Two Weeks in the Psych Ward

I was wheeled into the New York Psychiatric Institute around midday nap time. The halls were quiet save for a few patients shuffling around the center. I noticed that they were wearing actual clothes and suddenly felt embarrassed that I was still rocking my oversized hospital gown, disposable underwear, and socks.

“Do you have any clothes from home?” was one of the many questions I’d be asked that first day. Everyone wanted to hear my story despite my having recited it countless times in the last two days. When I’d tell them to ask the last person I’d talked to, they’d just say that they wanted to hear it directly from me in case anything was left out of the last person’s notes.

The pillows were as thin as the bedsheets and the mattress made me crave the cold, tiled floors. I couldn’t sleep. If my mind wasn’t racing, then I was stifling my cries so as to not wake my roommate, an older woman who'd been in there for a year or two. It all seemed unfair, simultaneously having to deal with my breakup and my mental health all the while surrounded by no one I knew. I was furious, hurt, devastated, over and over, every stupid day. I felt like the world was moving on beyond these walls while I laid there with my hands tied behind my back.

But not literally. There were no straightjackets or padded walls, just a room with a single mattress that patients could go into whenever they were spiraling downhill. I went in there two or three times. Once to meditate after a spark of “I’m going to get back on track and everything’s going to turn out OK” and, days later, to cry my eyes out feeling like the biggest failure after A. emailed to say we shouldn’t speak anymore and that he’d signed a lease for another apartment. He’d be moving out sometime that first week of May, he wrote.

The rooms were either singles or doubles with two twin beds on opposite ends of the room. We had little cubby holes to place our clothes and other possessions, but aside from my T-shirts, underwear, and single pair of jeans, I kept most of my belongings on my nightstand. It was just a big yellow envelope I’d filled with the travel-sized toiletries, a toothbrush, a comb my family had brought me, and the stack of papers I’d been reading and writing on. They were mine and I wanted them near me. When we’d be ushered out of our room at 6am, I’d bring all my papers with me and carry them around all day until it was time for everyone to tuck in at 9pm.

By 4am, I’d be awake in bed, wishing I could just sleep this whole thing away. I’d watch the flashlight shine in through our door window and quickly shut my eyes so they didn’t discover that I was wide awake. I don’t know what they would do if they saw you staring blankly into space. More inconveniences, I assumed.

At 6am, a loud knock on everyone’s door meant it was time for vital checks. We would make our way over to the hallway in our pajamas, rubbing our eyes from the lights, and saying good morning. I was usually one of the first ones out there, clutching at my elbows, disoriented from my lack of sleep.

“You know you can request a sleeping pill, right?”

“Yes. I’ll let you know if I need one.” I never did.

We lined up for medication dispenses twice a day. I’d get my mood stabilizer in the evenings and my breast cancer medication first thing in the morning along with a multivitamin. I was already alarmingly small and my continued weight loss was an issue. So they’d serve me cans of Ensure three times a day. An extra 1,000 calories in my system definitely didn’t help my appetite come meal times. The red paper placemat at the bottom of my food tray meant that I needed to be closely monitored and I came so close to slamming the whole thing on the ground when I’d be interrogated as to why I didn’t eat all my food. I just did not give a f—k. I wanted to go home.

Family visitations began at 5pm. My family was there every single day, except for a time or two towards the end when I started turning my resentment their way and told them not to come. I didn’t want them to come watch me cry for two hours and then go home to sleep in their own beds. They couldn’t help me in there. They couldn’t get their own child out of that miserable place. My sister would sneak in my phone so that I could browse through my messages. Facebook was a cruel torture I couldn’t resist. Babies had been born, lives continued on, A. was smiling for photos. Meanwhile, I had to drop various projects and commitments because of my open-ended stay. I dropped out of the National Stationery Show just weeks before the big trade show. All that time and money, gone. Work wanted to know when I’d be back. Everyone was concerned and I could only imagine the questions that were floating around.

The guilt was strong whenever I had a good day though. I’d made friends quickly and before long had gathered a small clique of the 35-and-below crew. We ate all our meals together. We debated about religion and relationships. I would banter with the boys and laughed with them when the meds made them feel so loopy. In the evenings, we would compete for access to the computer and watched music videos on YouTube. We sat together during the various life skills sessions throughout the day and clowned around. We played ping pong before lunch and blasted the only radio and danced around the game room. When the beds were opened again for nap time, I’d take refuge in that one room with the radio and sing my heart out. I needed some way to purge the pain away and for me, that was through writing and music. This was necessary, I reminded myself. It felt like a mental health vacation.

