Portrait of my time in a mental health hospital
There is one way in and one way out of the psych ward. A yellow line is drawn on the worn tile floor, twenty feet inside the doors that slide open when the doctor swipes his identification card across a panel. I am somehow aware that once I cross this line, there will be no crossing back over it without permission. Beyond the line is the nurse’s station, a large room encased with thick glass windows for walls. Stepping up to the intake reminds me of late-night runs for cigarettes, the convenience store clerk safely taking orders behind a bulletproof enclosure.
I’m standing in the middle of an intersection with four hallways; to my right is a long, sterile hallway with a series of open doors; to my left is a hallway leading to a lounge area. And, in front of me, a shorter corridor that leads beyond the nurse’s station, away from my freedom.
Guiding me through the shorter route from the intersection, passed the nurse’s station, I notice yet another hallway extending to the right with another series of doors, identical to the first. It becomes clear that this is facility is one large rectangle, built around the intersection at the entrance and the nurse’s station. The doctor makes a left and guides me into a private room. He tells me to remove my shoelaces and the string in the waistband of my sweatpants.
“This is for patient safety. We do not allow anything in the center that can be used to harm one’s self,” the doctor says as though he is reading from a script.
He asks me to take a seat. Pulling out a clipboard, he rattles off a list of questions long enough to make me believe it will be time for my discharge when he finishes.
Yes, I’ve considered suicide. No, I do not currently want to end my life. Yes, I’ve experienced much loss due to substance abuse — a job, yes; relationships, yes; money, yes; a home, yes. No, I have no history of violence, but don’t ask my family that question.
The list includes dozens of variations on the same questions.
“Okay,” the doctor says, sounding like our time is finally coming to an end, “You and I will meet twice a week, and we will test your medication levels at the beginning of each week.”
“How long you think I’ll be here?”
“We can’t say exactly. It depends on your medication levels.”
“A few days?”
“Some patients are here for only a few days. Most are here for longer.”
“Cool. You won’t need more than a few days for me.”
Holding my pants up by the waist, I follow behind the nurse who directs me to my room. There are two twin-sized beds. A man who appears to be in his mid-fifties sits at the end of the first bed. He holds his legs to his chest and stares blankly at the wall in front of him. I am forced to walk directly through the path of his gaze to reach my bed on the far side of the room. He does not flinch, eyes peering through me as though I am no obstacle to whatever vista is running through his mind.
“The door is to remain open at all times. An attendant will be positioned outside in the evening, in case any issues arise,” the nurse tells me as she stands in the doorway.
“Your roommate has been assigned a sitter for the evenings.”
When I ask why the person who will be sleeping less than five feet from me has been assigned someone to observe him every evening, the nurse tells me that patient information is confidential. Now it feels as though my shoelaces would be safer.
On the fourth day, I anxiously ask the doctor during our meeting, “So, are you releasing me today?”
“That’s not why we are meeting.”
“But you know I’m not a threat to myself or anyone else. There is no need for me to be in this place.”
“It’s not that simple, Jeremiah.”
Unfortunately, convincing this doctor isn’t as easy as the doctors from the crisis center. He explains to me that they must wait for confirmation that there are no adverse side effects from the medication. More importantly, the medicines must reach a therapeutic level to assess whether or not the treatment is benefitting me.
He then goes on to say, “And we encountered an issue. We were not fully aware of the severity of your alcohol abuse. Due to your history, we have to change your medication. If you were to relapse on the current medication, it is doubtful you would survive.”
Doctors admitted me to the center based on my recent expression of self-harm and placed on the most common medication for bi-polar: lithium carbonate. Switching the medication means my stay here will be much longer than anticipated. It will be another week before they test my blood again, and there is no guarantee the medication will be at therapeutic levels. Bureaucracy has extended my stay from days to weeks.