I waited there for hours. They never showed.
• • •
Later that afternoon of my first day in the hospital, the door swung open, and the ward, which had been quiet and inactive, was filled with the voices of the returning patients, loud with their achievement of temporary freedom and intimidating in their sheer numbers and togetherness. I was surprised that most of them looked like regular kids up close. I don’t know what I was expecting.
They said polite but not particularly friendly hellos to me and then split up into smaller clusters and whispered to each other and glanced over at me while I pretended not to notice. It was only when night descended and I’d been in the common area long enough to become a familiar object in the room that they began to approach me and to ask me what I was in for. I told them it was all a misunderstanding, that I’d be out by the weekend. They all laughed. Every single one of them laughed when I said that.
It didn’t take much longer for them to tell me their own reasons for being there—stories that, in the mere hearing of them, made me older than I was ready to be. There was fifteen-year-old Eric, dark skinned with braces, whose father had walked into his bedroom one night, put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Eric was diagnosed with “behavior disorder,” as if there was a right way to behave after something like that. Fourteen-year-old Shelly was pale and fragile as a cloud with a neat row of razor-blade scars up both of her wrists. She was raped by her father’s best friend at a picnic, but no one in her family believed her, so she kept trying to die. Sweet, stuttering twelve-year-old Brian was born of heroin addicts and had never, to anyone’s knowledge, received a single phone call or letter or visit from anyone.
I sat and listened to these stories, all the while struggling against my own terror as if I were sitting on the steep ledge of myself and trying not to look down into the void. It wasn’t just the sadness of their lives that horrified me. It was the fact that most of these kids had been here for a long time, locked up in this place where no touch was allowed, where you couldn’t blow-dry your own hair without supervision, where every right was stolen, and yet, none of them seemed to mind all that much. This locked-down, lifeless hallway had become more comfortable to them than the outside world.
It was 10:00 P.M. before I was allowed to go to my room, away from the watchful eyes of the staff. Nurse Kay escorted me there, and I followed, dazed and disbelieving. Just that morning I had woken up in my own bed, and now I was going to sleep in an insane asylum. I reached my room and put on the hospital scrubs they had provided as pajamas. I climbed into bed, thinking it would be a relief to finally be by myself, but the darkness stared back at me, filled with strange shadows and the reality of abandonment.
From a window above mine, an old lady’s voice croaked, “Help me!” over and over into the pitiless night.
A few minutes later a flashlight shined in my face. “Fifteen-minute room check,” a nurse said. “Just making sure you’re still alive.”
Define alive, I thought.
IN THOSE FIRST few months of my hospital stay, I rarely left my self-appointed position at the window in the common room. I watched the sky change, the days newly bright and scented with spring, the nights softening after a brittle, cold winter. I’d close my eyes and imagine what my friends back in Pennsylvania were doing, what the second half of the school year was like, all the fun things I was missing. I pressed my face up to the steel screen, and I waited for my mother to come take me home.
I didn’t eat much, couldn’t bear to swallow over the perpetual lump in my throat. The nurses kept threatening me with an IV if I didn’t stop losing weight, but I did not know this body that was trapped here in a loony bin and I did not want to feed it. I wanted to shed it, to slip away from it, felt as imprisoned by my body as I was by the locked doors. I wanted out of the hospital and out of my gray, bottomless despair. I cried myself to sleep each night, torn between the relief of dreams and the fear of waking to discover that the nightmare was real. Each new day was like coming to in the middle of the ocean to find that the ship has left.
I wanted my mother. That powerful and primal longing for her bubbled up constantly against my will, leaving me with the paradox of wanting to be rescued by the very person who had imprisoned me. I did not want to wish for her. And yet, to not wish for her—the one person who could reverse my situation—was to surrender all hope. She was my torturer and also my potential savior, and since it was impossible for her to be both at once, my thoughts became hopelessly ensnared, spinning and slamming into walls at every turn like a bug in a jar. To hope was to believe that my mother was good and that she loved me and that soon she would come take me home. But that would require me to accept that I was bad, that I deserved to be there, that it was all my fault. On the other hand, if I maintained my experience of her as tormenter, I could hold on to my sense of self and truth, but I had to give up all comfort, reconcile myself to the despair of nothingness and nobody there and nobody coming and no way out.
• • •
I celebrated my sixteenth birthday with a piece of cafeteria cake and a bunch of mental patients. I received a postcard saying that my uncle Billy had died of cancer. I started forgetting the names of streets in my neighborhood, and how it felt to ride in a car, or sit in a movie theater and wait for the lights to dim.
Eventually my parents did come to visit, if only for appearances. My father would sink deep and low in a chair, almost swallowed by it, his face tight and strained, while my mother blew in behind him as if the sun had followed her inside, blinding her to the darkness around her, acting as if this place, my being here, this horror, had nothing to do with her.
On one of their first visits, she told me they were moving. My father had just received a huge promotion at work, elevated to a level beyond his competency, she said, but they finally had enough money for a house on the right side of town, where my mother had always felt she belonged. She seemed happy, untouched by my absence, talked at me about all the great things Matthew was experiencing in college as if the words wouldn’t cut. Sometimes Gavin came with them, bearing colorful drawings and eyes full of love and innocence that seemed to fill the depressing hallways with life. Matthew never came. He was embarrassed, my mother said, to have a sister in a mental hospital.