoelaces and belts. They do not include brassieres, although I think a person could hang herself from her bra if she really wanted to. For the duration of your stay, these things are kept in the room behind the nurses’ station, and you must ask for them if you want to use them. If you are “on precautions,” as I am—that is, if they think you’re very likely to hurt yourself—you are not allowed access to your sharps without being supervised until you can prove that all such thoughts have left your mind. This is why Chuck has to go with me.
On the way back to my room I nearly run into the walking girl. I call her that because every time I see her she is walking the corridor: up from the common room past the nurses’ station to the OT room doors, swing past the visitors’ entrance and back down the hall to the common room, over and over again, all day, in silence. She is already dressed and has started early this morning. She is shorter than I and stocky, almost dumpy-looking, with big brown eyes and brown hair that falls almost to her waist. I pause to let her go by; she doesn’t look at me. Chuck sees her and frowns. I know from my roommates’ gossip that she is one of Chuck’s charges and she is not responding to treatment.
I go through my sharps under Chuck’s watchful eye. The only thing I use is the Clinique skin toner Vicki gave me for Christmas and I wonder why I bothered getting my sharps in the first place. I get my toothbrush and toothpaste from my nightstand drawer and go to the bathroom to wash my face. While waiting for me, Chuck makes an attempt to get Ginny out of bed, telling her that her husband is coming to get her in an hour, to take her out on her weekend pass. She moans and turns over.
“Don’t know why she’d care to see that sumbitch anyway,” another of my roommates remarks. She is in her forties, petite and used-looking: that tough-talking female character that inevitably turns up in a certain type of detective fiction. Her short, black hair is shot with grey and her face is deeply lined about a mouth that always looks as though it has just tasted something bad. On the ward she smokes incessantly and her fingers are twitching for a cigarette now.
“Well, JoAnne, you don’t want to stay on the ward all weekend either,” Chuck replies, and I begin to wonder what’s so terrible about the ward on weekends that everyone’s so eager to escape it, even if it means going home to the family that like as not sent you there to begin with.
I pad back into the room and sit on the bed to put my shoes on. Ginny is sitting up, finally, reaching for her robe. JoAnne has left, probably for her sharps. The fourth bed still contains a lump and a sheaf of long, black hair covering the pillow.
I hand my sharps box to Chuck. “Come on,” he says, “let’s get your vitals.”
I follow him across the hall to a little room opposite the nurses’ station. On weekdays we all line up in the hall before breakfast, waiting our turn at one of the two hard chairs that, apart from a cabinet and a scale, are the room’s only furnishings. Today being Saturday, there is no line. I sit in one of the chairs. Chuck sticks a plastic disposable thermometer in my mouth and wraps a blood pressure cuff around my arm.
“Your pressure’s low. Ninety over fifty.” He takes a clipboard from a hook on the wall and writes something on the sheet of paper attached to it. “If you don’t get your pressure over a hundred, you can’t have your meds.” He says this as if it is something I can control. “We’ll take it again after breakfast.”
He removes the thermometer from my mouth, glances at it and writes the reading on the paper. “Yes or no?”
He means, did I have a bowel movement yesterday. Of all the examinations to which one is subjected upon becoming an inmate of the locked ward, this seems to me the most intrusive. Not even the state of my bowels is private. I shake my head. He writes down this result as well.
The breakfast carts are already standing in the common room by the time I get there. The place is nearly deserted; lots of people will be eating cold eggs. Before long I learn that lots of those eggs will go entirely to waste; most of the people going out for the weekend skip breakfast and a large proportion of those staying don’t get up until just before lunch.
For the next hour or so I sit in the common room observing the Saturday morning routine. One by one my fellow patients wander down. The ones who will be going out on pass are easy to spot; they are the ones dressed, and dressed with some care, the men clean shaven and smelling of cologne, the women meticulously made up, clutching purses liberated from the nurses’ station for the occasion. Some go to the breakfast carts, retrieve the coffee from their trays and sip it, lukewarm. Sitting at the tables among groups of their friends they seem fragile and apprehensive yet at the same time expectant, like children on Christmas morning who hope for sugarplums in stockings that are just as likely to be filled with coal.
From far down the hall comes the electric whine of the visitors’ door being buzzed open. Ears prick at the sound of approaching footsteps; the tension in the room increases. Then they are there: the husbands, the parents, the wives, coming to claim patients like baggage checked in a bus station locker and suddenly remembered. Their voices are too loud, too cheery: the voices used to address infants or the very old when one isn’t quite sure how much they understand or what they might be thinking. “Ready to go?” and “We thought we might visit Grandma today, won’t that be nice?” and “Let’s just get your bag.” The groups at the tables break up as one by one the patients leave, each accompanied by one or two weekend wardens. “Have a good weekend, see you Sunday night,” call the staff as each group passes. The visitors’ door buzzes open and slams shut again and again.
