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Angels and Demons

Monday, August 24, 2009, 11 p.m.
The wheels on my wheelchair squeak as the nurse steers me up to the admitting desk. I sit silently, not afraid to move, but just unwilling. A woman behind a thick pane of glass peers at me over her black-rimmed glasses. She looks something up on her computer, nods, and hands me a bright green folder with the words “Welcome Packet” typed in big black letters on the front. Then she smiles and turns her attention back to counting a tray of small blue pills on the desk in front of her.

“You’ll have to say your goodbyes here,” instructs the nurse who pushed my wheelchair from the Emergency Room to here, the 6th Floor Mental Health Ward, all the while telling me in a soft voice that everything would be okay. That it was no wonder I had wound up in here tonight. That I just needed a little rest.

My mom, who has been silent during the elevator ride, gives me a hug that starts gently and ends with a tight squeeze that makes it hard to breath. She’s trying to look calm but her face is red and swollen from crying and she has two pairs of eyeglasses on top of her head.

“Just promise me you’ll get some rest,” she whispers in my ear. I muster up the energy to nod.

My head pounds from all the crying and screaming I’ve been doing for the last few hours.

“Some rest,” I think. “Yes, a rest sounds like just what I need.”

I accept a hug and a kiss from my husband, Chris. Then another nurse pivots my wheelchair and pushes me down the long white hallway, eventually turning into one of the rooms.

The room is pitch black except for a ray of moonlight peaking in through the mini blinds on the large window.

“Do you want to change before you go to bed?” the nurse whispers.

“No,” I reply as I transfer from the wheelchair to the bed.

Seemingly seconds later, I fall asleep in my clothes.


Several times that night, I awoke to a stream of light shining at me from the door. I could make out the figure of a nurse holding a flashlight. She shined it briefly on me, then across the room, and then she clicked off the flashlight and disappeared.

At the time, I didn’t have the energy to wonder what she was doing or why.

Only weeks later would the truth occur to me.

I was on suicide watch.


When I awoke that first morning, my contacts felt like glue on my eyeballs. I blinked and rubbed them for several minutes before I could finally see. And what I saw first was a neatly folded set of turquoise scrubs at the foot of my bed. I scanned the room; I was not alone; there was a female patient sleeping in the bed next to mine, her long, dirty blonde hair spilling onto her pillow.

“I am in a psychiatric ward,” I thought to myself. “I am a patient in a psychiatric ward.”

A “sane” person would likely be terrified or outraged to find herself in such a place.

But sitting there in that bed, I realized that I was neither.

I was just…numb. Exhausted.

I got out of bed and went into the bathroom where I could take a look at myself in the mirror. And I looked absolutely crazed. My hair was matted in some places and frizzed in others. My mascara had slipped right down my face, leaving dirty trails down my cheeks. My eyes were puffy and bloodshot.

“What in God’s name is happening?” I wondered. I felt completely disconnected from this image that was right in front of me.

I changed into the turquoise scrubs, ducked out of the bathroom and into the hallway. Not knowing if I was supposed to be out of my room, I looked both ways, and saw nobody. Toward my right appeared to be a large room so I tiptoed down to it.

The room was dimly lit. It smelled like eggs and over-percolated coffee. At the entrance was a cart filled with neatly shrink-wrapped breakfast trays. At the top of the cart someone had taped a piece of paper that read “ISOLATION” in big red letters.

I stood there, pondering the meaning of the sign, as another patient dressed in turquoise scrubs walked in behind me, scanned through the trays, found one with his name on it, and proceeded to find a seat at the long table in the center of the room.

I did the same.

“It would sure be nice if they could open one little window so we could all breath,” he said in a raspy voice.

The TV blared from across the room; Matt Lauer was wishing Al Roker a happy 55th birthday.

I started to unwrap my eggs and coffee, disappointed to see that it was decaf.


After breakfast, I returned to my room. That word ISOLATION was tossing and turning around in my head uncomfortably. I didn’t like the word. It made me feel trapped.

“But I’m not trapped,” I decided. “…am I?”

My mysterious roommate was still sleeping so I sat on my bed and began flipping through the contents of my “Welcome Packet.” The top sheet was a daily schedule and, according to it, I was supposed to attend my first group meeting that morning. The topic was setting boundaries. Unsure of what time it was and not wanting to be there when my roommate woke up, I walked back down to the large community room and took a seat in a dingy brown chair. It was quiet and stuffy. I picked up a year old, slightly sticky, People magazine.

Gradually, other patients began arriving. First, a short man with a receding hairline and unfortunate gigantic eyes. He looked as if he’d been crying.

Then a 20-something year old man with greasy black hair and tinted glasses slunk into the room and plopped down into a chair, mumbling to himself.

“He talks to angels,” the first man said matter-of-factly.

Then a plump woman with coarse gray hair and a huge mole on her face arrived. As we waited for the meeting to begin, she talked to us about how her cats had been the reason she checked in here instead of killing herself.

Lastly, a woman with Botox filled lips, huge fake breasts and dirty blonde hair breezed in, smiling from ear to ear and sipping on coffee.

My roommate.

At last the meeting leader, a licensed psychiatrist I guessed, arrived. She asked everyone to go around and tell why they were here; sort of like a new pottery class or Weight Watchers meeting.

Several of the patients were court ordered to be there.

My roommate answered flippantly that she was just getting really good at trying to kill herself.

When it was my turn, I said, “I’m here because my daughter died and I’m just really…tired.”

The room was silent except for the hum of the air conditioner trying to keep up.


After that first meeting, I decided I wanted to go home. The other patients were clearly grappling with some intense mental disturbances while I had just had what I thought was a simple panic attack; in fact, I was already beginning to feel better I decided.

