This was intake. The nametag-wearing professionals were trying to figure out where I belonged. I secretly wished them luck.
Intake Person: So what floor do you think would be best for you?
Me: Blank stare.
Intake Person: Any idea?
Me: Um, I guess I’m not really sure where I should go. What are my choices again?
I was about to learn there was a floor for:
- Mood disorders, which housed people with depression and other more frightening conditions.
- Addicts and alcoholics.
- Eating disorders.
- Kids 18 and under, who had any combination of the aforementioned issues.
There was also a “general hospital” part, which I’m guessing was nothing like the soap opera.
In my infinite wisdom I determined that my drinking habits were not those of an alcoholic. Sure, there was a keg in my parents’ garage at the moment, but hosting a couple keggers when your parents are vacationing in the Caribbean does not an alcoholic make—I’m sure you've seen Risky Business? I wasn’t a drug addict either. In recent days I’d smoked a little pot, but if I were to end up on a floor with actual drug addicts, they’d all laugh—I didn’t even have a dealer. The only drugs I took on a regular basis were the ones my psychiatrist prescribed. And while I was probably depressed, I had recently dropped out of college, moved back in with my parents and taken a job at the mall—clinical depression seemed totally in line with my station in life as a smock-wearing bulk-candy salesperson.
Was I depressed enough to end up on a mood disorder floor? I really couldn’t say.
As I sat there talking to a stranger in the middle of the night about what kind of crazy with which I most identified, I felt some pressure to steer the conversation just right. I was more than willing to concede that I was in need of care, but I wasn’t convinced there was a place for someone with such confusing overlapping symptoms that came and went with great irregularity. Obviously mine was a complicated, confounding case sure to put the hospital staff through its paces—boy, did I believe my own hype. Five measly months earlier I would have gone directly to the kiddie floor without passing go. Maybe we could all pretend that I was still a child for whom decisions of this magnitude should be made? Nope. The world, and consequently this hospital, said I was an adult who had to choose which kind of crazy I was for myself … so I said:
“I guess I’ll go to the Eating Disorder Unit.”
It was as reasonable a place for me to end up as any, because yes, I had one or two or three or four textbook eating disorders at various times in recent years. But, more importantly, I wanted to go to that unit because I thought it was safe, predictable and that other people would be able to make sense of my having been there once this was all over. Controlling the narrative was going to be important. Being able to say that I had been in treatment for an eating disorder would sure beat having to say, here’s the thing: I thought I was going crazy; not “upper-middle-class, white-girl- crazy,” but, “holy sh*t, I might need a rubber room and some Thorazine crazy,” so I drove to the ER because the idea of offing myself was really starting to take hold. But, I’m all-good now. It appears to have been a false alarm. So how’s your summer been? What did you decide to major in? Seeing anybody? Yep, Eating Disorder Unit was definitely the way to go.
There was no scenario in which Thorazine-girl could trump anorexic-girl. Thorazine-girl is universally bad. She’s scary … all stigma and no style. Fact is: there are always going to be people who are afraid to stand next to her on a subway platform. They’ll never say so out loud, but they’ll think it. And as much as the world will fear Thorazine-girl, they’ll embrace anorexic-girl. She’s cool, she’s skinny, she’s passive with a side of aggressive, but she cannot leap tall buildings in a single bound, or even stand up tall for long, because she’s pretty weak on account of all that starving.
I wanted to be anorexic-girl. Everybody knows (nobody who is normal knows this) some eating disorders are way bigger sources of pride than others and I really liked the idea of being anorexic. There were times that I liked it so well, I was able to become it, but mostly it was just off in the distance like Sasquatch or a f*cking unicorn. I felt best about myself when I was behaving anorexically, but I was rarely able to be that girl for very long. I was close enough sometimes ... off and on … sort of … on my best days. But since the narrative was mine to control, it was going to go like this:
I am a complicated girl with complicated eating issues worthy of your sad, pouty face and scrunched, confused forehead. Worry about me. Feel sorry for me. Wonder if I’m going to be okay. Talk about me behind my back and say things like: “she’s so pale and thin.”
