Although the staff try to hush it up, by Sunday night, when the last stragglers come in from their weekend passes and the last visitors are gone, everyone on the ward knows of Annie’s suicide attempt. I don’t know how the news passed or where it came from. Besides Annie, Yuki and I were the only ones without at least day passes, and neither of us spoke. I didn’t, anyway, and I wasn’t sure Yuki could. It could have started with Annie’s roommate. She comes in Saturday night in tears, despite having a pass for the entire weekend, and goes straight to her bed. In a little while one of the nurses taps on the door and enters and I hear soft voices. So maybe the nurse explained things to her. All I know for certain is that after that, the knowledge seems to pass from one to another of us without words or any other conventional mode of communication. We just know.
If you’ve read other accounts of the joys of being a patient of a mental hospital, you might think that the staff were in for a rough night on Sunday. So often you hear tell of an upsetting occurrence, like Annie’s attempt, calling up the whole ward’s demons. It isn’t like that at all on Third South. If anything, we are more subdued than usual. Some, like the ones who are there in treatment for severe alcoholism (my roommate JoAnne is one of these), don’t seem affected in the least. They can tell themselves they’re being treated for a disease of the body, not the mind (although what they make of the restrictions and the locked doors I have no idea).
As for the rest of us… We are supposed to be in a safe place: a place where everything is supervised, down to the time you take to brush your teeth. If you are out of sight long enough, someone will come looking on you. Most of us complain about this lack of privacy, but the truth is that we find it reassuring. In the world we felt out of control. The strain of keeping up appearances is what brought us here and having someone else look after us for a change is a comfort.
But now we know that the constant supervision is an illusion. If you really want to hurt yourself, you can do it. All it takes is playing along with the rules long enough that you’re taken off precautions and the staff relaxes their guard. All it takes is being alone with your sharps for five minutes.
That knowledge makes us think. I don’t think there is anyone of the depressed crowd who doesn’t wonder, “Do I want to? Do I really want to get out that way? And if I don’t, am I able to get out the other way? Can I learn what it takes to survive without this pain? Can I heal?”
I ask Claire about it during our session Sunday afternoon. What she says disturbs me more than what Annie did.
“You want a frank answer? I think you can, Katie. You’re bright; I can tell that already. You can learn what we have to teach here. But some of these others? They’ll be back over and over, and probably most of them won’t ever understand why.”
I still don’t know whether I think Claire was right about me. I was back a few times myself. And when I finally did leave the ward for the last time… But that comes later.
They must have brought Annie back sometime late Sunday night, after everyone was in bed, because she’s there in vitals line Monday morning, just like nothing happened. Except, her wrists are wrapped up in thick bandages, just like my legs. We look like a matched set. I see her looking at me and give a shy smile, but she does not respond.
During vitals, we hear the breakfast carts getting buzzed in at the north door and rattling their way down the hall to the common room. We follow like sheep after the bellwether, one by one or in twos and threes, sometimes veering off to get something out of a room but always heading in the same general direction. I locate my tray and carry it to my usual table. I have not yet been approved for a low blood sugar diet, so breakfast is largely starch: toast and some coarse hot cereal, with a lone soft-boiled egg presiding on a round dish in the middle. The drink selection is coffee, milk and prune juice: ugh. I try the egg and find it overdone, so I am forced to eat the toast and about half the cereal. I drink the milk and wish for a cup of tea.
About this time the nurses and other staff come in with morning meds. There are the usual struggles from the usual suspects, but in the end everything goes down. One nurse asks after JoAnne, who has yet to appear.
“She’s throwing up,” Ginny tells her. “She drank on Antabuse again last night.”
“She should know better by now,” the nurse says in a huff, and goes away. We all know that she’ll be making notes in JoAnne’s chart: that she didn’t follow her doctor’s orders and that she didn’t take her meds this morning. We wonder what privileges will be revoked. I think JoAnne won’t be going out next weekend.
As I am about to pick up my tray, Chuck appears at my table. I reach for my meds before I see that he hasn’t got them.
“Katie, your BP was low again today. 90 over 60. We can’t give you the Sinequan unless you get that pressure up.” He glares at my tray with its half eaten meal. “It would help if you ate something for a change.”
I want to laugh. For so long I’ve been teased about being fat. For eating like a pig. Every year when I went for my before-school physical, the first note my pediatrician made in my chart was, “Chubby.” This last year I’ve finally managed to lose enough weight to be considered normal for a girl my age. And now they think I’m not eating enough.
“I can’t eat any of this stuff,” I say. “It’s all starch. My blood sugar…”
“Didn’t you talk to Dr. Rosenberg about that?” He seems irritated and I can’t explain to him that the good doctor didn’t give me a chance to get a word in edgewise. “Well, never mind. Talk to Dr. Butler this afternoon. You have group with him at two. OT’s before that, right after lunch. Then we’ll be putting you through some more tests.”
“What kind of tests?”
“More diagnostics. Rorshachs. Telling stories about pictures. You should like that. Your mom says you like to tell stories.”
I think he means it innocently, but my stomach gives a lurch and I feel like the little I’ve eaten is going to come right back up. What has my mother been saying about me and to whom? Does everyone here already think I’m a liar?
The orderlies come to clear the breakfast carts and suddenly it is ten o’clock. The common room settles into its morning stupor. I have three hours to waste before there is anything on my schedule and I am already bored senseless. I start to walk. I am not the only one with this idea. As I pass the nurse’s station, I see Annie up ahead. Without thinking, I speed up and fall into step beside her. She does not acknowledge me, so I clear my throat and say,
“Hi. I’m Katie. I have the room next to yours.”
