Nothing is allowed here. There are more rules in this shithole than in my highschool. No touching, no hugging, no cellphone, no contact, no writing without showing someone what you write, no shaving, no pencils in your bedroom (I was already screamed at for this once), no listening to your own music in your bedroom, no alone time, no expression of sadness through art. Everything gets ripped up.
I’ve barely eaten in weeks. It’s hard to maintain an appetite when you do nothing but wander around 5,000 sq. ft. of bland walls with guards at every door you aren’t allowed to walk into, another reminder of a loss of autonomy. It’s been weeks of doing my best to perform “being better,” barely talking, partaking in all activities, never showing how sick I am. I just line up each morning for my vitals, my new meds, then a breakfast that comes on a grey, plastic lunch-tray.
I lost the instinct to kneel down and tie my shoe. I’m hoping that someone will bring me slippers soon because walking around with laceless Vans is obnoxious and I refuse to be another kid in the psych ward wearing the same socks my grandfather wore while he was in the hospital dying. The ones with traction rubber on the bottom, inevitably uncomfortable.
Since I’ve been here, there’s been a lot of group therapy. Minimal one-on-one therapy. I’ve fallen in deep-like with my roommate, whose bed is just across from me, but every morning I check on her to make sure she’s still here. A few days ago, one of us was dragged out. I heard the commotion as she was taken to the ICU after she smashed the mirror with her hands. There was blood everywhere. When I instinctively ran to the hallway to see if everything was okay, I was screamed at by the miserable nurse who probably shouldn’t be working in the Teen Behavioral Unit. She has a tendency to scream at kids that can’t find enough kindness in their lives to keep breathing.
My Dad was visiting me when the very large, very strong kid with behavioral issues got body-slammed by a guard. We happened to be in a glass room connected to the phone room, instead of the usual visiting-room. So we watched it all unfold. Something upset the kid and he quickly became a potential for violence, picking up the red plastic chair and throwing it at a nurse. I can’t remember his name, but I know he was struggling.
Some of the most interesting things that happen in a Psych Ward are dangerous. Or, maybe it’s the day one of the parents brings in a Disney Movie that we all get to watch. My dad brought in Beauty and the Beast and my favorite nurse brought us popcorn. We popped at least 15 bags for the 12 of us there. We all ate it. Even the two girls who just push their lunches around until it’s time for group therapy. Some mornings we wake up to be introduced to a new kid who mysteriously came in the night. When this happens, we can usually guess what they’re here for. Maggie had a nasty bruise around her neck. Julian’s eyes darted around the room, watching things the rest of us couldn’t see. Cait cried through her entire introduction. Nick was extremely groggy and spent the remainder of the day in his room. This isn’t usually allowed except in overdose suicide attempts. I spent the first two days in my room.
The only visitors allowed are family members. This is easily the hardest part for us suicide survivors, especially when the family is the root of our problems, or just don’t understand our problems. There’s nothing worse than disappearing from school, none of your friends knowing why, and planning out an explanation for when you return. The conspiracy crew of your school will spread rumors that you died. They don’t realize how close to the truth they are.
What they don’t tell you about Psych Ward kids is how courageous they are. How beautiful, and kind, and thoughtful they tend to be. You hear about what dragged them there. You hear about how “crazy” they are, how deranged they are, how suicidal they are.
We. How we are.
What I can tell you is that Cait sings so beautifully I wouldn’t be surprised to see her at the Grammy’s one day. Nick helps me write stories and slips me encouraging notes beneath the table while we sit bored in therapy. My roommate misses seeing the sunset and talks about it every day at breakfast. Julian wants to be a movie producer and has written a full script already, even though he’s only 13. It’s actually really good.
Another thing they don’t tell you is that most of the time, the Psych Ward makes it worse. With every kind nurse that wants to see you do better, there’s another one who hates their job, hates you for being part of their job, and wants you disciplined instead of getting well. Most of us here just try to “make progress” so that we can go home. Most of us end up here more than once. There’s nothing more isolating than not being heard.
