I’ve finally been writing all of the stories and memoirs from my past that I’ve always wanted to write, but I’ve just been writing random paragraphs or even just sentences as they come to me. Now I’m working on putting them in chronological order and cleaning them up. So here’s chapter one, “Psych Ward Royalty”
Perhaps I actually succeeded after all, I thought to myself, and this isn’t really my life now at all– it’s Hell.
That was at least one way to explain how it came to be that I was sitting there in the common room of the Hillcrest Inpatient Psychiatric Unit, tucked away in a corner by the nurse’s station away from the rest of the patients, in a hard plastic chair that seemed to have been expressly designed for discomfort and punishment. Someone had sat me there to wait while they gathered my files to prepare my intake paperwork– to await the moment when I would officially be an ‘inpatient’ while they prepared the files that would rob me of my freedom and most of my rights– but nearly thirty minutes had come and gone since then and still nobody had come to claim me. You know, looking back and considering all that I really was waiting on, you would think they could have offered me a more comfortable chair.
I had spent those thirty minutes observing some of the other people in the room, although I’m not sure that’s what you could call it. It was actually just a large space that connected the unit’s two wings– the great elbow joint of the psych ward– and served as a combination waiting room, lobby, visitation room, cafeteria, recreation center, and living room all at once, with the nurse’s station looming large and tall at the front of it all.
I observed the people that occupied this space with my vacant emotions ranging vaguely from disinterest to disgust– and underneath all, an overwhelming fear. The people gathered here were a mixed bunch, a few samples of all ages from both genders, and maybe one or two of them seemed like they might almost be as normal as me.. but most of the people I observed didn’t even seem like people at all, but more like ghosts, lost souls, or the exorcised demons of electroshock therapy. These wretches either shuffled around idly in bathrobes and slippers or loose-fitting hospital gowns (one man’s gown brazenly untied, his flat, milk-white ass on parade), or sat at tables fiddling with torn decks of cards or studying Find-A-Word puzzle books or simply staring at the walls, but their faces all shared the same defeated expressions, slackly open mouths and downcast eyes, and even their arms seemed to hang lifeless and heavy from their shoulders. Indeed, seeing so many people without a spark of life between them did little to help take away from my idea that I had never woken up from my experiment at all– that I was dead as well and this was the great waiting room of Hell. Maybe that’s why I’d been waiting so long, after all. It had nothing to do with unorganized files and unenthused staff, but they were simply summoning Satan himself to come and collect me. Certainly that would take some time, and was an honor I should appreciate. And to be honest, after all I’d just been through and the prospects of what lay ahead for me, that almost seemed a more comforting idea.
Hell wouldn’t be this cold, though, I reminded myself.
I shifted my weight in that cruel plastic chair and pulled my thin cotton blanket more tightly about my shoulders. It WAS unbelievably freezing in here– the cold was even seeping through my pajama pants from the chair to freeze my half-sleeping ass. My body gave a shiver and I sighed, wondering when someone would come to process me just so something different would happen. I gave up on my fantasy of Satan and scanned the small crowd in the common room again, looking for anyone who might prove to be a source of company, comfort, or entertainment. Someone else my age who wasn’t either completely insane or completely unintelligent; a nice grandmotherly figure who would look upon me with sympathy and soothe me while I cried; a gruff, smoky, middle aged woman who would be fun to commiserate and bitch with. At my last psych ward, I’d had several such friends, and it was their companionship that had gotten me through. We had kept each other laughing so often and loudly that at times my stomach would cramp up so hard I would end up doubled in half– and in places like these, that nervous, hysterical laughter was the water and air that kept you alive. It was either laugh hysterically or become hysteric. With those friends, my stint in the loony bin felt less like a reminder of my incompetence as a human being and more like a sleepover, and we threw a party in the common room when we were all luckily discharged on the same joyous day… Here, on the other hand, so far it seemed I’d have no such luck.
One of the nurses must have noticed me watching the people and mistaken my disdain for desire. “You can go on and join in with the other patients while you’re waiting, if you want to,” she said to me cheerily, in the tone a second grade teacher uses with a shy new student at recess. I looked at her and she smiled reassuringly, as if she thought I had been sitting there filled with anticipation and excitement, just dying to go join the catatonics in their drooling contest, but too scared of breaking the rules to leave my chair.
I gave her my recently trademarked vacant frown, and the smile slipped from her face for a moment. Just to ensure she didn’t suggest any other cheery socializing, I decided to drop my gaze to the floor and stare at my feet for awhile.
A few moments later, another pair of feet shuffled into my line of view. They were bundled in at least three pairs of hospital industry slipper socks, those ridiculously uncomfortable tube sock contraptions that are scratchy on the inside and covered in sticky strips for grip on the outside, and they had painfully swollen ankles that moved with the arthritic slowness of an old woman.
