Stacy Torres | Longreads | May 2017 | 26 minutes (6,472 words)
I didn’t go to Bellevue because I worried that’s where the real crazies went. Anytime you read about a gruesome crime in the papers, like a person pushing someone in front of a subway, the suspect was always “taken to Bellevue.” No thanks.
Years before, my mother had brought me and my three little sisters to Bellevue every few months, when she filled out paperwork for the government vouchers that gave us free groceries like milk, cereal, peanut butter, and tuna. We made this journey across town for five years, until my youngest sisters aged out of the program. Even then, the place smelled of desperation. Late mornings hordes shuffled in and out of the massive public hospital. My mother steered us through wide corridors where throngs of doctors, nurses, sick people, and other harried mothers dragging whiny children like us passed by in tidy procession, making the flooded hallways seem both chaotic and orderly. The WIC office sentenced me to hours of studying grubby floor tiles and floating dust particles, made visible in the sunlight streaming through the tall windows, while I squirmed in my shiny blue plastic seat, flanked by my mother and younger sister Erica. Every few minutes one of the twins broke up the monotony by flinging a bottle from their titanic double stroller onto the floor. Though I’d armed myself with a half-filled coloring book and errant Barbie, boredom always struck too early, leaving me to focus my mental energies on willing the clerk to call my mother’s number.
“No one gives out anything without wanting something back,” a heavy Black woman once grumbled to my mother halfway through one of our marathon waits.
“That’s right,” Mom said sympathetically as the woman refastened the army of pink plastic barrettes on her daughter’s head. With each tug of the brush her daughter winced, and she ordered her, “Stay still, girl.” What other choice did we have?
When I checked myself into a psychiatric unit almost 15 years later, at age 20, I went to Roosevelt Hospital. Roosevelt stood a block from my college and Columbus Circle, where my mother had worked years before, at the torn-down New York Coliseum building, as a secretary for a life insurance company. I’d gone to Roosevelt for childhood scrapes and falls, a broken collarbone when I was 5 and a hairline foot fracture at 11. John Lennon died there after being shot in front of the Dakota. His assassin went to the Bellevue prison ward. The day of my admission, my college sociology professor came with me, and together we slogged through the heavy, wet snow that had blanketed the sidewalks overnight. Fat flakes still fell as we walked the block from Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus to the emergency room.
“When I first moved to New York, I tried to get an apartment in one of those buildings,” Liz said, nodding towards a set of luxury high rises in the distance. “They turned me down cold. Then I tried those buildings,” she said, pointing her slender index finger at the housing projects across from Lincoln Center. That’s what I loved about Liz. She didn’t mind making a joke at her own expense and admitting that as a highly educated, middle-class white woman she’d strolled up to Amsterdam Houses and asked how she could get a place there. It would take years before I’d have the confidence to admit a blunder like that.
From the street corner I finally spotted the frosty red glow of the emergency room sign, lit from within a gray slab of concrete that jutted from the building’s side like a theater marquee. Emergency. The only show playing.
“Guess that’s it,” I said and pointed. Liz squinted through her glasses and gave my bicep a little squeeze as we headed over.
A pair of automatic doors slid open. The emptiness of the waiting room struck me. I’d pictured the emergency room teeming with sick people but found instead row after row of unoccupied seats. Liz and I had decided on an early morning check-in to avoid congestion, but even at 9:20 in the morning the hospital staff outnumbered the patients. An old man sat arm-in-arm with his wife by a soda machine with a giant sweating can of Coke pictured on its front; a middle-aged woman dozed beside a teenage girl wearing huge door knocker earrings.
If I didn’t tell them something about having a plan to off myself, I could kiss my bed goodbye. That much I’d learned from my Internet research on admissions criteria for psychiatric emergency rooms.