“I’m Annie,” she replies after a pause. She probably guesses that I already know that. “I’ve seen you. You were on the ward when…”
She goes no farther than that. And I know, in the silent way I have come to know so much in the few days I have been on the ward, that I may not ask her to be more specific. It’s one thing if she volunteers the information. Otherwise it is none of my business.
But what would I ask her? What did she do? I know that; we all know that. Why did she do it? We all know that, too. It’s just not worth talking about. So we go on together in silence.
In the next weeks this will become our routine: meeting in the hall after breakfast or any time we have nothing else scheduled, and walking around and around the ward. Eventually she will tell me that she’s from New Baltimore, a rural suburb of Detroit. I will tell her about my background and my family. We will become friends, of a sort.
This is one of the strange miracles of the locked ward: that the inmates there, people who in the normal course of events would never speak to one another—would never even meet—become close, form relationships, even romances (although these are discouraged). We learn about each other. Before long I know that JoAnne has tried over and over to be a normal suburban housewife and can never quite get it right enough to satisfy her family. That’s when the drinking starts again. I know that Ginny’s husband punched her in the stomach when he found out she was pregnant and insists the child is not his and that she’s a whore, but she keeps going back to him. I see Yuki’s boyfriend, a Biker type with long, stringy black hair come every evening and hold her tenderly in his lap while the tears run down his face. And they see my strained visits with my mother, the cold dry peck on the cheek that is the end of every evening. We know more about each other than anyone has ever known about us. More than anyone had ever cared to know.
And there is no judgment. No one plays the “I’m sicker than you” game. No one doubts another’s experience. Advice might be offered, but it is always with the knowledge that it could be turned down, and no offense taken. We all know we have problems; whether we choose to face them is no one’s business.
It is a new experience for me. I have never known such support, just for being who I am. Pretty soon I leave my solitary table at the window and join one of the big tables for meals. No one threatens me or teases me. They accept me as if I had always been there, part of the group. This is also a new feeling for me.
Except for the ever-present boredom, I am actually happy here on the ward. It is only when the staff and doctors start to push that I feel the feelings that brought me here in the first place.
It is their job to push, but some do it better and with more compassion than others. In 1978, clinical depression is a new concept. Mostly, depression is seen as a symptom of other diseases: so-called psychoses like Schizophrenia and Manic-Depressive Disorder, or definable neuroses like Obsessive-Compulsive disorder. Everyone knows that these are caused by body chemistry—they don’t know how, but they know. So if you’re really, really sick, like Yuki, you get pushed a little less.
Those of us who are simply depressed and can’t seem to make it in the world are often seen as shirkers. Most have the idea that we can’t make it in the world because we don’t understand the world’s rules, so a lot of time goes into explaining them. This is why we have to get dressed in street clothes every morning and why we can’t hide in bed: why the women are expected to wear makeup and the men to shave and keep their hair trimmed. It’s supposed to foster an atmosphere of normalcy, to get us used to it. No one seems to understand that most of us are here, not because we don’t understand normal, but because we find it abhorrent. And when we try to express this, in private sessions or in group, we are marked as recalcitrant and resistant to treatment.
I am extremely lucky, having drawn both Chuck and Claire as my personal guardians. They are both well-liked and respected because they treat us with liking and respect. Chuck doesn’t say much, but listens when I talk about my family and doesn’t tell me I’m lying. Claire teaches me about Transactional Analysis and passive-aggressive behaviour. Both seem to think I will do well.
Then there’s Gayle Ransom. I draw her one day when Claire is off and find out within minutes why the other patients call her the drill sergeant. Like good old Dr. Pitt, she questions everything I say, interrupts me, negates the importance of my feelings and basically makes me feel like I’m a worthless, lazy slut. By the end of the session, I am in tears and take to my bed, rules or no rules. I wonder why such a horrible woman has been put in charge of people in pain. But I have seen her treat Yuki with amazing gentleness. Maybe she just can’t accept anything less than severe catatonia.
Annie and I walk up and down the ward until lunchtime. We share a table. Then we go off to OT together. “You’ll like OT,” she says, and I do. It’s basically a crafts class, run by a very nice woman named Rosanne. Of course, all the crafts are calculated to tell the staff something about the patients, or to be somehow therapeutic. I have to start with making a collage that expresses my feelings. When that’s finished, I will make a tile ashtray, the kind that kids make at camp, with a mosaic set in plaster. After that I can do what I want if Roseanne approves. Annie has been doing leatherwork; she shows me a beautiful belt she has made. I know right away that I want to work leather too. Unfortunately for me, when my ashtray is set to dry, Rosanne insists that I build a set of desktop bookshelves. They are precut from a standardized pattern so that no exposing the possibly self-destructive to sharp implements is necessary. My work will be to sand them endlessly, until Rosanne is satisfied with the smoothness of the pieces. Then I can glue them together and varnish them.
No amount of sanding seems to make Rosanne happy. By the end of OT, I am covered with sawdust and the shelves are still not smooth enough. I complain. Rosanne tells me the exercise is meant to build my patience. I think of all the years I have lived in my family’s house, bearing whatever came to me in silence and wonder how much patience I am expected to develop.
After OT, I go to group alone; Annie is not one of the Rosenberg/Butler patients. I have never been in a group therapy session before. No one could have told me how much I would hate it and Dr. Butler both.