May 15, 2013
I’m in the jungle. That’s what they call this place. Several times a day, someone throws a chair at the chained double doors, and almost everyone talks to themselves. There’s lots of chatter, but no conversation. As of today, I look just as crazy. I pulled the bottom of my sweatshirt down and accidentally pulled my sweatpants down with it. My underwear got caught up in the melee, as well. The old lady behind me screamed, and everyone turned around before I could get my pants back up.
Later, a guy with a torrent of mucous pouring out of his nose asked if he could have a kiss. I went back to my room, pulled the covers over my head, and lay flat and still so the counselor would overlook me as she came around clapping in rhythm: “Group time is happy time! Group time is happy time!”
May 20, 2013
I got transferred to another hospital and at first I was relieved. This place is supposed to be one of the best in the country. But the staff here can’t stand us. They watch us do absolutely nothing all day with boredom and disdain. Each morning, we sit in a circle in front of a dry erase board and state our goals for the day. “Do something besides sit around,” I say. The counselor is not amused and my request goes unfulfilled. The only breaks in the monotony are the calls for meds. I don’t even know what I’m on anymore. Every place I go puts me on something new. But nothing changes.
May 28, 2013
They’re moving me again. They’re mad at me because I asked a grumpy psychiatrist if she’d ever been on any of these medications, ever experienced depression, had any compassion for the people she sits with for five minutes and medicates. “Do you want help or not?” she asked. “Not yours,” I said.
They put me in a van and dropped me off in front of a dilapidated building in the middle of an inner city neighborhood I’d never even heard of, then sped away. A woman came out and handed me a tiny plastic container of neon green liquid and a smooshed peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “Where am I?” I asked. “This is a homeless shelter,” she answered. “I’ll show you to your room.” The room was filled with dozens of bunk beds and screaming kids. “Don’t leave your stuff unattended,” she cautioned me. “It’ll get stolen.” I turned and went back out the front door and wandered around until I found a train. I have no idea where I’m going and nowhere to go.
June 2, 2013
I ended up calling someone and getting a ride to another “one of the best psychiatric hospitals in the country.” I don’t know why, but they didn’t want me. Insurance, maybe. They kept me in the waiting room for 17 hours before sending me back to the inner city in a van to this run-down former schoolhouse for psych ward rejects. I came in crying, so afraid and desperate. I told a counselor what happened. She took my hand and said, “Just give us a chance, baby. I bet you’re gonna get more help here than you would with the big wigs.”
They only had extra large sweatpants and sweatshirts left. I’ve rolled up the waistband and the bottoms of the pants as much as possible, but I’m drowning in navy blue polyester.
The food here is the worst I have ever encountered. It gets “catered in,” and they say the jail is right nearby, so I can only assume it’s catered by the jail. The first night they served “roast beef” and I made the haunting decision to eat it. It was cooked until almost black, except for the rim of mucous-colored fat. I immediately bit into gristle, and had to tug and yank it out of my teeth. This morning, we had flaccid, white pancakes with sugar-free syrup, fruit loops, and Sunny D. The rest of the meals are served with Kool-Aid, which the staff calls “juice.” Right now, I am eating dry cocoa puffs because they served collard greens so overcooked they just looked like soup.
In group therapy, a dozen male felons and two other women and I watch the counselors jump up and down like Baptist preachers, fall to their knees, and yell like we’re a congregation of hundreds about how if we can face our pain, we can survive anything. I’m learning about the difference between thoughts and feelings, and how the past has affected my brain. Each day, they ask us to rate our mood on a scale of 1 to 10. The first day I said 1, and each day the number has gone up by one. The highest I’ve gotten to is 7, but I don’t see it getting higher because I am still so apprehensive about the future.
My roommate, whom everyone calls “Momma,” soaks her wig in the bathtub and hangs her hand-washed underwear on the inside doorknob. She reads out loud to herself from the bible each night and so I’ve memorized most of Leviticus.
Our program is suspended on weekends, and there is nothing to do but watch hour after hour of ‘The Jeffersons’ and ‘Martin’ in the common room. A woman leans over and tells me she is on a new medication that makes her want to eat everything in sight. “If you put gravy on this chair, I’d eat the damn chair.” Today we played bingo and I won a trial size bottle of smelly lotion.
June 12, 2013
Most of the doctors at this shelter/residential mental health clinic worked with the Peace Corps or Doctors Without Borders. They wok here because they care, so I finally got decent treatment. They gave me a new diagnosis: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I don’t understand it. PTSD is for war veterans who’ve experienced much worse than I have. I don’t feel worthy of the diagnosis, but it qualifies me for a specialized trauma program in a major city nearby. It’s a completely different world here. Clean and bright. There’s even a salad bar.