When the last of them has gone the ward seems very quiet. There are only about a half a dozen of us staying on this weekend. One is the walking girl; I see her glance incuriously into the common room as she makes her turn to go back up the hall. Another is my fourth roommate. She is out of bed now, a lovely, emaciated young woman of some vague oriental heritage, sitting in a straight-backed chair pulled up to one of the windows. A counselor comes in, sees her, approaches her with a smile.
“Yuki? Did you eat something? Do you want to get dressed?”
Yuki doesn’t respond. She keeps staring out the window as if waiting for something. She doesn’t move at all and her stillness is eerie. Pretty soon the counselor sighs, pats her on the shoulder and leaves. Yuki takes no notice. There is less spark to her than there is to a statue. I understand that the way to be left alone in this place is to be catatonic.
Before long I am well aware of why everyone wants to go off ward for the weekend. There is nothing at all to do. I am bored stiff. I try to write in my journal, but my mind is a blank and I have nothing to say, so after a few lines about how bored I am I put it away. I find a stack of magazines in the common room and flip through a couple, but there’s nothing in any of them that catches my interest.
Without conscious thought I begin to walk. I walk up past the privacy cubicles to the vitals room, where another hall intersects the ward’s main one. This is the hall Chuck brought me up the first night, the one ending in the big, double doors, where the meal carts come from. One of the counselors has taken the breakfast carts down there; they’re waiting by the doors for someone from the kitchen to come and claim them. I take a swing down this hall, just for the hell of it. On my right doors stand open to four or five patient rooms. On my left, a number of doors that are shut and locked. One is labeled “Utilities,” another “Tub Room.” A third, the closest to the nurses’ station, isn’t labeled at all. For no real reason, this shut door sends a shiver down my spine.
Rounding the end of the hall at the locked double doors, I make my way back, turning onto the main ward hall at the nurses’ station. One uniformed nurse is sitting at the desk; the two counselors on duty, Chuck and the short, blonde woman who tried to talk to Yuki, are reading charts and making notations. The smell of burnt coffee comes from the sharps room. There is a stack of unclaimed mail sitting on the breast-high counter that separates the nurses’ station from the hall proper. None of it is for me.
Just past the nurses’ station is a small bay containing two pay phones and couple of folding chairs, then a long stretch of wall blank except for three more locked doors. The hall ends in another set of double doors. These doors lead to the room used for Occupational Therapy and other assorted activities, and they are also locked.
I turn and start down the other side of the hall. The first thing on my right is the orange visitors’ door with its narrow, wire-crossed window. The visitors’ door opens onto a stairway that leads directly down to the first floor parking lot entrance, so that visitors can get up to the ward without going through the main part of the hospital. If you look through the window in the fifteen minutes before visiting hours, you can see all the visitors lined up on the steps, waiting to get in, as if the ward is some kind of ticketed attraction. Sometimes the visitors peer through the window and if you peer back at just the right moment you can make them jump.
After the visitors’ door comes the long procession of patient room doors, more than a dozen of them. With the five on the other hall, I make there to be around twenty patient rooms, each with two beds except for the wardrooms, which sleep four. All those beds are full, so there are more than forty patients on the ward. I have already noticed that most of these, two-thirds or more, are women.
At the common room I turn again and start back up the hall. This time I don’t take the detour off to the side. At the nurses’ station, Chuck and the other counselor are talking about some exam they recently took, from which I gather they are graduate students in Psychology. I had wondered. They are still talking about it the next time I pass, but the time after that the conversation has passed on to some popular television show.
Chuck sees me walk by and flashes me the most sympathetic look I’ve yet seen from him. Apparently he can relate to boredom.
“In a little while I’ll open up the O.T. room; maybe you can find something more entertaining in there.”
Up the hall and down. I have lost count of the passes; it is midmorning now. At the nurses’ station I hear Chuck sigh as he replaces a chart on the stack beside him and tell the other counselor that he’d better be checking on his charges.
This is when I realise that I have not seen the walking girl for some time. When I started walking, she was on the other side of the hall from me, but she has vanished.
Chuck strolls across the hall and enters the room next door to mine. I hear him call, “Annie? You in here? You know you’re not supposed…” Then there is a muffled exclamation that could be, “Oh, shit!” and Chuck runs back into the hall.
“Katie, go in your room and shut the door.”
I know immediately that something is wrong; the doors are always supposed to be open. I do as I am told without question, not wanting to know any more.
The hospital P.A. system crackles and a metallic voice demands a trauma team on three south, STAT. I hear running feet, the rattle of an equipment cart, the more muted rustle of sterile dressing packets being ripped open. I huddle on my bed, torn between peering out the door to see what’s going on and wanting to remain as ignorant as possible. There is the sound of something large and wheeled being pushed down the hall.
It is a long time before Chuck comes and tells me it is safe to come out.