I had written about my mother, a memory of our lives together. She was a terrible alcoholic. The manuscript looked like a betrayal. It was in April 2006. I was sick of suicide. I let myself hang from the fire escape and almost fell from the roof of my building. My girlfriend, Regan, was exhausted from the months of my decline. I only got worse, until finally my doctor told me I would die if I stayed out of the hospital. I had already taken a trip, after the day on the roof, to a Brooklyn hospital, but I had spoken to get out, and now five weeks had passed. I was taking the sedative Klonopin, but no antidepressant. I didn’t want to die. My friend Anne was a psychiatrist at Columbia Presbyterian, in the upscale neighborhoods; she was working in the psychiatric emergency room, and she insisted that I come there, that they take care of me. One day in early May, I called a car and drove into town. I didn’t take much with me. It was a bright, sunny day, and I could see the George Washington Bridge in the distance. The car stopped in front of the emergency room, I got out and tripped.
In the waiting room, I was sitting hunched over, my head in my hands and my elbows on my knees. Finally, a nurse came and led me to a wooden door next to which a policeman stood. It was the entrance to the psychiatric emergency room. The policeman knocked on the door, and a second policeman, who was waiting inside, opened it.
The ER psych was not a big space. There was a reception, a space with five or six cots and a few private rooms. One was mine. There was a small hard bed. Anne was on duty. She told me that she was glad I was there, but that it might take a few days to find me a room in the ward. Then Regan arrived. She sat with me as I signed the papers granting the hospital the right to detain me, even against my will, if it was necessary for my safety or the safety of others. Then it was time for her to go. I curled up on the bed.
There was always a policeman nearby. I was wearing a hospital gown. I ate the food, swallowed the pills, slept and waited for a bed in the room.
That first night, people came. It was the middle of the night. I was deeply asleep. Hands and arms lifted my body off the bed. Then I would go somewhere, moving through the hallways. Was I in a wheelchair? Sometimes my eyes were open. I heard voices and the sounds of machines. Someone said, “He can go home now. I learned in the morning that I had had a CT scan.
Monday morning, after three nights in the emergency room, Anne told me that a room had become available, and a little later a man arrived with a wheelchair and pushed me through the hospital. We got on an elevator, then through a walkway to another building, and from that building through another walkway to the New York State Psychiatric Institute, a place I had never heard of. to speak. We entered an elevator and went down to the fifth floor. At the end of the hall was a door. The door was made of steel and had a small window. A nurse inside unlocked the door and the man rolled me into the room. He handed some papers to the head nurse, whom I would know as Nurse D.
I got up and nurse D. showed me around. She showed me the nurses’ station; the drug dispensary; activity rooms; the dining room; a small gym with a stationary bike; the phones ; a quiet room, which was empty except for a mattress on the floor, where patients could cry or rest undisturbed; the medical examination room; and the common patient room – everything except the rooms, which were at the end of a hallway that was locked in the morning and kept closed until after dinner. We were not allowed to linger in our beds. The common room was furnished with sofas and chairs, a screaming television, and a computer for patient use. I spent several days there lying on a sofa. I had a black canvas bag, and every day I used it to carry personal items: a sweater for when the air conditioning got too cold, a toothbrush and toothpaste for when my mouth went dry. I also used the bag as a pillow. I took off my glasses and put them on a table, then lay down on a sofa and tried to sleep. Every twenty minutes, throughout the day and night, a nurse counted us, all the patients, noting our locations, checking us in. Were we safe?
There were several departments at the institute, one dedicated to schizophrenia and other strong psychotic illnesses, another for residents of the surrounding neighborhood, another for children and adolescents. The department I was in was called the General Clinical Research Unit, or GCRU. Many patients had volunteered there for clinical trials of new treatments. I was not on a research protocol. I was a clinical patient, admitted because I was in need. We were a handful with clinical status, and we became a circle within the larger group, wishing each other good luck, consoling each other, hoping for happy results, saying good luck when it was time for one of us to come out. , good luck, good luck in the world.
I remember a woman in her twenties named Sarah. (I changed the names of the patients mentioned here.) She seemed listless and nervous, and often sat motionless. She spoke in a monotonous whisper. She said she had survived several suicides and had been back and forth to the hospital since her parents divorced when she was twelve. I don’t remember anyone visiting her except for her father, who was sitting and playing board games with her, leaning over the table.
And there was Kathy, who was my age, was single and lived on disability assistance. She too had few visitors. She and I often sat together. His conversation was limited to the disease and its consequences. She scared me; they all did, with their stories of past admissions, drug charges and side effects, their perilous lives. Would I become one of them? Did I belong to them?
My doctor was Dr A. He was in his mid-thirties. He wore a tie and a white coat and was still harassed. He told me that a whole team would take care of me: doctors, nurses, psychiatric residents and social workers. He promised that they would improve me, that they would not give up and that I would be safe. I sat in the common room and looked at the Hudson. The sun was setting over New Jersey and the river was shining in the light. It was the evening. Regan had come for visiting hours. She had brought toiletries and clothes – pants and shirts, underwear and socks. Nurse D. separated the things that I could keep in my room from those that I could not. What I couldn’t keep, like my razor, she locked up.
I wouldn’t have used it, I would have told him, not to kill myself, not in the early days. I felt relief once I entered the room, and even impatience. I was out of immediate danger, out of danger, as we say – my own hurt to myself. I couldn’t relax my muscles or walk straight down the hall. I believed my life was ruined and that I would be locked up for a long time, but still couldn’t easily die in the hospital.
Maybe you spent some time trying not to die every day, alone somewhere. Maybe this effort has become your job for a lifetime. Maybe there is help from family and friends, from all the people who don’t quite understand that when you tell them that they will be better off if you are dead, you are saying a truth. Maybe you are alone in a room, lying on a bed, and your chest is tight and your breathing shallow; you are afraid to move; you get two or three hours of sleep every night and then wake up in fear. Maybe you pace. Maybe you keep pills in a jar or drawer, or hidden behind a box in the closet. Maybe you are afraid of the hospital. Who is not afraid of the hospital? We know, or think we know, his stories of lobotomy, shock therapy, and mind control experiences.