“Fresh air” on the day’s schedule meant that the group would be escorted to the outdoor patio. I called it The Cage because of the green wire fence that rose up and curved over us as a reminder that we were not free. The cars on the Hudson River Parkway just below us went by so fast. I wished hard that I could be in one of them heading far away from this place. I counted the tiny Smart cars that zipped on past while I waited for one of them to rescue me.

“What is the first thing you’re going to do once you’re out?” we’d ask each other.

Some would mention their favorite meal, a particular place, sleeping in their own bed, or turning right back the vices that landed them there in the first place. Me? I wanted to run. Nowhere in particular. Just run.

But I didn’t run when I walked out of the hospital on May 1, 2015. I just grabbed my clothes, the shoelaces that were confiscated on my first day, the manila envelope stuffed with my paperwork and toiletries, and made my way to Dad’s car. I clicked on my seatbelt and we drove uptown towards home. I still didn’t feel free.

When I arrived at our apartment in the middle of his workday, I braced for what I felt would be a jarring scene, a quiet, half-empty home devoid of the life he and I had created together. No one knew when I'd finally be home, and I hadn't spoken to A. in days, but when I turned the key, I noticed that the front door wasn’t completely locked. I walked into our hallway and there he was, exhausted and hunched over his office chair, surrounded by boxes, waiting for the movers to arrive.


The first third

A muddy blur

Exploded into existence

It was an error to ignore all the tremors

Psychedelic love met resistance


Forced purgatory

For emotional surgery

Paper dreams went up in smoke

A summer in vain spent fanning the flames

But he took and she took and they took


Heart burned

Lessons learned

Feeling foolish because deep down I knew

Finally believing there’s no need to stay hidden

Though others left, my circle grew


Strum down

Twirl around

What would it have cost to be kind?

Mending and grieving via drawing and weaving

Cocooning with the butterflies


Goodbye and goodbye

With head held high

What a twisted end to this game

Cold shoulders and dark hours

I was bracing for a winter that never truly came


When a doctor led me into an interview room to assess my mental state, I told her what I thought she needed to hear in order to set me free. It’d been two days. I said I felt better. That no, I didn’t feel like killing myself anymore. That I was just really sad over the breakup. That I could continue recovering at home. That I would be safe.

She didn’t believe me.

She said that my intense reactions, overwhelming emotions, and tendency to self-harm in various ways could be indicative of a more serious underlying issue. I hugged my knees as she told me that I would not be going home that night either.

What would it take??

Eventually, a little flicker started to go off in my brain as I wondered if this could be what I’d been needing all along. If I couldn’t go back, then maybe there was something to find moving forward. No one knew how awful I’d felt most of my life. When my father was interviewed about my past behavior, he easily answered that I was mild-mannered and successful, focused and quiet, yes, but never violent. Only A. knew the extent of my suffering because he had to live through it with me. And I so wished he were there to comfort me as I sought my way through this mess, but he was gone. God knows where he was at that time.

Upon hearing that I would not be discharged, I decided there was no use hiding anymore. As I began unraveling before her, a voice told me I was only digging myself in a deeper hole; they’d never let me go now. Another told me this was my chance to finally get the help I needed. Years of going to therapy had done nothing for me; I still felt severely depressed. When I was hurt emotionally, I’d let myself "bleed out" until I’d finally grow empty and numb, absolutely exasperated with myself; I’d feel that deeply. I’d hold things in until they burst out in flames. I was constantly fighting against the mean voices in my head. Even in my happy days, the joy was short-lived. This dull ache was always lying underneath and I truly believed that a consistent happiness was just not in the cards for me. I will always sink back to sad.

I believed that if I just talked to someone long enough, an answer would suddenly appear and make things all better. This doctor, who I remember as being sweet and kind and beautiful, said there was never a plan with my methods. That was true, I wanted to figure it out all by myself and felt that therapy could unlock something for me. But I didn’t know that wasn’t enough. It was never going to be enough, and here I was finally facing that idea

It was the first time anyone had ever mentioned the words “mood disorder” as a reason for my behavior. Which? She couldn’t say, but she suggested the possibility of taking medication to help me cope with the surges in the meantime. After just a few months of being on antidepressants in my mid-20s, I had sworn I would never go on medication again; it was that awful of an experience. In a letter to A. describing this moment, I wrote:

“All this time I’ve wanted to tackle my issues without chemical assistance, but it’s been an exhausting uphill battle. Every single day I’m gritting my teeth, hoping I don’t fuck up. I am so tired. I just wanted to be free of this endless suffering. I was terrified, regretful, so many emotions. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I can’t do this anymore. I’m so scared, but while I talked to the doctor, I felt some hope that things could get better. That there’s an answer in all this.”