Earlier that week Liz had called the hospital for me and spoken to a surprisingly helpful woman named Wanda, who told her she would have to take me through CPEP, the cheery acronym for Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program. After scanning the room, Liz directed us to a woman sitting at a faux oak desk positioned catty corner on the right side. The security guard’s navy blazer looked remotely official and suggested she might know the workings of the place.
If she did, she wasn’t telling.
“Excuse me,” Liz said with a friendliness that rarely failed to disarm. “I called earlier in the week and spoke with someone named Wanda. She told me we should go through CPEP.”
“Ma’am, step to the side,” she said and pointed to a long pane of glass divided into numbered compartments like bank tellers’ windows.
“But,” Liz pressed, “she told me that I should go through CPEP first.”
“Ma’am,” the woman repeated, “triage is over there.” She rolled her eyes and scowled with an ease that suggested this as her default expression. I didn’t say anything.
A minute later, a man dressed in khakis and a sand-colored button down shirt emerged from a room off to the side. He deftly inserted himself into this exchange. We proceeded through the rigmarole again, detailing the conversations with Wanda that only prompted more glassy stares. I began to believe Wanda did not exist.
“We’re looking for psychiatric emergency,” Liz said.
“Outpatient services are down the block.”
“What about inpatient services?” she asked.
“Well, that’s in here,” he motioned to the door behind him.
Well, then what are you waiting for? Let us in. I didn’t understand the confusion. Why the hesitation? Then a thought occurred. The week before Liz had half-joked about how one of her colleagues suggested they might not admit me unless I slit my wrists in front of them. I clenched my teeth and slowly inhaled before getting down to business. If they wanted a wreck, I’d show them one. In seconds, liquid was spilling down the side of my face. I didn’t bother wiping the fat telenovela tears that pooled on my cheeks. The man looked embarrassed, tugging on his eyebrow, and hustled us into the room from where he first came.
“We just have to make sure only the actual emergencies come through here, that’s all,” he said to us on the other side of the door.
Two neatly dressed, light-skinned, well-spoken women who used niceties like “Please” or called ahead definitely didn’t count as real emergencies. But hysterical me did. I was almost proud of my efforts.
The previous year I read about a bizarre crime in the Metro section of The New York Times: a 10-year-old boy in Toms River, New Jersey had stabbed his father with a five-inch kitchen knife in the midst of an argument over a missing container of chocolate frosting. After discovering the frosting missing, the boy’s father confronted him in the family’s garage and told him to stab him, “if he hated him so much.” The son called his bluff and ended up killing him. At the time I paid about as much attention to the crime as to any of the everyday horrors reported in the police blotter. But the story stayed with me. I understood how something like this could happen and soon began to imagine my own headlines: “Family violence breaks out after argument over dinner,” “College student charged with murder after provoked by father,” “Father commits triple homicide due to dirty dishes in sink.” I thought about the article again that morning in the emergency room, whenever I worried if I was doing the right thing by admitting myself.
Liz and I sat in a row of chairs along the wall as the admitting physician prepped herself for my evaluation. If I didn’t tell them something about having a plan to off myself, I could kiss my bed goodbye. That much I’d learned from my Internet research on admissions criteria for psychiatric emergency rooms. I’d had a lot of thoughts, but a plan was a stretch. I wasn’t there yet. No, I wasn’t going to kill myself that day. But like a chess player, I had already envisioned a couple moves ahead and couldn’t guarantee that I wouldn’t try something desperate in a few months if my situation worsened. I didn’t trust myself anymore.
I sorted through the suicidal thoughts I’d had and tried to figure out which seemed plausible. Which could I actually pull off? No guns. I didn’t have one. No matter how fast or efficient a method, a gun was out of the question. I liked the idea of carbon monoxide lulling me to sleep and could almost picture myself slumped over a leather car interior while all my problems faded away. But I lived in the city and didn’t have a driver’s license, let alone a car. If I still lived on the nineteenth floor, I might have thought more about jumping. A woman diagnosed with terminal cancer plunged off the ledge of the building where my father worked as a doorman. [Years later I learned that jumping from a building is one of the most popular suicide methods in New York City.] But I doubted that I’d have had the guts, and a third floor leap might just leave me paralyzed.
