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.