The Institution on Saturday

I woke up to a girl screaming bloody murder in the middle of the night. I could tell it was coming from the other ward and, fortunately for me, it wasn’t my roommate, who was fast asleep and not bothered by the screaming at all. I, of course, was horrified. It was bad enough that I was sharing a room with a stranger, but I was actually scared of being around people that crazy. I was still pretty fucked up at this point (when I checked in I was high as a kite and not coming down any time soon) so it wasn’t hard for me to fall back asleep.

This was my first inpatient hospitalization (little did I know, it wouldn’t be my last). It’s the worst hospitalization I’ve had, and probably because it was my first. By the second go-round I’d resigned myself to the system. Before I checked in, the idea of checking in somewhere for a few days had been nagging at me, and the nagging got louder as my unprovoked crying jags became more frequent. I had been crying for almost 12 hours by the time they brought me to my room in the hospital, around 7:00 pm on a Friday. It was Fall Break and my roommate was gone for the week. Most of my friends were out of town or working on an appellate brief for moot court, which I was not involved in, and the Werewolf and I had decided to take a break from each other (and drugs). We’d been going pretty hard for a few months and the binges were getting progressively longer and more intense. I was fine with the break from him, but I felt no need to cut myself off from everything. I just learned to do drugs by myself.

The hospitalization did not meet my expectations. Looking back, a few of these expectations were silly and unrealistic. (For some reason I thought I’d have my own room, that there would be someone assigned to tend to me, and that it would be a nice little break from the world, where I could catch up on school in peace.) Not only did I have to share a room with someone (who actually turned out to be a pretty great roommate: not loud, slept normally, and diligent hygienically) but the “bed” that I was supposed to sleep on was not a bed. At least it shouldn’t have been.

Everyone complains about shitty hospital beds and futon pads etc., but when you sat on this thing, this sham of a bed, it felt like a park bench. With a mattress 6 inches thick and nicely rounded, it deceptively looked like a satisfactory institutional bed. But that mattress was not satisfactory. I don’t know how they make those things but that mattress was solid. It was incapable of being bounced upon because the mattress had no give– it was like a block of wood. The bed was easily made tolerable with a thick cushion pad. But you had to get special approval from your doctor to have one, because the pads were for people with back problems. Luckily for me, I actually did (and do) have a back problem. Unluckily for me, I couldn’t get one of the pads because, by the time I was sober enough to realize that the bed was a problem, it was Saturday. And on the weekends, everything comes to a halt and nothing gets done– not even simple, infuriating, administrative procedures. There are no scheduled activities, the doctors do not come and, worst of all, you cannot leave.

This was a problem I had not anticipated. By voluntarily checking myself into a psychiatric hospital, I assumed I’d be free to leave. And I wanted to leave. I woke up the next morning and by the end of breakfast, I was sure I was ready to go back home. Unfortunately, that wasn’t how things played out.

I was woken up around 7:00 am (how I ever managed to sleep on that bed is a mystery) when a nurse opened our door and announced that it was time for “breakfast and vitals, and then group.” I did not really know what this meant, but it didn’t seem like it was optional. So I got up. Breakfast was in the main room of the ward. Although it was a really big room it was the only one the ward. There were a couple of 6 person folding tables surrounded by folded chairs, all strung together towards the back; a few couches and recliners near the entrance, facing the 40″ rounded screen TV; some bookcases full of paperbacks, mostly vapid romance novels and bad fiction; and videos– not DVDs– video cassettes that you could play in the VCR under the TV. There was also a nurse’s station off to the side and a craft room that was kept locked. I sat as far away from everyone as I could, avoided eye contact, and waited until a nurse handed me my tray. I took off the lid to assess it’s edibility. Outlook not good. I’d gotten some “coffee” before I sat down and promptly learned that it was decaf. It was bad enough that they only had powdered creamer, but the caffeine-less coffee was just unbearable. It was bad enough to be stuck there with no phone, no internet, no computer, no drugs, no alcohol, no cigarettes–and so the decaf only coffee just made me feel shitty. Breakfast was a bust.

I was surrounded by strangers, all either nurses or fellow ward-mates. I glanced around to scope things out, trying not to stare at anyone. Not very many people looked super out of it, and almost everyone else looked either sad, content, miserable, or barely awake. And we all looked pretty rough. It was a general consensus that the food was inedible but certain people found certain dishes more tolerable than others. So trading began. I tried to stay out of it and was antsy for information about how I could check out. I picked at a few things on the tray, ate the fruit, put the lid back on, and took it back to the cart.