The doctor’s office door swung open and broke the spell of my thoughts.
“You can come in now,” the doctor said in a vaguely eastern European accent.
Part of me still couldn’t believe that I was about to do what I had planned for two weeks now.
As I sat across from the admitting physician and zeroed in on her liquid blue eyes, I reviewed everything I’d written the night before on the folded sheet of paper jammed in my pocket. I needed to present some evidence of a plan to kill myself and tallied my suicidal thoughts in the last month, which had mushroomed as my efforts to get help for my “situation” at home failed.
Circumstance weighed on me: a dead mother at 16, the responsibility of raising three younger sisters, and a father whose behavior had worsened in the weeks before I’d walked into the ER that morning. In four months his verbal abuse and threats of harm had escalated, and I had no luck with my calls and visits to social service agencies. It wasn’t bad enough yet. A sympathetic lawyer at The Door, a social services organization for disadvantaged youth, told me that my sisters and I faced a tough time getting help because we weren’t sexually abused and my youngest sisters were 14 — too old to set off alarms. Sorry. Wish we could do more.
I’d thought about walking into traffic at Columbus Circle, hurling myself in front of an oncoming subway, and downing an entire bottle of Tylenol PM. I hoped that after rattling off this laundry list, the doctor would whisk me upstairs to the kind of “mental health professionals” I’d read about that could help me sort out my life. Or something like that. I didn’t want to kill myself; I just wanted things to change. Over the last few weeks, whenever I waited on the platform at Columbus Circle, I stared into the tunnel and looked for the glint on the tracks that shone before the train’s headlights appeared a second later. When the wind grazed my cheek, whooshed forward by the approaching train, I thought about how I’d time the jump if I ever wanted to turn the suicide fantasy into reality. But then the train pulled in. I stepped inside, sat down, and thought about how a spectacular death like that would make the papers. How fitting an end to months of begging for someone to notice me. I’d almost certainly get a brief mention on Eyewitness News. “What a tragic story,” Diana Williams would murmur to her co-anchor, shaking her pretty blond bob, before the five-day forecast flashed on screen. A headline like “Honor Student in Subway Smash” would scream from the pages of The New York Post. On a slow news day I might even make the front page. But killing myself wouldn’t accomplish anything. I’d have all the attention I’d ever needed, and I’d be dead.
I timed my hospital admission to when I knew my sisters would be at school. I didn’t tell my father. I’d instructed my sisters to run away if he instigated anything with them while I was gone, to go to Liz or to the hospital—anywhere but home. And then I hoped for the best — that by checking myself in, I was getting the help I needed to better help them.
“What brings you here today?” the doctor asked. I plopped down in a plum-colored chair and launched into a story that had grown longer and more convoluted each time I told it. But by now I’d gotten it down to two minutes flat.
“What I really want is someone to help me figure all this out,” I said. “Like a social worker,” I suggested, “or someone who can give me referrals to someone who knows what to do about this.” I didn’t want her to think I expected miracles. I’d settle for someone who knew someone, who knew someone else, who knew how to help me.
“How does this affect you at school? Are you able to do your schoolwork?”
“I’m still doing well in school, I guess. But when I’m there, I hide in the bathroom several times a day and cry.” Short of a nuclear blast, I’d do well in school. It was all I had.
“How long have these crying spells been going on?” she asked. ‘Crying spells’ sounded more official than, “I cry a lot.” I filed away the phrase so I could use it the next time I’d have to tell my story again, which now seemed inevitable.
“It’s been really bad the past few weeks. A couple months ago, I could go to school and take my mind off things. I can’t do that anymore.”
“What else should I know?”
I began to recite a speech I had drafted in my head for weeks. “I’ve started feeling very desperate.” My voice shook and grew louder despite my effort to control it. “I keep going to all these places and no one will help me. I don’t know what to do anymore.”