She also wanted to transfer me to an inpatient clinic within the hospital facilities where I could be monitored and have access to resources that would help me address my issues. I asked the important questions first.

“Will there be access to Internet?”

“Yes, and you can write from there or do art and other activities.”

Cut to me envisioning a mini staycation of sorts. I could have my laptop and keep working from my room or wherever there was a WiFi connection. There’d be a window with a view. I could paint and continue my ongoing art projects. And if I was struggling through anything, I’d have doctors available to get me through the hurdle. It sounded like mental health sleepaway camp! I


got to go to sleepaway camp!

I signed the agreement hoping that there would be a slot available for me soon, and took my first dose of mood stabilizers that evening. It was the first time in days that I’d been able to sleep soundly through the night - save for those wretched vital checks, of course.

The Triage

If you thought going through a breakup from the comfort of your own bed was tough enough, imagine trying to heal that heart from a hospital emergency room at one in the morning alongside a row of patients moaning through their own personal hell. That. Shit. Sucks. There’s no crying in peace when a thin, white bed sheet is all that separates you from the rest of this God forsaken triage.

It wasn’t until I’d recounted my story several times over that I figured I could deaden the pain by focusing on the people around me. One belligerent woman had to be strapped down and sedated after an unsuccessful suicide attempt involving a bunch of pills and a bottle of liquor. Somehow the woman was still very much alive and kicking and fully believing she was fit to walk out the door. “That’s going to be one God awful hangover in the morning,” I thought.

But where the hell was my family? I was sure they would start questioning their decision to bring me in after seeing the lot I was lumped in with here. See? At least I wasn’t


far gone! I wanted to go home, but no one was giving me any answers, just more of the same damn questions.

“Tell me what happened. Why were you brought in?”

“Did he hit you?”

“Have you ever done drugs?”

“Earlier you indicated that you were having suicidal thoughts. Are you still thinking of hurting yourself?”

“How are you feeling now?”

“We’re still waiting to hear back if you’re able to go home.”

I couldn’t tell you how long we waited in the emergency room; there was no clock and my cell phone had been confiscated along with everything else I’d worn in. My father and sister were still out in the waiting room and I’d catch glimpses of them walking by, trying to get answers from anyone. Because I was kept in a small communal area, my family couldn’t stay long with me, but I’d try and catch their attention whenever I saw them pass by the nurses’ station. I just wanted someone to come lie next to me, hug me, and tell me things would be okay. I wanted warmth. If I was going to feel this alone, I would have rather locked myself in my bedroom and curled up under the covers until the numbness took over. There was no sleep here.

At around four in the morning, another nurse came to transfer me to another holding area where I would stay through the rest of the night. I was cranky and not as happy to comply with their demands. Where were they taking me now? How long would I be there? And didn’t they know I had work to get to in the morning? Did they expect me to just suddenly stop my life over this?

Oh, did they.

I asked if they could at least bring me my phone to quickly shoot off a few vague emails along with a handwritten note to my sister on what she should tell my employers. They clearly didn’t want me to have these possessions for a second longer than necessary because as soon as I was done, they grabbed my things, gave them to my sister, and locked the hallway door behind them. Now it was just me and these fools.

I was ushered into a larger communal pen lined with reclining chairs and sleeping bodies. The area was dark save for the lights along the passageway the circled around the holding area. Security guards would check in on us from time to time, entering the pen through one side and exiting through the opposite end. I’d watch them come and go, come and go. I curled up on my chair, wrapping the oversized hospital gown around my cold feet, and then the blanket over every inch of me. Whenever I’d hear a rustle, I’d go on high alert, immediately stopping my sobbing to listen to what was going on in the darkness. At one point in the night, a shadow - one of the male patients - stood a few feet from my chair and just watched over me for a few minutes. I’m sure he just wanted to help somehow because I’d been crying and shaking so much, or at least that’s what I’m going to tell myself, but there was no way in hell I was falling asleep in that place. Days later, a patient I’d grow to befriend said she felt sorry and concerned when they first brought me in; I looked so sad, scared, and alone.

Oh, the snoring, wandering patients, people chatting, my constant vigilance; sleep deprivation was a given. Even if I had managed to doze off, those insufferable nurses would roll on through to check your vitals every three to four hours aaaall night and aaaall day. I didn’t brush my teeth for two days. I don’t remember caring.