Since I got done early, one of the nurses came around to take my “vitals,” which included temp, blood pressure, that thing they put on your index finger, and questions like whether you’ve had a bowel movement in the past 24 hours. I was pretty confused about why they were taking these, it wasn’t really explained, it was just something you submitted to. He made some notes and rolled his cart away to the next patient.

We were instructed to wait at the table after we’d finished eating so we could get our meds and start “group.” “Group” meant getting a worksheet (the same one every morning), having quiet time to fill it out (and your “goals” for the day), and then sharing your paper out loud to everyone. My goal was to go home and I started crying when I was reading mine, not such a good move when you’re trying to convince people you’re sane. After everyone went, we turned the papers in and we were free. The next time for assembly would be snack time– yes, snack time– at about 10:00 am. All of this was technically optional, including meals. You could just sleep all day and that would be fine, as long as you woke up to take your meds. But staying in bed all day was not a good move if you wanted to go home soon. The nurses watched you all day and everyone was assigned a specific nurse, morning and night. Your nurse gave you your meds, checked in with you about how you were feeling, and they were the person you were supposed to go to first with questions or problems. And the nurses keep track of what each person does, all day, and they make notes about their impressions of our moods and improvements (or the opposite). This means that to get out, you have to appear happy and sane at all times, even if you’re feeling neither happy nor sane, because the nurses keep track of what goes on and the doctors consider the reports seriously.

The Formula for Release: Go to Group, meals, snacks + Take only one nap a day (preferably a short one) + no crying (even if you really need to)+ engage socially and positively with other ward-mates + act happy (even if you’re far from it) = Release aka Freedom. There’s a problem in there…..

On top of that, there was not a lot to do. If you didn’t want to sleep all day your options were: watch TV (basic cable and the channel had to be agreed on by everyone who wanted to watch)(it usually ended being something lame), read a book from one of the book cases (if you weren’t lucky enough to have your own, or to have had someone bring you your own), play one of the raggedy board games (not a popular choice), play cards, stare at the walls, go out into the hall and talk on the phone- at one of the two designated phone stations–(but not for more than ten minutes!), journal in one of the little notebooks provided, or color. Yep, color. I ended up doing a lot of coloring. If I wasn’t in my room crying, in my room sleeping (still miraculous with that atrocity of a bed), or making frantic, crying phone calls to my therapist and friends, I was coloring. Out of all the options, coloring was my best choice. I accepted and resigned myself to the fact that I would be spending my days coloring for hours just to pass the time, and I just colored.

The ward had a respectable collection of markers, crayons, colored pencils, and coloring paraphernalia. There were two baskets of magic markers (the skinny kind and the regular), boxes of Crayola crayons (the good ones), and an assortment of–sharpened– colored pencils. Pens were harder to get. There were also stacks of big children’s coloring books– the good kind, with Disney characters or dinosaurs or the Easter Bunny. My favorite though was the stack of black and white, psychedelic-style, patterns/outlines printed on white computer paper. They were perfectly geometrical yet trippy and had the perfect amount of space between the lines and shapes for coloring. Before I discovered those, I’d been doing an intense, geometrical yet abstract, page sized doodle. These are my specialty. Ideally, they can’t be completed in one sitting and involve pointed interest to detail. They’re weird but also weirdly soothing for me and at times I do them compulsively.

I quickly switched to the patterns once a fellow patient (inmate seems more accurate) showed me where the stack was neatly arranged by the window and pointed out the cool pattern ones to me. Completing one of these, and making it look respectable, involved some planning before the actual coloring could began. I, of course, wanted to make a respectable one. The good ones were taped to the wall with the other colorings that had also been singled out for this special display. Once I’d judged the size and intricacy of the pattern I had chosen, I knew it was going to take more than one sitting to complete. Perfect. I selected my colors (I had already considered my color scheme and decided that I would use most of the markers in completing mine), cleared of a swath of the table, and settled into my activity. The activity I would use to pass an entire weekend’s worth of time.

And that’s how I managed to spend an entire weekend just coloring. My first weekend of inpatient treatment at a psychiatric hospital.


As always, feel free to contact me with any comments/questions/concerns you may have, or if you just want to drop me a line to say hi!  


7 responses to “The Institution on Saturday

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