The last sentence came out as a cry and the high-pitched ring in my voice startled me. “I’ve started having thoughts…about hurting myself,” I said almost in a whisper.
“What kind of thoughts?”
“About killing myself,” I choked. Then the waterworks began, which I didn’t think was still possible. I’d sobbed so much lately that by now I was certain my tear ducts had run dry.
“I think about taking a lot of pills,” I continued. “One day last week, I started counting them out on the bed. My sister walked in so I threw the blanket on top. I wasn’t going to take them, but I wanted to see how many were in the bottle.”
She jotted some notes and pulled her chair closer to mine.
“I am so depressed,” I cried, leaning my elbow on the armrest of my chair, cradling my head with my hand. “I think about other things too, like walking into traffic and going in front of the subway.”
After that I couldn’t look her in the eye. Was this really my life now? I couldn’t think of a greater failing than not being able to keep yourself alive. So I divided my gaze between the stack of papers that threatened to spill across her messy desk and the loose ceiling tile at the far corner of the room splotched with coffee-colored watermarks.
As I waited for a decision on the admission, the irony of my plan struck me. I was probably the only person who actually wanted to be admitted to a mental hospital.
Soon after the doctor ushered Liz into the room. She sat so close our shoulders nearly brushed.
“Why do you think this admission is necessary?” the doctor asked, turning to Liz. I sat with rapt attention, knowing Liz’s testimony would make or break this admission.
Liz angled her shoulders towards me and placed her hand on my chair’s armrest. She had cried with me in November after I’d first laid out my situation. Her tears fell fast and hard, and I was shocked at how freely she cried for me. By now I knew the signs of approaching tears. All the blood in her face seemed to rush to the very tip of her nose, as it did now.
“You know, I almost wish you weren’t here to hear this—” she began, her voice on the edge of tears, before the doctor cut in.
“In order to make a complete evaluation, we need to get as full a picture as possible,” the doctor said.
I took the hint. “Do you want me to wait outside?” I asked but stood up before receiving an answer.
Muffled voices drifted through the door jamb as I tried to get comfortable in a stiff-backed chair outside. Bits of submerged words hinted at meaningful dialogue, and in other circumstances the half-intelligible words would have stirred my curiosity. By nature I’m a nosy person. I love reading letters and diaries, watching celebrity exposés, and scanning the tawdry gossip on Page Six of The New York Post or splashed across the covers of The National Enquirer while waiting in the supermarket checkout line. In public my ears perk up at other people’s conversations-on buses, in the subway, at the laundromat. And as much as I can’t stand people bellowing on their cell phones, I’ll listen anyway. But that day I didn’t strain to decode the snatches of sound that seeped out. I didn’t have to. I already knew that behind the door, Liz, or Dr. Scott, as she had instructed me to call her in front of the doctors, sat across from the admitting physician and told her that I might hurt myself if I didn’t get some help. I imagined that she also told the doctor that I’d come to her in November and asked for advice about my problems at home, that I’d tried for four months to resolve things, and that I’d failed.
Pleading with the doctor had left my cheeks stained with tears and a familiar salty taste on my lips. My face felt tight from the fresh coat of dried tears, and I attempted to dull the shooting pain in my head by massaging my brow with my thumb and index finger. As I waited for a decision on the admission, the irony of my plan struck me. I was probably the only person who actually wanted to be admitted to a mental hospital.