I used my hospital bracelet to continue self-injuring. Nick slammed his fists into the wall, hard but quietly. Cait hasn’t eaten in days. Julian once leaned over to tell me that he couldn’t sleep because he thinks the meds were causing even worse hallucinations. I suggested telling a nurse, and he began to weep. Between his sobs, I could only hear him saying, “But I want to go home.” I’m not sure if his meds were ever fixed. None of the nurses came to see why he was crying.
Sometimes, there’s a nurse whose heart bleeds out on their sleeve. You can feel it. After a while, you grow to love them. Nurse Pamela was a middle-aged woman with short, thick curly hair and deep purple lipstick that complimented her skin tone perfectly. She knew all of our names, our favorite colors, what books we were reading, and she asked to see what we were working on in our journals out of curiosity and excitement, not authority. She brought the unlucky kids Christmas presents when they were stuck here for the holidays. She even offered to do my makeup once.
On the days someone was able to leave, we had a party for them. Usually, a cake that said, “Best of luck!” or once Nurse Pamela got one that said, “We will miss you but don’t come back!” It’s always a bitter-sweet moment. There are people we will miss. Eventually, we all line up to wave them goodbye, maybe give them a fist bump if one of the strict nurses isn’t around to tell us about another thing we aren’t allowed to do. We watch as the Newly-Free patient walks down the narrow white hall through the doors with the small windows that are usually locked. Two guards plain-faced and watching us as we watch the Newly-Free leave with their parents or guardians. Once the rest of us are done being sad seeing the Newly-Free go on without us, we start to feel a little sad that we aren’t the Newly-Free. We wonder when our time will come. We watch the doors open, and quickly shut. We go back to the things we’re allowed to do.
It was a quiet day when two of my friends found out that I was in the hospital. I hadn’t eaten the entire day even though the staff thought I had. My wrist was bleeding beneath my long-sleeved shirt. I could feel the bags under my eyes, even if I couldn’t see them after they removed the mirrors from our rooms.
My friends didn’t know why I was in the hospital, so they came to see me. When they told the receptionist my name, she sent them to my floor labeled “Behavioral Unit.” Nurse Pamela and I were playing cards when a security guard walked over and whispered in her ear. We stood up to walk into the hallway and see out the door’s tiny window. I saw Peach and Ryan outside the doors, and I was immediately surprised and excited, followed with disappointment. I’m not allowed to have friend-visitors. Right. Nurse Pamela looked at me for a few seconds, before taking a deep breath.
“You can say hello, but they can’t come in.”
Ryan asked why I was in the Behavioral Unit and was satisfied with my shrug as an answer. I told them that I’m technically not allowed to have any friend-visitors when Peach handed over gifts for me, a blue and white striped baby-blanket with a little giraffe that said, “Get Well Soon!” I gave them a quick hug before I had to go back to the 5000 sq. ft. of white walls and strict rules. Nurse Pamela and I finished our card game.
There must have been a theme that day. My Grandma Janet is one of my best friends. I often call her GJ. She came to visit me later that evening. With her, she brought a stuffed elephant. My favorite animal. I named him Venerandus, Latin for “adorable.” When one of the nurses suggested that I couldn’t keep it with me because it had beads for eyes, Nurse Pamela rolled her eyes and GJ asked, “Is this the maternity ward or the behavioral unit for teenagers?” I was allowed to keep Venerandus with me.
I didn’t stare at the ceiling that night. I slept with Venerandus beneath my head and my new baby blanket close to my chest. When I woke up the next morning, I wrote the ten goals I made for myself once I left the hospital. I wrote a letter to my dad about my history of self-injury. I ate my breakfast and had a PBJ for lunch. I made jokes during our free time that even made the miserable nurse laugh.
I went home the following week.
Skyler Jaye is a Buffalo-born, Nairobi-based writer. She is the author of the chapbook A Mountain of Past-Lives & Things I've Learned (Blazevox, 2019). She’s the NF editor of Variety Pack and has been published online and in print including Emrys Journal, Peach Mag, and Ghost City Press. She tweets @SkylerJaye23.
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