There are a dozen women here, most of whom have had success in careers, marriages and as mothers. But they are stalked by old memories, whether vague or horrifically clear. Two left the military after being sexually assaulted, one was chased down by a gang of relatives and raped, one spent her childhood in a cage being sold to the highest bidder. They don’t talk about these things; I hear their nightmares through the walls night after sleepless night. I sleep only in group therapy where I can’t keep my eyes open. As soon as it’s over, I’m wide awake again. The counselors call it disassociation. Hearing and speaking about it is too much, or so they say.
Why now, after years of taking care of myself and keeping my demons at bay, am I inundated with nightmares, terrifying memories, nights of insomnia then days of sleep, waking up confused about where I am and what day it is, and strange sensations of disgust and fear in my body? Why do I shake and sweat and cry in my sleep? Why do these ghosts from my past continue to hunt me down twenty years later? Why do I have dreams about them that make me afraid to sleep? What will it take to get them to go away? I’ve never prayed in my life, but I’ve started praying. ‘I will do anything,’ I say. ‘Please. Just tell me.’
The only respite is art therapy. It seems silly and self-indulgent: painting and making jewelry boxes, but it’s the only time we laugh. We laugh at each other’s lack of artistic skill. I’m making a tote bag with a stenciled lizard.
June 15, 2013
There’s a young woman who rocks silently all day and has flashbacks at night. We sat next to each other today making beaded bracelets that we can roll into our palms to stay present. When I finished mine and slipped it over my wrist, it burst, spraying beads everywhere. I saw her smile for the first time. Then she handed her bracelet to me and I put it on, and it fit perfectly.
A chaplain visited the unit in the afternoon and sat in an office waiting for anyone who wanted to talk. The woman who gave me her bracelet said I was the only one she felt comfortable with and asked me to come with her. We sat across from him as she told him her story. She didn’t cry, and so I desperately tried not to. Then we waited for him to say something profound, something that would answer the question she posed: “Why did God let this happen to me?” The chaplain seemed over his head. He said, “We can’t always understand God’s plan for us.” Or something ridiculous like that.
‘He can’t understand,’ I thought. Looking at her feeling safe beside me, I said, “Maybe we go through these things so we can help other people, women like us, because we’re the only ones who can understand. Because who else would they talk to? Who else could help them?”
The chaplain said nothing, but the woman nodded. “Maybe.”
June 18, 2013
My therapist says trauma begets bad choices begets trauma begets bad choices and on and on and on. This is interspersed with bouts of stability, even success, but like an aggressive cancer in remission, eventually it finds you again.
“Look at all you’ve accomplished,” she says.
Yes, once I had a career. I saved lives, I had a husband, a beautiful house, a late model, silver Toyota Corolla. It means nothing now. I have no money, no job, nowhere to live, no dignity, and now I’ve lost my sanity. All that accomplishment, and in the end I’ve landed in this place with nothing. You can’t even have hope left to land in a place like this. It’s like a requirement: not caring anymore.
June 20, 2013
I’ll be discharged in a few days. They want me to continue in a day program. I’m not cured, and I don’t know when or how I will be. I only know that there are others like me: people who shatter, suddenly and inexplicably. No matter what brought us here, we haven’t learned to control it, but we acknowledge it’s there. It’s a book I still don’t want to read, but it’s open. I want to understand everything and face what happened so I can let it go, forgive myself and them. Or I want to come to peace with the possibility that I might never understand and move on. Neither seems possible right now.
My therapist went on vacation, and I met with someone new, a man. I’ve never talked to a male therapist. I’m not sure how, but for an hour he put the jumbled pieces of my brain into place. He showed me the first domino and the last, all lined up perfectly to fall into place. For just an hour, it made sense. I wasn’t lazy, or weak, or stupid or God’s mistake. I wasn’t going to get better by just getting more exercise, putting my alarm clock on the top shelf of my closet, eating more leafy, green vegetables, bucking up, pulling myself up by my own bootstraps, meditating, praying, drinking green tea, taking vitamins, putting it behind me, not thinking about it, or dozens of other well-meaning, but useless and judgmental advice from people who’ve been situationally depressed, but know nothing about chemical, chronic, crippling depression. They can’t imagine the never-ending black hole that people like me fall into. And when we think we can’t possibly go any farther, we fall even deeper.
This man is the first person who gave me a reprieve from the lifelong feeling that I came out wrong.
“It’s not your fault,” he said.
“I could’ve done something,” I said, “to save myself.”
“No.” He shook his head. “You couldn’t have.”
And you know what? I believed him.