The dim glow in the waiting area began to coax my eyelids shut, and on three hours of sleep, I fought to stay awake. I slid forward from my slouch and grabbed onto the armrest several times to prop myself up again. A pile of women’s magazines strewn across an end table caught my attention, and I leafed through them to ward off exhaustion. The glossy issues of Glamour and Cosmopolitan squealed headlines like “97 Sexy Date Looks” and “18 Fun, Sexy Ways to Make This Your Most Fab Year Ever!” As I flipped through the pages I learned how to “Abolish bad beauty days” and determine whether I was a fashion “do” or “don’t.” What kind of gals do they think check into this place? I stifled a laugh, imagining the people at the hospital trying to subdue patients by instilling an unyielding devotion to makeup, clothes, hair, and men, rather than resorting to tranquilizers or Cuckoo’s Nest-style electric shock therapy. I straightened my spine and sat up again but still couldn’t chase away the feeling that patients shouldn’t be reading tips on how to develop a “make-love-happen attitude” while they sat and contemplated signing away their freedom.
I abandoned the magazines and prepared to sit and wait. Waiting summed up my activity for the past four months: waiting outside so-and-so’s office for an appointment to begin; waiting to repeat the process the following day or week; waiting hours for a 30-minute internet appointment at the public library; waiting for returned messages; waiting for the next awkward telephone conversation with a disembodied voice who listened to me plead for help.It makes sense then that I don’t have anything more exciting to report, like a late night ride up Eighth Avenue in a screaming ambulance or having my stomach pumped or my wrists bandaged. Instead I played the waiting game and spent what seemed like a long time pondering the haphazard white specks that dotted the grey linoleum beneath my feet.
Fifteen minutes later Liz emerged with the admitting physician. The petite doctor shuffled out in front of Liz, who towered over her by almost a head. But I looked past her and instead studied Liz’s face for clues, like a defendant trying to anticipate a verdict, looking at the faces of jury members as they file into the courtroom. She looked right at me, and though a touch of sadness clouded her face, I took it as a good sign.
“We’re going to admit you,” the doctor told me, and Liz gave my arm a little squeeze, as if to say, “We did good today, kiddo. This will all be over soon.” At least that’s what I hoped. It seemed I might finally talk to someone equipped to handle my problems, and I pressed my lips together into a small, tight smile. A full-fledged one didn’t seem appropriate yet. This was only a first step. I’d gotten someone to take me seriously but knew better than to get my hopes up.
“This will take a while,” the doctor warned. “We’re discharging a patient upstairs.”
“Oh, that’s fine,” I said as though talking to a server in a crowded restaurant telling me I’d wait a few minutes before a table opened up. Not someone to whom I had just described all the ways I could kill myself. I hoped that my even tone and the serene look plastered on my face would show this woman that in other circumstances I was patient, calm, and quite sane.
She led Liz and me down a hall that smelled of antiseptic, tongue depressors, and traces of vomit. This mélange surprised me because I’d thought the psychiatric emergency room would smell different, less medicinal because people’s problems existed mostly in their heads, not in their bodies. As the three of us walked down the hall, Liz chatted about the freshly fallen snow. I had only enough energy to stare at the back of the doctor’s head and keep my eyes trained on her burgundy red hair, worn in a short pageboy that bounced with each step. I wished my hair bounced like that. As they talked I wondered if this tiny, composed woman had ever thought about killing herself. How did people get into this line of business anyway?
A twin-sized bed occupied one side of the room, opposite a porcelain sink in the corner. Even by hospital standards the room’s plainness jarred me. Almost two decades later, I realize what was missing: cotton balls, gauze bandages, adhesive tape, or any other sign of hospital paraphernalia. Diffuse white sunlight peeked through coarse fabric curtains striped with vertical bars of jade green, peach, and pink. The light hardly warmed the empty space. I ran my fingertips over the curtain’s scratchy material, and its grainy texture reminded me of sandpaper and the way I could feel individual granules of sugar glide over my tongue whenever I ate the too-sweet milk cream candies from the bodega near my house. Compared to this holding room, the waiting area suggested some attention to decoration and had the impersonal feel of a dentist’s office. Two framed watercolors, a generic impressionist landscape and a vase of pastel flowers, hung on the wall. While the contrived air of calm outside set me slightly on edge, I wasn’t prepared for the institutional starkness of the holding room. After surveying the room from floor to ceiling, I realized I had never confronted so many shades of gray.