“Dr. Gabriel…” I heard the voice belonging to the feet croak out, and my face snapped up automatically, surprised at the sound of my name. Was this old woman crazy enough to mistake me for her doctor? My mouth opened dumbly to try and form some line of protest, but she continued to shuffle on past me to the nurse’s station without ever even having noticed my presence.
“Dr. Gabriel?” She said again when she’d finally reached the high counter. Only then did I notice the middle eastern man in doctor’s whites seated there shuffling through a stack of file folders. I noted the name tag on his jacket was printed “Dr. Ab Ghobrial”. Ghobrial, I thought, that can’t even be close to being pronounced as Gabriel. How could you be an inpatient at a psych ward and not know your own doctor’s name? The last time I’d been incarcerated in such a place, each patient spent an hour-long session, every single day, with his or her assigned doctor. I remembered my own sessions almost painfully, but they were crucial to recovery, and by the end of my stay I’d almost come to enjoy mine. I started to wonder if I’d be getting the same kind of program here, but then the doctor finally glanced up, his tan face plain and unremarkable, expressionless as well, and acknowledged her impatiently.
“Dr. Gabriel, could you please put an order in for me so the nurses will give me my tennis shoes? This floor, this floor is so cold on my feet, and with my arthritis my ankles–”
Well, maybe this woman’s just a little too batty to remember his name, I thought to myself. Surely if she thought she needed the doctor to write some sort of prescription just so she could wear tennis shoes, she had to have a couple more screws loose than usual. I never did get to find out what was going on with the arthritis in her ankles though, and neither did the doctor for that matter, because he silenced her with a wave of his hand.
“Yes, Linda, don’t worry,” he said in a heavily accented tongue. “I will put in the order before I leave so it will be processed over the weekend, no problem.”
The old woman named Linda looked as hurt as if he’d just insulted her. “The weekend?” she said in despair. “But doctor, it’s, today’s only Thursday. You mean I won’t get my shoes until Monday? And have to keep walking on this cold floor? My ankles are–”
“The Week End, Linda,” this doctor repeated, in a tone that brooked no more argument (and showed no more sympathy for her ankles). “I am going tonight and will not be here tomorrow Friday. The fastest the order can be processed is when I will return on the Monday. You will have the shoes then.”
I looked back down at my feet, shocked and terrified after hearing this exchange, and wondered just how much would be taken or denied from me. (However, it wouldn’t be long at all before I realized first hand just how little these doctors and nurses cared for the quality of life of their charges.) Looking at my feet, some panicked part of me thought I should go hide my sandals somehow before they were taken from me. Then I calmed myself, remembering that this wasn’t Nazi Germany and I wasn’t a Jew being hauled off to the work camps. Although didn’t they tell the Jews they were being sent to the camps for their own good, too? Even though I doubted my shoes would be taken from me, the cavalier behavior of that doctor continued to bother me. That Linda woman was obviously in pain– I could see that from the moment her swollen ankles invaded my view– and to make her wait from Thursday night until Monday afternoon just for shoes… I had already known from prior experience how three days in one of these places felt more like a week. And the doctor’s face hadn’t flinched once during the exchange, just kept that same look of impatience, waiting for her to go away so he could finish his paperwork. I began to worry if my own doctor would be as uncaring as that one, or if I should end up being assigned to his care myself, God forbid…
I wrapped that scratchy, cotton blanket around myself as tightly as I could, as if it were some cloak of protection, and my body shivered again. Until that moment, I didn’t realize how numb I’d really been, but now the reality of my situation was beginning to sink in with such a horrifying velocity I felt like I would vomit. I’d not even been there an hour, and already could tell I would be resigned to a stay (of an undetermined length of time) of freezing temperatures, bona fide lunatics, achingly dull loneliness, unorganized paperwork, incompetent or irritated staff, uncaring doctors, and to top it all off, I realized as my body gave a lurch and shivered again, it had been days since they’d given me ANY of my meds. I wrapped the blanket even tighter around myself, using all my strength to suppress the need to cry, and wiped the few tears that had gathered with my blanket-enfisted hand.
I don’t think there has ever been a moment, before or since, where I have felt so small.
“Corona?” A voice asked after another few minutes. “Gabrielle Corona?”
A common mistake when my name was read aloud, but this one flared an uncommon irritation– didn’t medical forms have my fucking gender listed next to my name? I sat, stubbornly, determined not to answer until I was properly called…
“Gabrielle Corona?” The nurse asked again, more loudly, with impatience.
…But the few emotions left in me didn’t gather enough energy for defiance. I stood up and wiped my nose. “It’s Gabriel,” I said, sniffing.
The nurse didn’t bother to acknowledge her mistake. She glanced up at me for barely a second from her file. “They’re ready for you,” she said to the stack of papers in her hand. “Follow me.”
I gathered all the courage I could muster, tightened my cotton blanket, and took a deep breath. The nurse had already turned on one foot and began walking without me, so I hurried to follow, and the cheap blanket, clenched with one hand at my throat, trailed behind me in my haste like some cloak of royalty.
That’s me, I thought, Psych Ward royalty.