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.