A dark-skinned man in his late-50s appeared dragging a heavy vinyl chair with turquoise cushions. His balding head gleamed underneath the hallway’s overhead light, and the pinks and blues in the busy plaid shirt he wore underneath red suspenders made my eyes pop after adjusting to the room’s subdued grayness. The chair’s metallic feet scraped loudly against the floor as he struggled to keep the door propped open with the bulky furniture. At first I thought he brought the chair for Liz, but his concentrated gaze and the care he took to position it just right told me otherwise. I looked at the arrangement with some confusion, but the attendant quickly offered an explanation.
“To keep an eye on you,” he said.
“Oh,” I said and nodded. The mellifluous roll of his voice helped me feel less ashamed, but I still felt like saying, “Don’t worry, I’m not really going to off myself. I just wanted some help.”
“Here, you can put these on,” he said a moment later.
“These” were a hospital regulation pajama set made from the same thin material as the pillowcases. In the bathroom where the attendant told me to change, I traded my thick cable knit sweater and jeans for the ensemble. I caught a glimpse of my tangled jeans on the floor and saw that I’d thrown on a pair with giant red racing stripes that ran down the sides, rescued from a bundle of my little sister’s cast-offs headed for the trash one day. As I stripped off more layers, and the clothes pile on the floor grew, I noticed how raggedy they all looked. I had flashbacks to times I tried on something new in a department store dressing room and the clothes I’d walked in with seemed suddenly faded and worn, leaving me embarrassed and astounded that I’d ever walked around in such rags. Even after slipping into the uniform I felt naked beneath the flood of overhead lights. My skin looked browner than usual as I held up a bare arm against the washed out bathroom walls. The thumbprint-sized floor tiles tickled the bottom of my sock-clad feet. I shivered. My body had no time to adjust to the short sleeves I hadn’t worn since the end of summer, during late afternoon walks on the Coney Island boardwalk and shopping trips to the discount stores below the elevated subway tracks in Brighton Beach that sold everything from plastic slippers to beach umbrellas and cheap oriental rugs.
When things got bad at home Liz didn’t flinch when I asked for advice. She had sustained me, and I was grateful for her company in the hospital that day. Over the past few months, she had grown from professor to friend and surrogate big sister.
I returned to find Liz sitting with her legs folded in the suicide prevention chair. Another draft traveled through the bottom of my formless shirt, and my teeth chattered. Compared to the hush of the room the sound of my teeth knocking against each other seemed louder than a jackhammer tearing up a sidewalk. I tried to stop, though no one seemed to notice the racket that existed in my head. The attendant handed me a large clear plastic bag for my clothes and crumpled winter coat, with the permanent marker ink that spelled my last name across the front still wet.
“Well, you look nice in blue,” Liz said, even though I was certain I looked awful. I couldn’t find a mirror anywhere in the room but appreciated its absence. I didn’t need to see myself decked out in full psych ward regalia. Even so I felt a strange sense of accomplishment as I looked down at the ill-fitting, institutional shirt and pants. Finally, I had some official proof of how far I’d fallen. Maybe I’d functioned too well during those last few months: I stayed in college and racked up A’s on my transcript. I could still string together a coherent sentence or two and get myself out of bed. I wasn’t beaten black and blue yet, wasn’t raped, or strung out on drugs or alcohol. I still washed my hair and brushed my teeth. I didn’t have AIDS (every social service agency I’d set my heart on seemed to want you to have AIDS before giving you help). Even with my admission to the hospital I didn’t fit into any of the neat categories for determining who deserved assistance, but if anyone tried to tell me that I wasn’t doing badly enough to warrant their attention, I now had something tangible to point to: I’d made it to the loony bin.