It seemed important at the time that I end up on the floor with the sad skinnies and not the violent scaries, so I made it happen. Would my life be any different today if I had ended up on another floor? My guess is no. Before I was to get where I was going, though, I found myself perched, uncertain and afraid, on a paper-covered table in a bare bones exam room. The person who was in it with me asked two memorable questions:
1) Do you have any weapons, and 2) Why do you have so many unopened paychecks in your purse?
Weapons?! I honestly balked at the notion of weapons. I had never seen a firearm in my life. I didn’t even know people who hunted. And the paychecks from my job at the buy-in-bulk-candy-store that were folded up in my black hole of a purse, I didn’t realize that they were in there. I proceeded to open them so that they could be documented with the rest of my belongings. It turns out I was hoarding several hundred dollars.
It was clear to me that my money was no good here—apparently it was unusual that I had shown up with so much of it. It had to be locked in a safe with other things like lighters and cigarettes, neither of which I had, but for which I would have sold my soul. The paychecks, well those meant nothing to me. I would have signed them over to any man, woman or child right then and there. Money was no good where I had come from either—that’s why I hadn’t bothered cashing those checks I suppose. I already had enough money to get what I needed: food, a keg, shoes … and pants with increasingly smaller sizes on their labels. No amount of money, or the things that I had used it to purchase, had given me any relief.
Other than that purse and its contents that they were cataloging and locking up for safekeeping, just like they were about to do me, I had nothing—no toothbrush, clean underwear or tampons. I imagined that they had extra toothbrushes and feminine hygiene products on the unit where I was headed, but whose underwear was I going to have to borrow?
I remember I was then led through the bowels of the institution via some cinder block maze in a mental fog that was just thick enough to make everything surreal. It was too bright, or maybe my eyes were just raw from bawling, smoking and sleep deprivation. It’s likely that I don’t recall the maze with a great degree of clarity as I had been awake for a long time by then. But I do remember I was led, like a handcuff-less, chilly and compliant prisoner. I was a well-behaved crazy girl on my craziest day—I like to think the staff member(s) or security guard(s) charged with getting me to the unit were appreciative of my impeccable manners.
So I was led, my legs felt like lead, but I was not dead.
It’s possible that if I hadn’t allowed them to shepherd me through those mazes, up on that elevator and onto the unit that I might have died that night. Before I placed the call to my therapist I really, really wished that I could do “it.” I felt almost unhinged enough to try. As I sat on my childhood twin bed with its tulip-covered JC Penny bedspread and peered behind the sliding wood doors of the bedroom closet, I wondered if the pole that held the clothes was strong enough to hold me. I pondered too long and too hard about ropes, cords and pole strength, and pictured too clearly a chair or stool kicking out from underneath me before I picked up that phone.
All the while I cried a cry that I prayed the neighbors couldn't hear.
But, I was here now. The floor I would call home was the right place ... at the right time ... for the right girl … at least that first night it was. I gave no f*cks about being here because I was just so happy not to be where I had been. I was safe. They would save me from me, at least for a little while.
I arrived on the Eating Disorder Unit to find it in its most peaceful state. It was just like a college dorm, if college dorms were on lockdown.
I was here to stay and no longer had much of a say in what that stay would look like. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” anyway, and as I mentioned, I had nothing left. I sat down on my institution-issue bed ... in my institution-issue hospital gown ... and had an uncomfortably personal conversation with a complete stranger. I cannot remember anything about that person. No matter, I would have put myself in anyone’s hands as I’d washed mine of taking further responsibility for self-care. I think what I’m describing is desperation. I’ve felt desperation before that night and since, but never, ever had my desperation been quite so agreeable. Yes, you can shove all my belongings in a paper bag. Yes, I’ll trade my clothes for that gown. Yes, I’ll sign that paperwork. Yes. Yes. Yes.
Once on the unit, I was asked if I was planning to harm myself. At the moment, I was not. I was asked if I had ever been abused or experienced trauma. I said no because I didn’t think that certain things that happened to me were traumatic enough to mention. I’m still not sure how I feel about that question, or that answer. I was asked all kinds of questions about my family history; few of which I felt fit to answer. I told the truth as I saw and believed it in that moment, but I had no solid experience with truth telling. I didn't think the asker of the questions had regular run-ins with rigorously honest mental patients either, so I figured we were cool.
Then, I slept and they let me sleep in, which is practically unheard of in an institution. I recall waking up and being so grateful for that sleep that had come without a drink or a drug or a death.