I walked to the front desk and calmly stated to the nurse behind the desk that I was ready to leave.

“You are more than welcome to leave,” she said. “If you leave without approval, your insurance won’t cover this portion of your stay, which could amount to thousands of dollars.”

I was trapped after all.


My stay in the psychiatric ward would span four days, most of which was spent going to group meetings, decorating birdhouses and making jewelry in the crafting room, and waiting to meet with my assigned psychiatrist. The psychiatrists, I had learned, were the only ones who had the power to release patients. But they never seemed to be around. When they were, they were swarmed by patients and retreated to meeting rooms like celebrities fighting off the paparazzi.


On my third day there, I was finally able to meet with the psychiatrist. He looked over the notes in my file as I sat nervously awaiting my fate.

“So how do you feel?” he asked, pushing his glasses up higher on his nose.

“Much better” I replied.

“So no thoughts of hurting yourself?”

“No, absolutely not,” I replied.

He made some notes in my file and then he sat back in his chair and looked at me.

“Make an appointment with me when you get out of here. We’ll get you on something to help with the anxiety.”

And with that, he stood up and was gone.


It took another day for them to arrange for my release. “Paperwork,” the nurse told me when I asked about the delay.

But at last, it was time for me to get out.

I waited by the admitting desk, eager to see who would pick me up. Nearby, the patient who had been in conversation with the angels and more recently, the demons, had officially gone off the deep end. Four nurses and one man were struggling to strap his flailing body to a gurney while a fifth nurse rushed over to give him a shot in his arm.

My chest tightened and I felt as if I might throw up. I turned away and looked out the little window in the big heavy door, just as Chris was walking toward me from down the hall carrying a bunch of flowers.

It was all I could do to keep from clawing at the door and screaming for him.


It was the loneliest and most scared I’ve ever been, being in that ward. Everything was unstable – like something catastrophic could happen at any second. The heavy metal security doors, the shower curtain with fabric rings, the craft hour where scissors weren’t allowed, the pacing patients talking to themselves, and that flashlight that was shone in my eyes every 30 minutes throughout the night -the feeling of being a caged animal, a prey among hungry predators, will haunt me forever.

Faith’s Lodge

An excerpt from my manuscript…

After the funeral service our Pastor had given us an envelope and told us to open it as soon as we felt ready for some information on a healing retreat. The envelope got lost in the shuffle of all the cards and gifts, but I found it one day while I was filling Sophia’s new hope chest with all of her belongings.

Inside the envelope was a brochure about a place called Faith’s Lodge. A North Woods retreat where parents who had lost a child could go to reflect on the past and gain strength for the future. It looked like a beautiful facility and so Chris and I agreed to give it a try. After getting the necessary papers signed by our Pastor, we booked a week at the lodge in March – six months after Sophia died.

My mom and dad, who were taking care of Annabelle, waved nervously as we drove off to Danbury, Wisconsin, where the lodge was located. Chris and I were apprehensive as well.

“So what, are we going to have to meet with counselors and watch videos on grief all week?” Chris said about 20 minutes into the two-hour drive.

“What do you think the other couples will be like?” I responded. “Do you think anyone else will have a SIDS baby?”

“Do you think we can bring beer?” Chris wondered out loud.

After agreeing that surely it wasn’t prohibited, we stopped at a liquor store for some “liquid courage,” which we later smuggled into the lodge under a blanket.

From the moment we drove up to the lodge, we felt an overwhelming sense of peace. The long driveway was canopied by bright white birch trees that shook gently in the breeze. Rounding the curve that led up to the lodge we passed a sign that read “Path of Inspiration,” and heard the gentle notes of a wind chime in the distance. The lodge was enormous and beautiful and serene looking. We parked the car and walked in through the front door, where we were greeted as “Sophia’s Parents.” I knew then and there that we were in a very special place.

Chris and I were the only guests for the first couple of days so we spent our time walking through the woods, golfing, and sipping wine out on the front porch overlooking a tranquil pond covered in water lilies. The lodge was made up of private suites that each had their own fireplace with a cozy sitting area, private patio or balcony, and plush beds with fancy mattress settings.

On Thursday, the other guests began appearing (with their own liquid courage covered in blankets!) And almost immediately, Chris and I felt a connection to these other couples. We recognized the looks on their faces, their apprehension over being in this place. The sadness, the loneliness, the hopelessness. The mothers embraced and the fathers shook hands.
Each couple had brought items that reminded us of our children, and we setup a tribute area for all of the things in the room off the kitchen. Throughout the week we would wander past the photos and blankets and journals and learn about these other children who had been taken too early. One baby had died from Trisomy 13, a chromosomal abnormality. Another had passed away at birth with no explanation as to why. There was as set of conjoined twins that lived for just hours after birth. And two babies who had died from SIDS.

The week was beyond our wildest imagination. The mothers sat sipping wine and telling of how their children had died; what they had buried or cremated with them; we talked about how none of us were scared to die anymore because we knew we would be with our babies; we spoke of all the things that we couldn’t speak of with other, non-bereaved, parents. The mothers made keepsake jewelry while the dads gathered in the porch area and constructed wooden planters.

As couples we each decorated birdhouses which could be used in our memory gardens or left at the lodge (we hung ours in our cabin near the tree where Sophia liked to swing.) We decorated heart-shaped stones with the names of our children and set the stones around a bridge down by the lake.

By the time Sunday came, we didn’t want to leave. We were kindred souls with these other couples – they understood us and what we were going through – they spoke our language of loss.

We did eventually have to leave Faith’s Lodge, but over the next four years, we would become involved in an outreach committee, hold a number of fundraising events to benefit the lodge, and ultimately, dedicate the bridge that was surrounded in heart-shaped stones, to our sweet Sophia.