I’d admired Liz from the time I had taken her Intro to Criminal Justice class the year before. She was smart, funny, accomplished, and a feminist — everything I wanted to be. Liz regularly slipped personal anecdotes into her class lectures, like how she had grown up the daughter of a poor pig farmer in Kansas, dropped out of college in her junior year, worked in an AIDS clinic in England, and dealt with a “psycho” boyfriend that had stalked her for years. I liked the self-assured way she had answered the pinhead in the back row that insisted battered women got what they deserved if they stayed.
When things got bad at home Liz didn’t flinch when I asked for advice. She had sustained me, and I was grateful for her company in the hospital that day. Over the past few months, she had grown from professor to friend and surrogate big sister. In the middle of brainstorming sessions on places I might get help or my teary updates on the latest incident at home, she’d taken my mind off the situation with discussions about books or articles in the newspaper. As she tucked a strand of chin-length brown hair behind her ear and adjusted her tortoise shell glasses, I noticed that she looked younger than nearly 36. That day Liz wore straight-legged jeans and a faded black sweater, and her modest outfit reminded me of how she had once joked in class about the time she helped a student move, lugging a large duffel bag through the subway as a well-meaning straphanger stopped her to give her the name of a homeless shelter where she could stay for the night.
“Do you always talk this fast?” the doctor asked as I began my story again. I hadn’t seen this one yet. She was tall and athletic, not just sturdy but built, and looked like she belonged on a tennis court rather than in a stiff white coat. Her tight blonde ponytail gave her an efficient, no-nonsense look, and I wished the other doctor would return. But each word out of this doctor’s mouth sounded like a fist hitting a table, and her voice had a cinderblock edge that transformed innocent questions into accusations. Do you always talk this fast? Of course, I’m a New Yorker. Wait, no, maybe not-fast talking must be a sure sign of mental illness. The question echoed in my head until she prodded me once more with an impatient “Well?” Gazing at the blank wall seemed safer than looking her in the eye or answering. But after another long pause I caved and answered truthfully: “I don’t know.”
“I’m going to put you on Zoloft. 75 milligrams to start,” she said. Before I could manage anything more than, “Okay,” she whipped out a clipboard and scribbled on a yellow legal pad while her high heels clapped out the door. I wondered what she wrote about me. Probably “nuts,” I thought. I was worried and a little scared for the first time all morning. What had I done?
I looked down at the handout she gave me on Zoloft. Maybe if I could muster the mental energy required to read the damned thing, I could get on board. As I folded and refolded the paper in neat halves, I thought of Liz’s approving nods moments before while the doctor spoke. I trusted Liz. Better to numb myself if I was stuck, I supposed. But was this it?
Everything until now had entailed Sisyphean struggle, but getting drugs was startlingly easy. I didn’t know whether to feel relieved about the ease of this process or frightened that the whole thing took less than two minutes. What about the social worker they promised? Popping anti-depressants like Tootsie Rolls wouldn’t make my problems go away, I thought as I shook my foot from side to side.
I flipped through the ‘7G Patient Guide’ someone had placed in my hands. The nurse’s glowing reviews of the unit’s recent renovation made a stay in the hospital’s psych ward sound more like a few nights at the Waldorf-Astoria.
The doctor hadn’t said what I wanted to hear — that I was brave for setting foot in this place. I wanted somebody to believe that I hadn’t just come in off the street because of some inability to cope with the normal ups and downs of life. That I was different than the lady in the Port Authority who quacked at people as they dashed by with rolling luggage. Instead, I got some Zoloft. The what-ifs piled up. What if I’d just answered her more quickly, what if I hadn’t over-thought the question, what if I’d talked slower? The sense of accomplishment I’d felt minutes before vanished. I reviewed the past few months of my life and tried to pinpoint the exact day, hour, or minute when I’d morphed into this fast-talking girl, whose eyes stung from so much crying, who had just told the doctors in the hospital she would kill herself if things didn’t get better soon.
“Why don’t you lie down for a little bit, maybe get some sleep?” Liz suggested. It was one o’clock in the afternoon. I hadn’t taken a nap at this hour since I was 5. But I relented. “Okay,” I said.