I was thrilled to see that the woman with the shrill voice and colorful language from the emergency room had made the transfer over here as well. Absolutely fabulous really. Since I couldn’t run away from these people via reading or writing, I just sat and observed. I wanted to remember everything. Some of us were in there due to suicide attempts while others seemed to be addicted to one thing or another, led into this fine establishment by concerned family members who didn’t know what the hell to do with them anymore. Those struggling through withdrawals would cry out for their methadone doses, more nicotine gum, patches, food, more food! Soon I was one of them, getting my daily cancer medication in a teeny plastic cup at the beginning of each day. I was stuck in an endless reel of mealtimes and getting my vitals checked.

“No, thanks,” I’d say whenever the cart rolled by. “I’m not hungry.”

Secretly, I was starving.

Visitation hours were in three time blocks throughout the day, so my family was there three times a day without fail. It was comforting to see someone I knew. It helped break up the otherwise nothingness that filled those first couple of days. In my craving for connection, I befriended a distraught woman who was placed in the chair beside me. I so wanted a friend in there and we were…for about a day until she was transferred to a psychiatric institution somewhere north of the city. I made it a point to find her before she was wheeled off to the ambulance and hugged her goodbye.

I still think about her. I hope she also made it through.

"I Don't Feel Well..."

By the time my sister arrived an hour later, I’d started murmuring that I wanted to stop. I wanted to stop feeling. Feeling was taking too much out of me and I was so, so tired. She’d stroke my hair as I rested my head on her lap and ask what I meant by it. “I want it to end,” I said, dazed and numb from expending so much energy. “I don’t feel well…”

When she asked directly, “Dorkys, are you thinking of hurting yourself?” I couldn’t bring myself to say yes or no. This was my little sister. I couldn’t tell her, “Yes, you’re so close to losing me. I’m sorry. I just can’t care anymore.” I wasn’t ready for what an affirmative answer would bring, but I also knew better than to lie and say no. Answering, “I don’t feel well,” was my compromise. It was all she needed to hear.

What I wouldn’t give now to not have put her in that position. To not have yelled at her from the bathroom, “No! No! Please don’t!” while Dad hugged me so she could step out to call 911. "What are you doing?!" I kept crying out.

I absolutely hated them. I simultaneously wanted them to hug me and leave me alone. Why couldn’t they see that I was suffering through a heartbreak? I just needed more time to let it out. But even though I didn’t want to go to the hospital, something inside me kept me from saying I’d be okay. I did not think I’d be okay. I could not trust myself to be okay, which is why I didn’t run or lock myself in my room until this ride came to a screeching halt. I knew I was beyond their help.

This wasn’t the first time I’d struggled with suicidal thoughts. While I’ve never attempted to end my life, I’ve swirled the idea around in my head since I was a teenager. Suicide stories fascinated me and I can rattle off the pros and cons for various option. How did they do it? How much pain did they feel? What drove them to see death as the better option? And, did they succeed? The answer to that final question is one of the factors that have kept me from ever trying (along with the fact that I love my siblings too much to scar them in that way). As someone who’s terrified of even a needle prick, the idea of attempting and failing sounds like a fate worse than death. What if I end up trapped in my own body, my mind churning in a vessel that refuses to respond? What if I jump in front of an oncoming train only to have my limbs severed? Or what if I suffered the slow and painful decline that comes from renal failure caused by an overdose of painkillers? While I’m in the fog, it does seem enticing, just ending everything. No more pain, no more struggles, no more stressing over the bills, or deadlines and an overflowing inbox. Once it’s done, you’ll feel nothing. You won’t feel sadness, pain, or regret. It’s just *poof* over.

But I know that, for me, it’d be a cry for attention, for help, and the same is true for some others who’ve attempted suicide. They want someone to show up, to care, to save them from themselves, to remind them that this feeling won’t last forever. You forget, you know, that you will eventually return to better, and thinking of those who’ve regretted their decision soon after beginning a successful attempt hurts my heart.

I hated my family for sending me to the hospital, but could I blame them? I left them no choice. Here they were responding to my cry for help before I yelled out any louder. So when a small army of police and EMTs came to escort me outside (“We take suicide attempts very seriously,” one said.), I slowly got dressed, still wiping my face with my sleeves, and looked at my feet as I made my way down the stairs, confused, ashamed, and devastated that I didn’t know how to properly handle a breakup.