Over the last few months, Liz had looked after me in fundamental ways. Aside from the innumerable hours she had spent commiserating with me, she’d given me food (chocolate pudding), money (a five-dollar bill pressed into my palm as I left her place one day), and books (Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of Sad Café). The week before I had a panic attack while mulling over my plan to check into the hospital. Beads of sweat slid down my sides, and I bounded into Liz’s office, afraid. She sat me down in the chair by her desk and told me to breathe.
“Okay, this is going to sound hokey, but this morning I read an article in the science section on the importance of breathing.”
I must have looked at her skeptically, because she said, “I know,” with a raised eyebrow. “But it said that sometimes when everything is falling apart, breathing is one of the only things we can control.”
“I’ll try it,” I said, inhaled then exhaled a few times under her concerned supervision until I steadied myself enough to retreat to a beat-up couch in the student lounge.
In the hospital I tried following Liz’s suggestion, laid my head on a single pillow folded in half and rested my hand on the hospital bed’s cool metal railing, which cradled me like an oversized crib. Of all things, I thought about The Twilight Zone. Thanks to daylong marathons on WPIX Channel 11 every New Year’s Eve, I’d accumulated an encyclopedic knowledge of the hundred fifty or so episodes in the series. “Person or Persons Unknown” never ranked high on my list of favorites, but it wandered into my mind, and I understood it better now. In that installment a man woke up to discover he didn’t exist. His wife, friends, co-workers, even his own mother, didn’t recognize him, and he rushed around frantically trying to unearth some evidence of his identity. In that moment I too wanted to yell: “My name is Stacy Torres, and I don’t really belong here. You may not believe this, but I’m a bright, young college student. Not a head case. My professor can vouch for that. I spend a lot of time at the library, keep to myself, and take care of my family when I go home at night.” But in the hospital I was just another person who might or might not be crazy. For all they knew anything I said could be the ramblings of a disturbed mind. I had no credit and no history. I didn’t even have my own clothes anymore.
My mind then turned to the next part of this process — going upstairs — and I paged through a thick booklet with “Your rights as a hospital patient” emblazoned in large black letters on the cover. Then I flipped through the “7G Patient Guide” someone had placed in my hands. The nurse’s glowing reviews of the unit’s recent renovation made a stay in the hospital’s psych ward sound more like a few nights at the Waldorf-Astoria. It wouldn’t even seem like a hospital, he promised. “And the nurses wear their own clothes, not uniforms,” he stressed, as if to assure me I wouldn’t find any Nurse Ratched types upstairs trolling around in starched white. The first page of the Easter egg pink booklet listed blanks next to “your doctor,” “your primary nurse,” and “your social worker.” I was anxious to fill those empty spaces. But I’d have to wait through the weekend.
Past the doorway drifted a figure I hadn’t seen that morning, someone other than the nurses, doctors, and aides. He was a Latin man in his early 30s, barely 100 pounds and lost in a goose down coat five sizes too large. His close cropped Caesar haircut only accentuated his thin nose and other sharp angles that protruded from his gaunt face. I wondered if this was the discharged patient whose bed awaited me upstairs. He followed one of the attendants into the nurses’ station, dragging his feet as though trying to walk from one side of a shallow swimming pool to the other. The man mumbled incoherently to the nurse on duty, who looked more like an aging high school football coach with his silver hair and broad shoulders. “I’m going to give you a subway token. Walk two blocks to Columbus Circle and get on the uptown A,” the nurse said, but the patient’s vacant brown eyes failed to register that he understood. He nodded, a few times too many, and stared silently at the piece of metal the nurse pressed into his palm. Watching the two men walk towards the door, I hoped that when I left the hospital I would go home with more than just carfare.
* * *
Stacy Torres is an assistant professor of sociology at the University at Albany-SUNY.
Editor: Sari Botton